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An Odyssey in Brushstrokes

Internationally renowned, Jason Roberts is an Australian artist who has spent over thirty years travelling and painting. His work has exhibited in London, New York and Tokyo, and won consistent awards, with his clients including the Sultan of Oman and the Maharaja of Jodphur. Jason's finely honed realism results in sensitive and thoughtful artwork that captures the spirit of both its subject and creator.

Sketching Asterousia Mountain sheep, Crete, March 2017.

Can you tell us what drew you to art? How has your journey progressed over your career?

My father is an artist, and for thirty years was a secondary school art teacher - in fact, he was my art teacher in year 10-11. More than that, Dad was essentially my art tutor growing up, and for as long as I can remember I was always drawing and painting, and there was never any question that I would follow any other path. 

I sold my first drawings at 15, and had a printed series of Australian wildlife greeting cards at this point that stemmed from a work experience job in the Yarra Valley, where I grew up. My VCE was at RMIT, an Applied Art course, and from there I worked as an on-site artist at Expo 88’ in Brisbane, before spending two years back in Melbourne as a graphic artist/illustrator. Through this period I was developing my realist style for local exhibitions and competitions, with a focus on animals and wildlife painting. At 21 I left for London, where I spent the year under the patronage of an English family who had seen some of my work shortly after I arrived. They put me up in a cottage on their Surrey Estate and introduced me to a number of their wealthy and aristocratic friends who bought paintings from me. I visited their country properties, and in most cases painted animals for the family collections from their private menageries.

In 1992 I travelled to the US, and spent the rest of the decade, my 20’s, living and exhibiting across the United States, culminating in a prestigious group show in New York, and numerous important commissions. In 2001 I returned to Australia, and re-established myself in Melbourne, with annual solo exhibitions with the Collins Street Gallery. I  grew my international ties at this stage too, holding solo exhibitions in Tokyo and India, with subjects from my travels becoming increasingly important to me. 

I spent two years back in London in 2007-08, most of which was spent back and forth to the Middle East working on a very large commission of 40 paintings for the Sultan of Oman. The work was predominantly Omani landscapes and village scenes, with shepherds and camel herders also featured.

From this a new focus emerged for me, that of livestock and the animals people have domesticated over the centuries. In Australia this history was short, but I enjoyed researching and painting kelpies on sheep properties, and Australian stock horses and Murray grey cattle in the high country.

Throughout my career, my style has remained very much contemporary realism, but I have accrued a number of different themes in addition to wildlife and animals, including architecture, urban scenes and maritime subjects.

‘Kakadu’ Watercolour of plumed whistling ducks, Kakadu.

You’ve created many beautiful depictions of wildlife, architecture, people and landscapes. Is there anything in particular about a scene or subject that inspires you to paint it? 

The initial ‘spark’ for a painting varies enormously, it can be the beautiful sheen of a rooster’s feathers or an elegant pose struck by a horse. A particular love is depicting an animal in its natural environment. With wildlife, this might be a snow leopard in the harsh rocky terrain of the Himalayas, or a whistling duck in the Kakadu wetlands. With domestic animals this could be a packhorse on the docks in the port of Hydra, surrounded by centuries of stone villas and cobbled paths, or a bantam rooster scratching around the village houses in Indonesia.

In my work I’m attempting to faithfully capture a real moment I’ve experienced, and convey what I find beautiful or interesting about that scene to an audience who was not there to witness the subject themselves. In that sense I feel a great amount of responsibility to my subject, to depict it accurately and with respect, everything from a sheep on a hillside in Crete or Black Caviar racing at Royal Ascot, to the play of light on a Mughal fortress in Rajasthan or the colourful and frenetic layers of graffiti on a Melbourne laneway.

I do watercolour sketches from life as I travel, in which I’m quickly dashing down impressions of scenes, animals, people or buildings that strike me, and back in my studio, I use these sketches, as well as my own photographs and often historical research to produce a finished painting. 

‘Karakoula leading her goats’. Watercolour on Arches paper, 42x68cm, 2020.

In 2017 you partnered with AMALTHIA, a Greek organisation focused on the study and conservation of traditional Greek breeds of livestock. You embarked on a journey travelling across Greece and its islands, capturing these animals alongside rural life broadly. Can you tell us more about this partnership and the project? 

I approached Amalthia in late 2016, having become aware of their important work while researching Greek livestock which I had become increasingly interested in. I’d been painting Australian livestock for a number of years, most of which descends from imported English, French or Spanish breeds, and my interest turned to these animals’ more ancient origins.

Sketch from life of a Skyros Pony, Skyros, August 2017.

I proposed a project to Amalthia whereby I would travel to Greece to research and paint their traditional livestock, which is the most varied in Europe, both in numbers of breeds and habitat. My proposal was accepted and a few months later I arrived in Athens and began a sensational nine-month odyssey, in which I crisscrossed the mainland and islands of Greece for thousands of kilometres, gaining access to some of the most remote and breathtaking scenery I’ve experienced anywhere in the world.

I sketched as I travelled, and took photographs, and back in Melbourne I’ve produced a body of work documenting a number of these breeds in their environments, as well as individual illustrations of over fifty distinct breeds.

With the assistance of a grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, this work is to be exhibited in Athens in 2021, and will be published in a book to be distributed to schools throughout Greece, with the aim of alerting people to the importance of these Greek breeds, both culturally and genetically.

R: ‘Nagaur Dusk’, watercolour for Jason's 2011 exhibition in Rajasthan, a project developed with the Maharaja of Jodphur, for his Sufi Music Festival.

During the time you spent travelling around Greece, was there anything that surprised you or stayed with you?  

I could write a book on this question alone, in fact, I might one day, but I’ll try to be brief.

First and foremost what comes to mind when I look back is the generosity and good humour of the people I met in Greece, everyone from shepherds and goatherds, mastic and olive growers to professors, heads of companies and even members of parliament I travelled with. Economic times have been tough in Greece for a while, and in fact it became apparent that this has been the case for centuries to varying degrees, and yet the gracious hospitality I was shown at every step was really astonishing, and something I try to emulate now in my own life. 

Also, I was in awe of the self-sufficiency of so many people, to the point that I would sit down to bountiful plates of food in a farmer’s house and be informed that everything in front of me was produced on that property, from fruit and vegetables to the honey, eggs, olive oil and lamb. This happened time and time again, and it was a particularly fortunate trait at this time when wages and jobs had been slashed and so many young people were leaving Athens and Thessaloniki to return to their family homes in the regions and islands.

Mt Athos had a profound effect on me. It was like nowhere I’ve been on earth, and the sense of stepping back centuries was heightened every few days as I would walk kilometres between Monasteries through pristine wilderness, occasionally coming across the ruins of a chapel or farmhouse, or an ancient olive or fruit grove. The Monasteries themselves were rare glimpses at an ecclesiastical way of life lost in the rest of Europe, and as well as the intricate and exquisite religious architecture, I was fascinated by the utilitarian architecture of the docks, and the barns, aqueducts and mills - glorious remnants of the pre-modern age.

I touched on it, but I must revisit the food. I left Greece almost two years ago, but to this day I can’t roast potatoes without adding lashings of fresh lemon juice, in an attempt to recreate some of those flavours. Thankfully I can buy Cretan barley rusks at my local deli in Coburg for my weekend dakos, but I’ve long used-up the bottles of olive oil given to me as I travelled through Greece (and the home-brew retsina bottles are likewise long-gone...). I try to recreate the deceptively simple salads - topped with one glorious slab of feta, but am totally inadequate at cooking a descent mousaka. Happily, one sip of the mountain tea I keep tucked in my kitchen takes me back to a particularly remote stone house in the Rodopi Mountains which is dear to my heart. 

The COVID-19 crisis, unfortunately, led to the postponement of your exhibition “Origins: An Artist’s Journey Through the Heart of Greece” which was slated to open at the Melina Mercouri Cultural Centre in Athens earlier this year. How have you been managing the impact this year has had on the creative industries, including yours? 

It was a particularly astonishing week in early March when, in successive days, three exhibitions I had planned this year - one in Greece, two in Australia - were suddenly postponed for 12 months. Thankfully the loss of these prospective future sales was soon countered by the up-take in online sales, which has continued through the year, and actually resulted in one of my most successful years to date. 

Regarding lockdown, to be honest, as an artist much of my time is spent in isolation in my studio painting, and the reality of months of entirely uninterrupted painting time has been extremely productive and actually very welcomed. I know a number of artists who feel the same way, and while some income streams have been interrupted, the crucial time and isolation necessary to create is resulting in some amazing work across different fields - painting, music, jewellery, theatre and literature, and I really believe Australia, and the world, will be treated to a great flowering of the arts as life returns to normal and these works see the light of day. 

L-R: ‘Literature Lane’ - A recent (Lockdown) watercolour, part of Melbourne laneways series. Page from project book, "Greek Domestic Breeds - A Hidden Treasure" with Jason's Greek black pig illustration.

All images © Jason Roberts.

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