By Roberto Chuter
“Painting is a metaphor for a person’s life…” – Anthony Breslin
It’s middle 1991, I am working in a disused church in Gardenvale on the casting for the improvisational site specific production of “I’ve Danced With A Girl Who Danced With The Prince of Wales” in the ballroom at Rippon Lea. One Saturday or Sunday afternoon there was loud bashing on the side door of the church. This entrance was rarely used so I opened it with reluctance. As I opened the door, a young man fell inside. He was dressed in a light blue t-shirt, grubby grey gym pants, thongs and sported a slighting fuzzy mullet. This was my very first introduction to Anthony Breslin. Subsequently, he managed to charmingly ingratiate himself into the production and the next one “The Miracle of the Rose’. We have been friends and colleagues ever since.
Artist Breslin, based in St. Kilda, has become an original force within the Australian art scene ever since then and has produced 60+ solo exhibitions both in Australia and internationally, including exhibitions in Barcelona, Bern, Dublin, Hong Kong, London Prague, Zurich and Shanghai. Breslin has also attained acclaim as an original theatrical and installation artist. He performed at the Melbourne Convention Centre for the closing ceremony of the Parliament of World Religions, as well as performing at the ‘Signature of M’ art prize gala night at the Central Pier Venue in Docklands and the Conscientia Festival in Salt Lake City, US. Breslin has created many large scale community and charity projects. He has become passionate about working with various marginalised groups and schools to induce focus and awareness on the importance of commonality, belonging, and rites of passage.
So, there was some many questions and answers I wanted to ask Breslin, so I did:
What did you do before you became an artist?
I pursued a career in acting and before that I worked in a conventional job in the rag trade which made me miserable!. I wrote a play during this time about a suicidal man living the wrong life, it was called “Clive potter: Poet!” I was writing of course about me stuck in a life that seemed impossible to escape. I searched for something else and opportunities arose that enabled me to see another path. I started by doing extra work and modelling and then I found ways to break into doing theatre where my life really changed. My interaction with the people I met and worked with inspired me to pursue a creative life. I worked in cafes and did labouring to keep money coming in. I didn’t enjoy these jobs so I searched for something else that was theatrical and different this brought me to doing singing telegrams which lead me to becoming a stripper. I worked in this field for several years and quickly I became the top performer in the company. I’d do 5~6 jobs all over Melbourne on a Saturday night. It gave me many fascinating life experiences and freed up my life to pursue other things. After a few years I left it all as I won a TV show called “Man O Man” on Channel 7 where the prize was a trip to Africa, ironically it was the place I most wanted to go to. I spent over 2 years wandering through Africa, Europe and the Middle East during this time I drew obsessively. My drawings were sent back to Australia in cardboard tubes. Thanks to my sister these drawings got me an interview for art school at RMIT. I flew home to try to get in, I did.
How did you become an artist?
I finished art school after 3 years yet during this time I worked ambitiously to exhibit in unconventional spaces, like Wax Studios in Richmond. I even managed to direct, produce and design a large production of my own play “Clive Potter: Poet!” Art history inspired me greatly, I fell in love with its history of philosophical ideas. When I left art school I was determined to make it my paying occupation against all odds. I experimented greatly and slowly through a religious work ethic I started to develop my own unique creative voice. Opportunities arose through the risks I took and before long I was exhibiting and selling lots of my work. I felt very self conscious calling myself an artist but once it became my “job” I had to as it was all I did. Through it I created an exciting lifestyle that started to take me all over the world exhibiting and doing theatrical performance pieces. This lasted for many many years until blood cancer came into my life and changed everything drastically again.
Why do you do the work that you do Anthony?
The work has always just come through me, my imagination has always been vivid, I just start, that’s the hardest part and then the work itself guides me. I just make sure I keep listening. I have never needed to use things from the natural world as a direct subject matter or for inspiration. Within a short time I became excited by found objects and began to incorporate them into my work everything from zippers to tennis rackets. They all helped me create tactile compositions that wanted to jump from the canvas. I made a lot of work constantly, experimental repetition led to many, many new discoveries, soon I was excitedly plagiarising and developing all my own ideas within the private world of my studio. I never experienced any mental blocks. My mind seemed forever active with ideas. I have always been very athletic so I began to create performances governed by time and physical constraints to raise the level of intensity and challenge for me as the performer and artist. The artist as athlete really interested me. Also I believed that I needed to make things difficult so I had something to overcome. This way of thinking was an affliction I carried always. I also wanted the audiences to experience some of the energetic drive of my creative, obsessive process.
What inspires your work?
I could always draw, so initially I was inspired to make art because it was the only thing that interested me at school and I seemed to be good at it. Over time I returned to it because I loved the process of creating in isolation. Acting gave me many wonderful experiences yet put me on the line to be judged directly. This process compounded my self doubt and insecurities regarding my acting abilities. With art it felt very different, here I worked safely in private investigating what lay within. People judged my creations and not me directly. Over time as my style developed I became less consumed with what people thought as I could only create my work in my own way, so it seemed pointless to become attached to others perceptions either way. This further liberated me to explore and take creative risks. The diversity of artists creations fascinated me and moved me greatly. I love the fact it’s a language beyond words, beyond reason, beyond one interpretation. I have been moved to tears many times standing in silence in front of art that spoke to me deeply. And that is a precious thing.
Your artwork seems to span all kinds of mediums, can you tell us about these different mediums and why you chose to do this?
My work spans the use of many mediums, paint, pencil, found objects, pastel, charcoal, ink etc., as well as performance and large scale installations built with all kinds of
building materials. I never had any intention of restricting or limiting myself re materials or environments where I could create. So I ended up designing and building things like sets for music videos and theatre, winning an Aria Award along the way and earning an AFI nomination. All these experiences inspired me to keep broadening my creative horizons as I loved the challenge and it greatly inspired me to create my own performance art productions like “Trybe: An Opera in Paint”. My experiences using a broad range of materials also inspired more ideas and the further use of new materials. My paintings and drawings seem to still have a unifying style no matter what mediums I used. People were still able to recognise my work no matter what new materials I used it also kept me interested in producing and not stale. Inadvertently it kept people who collected my work interested and keen to purchase new works.
Could you tell us about your Breslin Gallery?
The Breslin Gallery was a dream I wanted to realise for a long time. I started a studio complex with an illegally built little theatre in St. Kilda many years ago. I was never one to let rules restrict me. When an old church came up for sale in Carnegie I became obsessed with trying to find a way to buy it. After much effort and negotiating I found a way to do it at a high risk for me. The building needed a complete build from the inside out which was going to put me into massive debt. I became the owner builder and under great stress managed the build working full time for 3 years doing labour on the site, from sunrise till nightfall. After many ups and downs I could see the finishing line, and then the implausible happened, somebody broke in during the night and set fire to the building causing around $380,000 worth of damage. The perpetrators were never caught. After an investigation the insurer found a reason to not pay for the damages, they assumed I would walk away because it was a powerful bank. This became a hugely stressful nightmare for me. I took the insurer to court which tested me mentally on every level, yet I was in a disastrous situation so I had to try something. After months and months in court and fundraisers to keep me afloat I was offered half the damage bill and I still had to pay a huge amount in legal fees. I took the payout I had to, I was desperate, wonderful support re fund raising and lots of cost cutting for the rebuild helped get the gallery open eventually. It was wonderful. I had a cafe in the place, a large gallery space, a place upstairs for me to live, a studio for me and a residence on the top floor. We held wonderful exhibitions, ran classes in all things creative, held concerts and supported
marginalised groups and raised money for groups and individuals who needed it. The Breslin Gallery quickly became a much loved community creative hub. And then soon after blood cancer struck me down. I kept the place going through extreme sickness and long stints in hospital having and recovering from a bone marrow transplant and then kidney failure. At this point my cafe owner walked out of his lease and my neighbour began reporting the breaches of my restricted permit to council. I knew the stress was going to kill me to keep it running, so I did what I never imagined I would do, I sold the building under its value and walked away. My life has been under threat ever since from many serious health issues, which have destroyed my career.
You have suffered a number of personal setbacks. Do you think these are explored subconsciously in your artwork?
In 2014 I was diagnosed with leukaemia, the same leukaemia that killed my brother at 38 back in 1994. This turned my world upside down as it led to a bone marrow transplant, severe graft host disease and kidney failure amongst many other issues. To this day I still contend with chronic pain, disability and chronic fatigue and frequent bouts in hospital to help keep me here a bit longer. It goes without saying this has greatly affected my ability to work at all as well as the imagery its if both consciously and unconsciously. Going through so much life threatening illness has certainly altered all my perceptions of life, death and dying. Things that seemed so important when I was thriving and an ambitious creative, obsessive workaholic with illness became unimportant. Cancer or any life threatening disease forces one to investigate what’s deep inside and that’s its blessing. For me aspirations of commercial achievement, success and ambition faded away. When I lost my health I realised it was all that mattered next to connecting to other humans with my heart, through kindness, empathy and compassion .
What do you think have been some of the negatives in your work?
I don’t experience my work in negatives or positives. My impatience, and creative aggression along with my obsessive nature all have contributed to the creating of my work as it is, and as it was. Also my discipline and habit of pushing myself so hard allowed me to create a large volume of work and discoveries which in turn created
opportunities and allowed me to build an audience. Yet it also greatly depleted my body and I believe helped lead to illness. My nature created my reality and hence the opportunities I had. I always would just dive into things taking risks always. In my case the risks hurt me yet also gave me my greatest achievements of all. It’s all intertwined and interlocked into a complex manifestation.
What’s been your favourite achievements up to this point?
I have had many wonderful moments, and so many exhibitions I have been proud of. All the different productions/incarnations of my show “Trybe” have meant so much to me. The first one was wonderful down at the Docklands, the second at Chapel Off Chapel. My performers and crews were wonderful to work with and both shows were so well received. In 2006, my week long stint in the Myer Bourke Street windows (with special guest Jane Badler) creating a live exhibition to raise money for sick kids at TLC was also such a special experience. There have been so many it’s so tough to single them out, they all built on each other to inspire me to try and attempt new things.
What are you currently working on?
On a book and it’s proving to be an epic emotional and physical challenge. It’s autobiographical stories from my life, I have felt strongly compelled to write this book for many years. In general through the stories it investigates how childhood trauma and abuse have fuelled many addictions in my life and fuelled so many of my misguided reckless pursuits. I am hoping for this to be my 3rd published book, yet regardless it is proving to be a healing journey in many ways. It’s very different from my first two books “frantic bloom” and “Brezania”.
If you couldn’t do this anymore, what career path do you think you would have followed Anthony?
I don’t really know where I would have ended up if my art had not taken off. The jobs I did have created a misery in me and I struggled to work for other people in controlled environments, always my imagination transported me to other places and ideas. For many years I was lost in my life knowing only it all felt wrong. I knew how impossible it was to live on an actors wage yet my venture into exploring this as an occupation back in
my 20’s is what opened up new possibilities in my life. Because these days I am finding my art making physically difficult due to my health I am writing more. I don’t expect it to be a career path on its own accord yet it’s all part of my career to date as a creative. Especially now I need to feel a sense of purpose and have a creative outlet to keep me from giving up on life.
Tell us a funny story or joke that involves your work or life.
I started doing singing telegrams and then stripping to support my acting career financially. At one point I was cast in a large outdoor production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” I needed to cram in what strip jobs I could when I wasn’t acting so I wouldn’t starve. On the Saturday night’s of the play’s season I’d do the curtain call and then dash backstage where the dresser would be waiting to help me get off my makeup and costume. I would then run to the car past many of the audience members and drive like a bat out of hell to the old Marquee Club in South Melbourne where approx. 250 drunk women would be waiting for the final stripper in their stage show. I’d bolt backstage, the show’s MC would have a small joint waiting to help me reboot. I’d put on my school boys uniform complete with thick nerd glasses, crazy wig and giant teddy bear and out I’d go to face the madness ending up stark naked. It was crazy to go from one form of performance to another within such a short time. Yet I loved the intense stimulation it provided.
Breslin’s most recent exhibition “Exit the Blood Machine” contained 23+ artworks that portrayed his journey through cancer, transplant and beyond, a multitude of them contained images of bones, cells, death and many of which were created during his treatment, from his hospital bed. Some of these stunning and colourful artworks now hang in the Alfred Hospital.
Undoubtedly, Anthony Breslin is another of St. Kilda’s most precious icons. He is blessed that creatively has been his amazing life. An artist of great bravery, generosity, sensuality, compassion and uniqueness. And all these qualities are the only few attributes that outweigh his gargantuan artistic ability.