SITTING IN UNCERTAINTY WITH PAINTER FELIX ATKINSON
CH-V CHATS WITH ARTIST FELIX ATKINSON.
Born in Margaret River and raised in Thailand, Felix Atkinson is an artist living and working in Naarm/Melbourne. Felix’s figurative-based paintings are created through personal experience and informed by being with others in the world, capturing an emotional range that is not always definable yet intuitive and deeply felt.
CH-VOID chats with the painter about his inspiration and process, the following transcript has been condensed for clarity.
Why and when did you start your creative journey?
When I was 22, I traveled to Europe for the first time and there was a particular experience that irrevocably changed me. It was a Sunday afternoon and I had spent the night before at a rave with no sleep. On the journey home, I ended up lost and found myself at the Tate in London, stumbling across a painter whose work I had never seen before, Francis Bacon.
I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but I knew that it moved something inside me. That night I couldn’t stop thinking about Bacon’s paintings. The pain and hurt of life, both in my own and in his, was something I felt so intensely in the work. And as ugly as it was, it was also incredibly undeniably beautiful.
I went back the next day, and then the day after. And after my fourth visit, I left the gallery and realised that painting was something I had to do.
I returned back to Australia and completed my legal education. I was a junior solicitor, enjoying the constant challenge and pressure of that legal environment. But something was missing. Something I couldn’t quite place my finger on. All I knew was that I was deeply unhappy and unfulfilled.
And so I made the seemingly-overnight-yet-months-in-the-making decision to quit being a lawyer and to start teaching myself to paint. I made that decision every day and I still do today: to be an artist. There were days where I felt like it was a completely stupid decision, considered I spent years working towards a profession that I was successful in, by objective standards. But most of the time, I realised it was the truest way for me to live, and also the most honest. In the beginning, there were bouts of imposter syndrome. I painted my tiny bedroom for years and didn’t go to art school, didn’t feel like I had the proper background (forgetting all about that little thing called life experience). But over time I came to learn that the only real mark of authenticity is what you do with what you have and your positive attitude towards your own situation. You are an artist already, the studio and the opportunities just come later.
‘shakedown, 1979’ Felix Atkinson (2020)
Can you describe the emotion of your art?
I often think about the song “1979” by the Smashing Pumpkins. That floating guitar at the start seems to hold all the wistfulness, sadness, hope and redemption of nostalgia and memory that I try to get across in my own work. 1979 puts together a cluster of images that was more about an undefined feeling than a message. And in my own paintings, perhaps I ask, “You know this feeling?” hoping that the answer is, “I do, tell me more.”
How has creative expression allowed you to survive/thrive?
In painting, you are constantly in a space of uncertainty. What painting has taught me is that rather than skill or technical ability, it is to respect that uncertainty because it is a place where you will learn and grow the most. When all your prospects go out the window and dwindle into nothing, there is a moment of great freedom. The freedom of starting again. That is when a new voice or a new language can form in the work. It is your voice that is more important than anything else in that moment.
Creative expression really has taught me so much about myself and about how to be. It allows me to practice being completely present. There’s no other way to describe the act of painting, and regardless of the outcome, good painting for me is when you are completely present with what you are doing and how you are feeling. To be patient and kind to yourself, and to listen to yourself. And that’s carried on into other aspects of my life.
How do you get into your creative workflow?
Experience means understanding what you need to function as an artist, and that also means reconciling your own nature. As a night owl, I start painting after dinner and work into the early hours of the morning until the painting is finished for the night. Remember what Pollock said when asked how he knew a painting is finished? “Well, how do you know when you’ve finished making love?
I put the exact same clothes on (including my favourite exxy hoodie) and I open a bottle of wine and smoke some cigarettes and just sit down and get to work. Sometimes I am affected by a film I’ve seen earlier in the day or a song I’ve just listened to. Other times I’m feeling terrible so I gotta get in the studio. And if it’s going really well, it’s 3am and the second bottle is open and I feel really at peace. And If it’s not, that’s okay, there’s always tomorrow. Any painting that is lost isn’t really lost, it just becomes another lesson. All you need is the courage to stand up and continue working.
Creative inspiration is an interesting one. It’s a bit of a con if you ask me. I am reminded of that saying from Chuck Close: “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work.” And that’s honestly the only way I’ve managed to continue painting in the face of many things we all go through. You will go through a loss of self-belief, conviction that your self-expression is valid or worthwhile. There will be many crises of confidence. You forget to trust yourself. You tell yourself whatever you had is now gone, forgetting the simple-and-therefore-easy-to-forget truth that what you have is now something to be lost and found, but something that was and is always there. And it doesn’t go away, the signal just gets lost sometimes.
What do you hope the observer absorbs from your art?
What is important to me is to create paintings that are honest, intimate and deeply rooted in both the past and the present. I hope that there is a degree of sensitivity contained within the paintings that allows space for the viewer to connect on whatever terms they feel. I’ve had people come up and tell me that my paintings reminded them of a difficult time in their life, of mental health issues, the death of a love one, mourning of a childhood lost forever. And I’ve had people tell me those exact same paintings remind them of falling in love, feeling connected to others and to nature and to themselves. So that balance of light and dark co-existing in the paintings and therefore in ourselves, I really love.