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Podcast: Making Art with Neil Pigot. Episode one, artist Lewis Miller

Daily Review is thrilled to present actor Neil Pigot’s new series of free, 60 minute podcasts in which he interviews artists from a range of disciplines about making art. 

To listen to the first interview – with Archibald Prize winning painter Lewis Miller (pictured in the self-portrait above) – click this link: Making Art: Episode One ‘Lewis Miller’ (also available on iTunes).

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By Neil Pigot

I was standing in the Lotto queue the other day waiting to make my weekly investment in my long term happiness and watched as the woman in front of me spend $170 on her fortnightly flutter with her credit card. The guy behind the counter asked if she was going away for a couple of weeks. ‘No’ she said, but as she left the shop waving the tickets in the air she said: ‘Maybe, and so might you’.

Luck. It’s capricious, cantankerous and contrary. Bizarre rituals are often designed in order to obtain or avoid it, and while very few rational individuals would build their lives around any other totally abstract concept, it seems some of us are prepared to borrow money and invest in a future based on getting it.

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Click here to listen

We either pray for it or curse the lack of it, and despite us not really being able to tell if it’s on our side, it’s deemed indispensable if you want survive a natural disaster, a wild animal attack or, judging by a lot of conversations I’ve had over the years, a career in the creative arts.

Perhaps you too have had one of those conversations; the ones that usually have a tone of grim reality about them and are peppered with an oversupply of foreboding and worn platitudes.

‘Talent will out’ usually gets a go. It’s a cliché that is largely reserved for the arts and is often employed as a knowing way of explaining someone’s success. When it’s applied to the aspiring or emerging artist however, it implies that if you are lucky enough to have been blessed with some sort of genius you might just get somewhere. In that context, it’s usually qualified with ‘But you’ve got to be in the right place at the right time’. Which isn’t helpful because no one seems to know exactly where that place is, or what time you should be there.

And even if the conversationalist acknowledges your latent genius, admits that you’re roughly in the right place and commends you on your punctuality, the exchange nearly always ends with a sort of voodoo blessing that takes the form of a slightly cynical smile accompanied by a knowing nod of the head, followed by that granddaddy of all creative bon mots, ‘But you’ve got to be lucky’, delivered as an implied fact.

What all this assumes is that hard work and skill count for little in the arts, and that artists in any discipline, simply potter about in the vain hope that one day their talent, if they have any, will lead them to create something startling that will make the fairy tale come true.

And while no one would deny that sometimes chance is involved, to think that most of our successful artists simply got wherever they are as a result of sustained good fortune is to do them, and the arts more broadly, a terrible disservice. Seriously, if I were a successful podiatrist would you call me lucky?

So, when I recently sat down with Archibald Prize winning artist Lewis Miller and he told me that, at the time, he felt “lucky“ to have won what is arguably Australia’s most celebrated art prize, I felt it was worth considering just how he got so lucky and precisely what luck means in a creative context.

“I’m not trying to say anything. I’m just trying to do something that might be good. If you can do something good, well, that’s very good. Very good.” – Lewis Miller

If you believe the hype, Miller burst onto the Australian art scene with his portrait of fellow artist Allan Mitelman in 1998. He had come from virtually nowhere and won the Archibald; he was an overnight sensation; a person that proves we can all be successful with a little luck. What’s missing from that particular narrative are a number of truths, the first being that Miller had been drawing pictures of faces since he was a small boy.

“I was always drawing as a kid. It was the class trick. It was a special thing I could do and of course then I would get the attention and be horribly embarrassed by it. Luckily in the ’70s I had long hair and could lean forward and my hair would cover my blushing.”

School for Miller was a public one located in the southeastern suburbs of Melbourne. Home was a small, post-war prefab concrete Housing Commission house on a large block in Chadstone. His father Peter was a painter in the social-realist tradition who taught art at TAFE and his mother, Margaret, a housewife.

“Our house, I didn’t realise at the time, was extremely bohemian. We had draft resisters staying the night; friends with, I guess, drug problems staying over, people spying on my father because he’d been involved with the Communist Party. People playing guitars and singing folk songs. It was really amazing.”

It was at that house in the mid -1960s that Miller first came into contact with the Archibald although at the time all it meant to Miller was that he had to move out of his room.

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Allan Mitelman No. 3

“Dad entered the Archibald and he hadn’t built his shed, his studio in the backyard at that stage so…all I knew really about it was that my brother and I had to move out our room so he had somewhere to paint this picture. I don’t know why he didn’t go again. It was a good picture.”

That picture was of Dr Max Upfal and it was a finalist in 1967, the only picture Peter Miller entered in the Archibald. As luck would have it, 25 years later at a party in St Kilda, Lewis Miller was talking to a stranger and telling him that he was a painter and that he’d just had his fourth picture accepted as a finalist in the famous portrait competition. He talked about his father having entered in the ’60s with this painting of a doctor, Max Upfal and the fellow said: ‘Oh. That’s really interesting….Max Upfal was my father. I grew up with that painting’.

The relationship Miller shared with his father was incredibly strong. Peter would take the young Lewis with him on weekend jaunts into the countryside to paint. “Dad would pull up on top of a hill in Donvale or somewhere and take out a piece of Masonite and start painting. I’d sit and watch. It was just what we did.”

His father guided his son’s interest in the same gentle tradition that he himself had learnt at the The Gallery School attached to the National Gallery of Victoria. “Master one thing and then move to the next.” So when Lewis had become proficient at drawing he was introduced to acrylic paints courtesy of sample pots arts suppliers had dropped off at the TAFE Peter was teaching at. At 14, Lewis attempted his first oil painting. “I was terrified. I knew I could draw – but oil paint? It’s such a difficult thing to master.”

That first oil hangs on the wall in his studio. It’s a small picture, about six by six inches, painted from a sample cast of a section of Michelangelo’s David. Miller is “… not sure how much of it I did and how much Dad did. I suspect he did a bit.”

By the age of 16, he knew he wanted to become a painter and applied to go to art school (the Victorian College of the Arts). He admits to not “really being bothered” about the HSC (Year 12) because he’d already received his “Billy Elliot letter from the VCA” offering him a place at the then exclusive and prestigious art school. His parents where thankfully supportive.

“I was very lucky in that respect. I know a lot of people have to rebel against their parents. I remember Dad saying, ‘Well you might make a lot of money, you might make none, but it’s a good thing to do’.”

What followed was three intense years of deconstruction and reconstruction; three years Miller has mixed emotions. “There was a lot of, ‘Oh, that’s so easy for you’ and constant talk around the ‘new’. I remember in second year, I think it was that Gary (lecturer Gareth Sansom) said that our year would produce only one and a half artists. I wasn’t one of the ones he named.”

He tried rebelling against his father in terms of painting style and was even asked at one point to join the Roar Group; the small band of spirited young artists painting in a primitive, figurative style that emerged in Fitzroy in the early 1980s intent on upsetting what they saw as the complacent Australian mainstream art scene.

“David (Larwill) asked me at a party in St Kilda. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was still living at home. But I think I knew I couldn’t paint like that…actually that I didn’t want to paint like that.”

When Miller left art school he did so as a rebel who eschewed the post-modern and conceptual art fashions of the time, instead sticking to portraits and “plain things”.

Luckily, another of his lecturers, Paul Partos, continued to encourage him. But it was when a visiting lecturer, David Hurst, saw his still life and portraiture and simply said: ‘You’re good at that. Why don’t you just do that?’ that the proverbial penny dropped.

When Miller left art school he did so as a rebel who eschewed the post-modern and conceptual art fashions of the time, instead sticking to portraits and “plain things” as he refers to them. He then spent the next 10 years just “…trying to paint”.

Fast forward to 1998 and he has been out of art school for close to 20 years and is steadily working on his craft. He has been fortunate to have received the support of the art dealer and gallery owner Ray Hughes who was impressed by his work ethic as much as his skill.

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Still Life

“I was lucky with Ray. A lot of gallery owner’s pooh-poohed portraiture. Ray already had a couple of Archibald winners. He kind of understood it.”

By 1998 he has already entered the Archibald eight times, seven times he has been a finalist. “Up ’til then I’d been happy to be hung. It’s such a big event. Your picture’s on the wall at the Art Gallery of NSW. It’s very exciting. A hot ticket. But that year I remember lying in bed thinking, I should try and win it.”

Win it he did, but there was an element of good fortune attached to it; good fortune that at the time seemed more like an impending disaster. He had initially approached Melbourne fashion icon Jenny Bannister to be his subject and she’d agreed. But then the work took an interesting turn.

“I’d done an initial drawing of Jenny. But I couldn’t seem to get her over to the studio. We were getting closer to the deadline and I started to panic. What am I going to do? I though’, ‘My God, I’m going to have to sack her’. So I did, and rang up Allan.”

Luckily Mitelman agreed. It was Miller’s third portrait of Allan Mitelman for the Archibald, the previous two were finalists. What was different? “The scale. It’s a pretty big picture. And Alan was great. He was very helpful. I’m not sure it’s my best picture. But you don’t often win things with what you think is your best picture.”

Winning meant that he had the opportunity to travel overseas for the first time in 14 years. He intended to do a tour of European art galleries and planned a visit to the Met in New York. Again, chance stepped in. James Watson, the Nobel Prize winning biologist, co-discoverer of the famous double helix was in Sydney.

Watson has a keen interest in art and was taken to Ray Hughes Gallery where he saw a drawing on Ray’s desk. It was a sketch Miller had done of Ray on the back of Como Hotel letterhead, “in Biro I think”. Miller’s well-honed, classic style impressed Watson. ‘Who did this and can they come and do some drawings of me, my wife and two boys?’

Miller agreed, and when the drawings were completed Watson told him that since he was going to be in New York he should come to Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island and pop into the laboratory.

He did, and while he was there he did some drawings of staff members and Watson asked him back. “He wanted someone to do these drawings and David Hockney was too expensive, so he got me.”

Over the past 20 years he’s been back several times to document the scientists who have been involved in the continuing research around the human genome. During that time he has painted portraits of Watson and his fellow Nobel laureates, the late Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, along with drawings of countless scientists, lab technicians and assistants. The culmination of those 20 years work came late last month with the launch in New York of the book Faces of the Human Genome. 

So much has changed in those 20 years. Miller now has an 11-year-old son, William, with his wife Marianna, both of whom accompanied him to the launch. Those years have also seen him win the Art Gallery of NSW Sporting Portraiture Prize, the “Sportibald”, with his portrait of AFL legend Ron Barassi, spend time in Iraq as an Official War Artist, paint Sir Edmund Hillary, have a 60 second draw-off with celebrated English artist Damien Hirst and complete a further 16 Archibald entries. In total, He has entered the famous prize 24 times and had his work hung as a finalist 17 times. Now that he’s a father, he travels less and spends more time in the studio.

Art, for Lewis Miller, is more a doing thing, a sensual experience rather than an intellectual one.

“I’m lucky I can go every day. And I do. There’s always something to do. Stretching, varnishing. I never forget how fortunate I am. It’s a luxury I know. But painting is all about momentum, you’ve got to be doing it.”

William likes to drop in and watch his father work. It reminds Miller of sitting in the back shed watching his father who sadly died just two weeks after the Archibald win. “We shared the same concerns I think. We talked about Rembrandt and Picasso and Matisse and people like that. It’s easy to like those painters I guess, but those things he showed me in those early lessons are still with me and are in some ways the ones I fall back on. How to mix colours and just a particular attitude to painting.” An attitude that came down to simply working hard at your craft.

On any given day you will find him there in the studio doing just that; working on pictures, trying different things. Art, for Miller, is more a doing thing, a sensual experience rather than an intellectual one. “I just like to see how things work out. I’m a bit like Francis Bacon. He said, ‘I haven’t really got anything to say but I want to do pictures’. I’m not trying to say anything. I’m just trying to do something that might be good. If you can do something good, well, that’s very good. Very good.”

So would you say that Miller has been lucky? Perhaps. But if you look at his career, the luck has come from the making; from a  dedication to the continuous refining of his craft and a quiet commitment to regular hours in the studio trying to be good. A luck more in keeping with that described by the Roman philosopher, Seneca, who said ‘Luck happens when preparation meets opportunity’. Certainly Lewis Miller has had opportunities, but he has always been prepared.

HELP NEIL PIGOT AND DAILY REVIEW PRODUCE MORE ‘MAKING ART’ PODCASTS AND ARTS COMMENTARY AT A TIME WHEN ARTS COVERAGE IS DECLINING IN MAINSTREAM MEDIA. FIND OUT HOW HERE 

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Fish Sea Snail

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