CLUTCHING my half-used return bus ticket, I looked with curiosity at John Mutsaers’ painting of a goat in a boat at the Gippsland 14 exhibition recently held in Melbourne.
In my research about John, I had discovered that after a professional painting career over many years he studied for a masters in creative art therapy, which had a great influence on his art. As he taught young people who were struggling with life and often finding a release through drug taking, encouraging them to find their way through art, John’s own journey changed. His most recent works are centred on his personal philosophies, social commentary and abiding concern for human rights. They reflect such themes as freedom, equal rights, loss and migration.
“Everyone I tell about the theme has a story about goats and their tenacity.”
I was a little confused about the goat, but it all made sense once I understood that John had emigrated with his parents from a Holland still recovering from World War II with little food to eat and many hardships. The goat in the picture is representative of all migrants, because they have the ability to survive in almost all conditions. Goats, which were also early European settlers in Australia, are curious, intelligent, and indomitable.
“Everyone I tell about the theme has a story about goats and their tenacity,” John told me. “So it’s reasonable to accept that their determination and resolve is familiar. Migrant stories have the same ring about them.”
Asked where his artistic talent comes from, he ascribes it to genetics, having had several uncles who were artists and a very inventive father. “Dad was regarded as "Mr Fix It" by the neighbours; there seemed to be no end to his talent. I'm sure that his handiness, inventive nature and his confidence that he could do most things he put his mind to are part of what makes me an artist today.”
I laughed as John told me about his father burying his passenger bus in a paddock as the Nazis invaded his city and confiscated all motor vehicles. As the Nazis left after the war, that same bus was exhumed from its grave and put back into service, with his father back at the wheel of the only bus in town.
John’s talent was evident at an early age. At the age of four, when most kids are drawing those wonderful stick figures with distorted arms and legs, John was drawing bodies complete with torsos and arm and legs, all in proportion. He still adores life drawing and is an ever-present artist at the Bass Coast Art Society’s life drawing classes on a Tuesday morning.
“Painting, drawing and clowning around are all subjects I would have excelled at,” he says, “but unfortunately they were not part of the curriculum at my school.” And so at 14 years, shortly after he arrived in Australia, he left school.
After a few odd jobs he found a career in land surveying and a boss who encouraged him to re-engage in studies. Leading up to this, he discovered the local town’s group of artists, who encouraged him with his art. He won his first prize of 10 shillings at the age of 16.
He continued exploring art and did a couple of live-in summer schools at the National Gallery of Victoria with Clifton Pugh. Of all things, John is renowned for being able to capture light on his canvasses. He credits the tonal painter John Balmain with mentoring in this achievement.
John has few regrets in life – but one is that he lost much of his Dutch language due to his family’s desire to quickly assimilate into the Australian way of life. Whilst he has now re-learned the language of his birthplace, it is the language of art that he lists as his other significant language.
So how did this Dutch-born fellow end up living just up the road in Inverloch? He moved to the Latrobe Shire and, after meeting his wife, Mary, bought an idyllic little farm with an old milking shed just screaming out to be converted to a studio. They spent a blissful 41 years there before tragically a fire ripped through and destroyed the studio and many of his artworks – as well as a note of thanks from Princess Margaret for one of his works that became part of her collection. And so began the search for another home.
He is often asked to judge art – at one time this was a substantial part of his art career – but is now more reticent. “There are clearly good and bad pictures but I worry about how much that judgment depends on a judge's personal taste. It wouldn't be the first time a badly reviewed work later turns up as a masterpiece. This is precisely what happened to Vincent van Gogh.”
While he has not judged for some time, he will be judging the Winter Solstice Exhibition next month. John has instigated the project, which he wants to encourage young and emerging artists to exhibit at Wonthaggi’s community gallery, ArtSpace. Entry fees of only $10 for over 18s and $5 for under 18s are designed to encourage such artists. There isn’t much time left to enter – but if you wish to – John can be contacted through email@example.com
John turned 73 a few days ago. “I often hear friends talk about their retirement plans and I thank God that I don’t have to worry about that,” he says. “I never want to stop making art.”