Art behind closed doors

Damian Kurth. Photo: Supplied
Damian Kurth. Photo: Supplied
While daily working life may not have changed for artist Damien Kurth under Covid-19, it has still had an impact. He talks to Rebecca Fox about making art during lockdown for an upcoming Otago exhibition.

Damien Kurth loves how simple the process of drawing and painting is.

‘‘I love the idea that you can have a piece of paper and a pencil and you can just make these marks and you are engaging ... you are processing the world around you. It can be that simple and from there you can build on that and go in lots of different directions.’’

While he might have dallied with sculpture while at art school in Dunedin in the 1990s, drawing, painting and print making have always been at the heart of his practice.

‘‘Painting and drawing is definitely what drives me.’’

Even as a child, he enjoyed drawing, especially cartoons, on the cooking paper his parents gave him.

He continued to draw in high school but having never heard of art school he sought out a job which he thought had an art focus — commercial printing.

‘‘I didn’t know what I could do. I ended up on a machine printing business cards and wedding invitations, which wasn’t that great.’’

Still keen on art, Kurth began to take life drawing classes at night. It was there he heard about art school. So when the factory closed and he lost his job, art school seemed the answer.

‘‘It was like a light bulb had gone off. I thought that sounds like me.’’

So, at age 20, he headed back to school to get the qualifications he needed to get into art school.

‘‘I took a bit of flack from some people ... but I didn’t care. I felt like I had a direction and knew how to get there.’’

While in Dunedin, Kurth found the mix of theory and studio time suited him.

‘‘Having come from a work environment and not studying, it was a really good way to get my head around it. I had a great time in Dunedin. I loved it.’’

It was there he confirmed painting was his niche.

‘‘As much as I love sculpture, I’m glad I stuck to painting. It’s always engaged me, the process of being creative.’’

Damien Kurt's Pink Peg at Inside and Out - Online Exhibition at Milford Galleries
Damien Kurt's Pink Peg at Inside and Out - Online Exhibition at Milford Galleries
After art school, he knew he wanted to continue painting so returned to Hamilton and set up a studio before deciding to head to Auckland to get a master’s degree at Elam School of Fine Arts.

While living in the country’s biggest city was never something he had thought he would do as it felt too big for him, he found he enjoyed it.

‘‘I stayed for 18 years.’’

Last year, he moved to a semi-rural community half an hour from Tauranga.

‘‘It’s quite a change from right in the middle of Auckland. We felt like we were smack in the middle of it all, now we look out on a paddocks and lots of green.’’

Kurth

specialises in still-life paintings, mostly in oils, although he still does some figure, portrait and landscape painting. He also has a soft spot for watercolours.

‘‘I love jumping between the two, as they feed off each other. I’m a constant learner still with painting and I love the idea that I am constantly learning about these things. I find watercolours very tricky, you have successful things happen and then, just like that, things can change.

‘‘I like the idea with watercolours you can work on an image and the slow way the watercolour dries and moves you can come back the next day and its quite different to where you thought it would be.’’

Still-life also appeals to him as it is a genre which enables him to question the narrative, unlike a portrait where the instinct is to relate and read the character.

‘‘Why this object? Why paint this way in 2020?’’

The objects he paints are not ‘‘selected’’ he says. Instead, they organically find their way into his paintings and are often everyday objects from his life.

‘‘I try not to select objects. I try to restrict myself from seeing something and having that kneejerk reaction that would be great to paint.’’

It could be as simple as a jar of oil from the car in his workshop or from the old Italian scooters he worked on — he was a part-time scooter mechanic in a previous life.

‘‘You could think it’s quite gross, but in another way it has great sheen, a nice warm colour. It’s that everyday stuff that finds its way into my practice.’’

He likes to set the objects up in an abstract way, where the meaning is a ‘‘little more fluid’’ and not a ‘‘concrete reading’’.

‘‘I’m not sure where this came from, but the idea ‘the objects are from my life but are not about my life’ is a good way to look at how I use objects.’’

While his daily routine has not changed that much under the lockdown, he has found himself looking at his work with slightly different eyes.

‘‘Before, I had this idea of where I was going with them. Now, I’m finding my reading of them has changed a bit somehow. There has been a change there somehow.’’

Kurth is worried that he has a disjointed ‘‘before and after’’ reading in his head so is trying to finish the works before that comes through.

He also finds thoughts of Covid-19 and its impacts come to mind even when in ‘‘the zone’’ working.

‘‘It’s tricky at times as I get into the zone and I’m in my happy place, but then these thoughts about what is going on intrude.’’

Kurth also tutors students at Elam, the former Art Station, Whitecliffe and most recently the Matthew Brown Art School.

‘‘It keeps you on your toes. You have to be able to explain your ideas.’’

In the Bay of Plenty, he has become involved with a local arts incubator and has been providing term-time courses.

‘‘I like being able to engage and help people make progress.’’

His classes, like many, have gone online.

‘‘It’s really interesting — a big learning curve in a way, as you can’t do those hands on demos. It changes things a bit.’’

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