Interview with Peter Churcher, official war artist
Peter Churcher talks with Claire Baddeley
Claire Baddeley interviewed official artist, Peter Churcher, on 28th March 2002.
In November 2001 the Australian War Memorial began to investigate the possibility of commissioning an official war artist to record Australia's involvement in the war against terrorism. In January 2002 the Victorian based artist Peter Churcher was appointed by the War Memorial. Peter was selected as an official war artist due to the range, diversity, directness and quiet power of his works. An artist who could record and document a variety of images including portraits, figure studies, still life's and occasional landscapes was also considered the most suitable choice for the appointment of a war artist.
Baddeley – So Peter, could you please tell me about your response upon hearing that you had been selected as an official war artist?
Churcher – Well, it came as a complete surprise. I knew that there was a war artist program and I guess I knew that there was this war against terrorism going on, but I didn't put the two together. So when I got the phone call from my dealer telling me that the War Memorial had been speaking to her about it, it knocked me for six and I really had to think about it and I said to Lorraine "gee, I'll have to sleep on that one overnight and have a think about it."
Baddeley – What were your expectations about being an official war artist and what did you hope to experience or achieve as a result of this commission?
Churcher – I know that, that's what I had to sleep on because it wasn't that I had any ideas against going, it was simply, was I able, as an artist, to do what the War Memorial was expecting of me. Because I didn't want to undertake a commission, where I felt I was going to have to do work, that I didn't feel I could happily do. I didn't feel that was going to do me any service, nor the War Memorial. So I had a think about it overnight and the next day I suddenly realised that some of my best work is done when I'm very pressured for time and I have to work very quickly and on the spot. I thought if I could work in that way it would be really great, so that's when I went back to my dealer, Lorraine, and said this is how I'd like to do it. I'm not sure if that's what the War Memorial have in mind. Because at the time I was thinking that, I guess I had this idea in my mind, that say one or two very large-scale grand battle pictures so to speak. I guess that was kind of my conception of war paintings and I knew that that was the sort of thing that I couldn't or wouldn't do. So I came back with the suggestion that if I could work on the spot and work on different images, that they would find that very useful and it'd be a great experience to do it.
Baddeley – So what was the final deciding factor when you decided to say yes to the commission?
Churcher – It was basically when I heard back from the War Memorial that they thought that that sounded really good to them and they were happy for me to do it. That's what happened, yeah, that's when I firmly made the decision that it was well worth doing.
Baddeley – OK, great. Did you feel your role as a war artist was to, I mean you've touched on this, if you'd like to expand on it a bit further, did you feel your role as a war artist was to record and document in a formal manner for example Australia's involvement in the War against Terrorism or to present your more personal interpretation of Australia's war against terrorism.
Churcher – Yeah, you know, I wanted to approach it in a more personal way. I'm not a very political person, I didn't want to try and comment in any obvious way on the war, it's pros, its cons, in my art. At least I didn't want to undertake or assume this responsibility when I left. I was quite prepared to have strong feelings about what I might see and I was fully expecting that to come into my art but I didn't want to go with this idea that I had to somehow present a certain picture so to speak or a certain sort of idea of the war but I quickly realised that that wasn't what was being asked of me and I quickly realised that it was really about my personal response and how that gets recorded into my pictures, that the War Memorial was after.
Baddeley – So you feel even though that it was a commission as such which in this day and age is quite rare for artists other than say for example formal portraits to be commissioned that there was still a fair amount of flexibility and freedom within that commission to interpret Australia's war against terrorism from your own perspective.
Churcher – Yeah, I thought it was a totally unrestricting sort of commission in that sense
Baddeley – So you spent time, during your commission you spent time with both the Royal Australian Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force so I'd like to ask you what were your perceptions of the Australian Defence Forces before your commission and how did your perceptions change during or after your commission, if they did at all, and how and why did they change?
Churcher – I've had very little experience with the armed forces prior to doing this. I guess I didn't have much of a preconceived notion. I was expecting a much more sort of macho, you know, boys-y kind of environment, when in fact I got there I realised that, well, there's quite a considerable female element in the army and in the navy and the army and the air force these days and there's certainly a whole different ethos that exists in the armed forces, that I'm not a part of, but it wasn't as low-brow and as macho as I was fearing it might have been. I was pleasantly surprised by the gentlemanly behaviour of many of the people on the ship.
Baddeley – So you felt in a way that your experiences with the Defence Forces that what they actually do and undertake for example in the Navy and the Gulf and the RAAF on Diego Garcia that the actual aspects of their work is far more sophisticated and more complex and more intelligent than we may be led to believe, say for example, in the media or what we read or something like that, and you were able to experience some of that?
Churcher – Yeah and I was, I got a really good sense that you know people have very specific roles to play, you know. Someone might be very skilled at reading radio messages or radar and this is their specialty and they work in the operations room and they have a great deal of responsibility and then there's another person who knows how to fix an F18 fighter plane if it breaks down and that, obviously, is a very involved business as well and that the whole thing works as a result of the group efforts of all these people working together and I guess that was something that I learnt in this experience rather than the idea of the gun-slinging dumb soldier who is just sent off into battle. I didn't meet many people like that at all really.
Baddeley – Oh that's good to hear. So some of those aspects that you just mentioned, you were able to capture those in your art images too? Aspects of those?
Churcher – Yeah, I tried to. I tried, particularly like in the little portraits that I was doing. I was trying to focus particularly on the lower ranks, you know like a messman on the ship whose job is to peel the potatoes and stir the stew that's been cooked for that night's dinner. Or the girl who works basically at the desk with the Air Force and is responsible for all the administrative aspects of these peoples lives, you know, making sure their mail comes in on time, if a washing machine breaks down she knows how to get it fixed and these people are terribly important and everyone relies on them and I just wanted to sort of honour them by doing paintings of them.
Baddeley – So, I mean you've touched on this a bit too so as an official war artist with both the Navy and the RAAF, how were you treated and how did people respond to you as an artist in amongst that sort of environment?
Churcher – Well, initially, when I got on the ship I got the feeling a little bit from some people you know a few sideward glances that suggested maybe that there was a little bit of suspicion given that they're in the serious business of war and suddenly there's this sort of puncy artist is on the ship and he's walking around with a palate and so-forth and there's that feeling of; "Is this just going to be a big waste of time? Is this artist just going to disassociate himself from us and just do this stuff and get in our way and so forth?" I mean this is just a perception on my part and it could be quite untrue but the first morning I started working, the next day I was doing this painting in the hangar and it involved lots of people in the painting. I was painting this picture over a three hour period, everyone on the ship was fascinated to see what this artist was able to do so they're all coming up to me. So constantly throughout that three hours I would have had anywhere up to six or seven people huddled around me at the time a was painting and a lot of them, they thought it was quite magical what I was doing, they were in awe of what I was doing. Here were people that they knew, they were their mates and I was sort of getting their likenesses down very quickly. They suddenly realised that I could do my job like they can do their job and I think I earned a respect from them pretty quickly and from that point on they treated me with you know great respect. I would often be in the situations when I was getting in their way, like I was doing this painting in the engine room, I set my easel up in this little sort of passage way, two and a half feet across you know. I'd be painting away and something would go wrong with the engines and these three guys are like rushing up and down trying to tend to it, having to sort of snake their way around my easel.
Baddeley – But they've still allowed you to stay there and witness that event?
Churcher – Yeah, but there was never any gruffness or impatience with me or you know "get out of my road" or you know, there was none of that sort of feeling. On the contrary I'd be more apologetic and I'd be saying "oh, sorry I'm in your way" and they'd be saying 'oh,not at all, don't worry'. So I was given this feeling that I was important, that if I chose. There was another painting I was doing, I set up an easel on the top deck to paint these three army guys watching one of the missile launchers and unbeknownst to me I was standing in the middle of this radioactive field, with all these radars around me and someone, I had only been working for about ten minutes, long enough to get the picture started in any case and someone came up and said "you can't work there because of the radioactive waves and stuff" and I was a bit concerned about this, I don't want to stand in a radioactive area. Rather than just telling me "get out of that area" they actually switched off all the radars so I could continue work there and I thought that was very nice of them because they were potentially put their ship at some sort of risk by shutting down quite a bit of their radio intelligence but they obviously realised or felt it was important for me to continue working there and were just trying to sort of work around me.
Baddeley – Well that's good to hear. So you've mentioned some of the, for example, the situations and places that you witnessed while you were with the Navy but as a painter how did you actually decide what to paint and draw when you're both with the Navy and with the RAAF?
Churcher – Sorry, how did I…?
Baddeley – How did you decide what to paint and draw? For example were there particular individuals or situations or rooms that stood out that you really wanted to capture?
Churcher – Yeah, well I guess I was expecting, or in the perfect world, I was expecting to see this ship say and go "wow, this is amazing and let me start painting straight away" but of course that didn't happen. I actually got on the ship and I had this slightly sinking feeling like "is that it?" and "how the hell am I going to paint for three weeks here" and everything seemed so grey, everything was painted battleship grey, everyone was dressed in grey overalls. There was something a little bit seemed to be drab or uneventful or something and then I started painting, I got up the next morning, I said "well clearly I've got to get started to work" so I started the next morning, did this painting up on the observation deck and I never looked back after that and then it starting revealing itself to me and within the matter of 24 hours I became very excited about what I was seeing and the more I saw, the more things opened itself up to me. I suddenly I realised that I had a ship full of models, I mean there was 400-odd people there all willing to be painted, all fantastic characters on their own way and it took that sort of 24 hours to discover it and I just started finding, and I tried not to sort of be too prescriptive about the sort of images I should paint. In fact my minder, Joe Strazyk, to his credit he was trying to help me but he was continually suggesting images for me to paint and I actually used to get quite perturbed by it because in a way it would sort of knock me off centre a little bit, like I just trying to get a sort of feeling for the ship. I'd be, perhaps just looking at something quite inconsequential, like a divers suit that was hanging up on a hook and I'm just looking at it thinking how interesting it looks, this empty suit without the human being in it. There was just something about it and I'm thinking, "gee, that could be an interesting painting" and then someone would come up to me and sort of saying "oh, if you like we could organise a blah, blah, blah for you to paint" and it was important for me to just try and politely decline those suggestions and really find the sort of imagery that said something to me because otherwise I would have come back with a lot of images that would have not interested me terribly much and I think as a result would not have interested anyone else.
Baddeley – What about, you've spoken a lot about your experiences and your subjects with the Navy, what about when you're with the RAAF in Diego Garcia?
Churcher – Well, by the time I got to the RAAF I think I was much more experienced as a war artist. I'd just come back from three weeks of the Navy but it was similar sort of situation where basically I arrived on this beautiful tropical island and I'm overwhelmed by that but then I've got to think "well, what, again, what do I paint?" because in terms of the RAAF, I mean there were four planes sitting on a tarmac and a corrugated iron shed with 3 rooms with just people sitting in it playing computer games. So the painting possibilities don't jump at you straight away, but again just, one just starts working and one thing leads onto another. You do one image and that leads on to the next and that leads on to the next and like with the Navy I was painting every day and was never wanting for a subject.
Baddeley – So, as you've said you've spent time with both the Navy and the RAAF, so what sort of artworks did you actually produce during your commission, what methods did you use and why did you choose to use these particular mediums and materials given the sort of circumstances you were working under?
Churcher – Well, I chose to work in oils on panel. I like to, I guess a lot of people tend to see an oil painting as a labour intensive thing that can only be done in a studio say and if you're on site you have to work in something more portable like Guache is a water colour or sketching. For me, I find the most fluid and immediate medium for me is actually oil paint and brushes and failing that charcoal and inks, which I also did a few of when I was there. If I can work on a panel that tends to sort of free the whole process of oil painting up quite a bit, so I felt given that I was on a ship for three weeks, which means I'm basically, fairly stationary. I'm in one spot, then I'm on a small island. I didn't see why I couldn't practically take all my gear with me and paint oil paintings. I could understand that in another sort of war-type situation, if you might be jumping in the backs of jeeps and going over rough terrain from one spot to another constantly that might make things a little bit different. But I must say even in that case I'd probably, I would see no reason why I couldn't still do oil paintings. Any artist who's worked outdoors done landscape painting is aware that there's no difference between painting a little oil sketch than drawing in a sketchbook.
Baddeley – Sure. So, did you have some way of recording the day to day scenes and activities and individuals that you experienced? Or did you just choose particular moments?
Churcher – I guess I just, I mean do you mean like, what was my rationale behind the sort of things…Well that was the thing of just walking around the ship, say, it was important for that first day to perhaps not do any work, just to walk around. I was always looking for that thing that I'd see out of the corner of my eye and this goes back to what I was saying before about people suggesting subject matter because the person suggesting the subject matter, that's a case of the preconceived "this is what a war image should look like". In other words it should be guys abseiling down the side of the ship on ropes or something or men clambering into a helicopter or someone manning a 50-calibre machine gun. The things I saw out of the corner of my eye were the things that were the most telling things and I used to really rely on those moments and if I saw them I always had a carry bag with me and I'd keep about 3 or 4 boards in the bag at all times because sometimes I'd be painting a picture, finish it with the intention that that's my days work done and as I was cleaning my brushes I'd turn around and I'd see this little moment – a person lying on a pile of rucksacks reading a book or something and think "OK, I'd better get that as well."
Baddeley – Sure. I wanted to ask you did, for example, any particular individuals or scenes or experiences that you encountered during your commission stand out for you? As I said with both the Navy and the RAAF and could you just sort of briefly explain them to me?
Churcher – I think the, well actually the thing that stood out the most for me were the individuals, like the people and I particularly enjoyed the sort of, the young people. I mean the whole culture in the Army or the Armed Forces I should say is pretty young, you know, like the oldest man on the ship was about 52 years old and he was spoken of like he was an 80-year-old. So the whole culture is young and then you get these really young guys who you know they're so wet behind the ears and you can tell they joined the Navy because, or they joined the Air Force because, they used to build model aeroplanes when they were kids and they're just obsessed with the toys of war and then suddenly there they are in the real thing. I just found the youth interesting, so that stood out for me. I mean one of the things that really stood out was the culture of the Middle East, where I spent some time and I haven't sort of spoken much about that at all yet but you know I spent some time in Bahrain and Dubai and I was very conscious that this war is the War against terroism and terrorism is perceived to be a result of Islamic fundamentalism and so forth so for the first time in my life I was in this culture, this so called Islamic culture and I found that very enlightening and I found actually witnessing and you know interfacing with the people – I'm talking about the local people in Dubai and Bahrain very illuminating as well. That stood out.
Baddeley – Did you have any difficulties, yeah, did you have any difficulties or restrictions as an official war artist with the Navy and the RAAF?
Churcher – No, not really. They were surprisingly accommodating actually. I mean I think there was like two rooms on the ship that I wasn't allowed to go into. I remember I knocked on a door, I was trying to get through a passage way or something and I went to turn a handle in a door and the door opened and this person looked at me and I said "can I go through here?" and he just said "no" and then shut the door. I was a bit shocked because that was I think only one of two rooms I hadn't actually been into on the ship. I mean things like the operations room where I did a painting, two paintings. That's actually a highly classified room and you know 80% of the crew on the ship would not be allowed to go into that room. I was surprised at the willingness of the armed forces to let me into these areas. I mean obviously they didn't want to restrict me too much because they're only disadvantaging themselves in that sense but that the same time they've got to be very careful about what sort of information gets leaked out so they were very trusting of me. There was a bit of nervousness about when I was in places like Bahrain. The Americans, for example, when they are in Bahrain, which is a lot, they're not allowed to leave the confines of the base so they can't actually go outside the gates so their only knowledge of Bahrain is the American base which is basically you know they drink Budweiser beer and watch American television and that's it. Whereas I was in the markets in Bahrain and going to the fish markets and things and the Australian Navy were a bit nervous about that at first and when I said I wanted to go and explore the place they said well we'll send an escort with you and I sort of suggested that I'd really rather that not be case, but as a guest I was quite happy to go along with what they would make them happy and for whatever reason they relaxed on that and just said "yep, off you go", you know and they just sort of suggested I be careful and you know I guess don't wave an American flag about as I go through the markets or something. I found I didn't, I never at any point felt any hostility or any sort of threat from the people whatsoever. I'm not saying that that means it's totally safe. I could have been unlucky I guess but I wasn't. So in the end I felt quite unrestricted there as well.
Baddeley – That's good. What about from the perspective say for example the physical and environmental conditions? The reason I ask that is, here at the Memorial the collections for example the letters and minutes of the previous war artists, a lot of them say for example during the Second World War there was one official war artist that spent time in Canada with the Empire Air Training Scheme and he had to endure quite grueling physical conditions. He had to wade through snow and he was in freezing conditions and he was constantly talking about having pain in his hands while he was out there painting. Did you encounter any similar problems?
Churcher – No, the only thing I could complain about was a bit of heat exhaustion on Diego Garcia. No, like I was very luck in that sense, I mean, the Persian Gulf, I mean this is February in the Northern Hemisphere, it is the coldest month of the year but being in the Gulf it was a pleasant sort of 22 degrees or something and just being on a ship I think is a lot more, physically comfortable than say being out in the field. The physical aspects of the ship were trying in terms of lugging my gear up and down these sort of very precarious step ladders and things to get from one, I mean I nearly killed myself a thousand times I think. I would never even begin to complain about the conditions when I, yeah, knowing what it could be like with this Canadian artist or this artist in Canada. Afghanistan itself would have been a lot more difficult I think. I think it was snow blizzards and you know, yeah, that would have been a lot harder but in a way that you know sort of bleakness and that, it's easy to say that sitting in a comfortable room. I was going to say it would have made it very interesting for the painting. But yeah, I can see that physically it could get very difficult. I've never painted in extreme cold and it would be interesting to try. I have painted in rain, I have painted in snow but I haven't been in that kind of serious cold that you get in those parts of the world. Diego did get very hot I have to say.
Baddeley – So as a result of that I believe that you did a lot of ... you were painting at night to sort of avoid the heat in the middle of the day.
Churcher – Well that's true actually, well, it sounds a bit trivial to talk about the tropical heat, but in fact it wasn't. The first morning, the first day I was going around the island again getting a sense of the place, it was very hot. Particularly from about 12 o'clock onwards it was really hot and the thing about painting is your standing in one spot and you actually have to be very careful because you can tend to be very engrossed in what you are doing and you're not actually aware of how hot you are getting. I have actually, not, this is when I've been landscape painting, I've had quite severe heatstroke in the past because I've been standing out in the full sun for four hours and I haven't really realised it and I've come home and nearly passed out you know and I was very aware of the heat there. The next morning, I got up very early and I thought well I'll just try and start work at about 7 just before the light was coming up and I'll work in the cool part of the morning. Even by 11 it was starting to be fairly prohibitive standing outdoors so what I did was a lot of painting at night because of course the nights were wonderful, they were these balmy tropical nights and thankfully the moon was just approaching full when I arrived so I had about 4 or 5 straight nights of very well lit, full moon nights. I tend to work very early, any subjects that involve working outdoors I'd either do them at night or early in the morning and afternoons I would try and work indoors. Everywhere was air conditioned indoors. So I was pretty lucky in that sense.
Baddeley – So, I suppose just to round off a little bit. Did your experience as an official war artist affect or alter or do you feel it's developed your artistic practice in any way?
Churcher – Yeah, I've actually learned a lot about painting interestingly. I didn't expect this so much. I thought it would be a great experience. I thought I'd see some amazing things and come back with some interesting pictures. What I didn't expect so much was to surprise myself at what it truly means to be a totally foreign environment. To have this thing where you're sort of flying off the seat of your pants, there's just no, you don't even have time to think whether your painting is good or bad or interesting or not. It's just like you just paint it and there's something there that you really want to get and you know it's going to go you might have 20 minutes, you might have 30 minutes if you're lucky so you just start painting very hard and it's a great experience and when you get it, you suddenly think, you tell yourself "why can't I paint like this is when I'm back in my studio in Melbourne?"
Baddeley – So do you feel it was very much a spontaneous response to the sensory effect whether it be the light, the individual, the colours.. ?
Churcher – One of the really important things too was that for an artist such as myself, you know I'm a studio based figurative painter, I'm very much used to being in control of what I paint and I'm often trying to maybe create some pictorial interest through the manipulation of the subject. What I'm saying by this is that I might take pains as to how I pose the model or I might think about the background or I might have props in the picture. There's this sort of and I guess this is where the word artifice comes from, you know, you're being this artist and you're trying to sort of create this scene. In the case of being a war artist you have no say over the scene.
Baddeley – So there's not that sense of construction there?
Churcher – No, it is what it is and it's not there to look pretty for you or look interesting and this goes back to what I was saying when I first got on the ship there was that feeling of like "Oh, you know, this doesn't appeal to me" but then I realised – this is what it is, it's a war ship and it does what it does well, you know. Whether you, I, what I make out of it as an artist is entirely up to me. So what it taught me is it's all about how you paint the thing that counts. It's hard to explain but I might say see someone, you know, sitting in a helicopter having a break between fixing it or whatever and you start painting it and you start thinking what an amazing wonderful thing this is you know. It's all there you know, the darks and the lights and the dramatic forms and you know the space and all the things that excite you as an artist, have come out of this seemingly ordinary situation so I found the whole experience really educational in that sense. I realised that I didn't have to or I don't have to be putting interest into the pictures by manipulating what I paint, it's there.
Baddeley – It's already intrinsically there.
Churcher – It's intrinsically there and it's you finding that when you paint it.
Baddeley – So I suppose just to finish off Peter, so how do you think this experience overall and will it sort of influence you in the future direction of your art?
Churcher – Well I think in that way I've just described. Like I don't think I'm going to start painting battleships and guns, but, so in terms of subject matter it may not make much difference.
Baddeley – In terms of your technique and your style.
Churcher – Yeah you know my wife, when she was looking at the pictures she just said how wonderfully spontaneous and how real they were and how they really told this story and gave her a sense of what was going on over there, the place, the time and so forth and she then said "why couldn't you do this sort of thing in Melbourne?" and I say "well what do you mean? You know, there isn't a war in Melbourne" and she goes "no I mean why don't you just go to an old persons home and sit down and just start painting them or..." What she's alluding to is ... again out myself in a situation where I'm not in control of it, it is just what it is and then I, as an artist, have to make something out of it. I think that's what she was alluding to and I think it's a good point and I think that you know it will influence me in a long term way in that sense. I think I will start sort of thinking that way as I paint but, you know, maybe I should just go to the tram stop and try and paint people just passing by.
Baddeley – That's good to hear. Well thanks very much Peter. We'll just finish off. This interview took place the 28th March 2002.