Tag Archives: Gould League

Art and validation (and why they don’t mix)

WHEN I was fourteen living in the Blue Mountains of NSW, Australia, two life-changing things happened to me: I developed the ability to draw and paint well; and I realised I was gay.

“Capturing and generating emotion – not validation – is the real skill in all arts.”

One of these led me to years of study and training in visual, fine and applied arts, with others fostering my nascent skills. The other led me to fifteen years’ profound fear and confusion. It’s likely you’ve already worked out which is which.

Creative skills and homosexuality are traits I was born with. Although I had relatives who were artistic and same sex-attracted, both states came out of nowhere for this kid, who in the early 1980s had become quite accustomed to blending in with the furniture.

But when I sold my first artwork at the age of 14 and started receiving regular commissions, I was coaxed from behind the sofa. My single mother wouldn’t let me accept money, initially, but when I reached the age when others in my school year were earning pocket money pumping fuel or at the checkout, she shrugged and said that I should be paid for the work I was producing.

Exhibiting in group charity shows I earned a decent sum after the commission and framing was paid for. At the time, the Blue Mountains had a booming arts scene with prolific artists whose work was instantly recognisable, names like David Brayshaw, Robyn Collier, Fiona Craig and plenty more were sources of great inspiration for me.

It didn’t take long for people to open avenues for my artwork. One of the earliest was the encouragement from a teacher for me to enter the annual Gould League art awards, with a particular focus on the subject of birds. I entered several works and received three prizes.

‘Platypus’ (pen and ink on paper by Michael Burge, 1985)

There was a huge resurgence of wildlife art during the 1980s and despite my youth I rode the wave. Commercial prospects for my art opened wide when a school trip to New Zealand required a fundraising effort, and stationary was printed with a range of my wildlife studies. It sold like the proverbial hot cakes and suddenly my bespectacled, pimply demeanour had a creative context.

But to anyone paying close attention, I was entering an extremely dangerous phase.

Subtle poison

As the decade ended and I went off to tertiary studies that included a design diploma at Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art, I felt the creeping need for something to be done with my innate skills. Arts are defined as ‘fine’ or ‘applied’, after all, but my grasp on validation slipped during the post-recession era of the 1990s.

Validation… what a subtle poison it was for me, allowing one side of me to be singled out at the expense of the other. HIV/AIDS was tightening its terrible grip and while homosexuality had been decriminalised in NSW in 1984, any sign of it in my conservative community was treated with disdain.

I recall believing that if I could express myself in other places I might find true acceptance, and part of my journey to tertiary studies in Sydney and in the United Kingdom was an attempt to shuffle off the kid who could draw in order to find the adult in another art form altogether.

But it was harder than it should have been, and trying to manifest other skills and dreams led me down several blind alleys, because every one of them brought me face-to-face with myself, and, being deeply closeted, my basic composition was squeezed into a frame that left me looking and feeling terrible.

‘The Pursuit of Saint Valentine’ (ink on paper by Michael Burge 1995)

For years I didn’t paint or draw. Living in the United Kingdom and trying to earn a crust in the post-Thatcher economy, I eventually picked up the paintbrush and generated a portfolio that no-one I showed it to was the least bit interested in.

Art wasn’t enough. The talents of the kid meant nothing in Thatcher’s world, which also trampled on LGBTIQA+ rights at every opportunity.

Brushtrokes

So I came home, came out, and did something outrageous: I went and studied acting. I was determinedly playing catch-up and wasn’t content to replicate what I saw on canvas, I wanted to be the art, in every cell.

Life outside the closet got suddenly very tough when my partner Jono died in 2004. I struggled for creative direction for many years. It wasn’t until I found myself in a new relationship that I started, quite tentatively, to paint again.

‘Nocturnal Opening’ (oil on canvas by Michael Burge, 2007)

It was stop/start for a few years, and it took a while for others to get their heads around my artwork, which was often staunchly abstract instead of a replication of nature. I came to realise that my realistic works were not much more than the ability to keenly observe what I saw, and that capturing and generating emotion – not validation – is the real skill in all arts.

‘Emerald Screen’ (oil on board by Michael Burge, 2016)

In 2016, friend and artist Ellen Paxton gave me some paints and told me to just get going. She purchased the first work I executed and I have not stopped painting since.

The smell of oils when I squeeze colour onto my palette is a great motivator, because it calls to mind almost four decades of art as second nature. All those years of discipline in composition, perspective, colour theory, life drawing; all those exhibitions when work walked off the walls, and all those when it didn’t… every single part of the journey is a brushstroke on my psyche. I wouldn’t be without a single one.

Carelessly cut

This month, some of those 35-year-old Gould League-winning works came back to me. They arrived in a dangerously inadequate envelope with a miserly amount of postage, but thankfully the postie alerted me before delivering, saying he’d have had to fold it if I hadn’t been home.

When I opened the completely uninsured, unregistered correspondence, my past came rushing at me in these original sketches. I recall the hours spent solo in my childhood bedroom, every line of the Artline pen (I went through hundreds of the things in the 1980s); but also the loneliness, confusion and the desperate need to hide in that room.

CRUELLY CROPPED: The artworks returned to me this month.

Their appearance in my letterbox is a timely lesson in validation, because I have watched young, artistically-skilled people rise into the world in the decades since I did, and I have quietly reminded people – emotionally immature teachers and mentors, particularly – to take great care with them.

It’s hypocritical to validate someone for their innate skills, yet refuse to respect something equally as innate, such as their sexual orientation. In the case of the people who were gifted these artworks, returned to me after being carelessly cut from their frames, acceptance of my sexuality (and that of many others in our community) was painfully piecemeal.

But I’m very glad to have these precious early brainchildren of mine back. Considering the open-hearted manner in which I donated the reproductions to send clueless private school kids to New Zealand 35 years ago, then gave the originals to people who no longer value them, or me, they’re wonderful proof that I have always been much bigger creatively and emotionally than the narrow frame others envisaged for me.

Depths of acceptance

A decade ago, while paying for new tyres, the bloke who’d done the job read the name on my credit card and asked: “Are you Michael Burge, the artist?” and I nearly fell over. He described the pen-and-ink sketch of galahs that he and his wife had been gifted for their wedding and shook my hand with gratitude for a piece of art they love, another from my Gould League-winning collection.

‘Change Coming, Deepwater’ (oil on canvas by Michael Burge, 2020)

It was a pivotal year when more of my teenage works came to the surface, including my first work of non-fiction, which failed to launch because of jealous adults but came rushing at me while on assignment for a piece of journalism. “Could you please sign my copy of your book?” a guest at the same event asked. Again, the shock was profound since I’d lived for many years without the validation of such moments.

Validation… too many are unaware of just how much of it you relinquish when you come out, but I have lived long enough to learn how shallow it really is when compared with the depths that flow with just a little acceptance.

Coming on top of a self-determined life that includes the right to marry and the broadest equality rights Australian LGBTIQA+ have had in our history (despite there being much, much more to achieve), these days I treat validation as more of an incentive.

It’s a reminder to keep up the hard work and the difficult, vital process for creatives to put ourselves right out there in a way that very few who live within the safe walls of validation will ever understand.

The Land of Parrots

“I find myself less concerned with extreme ornithological accuracy, and more intent on capturing their character.”

WHEN I was a teenager, long before I realised day jobs were essential for most artists, while my school mates were off working at perfectly good weekend jobs, I was earning a decent income painting and drawing wildlife.

I fell into it, when at the school art show in 1984 I sold my very first painting – a watercolour of a small green frog nestled in an orchid – for sixty dollars.

From then on I regularly entered wildlife paintings and drawings into art shows across the Blue Mountains. I learned to read the mood and spread the risk in order to be in receipt of a sales cheque at the end of each show, which were invariably fundraisers for school committees and charities.

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LOOK OF LORI Rainbow Lorikeet by Michael Burge.

I was encouraged to enter my work in the annual and long-running Gould League art award, and took home a couple of gongs in 1985. At the end of that year, a range of my wildlife drawings was printed as stationary to raise funds for a school trip to New Zealand.

Wildlife art was enjoying a major resurgence and people couldn’t get enough of it.

In the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, bird watchers were commonplace because living within what would eventually become a World Heritage wilderness area, bird-life abounded. Some of my schoolteachers were keen amateur ornithologists, and at school camping trips we got to experience the processes of bird banding – the temporary capture of birds in mist nets in order to weigh, tag and record life-cycle details of different species.

The one bird we were warned against ever attempting to capture was a parrot.

With their pincer-like beaks and claws most raptors would be proud of, parrots in all their shapes, sizes and colours (from cockatoos and rosellas to budgerigars) have always been an artist’s delight.

Tagging one even for the most noble of reasons would need to be done with a sturdy heart and welder’s gloves. Even capturing parrots on film remains a challenge.

Depending on which birds and which region, Aboriginal words for parrot include “bilin”, “akala”, “goonang”, “koorungan”, “moolangora” and “poolunka”. Parrots, cockatoos, rosellas and parakeets all make appearances in Aboriginal Dreaming and are totemic across the country.

LAND OF PARROTS
LAND OF PARROTS look closely below the continent of Africa and you’ll see it! (1564 New World Map: Wikimedia Commons)

So common are they to this island continent that parrots factored in one of the earliest European names for Australia.

Three centuries before Matthew Flinders, Portuguese explorers mooted ‘Psitacorum Regio’ (‘The Land of Parrots’) as a suitable name for the southern land they’d seen was replete with parrot life, and that name appears on the 1564 New World Map by Antwerp cartographer Abraham Ortelius.

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BUSH BEAUTY A Crimson Rosella (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Everyone has their favourite parrot. After more than three decades living in the Mountains, I fell early for the gentle, bell-like call of the beautiful Crimson Rosella (Platycercus elegans) not least due to its bright defiance of mountain mist and rain. It was also easy to spot whilst walking to and from school and wasn’t particularly shy about being watched.

By the 1990s, wildlife art fell out of fashion, while I went off to design school, followed by a stint chasing dreams in Europe.

One of the saddest sights I encountered was a solo Crimson Rosella in an ornate cage not much larger than its body, hanging above the counter at a pasta restaurant in central Venice in the summer of 1994. It had torn most of its wing and tail feathers out, and when I asked the manager if he knew where his bird came from, he shook his head and shrugged.

I could speak only rudimentary Italian, but I could read I couldn’t care less by the body language. Only someone who’d spent every school day observing these beauties cavorting through the bush could have picked the species of that sad captive.

Well over a decade later, when I moved from the mountains to the subtropics, I knew I’d have to leave the Crimson Rosella behind. It is found in Queensland in a disparate region to the north, but here in the southeast it rarely shows itself at the coast.

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PALE BUT PRETTY The Pale-headed Rosella of eastern Australia.

But I started to hear talk of another rosella that frequents this part of the world, one that has become more and more elusive – the Pale-headed Rosella (Platycercus adscitus) somewhat related to its crimson cousin.

After years away from painting birds, it was parrots that drew me back in, when I sat down and captured a row of them in the work I called ‘The Committee’ and quickly sold on new Australian online gallery Bluethumb.

I couldn’t resist including a Crimson Rosella at the centre of that line-up of Australian icons. A Rainbow Lorikeet, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo and a Galah complete the scene, all quite familiar to me even after years away from the easel; although these days I find myself less concerned with extreme ornithological accuracy, and more intent on capturing their character.

But the Pale-headed Rosella still eludes me. Some of my neighbours recall seeing them here on Coochiemudlo Island, but not for a few years, so I decided to closely observe various photographs of this exquisite bird in preparation for encountering one.

Sporting a full spectrum of colours, including a flash of red under its tail, a magnificent pale gold crown, and the finest ultramarine blues across its cheeks, wings and tail, the Pale-headed Rosella managed to avoid definitive taxonomy for close to a century.

PRETTY
SHY NEIGHBOUR Pale-headed Rosella by Michael Burge.

This was undoubtedly because early ornithologists either hadn’t seen more than preserved samples shipped to England, or mistakenly thought they were the first to encounter the bird in the wild. It was surely also because the Pale-headed Rosella had gotten busy interbreeding with very similar species such as the Eastern Rosella and the Yellow Rosella, producing an array of hybrids.

The first European to visit Coochiemudlo Island – explorer Matthew Flinders – saw white and black cockatoos, and a bird he called “the beautiful lay lock [lilac] headed parroquet” here in 1799, but no Pale-headed Rosellas in his short journey through the island’s interior.

As one of the commonest parrots seen by early European settlers in the Brisbane region, the Pale-headed Rosella was known simply as the ‘Moreton Bay Rosella’ or ‘Parakeet’.  Prussian explorer and naturalist Ludwig Leichhardt referred to it as such while traversing the region in 1844, and noted in his journal that it was “very numerous”, appearing with the same frequency as the Cockatiel and the White Cockatoo.

‘Pale-headed Parrakeet (sic)’ was the common name applied from 1848 by English ornithologist John Gould, although he was apparently unaware that the Pale-headed Rosella had already been named in 1790 by his predecessor John Latham.

PLATY
PRETTY PLATY Elizabeth Gould’s illustration of three rosella species identified by her husband John.

The ornithological establishment seems to have hedged its bets and let both men’s identification stand as two subspecies, with Latham’s Platycercus adscitus, a generally bluer-cheeked variety found in the northern zone of Queensland; and Gould’s lesser blue-cheeked Platycercus palliceps found in southeast Queensland.

There’s a problem, however. Gould identified (or thought he had) another ‘Blue-cheeked Parrakeet’ he named Platycercus cyanogenys, but his Platycercus palliceps also bears the common name ‘Blue-cheeked Rosella’.

And having observed the colouring of the bird in order to paint it, for my money there’s simply not enough blue on the cheek of Platycercus palliceps to justify that name.

Looking at another artist’s earlier work might clear matters up. When Elizabeth Gould painted Platycercus palliceps in husband John’s Birds of Australia in the 1840’s, it appears below two truly blue-cheeked birds – the Yellow Rosella and the Yellow-bellied Parakeet (see image above).

BIRDMAN'S WIFE Elizabeth Gould (1804–1841) holding a Cockatiel (Image: National Library of Australia)
BIRDMAN’S WIFE Elizabeth Gould (1804–1841) holding a Cockatiel (Image: National Library of Australia)

Now emerging from her husband’s shadow thanks to a new novel – The Birdman’s Wife (Affirm Press), Elizabeth Gould’s skills of observation suggest elements of John Gould’s taxonomy may not have passed muster.

Her Platycercus palliceps carries the merest hint of blue on what could only be defined as the very, very lowest margins of the bird’s cheek.

It takes a fellow painter to recognise the palest blue brushstroke that I imagine Elizabeth added a little begrudgingly at John’s insistence, to avoid a blue-cheeked argument.

So I hedged my bets too, and added more blue than I thought necessary, but less than the name required, although I’d love to see a local Pale-headed Rosella to check for sure.

Despite our plethora of walking birds like curlews and plovers, much of the bird life on Coochiemudlo Island, especially where parrots are concerned, lives high above our heads in the old-growth trees.

I’m thinking of investing in a pair of binoculars, and I’ve noticed several well-known Australian artists have added Gould League art award prizes to their online resumes.

I’ll probably do the same. I’ve already earned my plumes, after all.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.