Interview: Max Watters

"This house is gone.

 A lot of these are the early settlers’ houses and little by little they’re dying out. I want to interpret it like a graveyard and as I’m working on it the house is gone and all that’s left is the power pole and fence post - like tombstones. What I’m saying is, that’s the end of its life. The building is an alien object in the environment and eventually the environment will take back over. I reckon each one’s got its own character and you let ‘em go. Bugger ‘em! Some of it’s come from my figures and faces. To me the building represents the people that built it. That’s why I like to do a lot of the windows dark because it looks like eyes. And it’s the same with this house - this is our family home and my brother was going to take the old fire place out and I said, no - mum looked after seven kids in this home. So it’s staying.

That old home’s gone now too. It’s one of the original homes out Castlerock area where people were living. They reckon inside that house - because it was so cold - they had newspaper glued on the walls. It’s another part of life.

When I was a kid I used to draw doodles; funny little shapes. I would just muck around drawing them and little by little I started to scribble and do people. I had an art teacher at school and he was telling me what colours you should use or not use. Blue and green should never be seen, he would say. Or black and white are not colours. And I thought, bugger him; why tell me what colours I can use? So I took Agriculture. My scribbles turned into portraits and figures. And then there were some geometrical ones of buildings coloured-in. Then I decided to go out in the bush and I did this painting out at McCulley’s gap. The one the judge gave me a prize for.

The best advice I got was when I won that prize I went to the judge and said, I want to paint landscapes so I’ll go and learn landscape painting. He said, no you don’t, you just paint and learn yourself; just keep doing what you’re doing. And I’ve found that little by little things happen that you’ll know when to develop or keep this or that. And that’s what happens, you start developing. When you look at my early work it’s just flat colours and then little by little, accidentally something happened. I came back and looked at it and I had a texture going through a part of it and I thought, hang on a minute - I’ll develop that. But it’s what you want to make of it for christ’s sake. And you just play around with it and as you develop, if something happens that’s an asset - you run with it. If you put the wrong colour on, it dries and then you paint over the bastard. I do what I want to do and I keep developing what I want to develop and bugger the lot of them. You be true to yourself and muck around.
And that’s what I try to tell all the groups [Max organises amateur painting groups throughout the Hunter Valley]. That’s what it’s about - being true to yourself. Even with little kids some are really powerful with colours some are very subtle - let ‘em go! If they want to do a zebra green and yellow, you don’t stop ‘em. It’s their zebra! You’ve gotta be true to what you see.

I have a lot of fun with them. I was up at the nursing home the other day and one of the ladies said, what do you think of my painting? I said, I liked it before you put the paint on! I’m not worried about if people want to carry on with art or not as long as they’ve used their creativity. A lot of them have had to slug their guts out on a property and they’ve never had the chance, you know. I’ve got groups of kids and I run a group at the old people’s home. One of them was giving me cheek the other day and I said, keep that up and they’ll put you in a home! “I’m in a home already!!” she says. I have fun with them.

What I was doing for years with a friend of mine was, we’d go out and he’d take photographs while I sketched the place. And then later on I had to have a heart valve replacement, a metal valve put in and then I’ve had a pacemaker because my heart stopped for three seconds and then I had it replaced again. The doctor said to me - what brand do you want? I said, the same as last time - I know it bloody works! I mean for gods sake! So now I have someone take photographs for me and I work from photographs. The chap that does these for me, he and his wife go out and they come across old homes. He brings me the photographs and I decide which ones to use and if I want all that in or what I might leave out. I draft them out directly on the masonite in pencil just to see how they sit and then it’s up to me to work on them. I’ve always painted on masonite. I’m a bit sceptical of using canvas because if you paint on canvas and if anything falls on it or marks it you’ve gotta repair it. I can repair that, you see, as I go. Once you draft it out and you look at it and you think I’m going to put this here or wipe that out.

I’ve kept to this size [60 x 91 cm], it gives more scope. I try to make the colours of the landscape harmonise so that the building will settle into it. I don’t want to do it exactly like what’s out there. I might move a few trees. I’m not there to paint an exactly photographic version of it. It’s my interpretation.You can see it when you draft it out; you start to put the basic colours on and you can start to see what you want to do with it then. Bit by bit. You just sneak up on it. Russell brings in this picture and you draft them out and you work out where you want the building and if they start harmonising with the mountains and that, well - off you go. Then I’ll just sneak up on it mate. Little by little.

There’s one in there I wasn’t going to do: an old building - nearly fallen over. It had strips like that in grass and fields. I was a bit dicey about doing it. What makes my work is the uprights and the sweeps of the valley. I don’t usually run with flat landscapes so I thought, no bloody way! But then I thought about it. I like that the building’s life is over. Years ago I wouldn’t even have considered it. But bugger it. It’s there like that - they’ll have it! 

A friend of mine that I had invited to see my work in the Muswellbrook gallery before it went to Sydney, she said, I don’t like what he does. I said, you tell her: as long as I do, I don’t care. And by the way I’m glad I know that because I was thinking of giving her one for Christmas. And she said, oh well actually not all his work. No no no, I said, I’d hate her to live with something she didn’t like. No, if they want to sling mud - give it back! No, stuff ‘em. Don’t play games with them. People who say “I don’t like that”  - stuff ’em! They’re bloody mad! Any form of culture - I don’t care what it is - it’s creativity. And that’s what I like to see when the young kids get involved because playing video games, it’s only visual. It’s not creative. I want to see them use their creativity. 

We all left school at 15 and we all got jobs. I was an apprentice fitter. When we were eighteen we each got a second hand pushbike and we thought it was Christmas. The boss of the metalworks wanted me down working on the Manly ferries. I said no. So when my apprenticeship was up, my job was up. I was off work for a week and the bloke across the road worked underground with pit ponies and he said to dad, would Max like a job underground?  I said yes, a job’s a job. When we closed the pit down the coal company manager had the horses put out on properties to finish their lives. Other mines, they just shot them.

Someone said to me, have you ever thought of going somewhere? And I said, is it out of Muswellbrook? No - I’m happy with what I’ve got." 

These are edited notes from a conversation I had with Max at his home in Muswellbrook on 10th February 2017. Many of the works we discussed are his new works; still in progress, one of which is pictured above in his kitchen. Photographs ear by me. All other images are by Max Watters from Watters Gallery and are, in order:

Early shop, Main Camp, Upper Rouchel,   2012 - oil on board - 65 x 84.5cm
House on the back road to Merriwa 2015 - oil on board - 60 x 91cm
Back and Side view, Garland's oil on board - 60.5 x 78cm
Side View Old Dairy 'Tallamurra', Kayuga  2008 -  oil on board - 60.5 x 78cm
Machinery shed, 'Woodland Grove' Wybong 2008 - oil on board - 60 x 97cm

I have written previously about Max here.

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