ARTHUR Nilsson turned up for this interview with his long fingers bearing evidence that they had recently been engaged in painting in readiness for his solo exhibition at ArtSpace.
After a number of solo painting exhibitions, the current exhibition at Wonthaggi ArtSpace is titled Land and Sea. It’s inspired by the changing moods of nature and the grandeur of the Bass Coast, and also by his travels around the world.
In his youth, Arthur’s interest was sport. He didn’t get interested in art until his late teens when he had an inspirational art teacher in Year 11 who taught him to appreciate art as well as the techniques of painting and ceramics.
Arthur was always a city slicker, except for a year immediately out of Teachers’ College where he taught at a rural school in Mincha near Kerang. He taught the whole town’s worth of primary kids – a total of 24.
Realising the only way to succeed was to study more, he returned to Melbourne to study for a certificate of art at Preston Institute, then a diploma of art at RMIT and later a fellowship from the same institute. Towards the end of his studies he was asked to be part of a group exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. He laughs as he tells me that he was still a student at the time – and already 30 years of age.
Arthur mixed his studies of art with business administration, a curious mix of right and left brain tendencies which benefited him as he rose in the ranks of education from teacher to head of art at several secondary schools, finally to be principal at a large secondary college in Melbourne.
He loved teaching art, particularly when he came across really talented students, such as William Ricketts’ granddaughter, Karen, who obviously had the same artistic genes as her grandfather. In the meantime, he continued to improve his art techniques. Despite becoming adept at mixing his own glazes and building his own kiln to make his ceramics, Arthur decided to abandon the “whole bloody messy pursuit” in favour of the joy of painting in oils. Oils, he says, provide him with a richness of colour and the ability to capture the light that acrylics simply can’t.
He equally loved it when he took on more administrative roles within the Education Department which challenged him intellectually. None more so than when he was head- hunted to work at Wesley College. The college was looking for a rare breed of staff member – a secondary school principal with an art background. Arthur was offered a 12-month post as director of arts at the Prahran Campus. It was his most challenging role to get highly passionate, talented and art faculty working as a team. It was a marvellous opportunity to end his formal career.
When he finally retired 19 years ago Arthur and his wife Robyn had to choose where to live from many places along the coast from Tasmania up to Brisbane. The choice in the end was easy.
Fourteen years ago they moved from Middle Brighton to Inverloch. There were many reasons for the move, including the beautiful environment which provides so many scenes in which to indulge in his love of painting – it was also an easy decision to make economically. The Nilssons knew they would have a better lifestyle here and they’ve made many wonderful new friends. They have never regretted their decision.
Arthur and Robyn have been regular visitors to Asia over the last number of years. More than 10 years ago, they met a very small boy selling his basket of goods in the street. They learned that his family really needed some help.
On meeting them, they realised that young Toh should be going to school to learn English and that his father, Dinh, a fisherman, was unwell due to having a seriously painful shoulder, making it difficult to row the small fishing boat and to sleep at night. Arthur supported Toh’s schooling for some years and also bought a motor for Dinh’s boat.
Toh is grown up now. His good English enables him to run a small tourism business of his own and he will be married soon. Dinh has no problem with his shoulder.
Caring for others, through both his career and travels, has been an important part of Arthur’s life. In the same vein he cares about his art.
Arthur Nilsson’s new exhibition Land and Sea is on at ArtSpace Wonthaggi until February 18.