By Brett de Hoedt.
The best thing for me about being a journalist was the access it provided to people, places and institutions that are generally roped off.
I was an inexperienced but damn hungry journalist back in the late 1990s working for a free (albeit glossy) magazine The Melbourne Weekly when I got access to the late artist Jeffrey Smart.
My overburdened deputy editor announced that he was too busy to keep his interview appointment.
“Oh God – I have to interview Jeffrey Smart. I don’t want to go.”
I heard opportunity’s knock and answered it. After all; I was prepped, having recently read most of a weekend magazine article about Australian ex-pats living in Tuscany in which Smart was mentioned. I had viewed just enough of his highly distinctive work to recognise it unaided. No fruit, no flowers, no plump naked ladies – I got it. I felt I knew enough to plumb Smart’s depths and write a piece thick with insights. I was clearly the man for this task.
My boss was taken aback by my enthusiasm and satisfied with my rapidly presented factoids: Adelaide-born, Tuscan-based, homosexual, old, urbane. I knew it all, got the gig and hopped the tram to the Arts Centre where I met Smart and his part-time Australian promoter / archivist / webmaster.
I cannot recall the second man’s name but Smart was clearly grateful for his contribution to the construction of his reputation. “He’s a real estate agent, of all things and he understands websites,” explained Smart bemused at the breadth of the man’s talent.
Smart seemed bemused with life generally. He was more than generous when I declared my lack of formal (or informal) art training. “Self-education is often far superior,” he said. Having acquired no formal education since, I’ve quoted this wisdom this many times and for that alone I owe Smart a thankyou.
Walking slowly though the Centre, he provided a one-to-one tour of his works. He never rushed, nor gushed and certainly never waxed about any “need to paint”. He seemed to be assessing how his works had held up since their conception. I mainly tried not to say dumb things.
In the foyer outside the Fairfax Studio hung (and still hangs) a multi-panel landscape of a freight train pulling through a scrubby bush setting: Container Train In Landscape.
A decade earlier I’d sat in that foyer digging the scene with friends as a precocious teenager enjoying live late-night jazz. I always felt that I understood the painting more than the music. Now the artist was talking me through his process.
He was devoid of pretension and repeatedly asked me for my (worthless) opinions which I readily provided. For an ambitious boy from suburban Melbourne with creative tendencies this was living. He was Whitlamesque; charming, worldly and charismatic, though with less of the ego. He was, in the American sense of the word: classy.
My regard for Smart doubled; quadrupled. So too my knowledge of the artist – admittedly from a very low base.
Vale Jeffrey Smart.