Dear Passionate Creatives,
There are two words that come to mind while I am interviewing celebrated Melbourne artist Anthony Breslin in his St Kilda home. They come to me while I’m researching his story… they’re with me when I meet him at his home and am witness to the way his physically debilitating struggles challenge simple movements…and they are with me when we are talking and I hear the confidence and assuredness that comes through in the tone of his voice as he unflinchingly shares his story…The two words that emerge loud and clear are Strength and Resilience. There is an unstoppable force in the spirit of this inspiring man. It’s an innate trait that has been with him for as long as he can remember. As a professional athlete, he’d achieve his personal best in competitions, lifting weights that he’d been challenged by during training, as an artist his drive, passion and love for community has seen him through impossible times. Overcoming leukemia just a few years ago has completely shifted the way he appreciates and values the enormity of what we all have to be grateful for in our day-to-day. For Anthony, there is no other way. A believer in Buddhist philosophy, he chooses to live his life with the greatest level of integrity for as long as he can. Being in service to his community and giving back through his creative work as an artist is what empowers him to make decisions in each moment that is going to enhance and extend his self-evolution. He is a firm believer of incarnation and as a result, is conscious of how our actions have the ability to support through love and surrender, rather than fight and be in struggle and conflict. It was a gift and honour to interview this amazing man. His fierce determination, compassion and heartfelt love are qualities that serve to inspire and remind us how in every single moment, regardless of what life throws our way, we are always free to choose how we allow those experiences to influence and shape who we wish to be…I hope you enjoy my interview with Anthony:
As a painter and creative artist, your visual sense is constantly being sharpened. Tell me how this comes to influence your work and the way you take in the world around you?
My creative process is so right brain. I just keep making things and when I do something new, it alludes to the next thing I’m going to make. The painting or the drawing or the idea, it tells me what to do. I’m just listening to the great Gods – I don’t feel like I own it. If someone says to me: I don’t like what you do, I don’t like your paintings, I don’t get offended because I feel that they’re not mine anyway…it belongs to the collective consciousness, and I’m just pulling bits out of that. There have been times where I’ve slashed huge pieces of work with a Stanley knife because don’t feel it’s working. People freak out and say: oh my god you’ve just spent so much time on that work and you just slashed it, but I slash it and start cutting out parts that do work and I use those pieces on other works. I recycle everything as much as I can.
There’s a strong tribal influence, both in your work as well as the decorative pieces that adorn your home. Where does this influence come from?
I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Africa, I was traveling there for 9 months, hitchhiking around on my own. I’d always wanted to go to Africa and how I got there was pretty bizarre because I won on a television show and I got given a prize to go to Africa. I could not believe that that was the prize! I didn’t come back for a long time. I was away for over two years on that trip. The African visual culture really affected me, I really got into it and it had always been something I was drawn to. I have quite old and rare antique masks all over my home. I find the masks really powerful imagery and that heavily influences what I do, as well as America Indian culture, the feathers etc, they feature a lot in my work
You have such a strong and rich narrative that comes through your work. How did you develop your voice in your creative practice?
A lot of people tell me I have a really unique style that’s different to everyone else. And I like hearing that, it’s great but I didn’t plan it. Through art school, I developed a style that became my own and within that style, I do a broad range of work. What emerges in the work I create is something that still baffles me as well. There’s no logic to what I do. I entered my work years ago in the first Affordable Art Fair in Melbourne, which came from New York. Something told me I just had to get into that fair and have my work seen on a large scale. A couple of major collectors were there and one of them has become a close ongoing father figure to me and he just fell in love with my work and he owned some really impressive works of art – James Gleeson’s and Brett Whitely’s- – he’s got a huge, amazing collection, but he fell in love with the rawness of my work, it really resonated for him and he started collecting my work and other people like him, followed. They started collecting my work not because it was in vogue or anything. But other peoples impressions of my work helped me form my own dialogue around it – sometimes that happens because you’re working in a bubble and you don’t know how what you create is going to relate to people.
You have a determined resilience about you Anthony – both with your own journey battling cancer and with regards to personal projects. I’m thinking of when you were in the midst of renovations with the church a few years ago and your hard labour turning to ash when a big part of the renovations got burnt and you starting from scratch. Where does that resilience come from?
It’s hard for me to see me, so I have to go back to what other people say. People around me, see me as incredibly resilient. But I’m very internally driven and that’s been the greatest saving thing for me till this point. I don’t need someone to motivate me. I’ll drag myself over hot coals where no one will see it. I don’t need an audience. With the fire, that was extremely challenging and broke me to a degree. I had $380,000 worth of damage, I was already in massive debt doing this building, I’d mortgaged my fathers house – he really supported my work and wanted me to do this, but then I was stuck with a building that I can’t sell, cause it’s all burnt out and my fathers house was getting swallowed up by the bank and it seemed like an impossible situation to get out of and it was – on paper. I took the bank to court, which was on the one had a stupid thing to do and on the other, I had no other option. That was tough because they did everything in their power to send me bankrupt. But I had incredible support, people rallied, we had a huge street festival, people came on board and offered their services for free to create that. In a single day, we raised $22,000. I was overwhelmed at the support. I’ve always done a lot of work raising money for charity and causes I feel strongly about and since I’ve been through what I’ve been through, it’s even more important for me to do work that is meaningful and to support others as much as I can. Otherwise, what’s the point?
You said something interesting in an interview I read, in reference to your own battle with cancer and those who win or lose the battle, you said: It’s how you die that makes you a winner, I’d love for you to share a little more on what you meant by that
There’s a lot of people that think if you die of cancer you lose and if you survive, you win. I don’t agree with that. I think there are greater forces at play and if the Gods want you, they’ll take you. There have been multiple times since overcoming leukemia that I’ve come close to dying. I’m really conscious of the fact I have one foot in this world and one foot out. Grappling onto things in this world and being attached to them for me, is not the way to go. I try and practice surrendering. That’s a huge part of my meditation practice – especially when I am physically experiencing a bad day, I have to surrender to that experience because there’s no other option. The more I surrender, the better option I have of being at peace. I don’t claim to have any answers, I’m at the bottom of the heap, but being sick and getting cancer it changes you, you can’t avoid it. In order to deal with that, your mind goes into different places. It has to search for places to find peace, in a desperate way. It’s a lot easier to be new age and spiritual when you’re well – to spout philosophies etc. When you’re being tested, that’s when you have to dig deep.
Do you feel there are two different Anthony’s post and pre cancer – how do you feel this experience has come to shape your work?
In some ways, it’s become lighter. I created a children’s book when I was on death’s door, I could hardly walk, my sister had to take me in and nurse me for 5 months and it was during this time I was creating the book. Yet, the children’s book is funny, all the stories have moral messages to them, they’re all rhyming and kooky. You wouldn’t read the book and think: this guy’s been through hell. I was doing more confronting things before I got cancer – very brooding, dark work.
Who have been the biggest influences in your life in terms of your career and the way you approach your work?
There are lots and you always find new things that inspire you all the time. When I was at art school I was in love with Frances Bacon. I love his work – it’s powerful. I love a lot of the Australian painters – Brett Whitely and James Gleeson. I’ve also been influenced by artists that have nothing to do with my work – like Robert Morris who was a minimalist sculptor. I loved the philosophy that the minimalist artists were creating, and how they were illustrating the viewer through what they work creating. I thought that was really fascinating. The concept behind my work with the opera was how to engage an audience through the act of creation. The creation was being performed live and the person creating it – me, created a different piece every night. It was a different experience for the audience. It was an exhausting experience. When you’re exhausted creatively, you’re more emotional, the barrier drops. People that really inspired this kind of live performance for me were people like Mathew Barney who created the drawing restraint – he was an ex sportsman turned artist. He’d tie himself up to a rubber restraint and he’d run at the wall, and make a mark on it before he’d be flung back by the restraint he was harnessed to. He’d make an entire piece in this process. I loved it because I thought: that’s the artist as an athlete. It appealed to me because I was an athlete, I was a weight lifter, I played football for Victoria, I was an unstoppable machine before I got sick. I often wonder if the Gods bestowed this on me for a reason, as a way to finally make me stop.
What has been the greatest reward in pursuing your passion?
Well, what else am I going to do? I want to try and do something useful. This current mural I’m working on is a community project, and these are the projects that tend to drive me the most. I can’t lie around in bed. It’d be easy for me to do that because of the amount of pain I’m in and how hard it is for me to do things, but I just keep going. Even on my worse days, I tell myself: you can do it…and this is what helps me keep moving. Out of all the sports I did, Power Lifting to me had the most mental discipline. I competed in two Power Lifting competitions. I won the first one, and I qualified for the nationals in two weight divisions. Every lift I did in those two competitions, I achieved my personal best. My training partner was stronger than I was and would out lift me in the gym, but in the competitions, I would stand under the squat rack and I would move a weight I hadn’t and couldn’t move before. I did it six times in a row, with bench press, squatting and deadlifting and achieved my personal best in every lift. I always look back at that and realize that it has helped me so much with my current circumstances. How powerful that mental discipline is in creating a picture and not stopping yourself from trying something just because you’ve never done it before. If you think about it too much, then you start telling yourself that you’ll never do it. That was a real opener to the power of the mind over the body for me because I lived that experience and I can always refer back to it.
For more information on Anthony’s work, click HERE
Happy Travels, Paula x