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5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist, With Deborah Halpern

I had the pleasure of interviewing Deborah Halpern, one of Australia’s best known and most beloved artists, whose work has featured in exhibitions around the world, including in England, Japan, China, and the US. Her trailblazing sculpture Angel was commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria and the Australian Bicentennial Authority, and stood in the NGV moat for 17 years before being moved to its current location on the banks of the Yarra River at Birrarung Marr. In 1996, Deborah’s sculpture Ophelia was chosen as the official “Face of Melbourne”, and this already iconic and beloved sculpture became the symbol of a city, further cementing Halpern’s place as an international artist of influence.

Thank you so much for joining us. What is your “backstory”?

I grew up in Warrandyte, a small village on the Yarra River, in Victoria, Australia, known for its community of creative people — painters, sculptors, potters, writers, actors, architects. My parents made their living making and selling their pottery, and were two of the founding members of Potters Cottage, a well-known destination selling pottery and paintings, with a cafe. Later a school and restaurant were added.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

In 1987 I was commissioned to make a sculpture for the moat of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne. The monumental sculpture — Angel — was installed in 1989. I was still a youngish artist. People knew my work but my face was not so well known. After the launch of the sculpture a photographer was taking a photo of the sculpture in the evening light. I was looking at the work too, relieved and happy to see her (Angel) finally installed and well-received. Spontaneously I went up to the photographer and said “I made that.” He said, dismissively, “Yeah, right!” I thought that was funny. Who did he think had made the work? What did they look like? Obviously not me!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I am working on a project to create a sculpture to celebrate the interrelatedness between the land and the sea, at the beautiful Whitsundays, Queensland. I am also creating a large kinetic sculpture for inclusion in the Sculpture By The Sea exhibition in Bondi, Sydney, New South Wales.

I am collaborating with a community in Regional Victoria creating a series of sculptures to celebrate their community and their place. I am establishing an entrepreneurial studio, gallery, and work-space, also in Regional Victoria to provide opportunities for people to explore and create their own creative futures.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

I have worked alongside poet, artist, and cultural commentator, Michael Leunig whilst making prints — etchings and screen prints. I learnt from Michael how to be more exploratory and risk-taking in my creative process.

Early in my career I travelled in Europe looking for Outsider Artists. I met many and experienced people living fully creative lives with no concern for exhibiting nor selling their work — very liberating!

I have had conversations with philanthropic property developers (and supporters of the arts) John and Pauline Gandel as they were creating their wonderful sculpture park at Point Leo Estate on Victoria’s magical Mornington Peninsula. I was installing my sculpture, “Portal to Another Time and Place”, and they were discussing the sculptures in their collection. It is truly a sculpture park for future generations.

Where do you draw inspiration from? Can you share a story about that?

I draw inspiration from the natural world and from artists past and present. I have sculptures in my mind which I want to see in my lifetime, and this means I have to make them!

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I have worked with women who are survivors of child trafficking in Nepal, providing education and training for their future lives. I have raised funds for The Hunger Project, an organisation committed to ending chronic, persistent hunger. I contribute to Animals Asia to save the moon bears from miserable lives of torture having their bile extracted for no good purpose. I contribute to Amnesty, Unicef, and many other, and along with my business partner Jon Michail have recently launched the Art for Good Foundation (AFG). The foundation’s purpose is to collaborate with communities, government, and enterprise, and to create transformative art projects that will sustainably impact Australia and our world. Our job, if we can, is to make a difference for good in our lifetime.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. Don’t compare yourself to other people. I gave up art at school when I was 15 because I Iooked at the work of other students and thought they were more talented than I was.

2. Take risks and go for it and be willing to fail. Playing safe will get you nowhere.

3. Share your ideas with everyone, especially people doing things which inspire you or people in positions of power. Don’t let fear stop you.

4. Learn from the people you admire. Send letters, make phone calls, ask for advice or help. Be audacious. Don’t play small. Play big.

5. Travel to the places and people who inspire you. Say yes without knowing how.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Christo and the late Jeanne-Claude. Artists who earned fame for their wrapping buildings, headlands, the natural world. I would love to ask them about their lives and their approach to creativity.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Readers can follow me via my website: deborahhalpern.com, or find me on Instagram @deborahhalpern.

A Day with Deborah Halpern

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