Sunday, July 22, 2012

My SOB Story.

This is the rave I'm going to perform at the Damien Minton Gallery Annex on Saturday 3pm, 22nd September, "My Sob Story" with my mate Peter on a wailing violin next to me.

I want to intimate how this art you see around you came into being, my outlandish SOB story, forgive me if I whine too much, it’s like medieval times, the rebel artist begging at his Overlord’s castle door, boo hoo hoo. What a long travail it’s been, 35 years slogging it out as an artist in the gladiator pit that’s Sydney. I’ve had every handicap imaginable, from a poor family with no connections and no elitist education to being gay in an era when it was a criminal offense, brutalized, fucked over and twisted, ending up a bi-polar curmudgeon with mild Tourettes, i.e. a smart mouth.

Thus I became a renegade, a zorro from the lunatic fringe, Bohemian, freaky, anarchic, pagan, punk, vagabond, with a huge chip on my shoulder, a comic book villain with Batman as the cop and me as Z, the mad artist trying to bring the System down with bad art. But worst of all, I come from Melbourne, the provinces, and dared to crack the big snooty city from the origins of the conquest of Australia, elitist hungry Sydney where I have long been a little boy lost.

(I wrote the above straight after seeing "The Dark Knight Rises", about the same time as the massacre happened, and I was bemused in the movie by the post-apocalyptic visions of street people looting 5th Ave apartments. But I did look around the theater there on George Street and felt safe and cozy, that we were a co-operative, well meaning society in general and could enjoy a movie fantasy without harm or interruption. I read about the horrendous Cinema massacre the next morning and shuddered, I don't find any dark humor in the suffering, only compassion for the victims, as I always do in horror movies, that's why horror movies are horrible.)

Yeah, I was born in inner-city Melbourne, my parents worked in factories and art was far from their ken, even pics of cows under gum trees mystified them. After the ‘56 Olympics we moved into the Olympic Village, a Housing Commission ghetto. Situated in Heidelberg little did I realize there had once been a famous school of painters living and loving in the area, their pastoral landscapes my playground. I had been drawing compulsively since about the age of four after the little girl next door showed me how to draw stick figures. I took to it as if it were a magical act, and drawing stick figures over and over and over seemed to relieve me of a nervous twitch. Once I drew a horse’s head on one of my father’s handkerchiefs and presented it to him as a present for which he slapped my face, saying I’d destroyed his property. Then I confessed I wanted to be an artist when I grew up and he slapped me again and told me to get real, an apprentice in some Metropolis factory more likely to earn me a living. He was a socialist and knew 'ART' was a "class" construct.

My father had come back from the 2nd World War somewhat broken and distraught, he’d watched his mates die horribly, could suffer no fools gladly and had a hair-trigger temper. He beat me from infancy onwards for the slightest transgression and my rebellion against authoritarian patriarchy is possibly still burning in much of my artwork. (It's called "oppositional defiant disorder" these days.)

  In my first year of high school a sweet natured art teacher, Isabelle Huntington, raved about my childish attempts at drawing and put them up in the classroom window for all the passing school to see, but she then retired and, the next year, art was terrorized by the boys’ headmaster, old Mr. Nosebristles, who hated my guts on sight, often whacking me with a heavy wooden ruler till I gave up art. As for the rest of my classes, I constantly got sent up for detention and cutting straps across the palms of the hands for yelling out wisecracks or covering my exercise books with nude sketches. This was the 1960’s, the era of peace and love, and Dickensian discipline of children.

As a child I adored the graphics of “Little Black Sambo” books, the primary color shapes outlined with heavy black. I devoured hundreds of comics, Batman, Superman, Spiderman and Aquaman but it was Tarzan of the Jungle who I gave my heart to. Somehow I got my hands on books of medieval art and I was thrilled by the visions of Paradise, Hell, the Apocalypse, life and death by Albrecht Durer, Heironymous Bosch and the Breughals. While I had great adventures in the bush-land of Heidelberg and cinema palaces of the inner-city Melbourne, I also endured much sorrow at home due to ugly domestic violence, and I saw in the medieval books of torture reflections of my own anxieties. Maybe sorrow and hardship can give a frisson to the sufferer’s artistic output.

Every graphic I’ve ever scrutinized has sunk into my plastic mind and mixed into a pastiche of all the styles and, of all the influences lighting up my eyes, my favorites were Toulouse Lautrec, Delacroix , Van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin, Picasso, Joan Miro, Otto Dix, Diego Rivera, and the cartoon styles of Disney, Robert Crumb, "Furry Freak Bros.", “The Simpsons” and “Ren and Stimpy.”

 There was no counseling at high school in the ‘60s for a troubled teen, the bullying I’d suffered for my difference had driven me to great disaffection and, after inciting one too many acts of outrageous disobedience, I was asked to leave in 5th form. 1967 dawned, I was 17 and my dad bashed up my mom one last time, causing her to flee, so I ran away from home to live in an inner-city flat with a 16 year old rock’n’roll drummer. I got a job as a clerk for the Dept. of Navy at Victoria Barracks but was forever getting into trouble with the crotchety old boss for ruining the ledgers and desk-top blotting paper by covering them with sketches. The guy at the next desk was an ancient old queen named Ruby and, as my great romance with my long-haired rock’n’roll boyfriend broke upon the rocks of social opprobrium, I decided to move into the old poof’s chi chi flat in South Yarra. His hobby was to stick glass pebbles to every object and surface, and paint “Cows Under Gum Trees” pastoral pics. All this was a lifestyle education for this working-class boy from the outer suburbs, especially as Ruby lived with two Maori drag queens who worshiped and dressed like Marilyn Monroe.

Much of this art has as an underlying text the anxieties of a gay libertarian living in a censorious society, each piece like a report from the Underworld; in the ‘60s and ‘70s gays were outlawed so I daily feared the police and imprisonment. Housing was very difficult to maintain, landlords bigoted and forbidding, and employment hard to find if you were ‘out’ in any manner, you had to hide behind a disguise. My themes are about human needs, dreams, fears, injustices, stupidities, joys, seeking all those freedoms banned under many political/economic tyrannies .

In 1969 my lucky mystical connection happened, I became intrigued by a lecture on Yoga given at the Theosophical Society by an old man with long white hair and beard who called himself Compassion. When I tried to leave I was asked by an old lady to go out the back and meet him, whereupon, as if he instantly recognized me, he ignored all his groupies and was only interested in me. I discovered he was also a great artist with a famous tag in Adelaide, “Lattimer”, that he’d been an art teacher, his work hung in the South Australian Art Gallery and he had studied yoga in India from the late ‘40s onward with many of the masters, but in particular Swami Sivananda. I corresponded with him for the next three years and often traveled to Adelaide to stay with him, help him with his chores, and draw with him; he drew religious iconography, like Durer, and I drew cartoons, emulating Picasso; he never told me what or how to draw, just encouraged me and praised my efforts.

My teens had had variations on terror ever nipping at my heels, from being a hated deviant gay and getting bashed to going hungry from never having enough money. I dreaded turning 18 as then my turn came at the horrendous Vietnam War Conscript lottery, but thank nogod Libra babies weren’t up for sacrifice that year, i.e. those born in October weren't forced to become soldiers. At 19 I longed for fabulous horizons and mind expanding experiences, it was the peak of the Hippie cult with its psychedelic art and drugs, and Melbourne seemed to be at the end of the world. I’d heard of the wonders of LSD from Timothy Leary, John Lilly, The Merry Pranksters and I longed for Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, a total sucker for pop culture I was a creature of my times. For a straight job to finance my dreams of evolving into an artist I started student nursing in a bad old hospital near where I’d grown up on the edges of the city and a fellow nurse, avuncular and pseudo-wise, convinced me I needed psycho-therapy to get over my homosexuality and told me of an arcane shrink who’d give me LSD sessions and cure my soul. I was warned by Compassion it would shred my astral body but I didn’t listen, I wanted it regardless, the evil doctor offered me ten sessions for I was just the acolyte he was seeking.

At his witch's cottage clinic in Kew, "Newhaven", I tripped into the collective unconscious furiously but then ran away after only 4 LSD sessions as I intuited something strange about his set-up. Much later I discovered the whole private hospital side-show was a front for a cult that was run by a Messianic madwoman named Anne Hamilton-Byrne, (from some cult called "The Family"???), who captured people, got them addled on LSD then married them to other cult members to breed blond-haired, blue eyed children, whom she then kept corralled on a farm in the Victorian bush and gave herself blood-transfusions from them every week to keep herself looking young! With my bright blue eyes, she wanted my seed badly. And  as usual, I, Zorro, escaped but with kaleidoscopic visions of the Underworld spinning me out and informing my art for ever after. (In the dawn light after my last wild journey into the neural quantum flux I found myself staring into books of Aboriginal Dreamtime Art and Mythology.)
  I graduated as a Registered Nurse, specializing in Gerontology and palliative care as I found old people were easier than most to get on with and it was kind of an honor to help them die peacefully. At 21 I was an idealist, a peacenik, health-nut queer dreamer who wanted more than the limp-wristed govt clerk/window-dresser/bitchy nurse career that society had in store for me. I chucked Melbourne in and went to live with Compassion on an old sheep-shearing farm near Armidale in N.S.W. There we lived in the nude and made art to our hearts content, but my old mentor had inspired me with tales of India and off I wandered, hitching to Darwin, flying to Singapore, trekking thru Malaysia and Thailand, and eventually I got on a boat from Penang to Madras, India. For the next four years I had the greatest time of my life, a vagabond wandering the roads of India, from the Himalayas to Kanya Kumari at the tip where three oceans meet, from 1972 to 1976.

Compassion wrote letters of introduction and thus I was allowed to study at the Sivananda Jungle University: yoga, Vedanta philosophy, music (voice), off and on, for a couple of years. I got my mind blown by Hindu myth and philosophy, their temple architecture and iconography, the psychedelic calendars and statuary, of gods and demons, angels and monsters. As contrast I at times lived in the grand Mughal monuments, for in those hippie-trail days there were no fences or guards and we freaks made music, painted pictures and slept amidst medieval edifices. Under a Sufi heaven with the Quatarb Minaret hovering over me I read the Arabian Nights and pawed over art-books of Mughal miniatures.

Once I was in Manali in the Himalayas, and the Dali Lama was visiting a Tibetan refugee enclave there and the monks had brought out their extra precious Thanka paintings in celebration and hung them in their temple. My eyes popped at the explosive rainbow colors of their gods and demons, the gold-leaf and the glitter of the embroidered cloth borders. I confess I’m always striving to capture in my work that prismatic light and enigmatic mystery I witnessed in the Tibetans’ most sacred art, and yeah, failing, failing. I’m just a fallen mystic, struggling from my flawed human condition, boo hoo hooo.

In the midst of my Indian vagabondage Compassion showed up in Rishikesh dying from cancer of the spine and I nursed him at Sivananda’s Ashram for the year it took him to die, doing yoga, meditating, going on jungle walks. He’d lost the use of his arms but was still eager to paint so I fixed colored crayons onto the split-end of a stick of bamboo and he used his right foot, a cinematic cliché I know, but he did it, he patiently waved his foot and created stunning pictures of our ashram environs in the style of Diego Rivera, with lots of colored shadows. When he died some fellow Australians and I threw his body into the Ganges River, where all high yogis go, and I tried not to cry, life was to be a profound joy, but I’d have to live most of it without my dear mentor.

I continued to wander the many byways and get inspired at every turning of the corner. Such as when I walked into a restaurant in the city of Bangalore and it was painted all black except for fleuro colored murals on the walls, scenes from “Alice in Wonderland” all lit up by black-lights edging the furnishings. I was struck by the technique’s potential to amplify 'out of this world' visions, black velvet kitsch and ‘60s retro though it was. I drifted on to Goa for the New Years celebrations, got on top of my LSD heebie-jeebies and painted trippy art which I sold at the Anjuna markets and to some American friends, Sid and Steve from New York. They’d paid my way in return for pictures for a couple of years and I am forever indebted to them. They bought one last painting to get me on my way for I’d grown tired of being lost in India and wished to hit European culture with the product of all I had learned so far.

I got as far as Greece, the Island of Crete and the Minotaur’s labyrinth when I lost heart at the road ahead, all the way to London in bare feet, and I figured maybe I owed something to my own country, Australia and its culture, that I could contribute with the artistic and philosophical boons I’d garnered from my adventures. So I flew back to the Dreamtime continent of Auz. What a fool, like Onan I was wasting my seed, Australia wasn’t really interested in art and had the few artists it needed, most connected to good families, and in Auz art has to be “State-sanctioned” to get support. As a pauper fag with no old boy network I was condemned to a life of starving, conniving and ignominy, banging and whining at the doors of many an arts power-broker, relegated to the Underground where try-hards flounder. Boo hoo hoo.

Yet I had a fucking great time, I wouldn’t have missed Sydney in the late ‘70s, the ‘80s and ‘90’s for anything, from Pyrmont Squats to the Gunnery Squats, all those anarchic stunts and ecstatic events, the rock shows and riots, the Punk grapple and Grunge mosh, the concerts and cabarets, movies and doofs, raves and treks, and I’m stunned how I left a long trail of art behind me as witness to some of it. (I caught the wave of bands like Died Pretty, XL Capris, Dragon, Hunters and Collectors, X, The Saints, The Angels, Box the Jesuit, The Scientists, Lubricated Goat and Monroe's Fur, but I especially chased "The Divinyls", from one end of New South Wales to the other, they lifted up my downtrodden soul, Chrissie Amphlet could've had me on toast.)

When I first got back to Auz I worked for an exploration company in the Simpsons Desert and on a break in Adelaide I got to hear Dr. Helen Caldicott give her anti-nuclear rave and I got all worked up by her intelligent critique, for I'd been traumatized by images from the Hiroshima bombings as a child, then the Cuban Missile Crisis when I was 12 in 1962. I rushed over to Sydney to hear AC/DC play for free at Paddy’s Markets on New Years Eve, 1977, only about 500 fans showed up, and yes, I got to dance with Bon Scott. while he sang "It's a long way to the top...") I crash-landed at the Darlinghurst squats, liked what I saw of Sydney, the clear white light, the flowering into a global city, and the libertarians protesting all things politically nasty and resisting mindless, destructive consumerism.

I was at a punk party in ’78 when I heard some young musicians declare they’d one day be household names and lightning struck me, “That’s what I need, a household name!” This was the Punk era, when artists ripped off obvious tags like “Polly Styrene” and “Martin Plaza.” For my pen name it had to be quintessentially Australian, to do with sowing my wild oats, containing the Z factor. I noticed in a commercial on TV for a breakfast of champions the announcer slurred his "s" into "Z", thus I became Toby Zoates. As a send up of consumerism, like ad-busters today, I was excited by subvertizing, undermining the untruths of advertising, the cheesy plastic smiling sacred cow of consumer Utopianism but in reality where health, the environment, minority rights, often got trampled for the profits of a capitalist elite. A contradiction, I’m a zealous anti-brander while pushing my own brand-name, Toby Zoates.

I got involved in anti-uranium, anti-nuclear, Prisoners’ Rights, Women’s Rights, Koori Rights, Gay Rights, Housing, Environment, Unemployment, name the issue and I got marching, throwing gigs, pasting up posters, getting arrested for civil disobedience, making an absolute arse of myself. (I teamed up with libertarian activists like Wendy Bacon, Julie McCrossin, Chips McInolty, The Prisoners' Action Group and many others to do wildly funny stunts, eg. we rocked up at a Right to Lifers' Anti-abortion Rally, Wendy and co dressed as pregnant nuns, me dressed as a Catholic priest in a long black frock-coat. I had a jar full of Smarties but labelled it with "The Pill" and walked about handing them out to the Christian kids, who all stampeded to get to the lollies. When the Pro-lifers caught on to what was actually happening, they flipped and like a many headed-monster screamed, "Kill them! Kill the blasphemers!" The cops were called and they beat the shit out of us, before and after arresting us for "offensive behavior".

I guess it was just the brash, idealistic, hot-headed idiocy of youth that had me acting up, slashing Z like Zorro on all the walls of Sydney, but we got results, uranium/nuclear-waste was stopped from being shipped out of Sydney's port at White Bay, prisoners’ conditions improved, we saved some Heritage houses from demolition and we showed there was white Aussie support for Aboriginal rights.

My first poster was “Blood On the Streets” for the benefit gig to pay the fines of the White Bay anti-uranium rioters in 1977. (I paid "Mental as Anything" $50 to play and it was a big success. I paid them the same for the next fund-raiser at Paddington Town Hall that was a big flop, the Mentals giving me a hard time because too few punters showed up and the smoke-machine got out of control.) In 1978 I made my first fleuro poster “The Anti- Authoritarian Dance” at Balmain Town Hall, and the cops came to the door and really eye-balled me nastily for that one. In 1979 I couldn’t resist a poster on Kings Cross for Garibaldis Restaurant in Darlinghgurst: a caricature of Doris Fish in bright fleuros sunk in a field of heavy black, it matched the post-punk style in music and fashion of those days. It got me a lot of attention, even a mural job under the railway at Woolloomoollloo, and after that posters of heavy black with fleuro designs sprung up everywhere like mushrooms.

One day in 1978 an old man approached me in front of one of my wall-posters and told me I’d make a great animator. An epiphany hit me, what I’d searched for all these years, movie animation. His name was Eddie vander Madden and he had built an animation camera in his squat where I set to work on “The Thief of Sydney”. I researched techniques at the Auz Film + TV + Radio School and came across roto-scoping from some ‘60s genius in Canada. I shot a test real, as always paying for all my art materials from the dole, and showed it to the Aust Film Commission Creative Development Branch with a story board for the “The Thief” and they gave me $13000 to make it.

It took me 4 years and thousands of acetate cells, most of which I painted myself, to finish the 13 minute film. In the meantime I was my usual naïve, co-operative self and allowed a gang of young art school graduates to come into my studio while I was in the midst of production and peruse every square inch of what I was doing. Maybe I was a fool for letting them in the door but they stole everything, pre-empted the originality of the style by copying the technique and designs for their  shorter films; one of the arseholes named Hobart went to a record company with my test reel saying it was his and got a music clip job for the "Mentals", getting it out in six months and garnering a huge rep for it. He's lived off it ever since, telling lies that he started the animation studio, never even giving old Eddie his due. The way to get ahead in this world is to lie, cheat, steal and plagiarize! Oh the bastards, boo hoo hoo. Eventually they even took the camera but Eddie simply built me another one. "The Thief" got shown in 1985 at the Academy Twin Cinema in Paddington and got a thunderous applause so I ended up happy, for awhile.

 This plagiarism totally disheartened me, I saw the ruthlessness of the game, what people would do for fame, kudos, power and the money that hopefully then came, they’d betray their best friends, and especially a nobody fag like me from Melbourne. These people were the first in a long line of desperadoes in film and art I met along the way, who would kill for an Academy Award or that million dollars for their next grand masterpiece. I often got elements of my work plagiarized, then I was pushed out the way, excluded from the records, denied jobs, bad-mouthed and stabbed in the back, then thrown back in the gutter, all the trendy middle-people uncaring of my hard life and hopeless career prospects. I never went for the power to hand out the money or jobs, never pushed anyone out of the way, I swear I only tried to give, help, co-operate but I was the classic fool for I forgot I was operating in a capitalist, fame-whore world. Oh boo hoo hoo hoo hoo. Luckily, I’m a follower of Aesop, The Tortoise and the Hare, slow and steady wins the race, and here in 2012 I’m still alive and producing art, and am ecstatic at the roller-coaster ride of life.

I won prizes for my animation films, a Bronze Dragon in Krakow Poland and a Terracotta Garden Gnome in Lille, France. But I couldn’t skate the ice that is the film/art world, didn’t have the etiquette, the chutzpah, the thick skin, the ruthless ambition, the patient talent. And I didn’t like some of the people I had to deal with along the way, my "peers" with 7 cents worth of power, they defeated the good vibes from the few sweeties who helped me. Plus the workload was too demanding, 24/7, dedicating every waking hour with a possible gold statuette every twenty-one years to ease the pain, I’m too lazy, and love being a vagabond. I can write prose on the WEB and paint one-off pictures for those Underworld stories I’m dying to tell. Film-making became just another stage in my evolution, my “blue period" because it gave me the blues, boo hoo hoo.

My last animated film, “Virgin Beasts”, I premiered in 1992 with live rock bands at Jellyheads Punk Garage in Chippendale and the cops came to that gig too, in plain clothes Armani, scoping what kind of criminal I might be. Street people, the sub-cults like Goths, Punks, junkies and hustlers, all raised the roof with their enjoyment of the film, it was one of the best nights of my life. Also in 1992 I went up against Baz Lurhman’s “Strictly Ballroom” at the AFI’s Best Movie nominations with my “Virgin Beasts” and I was politely/grimly shown the back door, like, “Exit Through the Toilets” please Mr. TZ.

Everything went downhill from there, the wheel of Fortune turned, a cheeky boy like me couldn’t get away with always having a good time, bad luck struck. In 1993, just as I was submitting a new script for a very hot sci-fi road movie, “Lost on Purpose”, two cops grabbed me on Devonshire Street and accused me of robbing my local cake shop. They looked up my criminal record and noted the civil disobedience and trespass convictions, one of them for a house at the Rocks we fought to have preserved. This all marked me out as a likely lad to pin the crime on, especially as I lived in Northcott Place, a monolithic thieves’ kitchen according to the cops. They tortured me at Ultimo police station for hours, at one point asking me, “Who are you? What do you do?” I answered proudly, “I’m an artist” and one said, “No mate, you’re a bullshit artist. You’re a liar, a thief and a poofter and we hate all three.” I’m sure one of the cops was part of the crew that came to my gig at Jellyheads and looked upon me with jealousy and vengeance. Who was I, a smart-mouthed fag from the gutter, to big-note myself as a film-maker?

I was indicted for trial and kept under house arrest for 3 years in all, eventually being acquitted of the dumb crime on a case of mistaken identity but it broke my already cracked spirit, the art world in Australia was elitist and State sanctioned and too difficult to operate in, maybe not even worth cracking, and I just didn’t feel this convict/overseer/Master society needed any contribution from a flaky loser like me. As a gay, denied love, with no career of my choice and now a criminal, I had to have psychiatric intervention, I was suicidal, boo hoo hoo hoooo. I didn’t do much art-wise for years, I lay upon my bed depressed and dreaming, then Fortune smiled upon me again: in 1996, out of the blue, I got a phone call from France. I’d entered “Virgin Beasts” in a Trash Film festival competition there and they were flying me to Paris to participate. All my dreams come true, I was feted as the happening artist in the cafes of Montparnasse by astute, hard-nosed French Punks, and thank nogod I passed muster, I charmed the crowd with my larrikin nature, went up against six other nations and went on to be co-winner with Japan for best Trash Film in the World 1996; the Japanese film was soft/pink porn, done in a Zen style, hilarious and stunning. I won enough money to tour Amsterdam, Portugal and Morocco. How I danced a jig on that ferry that goes past the Rock of Gibraltar.

This trip opened my eyes, the bubble holding me inside Australia burst and I have been on the road ever since, around Australia and our immediate neighborhood of Asia. I’ve continued doing gigs, pasting up posters, painting dreams, telling stories, not worrying too much about garnering the cachet of the artist, eschewing power mongering, operating under the radar, being part of a continuing arts underground, not needing to sell-out for money as I went back to work as a nurse in many of the hospitals and nursing homes of Sydney, doing art in my spare time for the sheer exhilaration of invention. Nursing the dying is a great education, very humbling, I couldn’t think I was the best thing since Swiss cheese while I was cleaning up shit, piss and phlegm. And sitting with many as they die, I knew I wanted to fully live, jump into life with magnificent daring and panache, find much knowledge and bliss out on consciousness of this amazing universe.

I never wanted to be a political leader or govt bureaucrat, deciding who could advance up the pyramid of shit, nor an anthropologist studying the deviants, or a social worker helping the downtrodden masses, not even a revolutionary overturning an old Order. I only ever desired to be an artist envisioning my times. Screw high art, fuck fickle fame, damn conceptual wankers, stick it to power mongers and money grubbers, my art is about “living down here on the streets, to prove that I’m still alive, it’s a song of survival that cannot be beat, adversity just makes me thrive.”

If you enjoyed this story please go to the WEB address above and consider buying my book of tales about growing up anarcho-queer, rock and roll punter and mystic adventurer in Australia and India of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.