Q&A with Christian Palmer
Maltese/English painter Christian Palmer travelled the world in search of inspiration before settling in Australia. Surrounded by the stares of the creatures he paints, he continues to explore his world through discerning eyes.
What’s the story behind your choice of subject matter, style and the medium used in your paintings?
I’ve painted various genres in the past including large abstract landscapes and studies on the female form. The first animal I painted was my Jack Russell Terrier after I had to have him put down. The process was cathartic and one I perversely enjoyed. It also allowed me to tap into the pain and loss I felt for the first time. It had a profound effect on me personally and the work I produced.
I took everything I had discovered experimenting with textured abstracts in terms of canvas preparation and a mixed media approach and applied it to the figurative work I now do with animals. Initially, my focus was on dogs – which I feel are perfectly placed to bear witness to our lives. The subject matter evolved to include farm animals and predators, amongst others, which led me to get involved in animal-related charities and to have fund-raising exhibitions in Singapore, Australia and London.
How does it feel, having all these creatures stare back at you?
Essentially, I aim to depict the soul of that being. It feels as if I have company. I am also usually posing a question to myself, while trying to work through some dilemma. Sometimes it’s challenging, but through the process I hope to resolve the issue and if I don’t, the painting is there to remind me that I still have work to do.
Being Maltese, having been brought up in the UK and living in Australia, do you feel any nostalgia or have any interest in where you are from or where you have lived?
I have really strong roots in Malta – with lots of family and friends I hold dear and many treasured experiences and memories. It’s a very important part of my make-up as a person and my gene pool, but my conditioning throughout my formative years and the best part of my education is British, so I strongly identify with English satirical wit and sensibilities. All that considered, there has been an ever-present duality in my journey which is both a blessing and a burden: feeling at home in both cultures but not really belonging to either. I always knew I would travel from the time I visited my father in Hong Kong at the age of 12. Since then, I have been very fortunate to see a lot of the world, but when I finally arrived in Australia at the age of 28 I felt as if I had found the place in which to settle. It’s been 15 years now and I have to admit to feeling a little bit more foreign every time I return to Europe.
What does Australia have to offer – to you as an artist and to people in general?
The first thing that sets Australia apart is the amount of space – it is the biggest island in the world, with a big sky, desert, ocean and a coastline that is abundant with natural beauty. It’s a great place to visit if you can handle the long-haul flight and don’t have too many time constraints.
It’s not easy to live here as a foreign national due to the strict immigration protocols, but I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. You’d have to get used to snakes, spiders and sharks, of course, but the biggest drawback is distance – the distance between you and your loved ones. As an artist, there are a few places that I could feel as nurtured as I do here; ironically, the only other place I can think of is Gozo.
From your experience, how would you compare the art scene in Byron Bay and elsewhere in Australia, to the UK and other countries?
Australia has a very healthy, competitive and quite contemporary art scene. If I were to compare it to the UK, I would say it’s not quite there yet. However, in a city like Melbourne you’ll find a thriving urban culture and street art scene. Sydney boasts some fantastic galleries, Brisbane is full of potential and Perth has a lucrative art market backed up by the prosperity generated from minerals and mining. One of Australia’s biggest pluses is access to the Asian art market where I have gallery representation and have enjoyed great success.
Byron Bay, where I live, is quite unique and a very special place to be. It’s the perfect environment in which to work as an artist, if you have outside representation. On the surface, it’s a beach side tourist town but it’s also a magnet for creative souls: musicians, writers, actors and artists are drawn to the area by the prospect of living an alternative lifestyle outside the big cities.
What would you say is the biggest problem in the world, and how do you propose we fix it?
Okay, that’s a big one that I’m completely unqualified to answer. There are so many problems that seem insurmountable but I will give it a go. Egocentricity for one – the greed that is inherent in ‘ego’ means that ‘more’ will never be enough. First, I take a look at myself, as always. I find that my work often deals with the paradox. You want to do well personally, professionally, provide for your family – and there’s nothing wrong with that. You try to keep your ego in check but it’s like a sleeping monster. It will always be there waiting for a moment to take control. If you let your ego have free reign, the consequences are what you see in the world today under our current model.
Take that greed and multiply it by a household, a corporation, a government, a nation, and the outcomes are clear to see. It breeds power struggles, inequality, the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. It creates poverty, hunger, injustice and wars – and ultimately what we are left with is one per cent: the one per cent where the majority of power and money lies. There are movements to change the paradigm and, through the information age and social media sharing, there is increased awareness of alternatives to the current model but until individuals are prepared to put the greater good before self-interest, it’s hard to see how we evolve from here. The best I can do is work on self and hope the butterfly effect theory is correct.
What led to your interest in art, and cementing your place in the world as an artist?
I always loved to draw. It’s been a constant for me throughout my life and ever since I was a child it made me feel at home wherever I was. At boarding school, the art room was my sanctuary. Being accepted by St Martin’s College of Art in London was an affirmation. Even though I never completed a degree, it was never about a qualification for me. I already knew what I was, so I just decided to take the scenic route to get to my destination. It meant a path of travel, self-discovery and lots of tangents, lots of mismatched jobs and mistakes – for which I am grateful. As far as cementing my place, my sell-out show in Singapore would be my biggest professional achievement to date, but there is no security or permanence for any freelance artist. I just have a sense that this is what I’m supposed to do and I feel very lucky to be doing it. Long may it continue! I never want to retire.
Do you have any exhibitions or a new collection in the making?
I had a solo show in London in July and I’m setting up an exhibit tomorrow in Byron Bay at ‘Freedom Summit’, with international speakers sharing with us how to change the world, so I might have a better answer to your previous question next week! I have a show on in Brisbane, running until the end of November, which has a new body of work inspired by my trip to Paris this year – all spray-painted stencils and a new subject matter for me – so I’ll see where that takes me. Back to Hong Kong, maybe.
You can view a large collection of works depicting animals by Christian Palmer at Lily Agius Gallery, Cathedral Street, Sliema. For more information call 9929 2488 and view www.lilyagiusgallery.com.
Artists featured: Christian Palmer