Jim Birkett’s 50-year career in art education has encompassed teaching and consultant positions in a large range of institutions from Kindergarten to University and Teacher Education. He has also been a Senior Examiner of Visual Arts HSC Examinations and coordinated Artexpress. Until recently Jim was Education Officer for the Bundanon Trust, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s gift to all Australians. Concurrently he has continued his own art practice and was also Co- Director of Gallery 483 in Surry Hills and Glebe. Jim’s most recent major solo exhibition, Embedded in Land, was shown at the Shoalhaven Regional Gallery in October 2017. His artworks are held in public and private collections in Australia, USA, India, France and UK. Jim’s current exhibition Vision Improbable is at Jing Jo Gallery Café (160 Moss Vale Road Kangaroo Valley) until 30 June.
MCPHEE: Where did you go to high school? What years? Were there any interesting features about your school?
JB: Whitehaven, Cumbria UK. Olden Times. A traditional English Grammar School and you had to pass the 11 Plus to be selected. Emphasis was on Science and Languages and not on Visual Arts. It was very traditional with teachers wearing black academic gowns to class. A German language teacher slashed his gown in many places!
MCPHEE: Tell us about a high school art teacher that inspired you to be an artist? What was their name and what things do you remember about them?
JB: At school I was never encouraged to be an artist, males in the north of England just did not become artists unless you were David Hockney. You needed a real job to support a family! My art teacher was Mr Kelly and he was far too interested in the female students to care about me. But, when I arrived at my first Art School in Carlisle one of the lecturers really encouraged me and gave me my first piece of positive fed back on my work. WOW was that a lift.
MCPHEE: Which artists did he/she love and teach you about?
JB: At Art School I discovered Eduardo Paolozzi, Giacommetti. Victor Pasmore, Anthony Caro and David Hockney who became one of my lecturers during my degree years.
MCPHEE: Who was in your class? Tell us about the room/ environment that you worked in? What were the perks? (eg. Did you listen to music/watch art programs?)
JB: At school there were mainly girls in the class and two guys. The art room was in the attic at school and you had to enter through another class room. It was a massive space divided into sections for painting, drawing and senior work areas.The perks were that I was able to disappear from the rest of the school and because I was neither a Science student nor an Arts student I did not belong. I studied Mathematics, Physics and Art at senior level. You need to remember that this was the Dark Ages in Art Education and even slides were still to be used in classrooms. We looked at art history artworks in badly printed books. I remember seeing a Seurat painting for the first time at the National Gallery in London and was blow away by the size if the work, it filled almost an entire wall. My memory had it as a small print in a book with lots of small dots and here was a wall full of them. Students need to see the real artwork not a video or a slide but the original. Visits to galleries and artists studios are a necessity.
MCPHEE: Can you tell us about an artwork that you made during high school that you liked? What was the reaction from your teacher or friends? Where is it now?
JB: We all had to do sessions of plant drawing and painting as that was part of our final examination and I created a painting of a geranium, which I still have in my collection.I believe I got a good mark!
MCPHEE: Did your art teacher encourage you to pursue a career in the arts? (how?)
JB: NO!!!!!! I was male and not encouraged. My father freaked when I said that I wanted to go to art school and asked how I would support a family but when I stated that I would teach he gave me his blessing. Teaching was the last thing on my mind but it kept him happy. 50 years later I have had a fantastic career in art education at all levels from Kindergarten, Primary and Secondary to University and Teacher Education and to some of the very specialist programs at Bundanon. I have spent a good deal of time also in Art Education administration.
MCPHEE: Did you meet any established artists or visit a working studio during when you were a teen?
JB: Only when I was an art student and visited the studio of Victor Pasmore, which blew my mind open to see a studio on such a large scale. Towards the end of my degree course I won a travelling scholarship to Paris to visit the Rodin studio and museum. I also won a college travelling scholarship which enabled me to visit the Soviet Union in search of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International model – I did not find it as it had been destroyed but it has more recently been rebuilt.
MCPHEE: Did you visit art galleries / museums during high school? Can you tell us about an experience you had there?
JB: Independent of school, I visited London and at the age of 15 was allowed freedom in London and visited the National Gallery, British Museum and the Whitechapel Art Gallery. There was just too much to see and explore but the National Gallery gave me valuable experience for a three year art history course on Italian Art History during my degree years.
MCPHEE: Which artists or artworks were you obsessed with as a teenager?
JB: In my late teens I discovered the sculpture of Antony Caro at the Whitechapel gallery in London, which challenged my understanding of sculpture, and also composition and I still refer to those experiences.
MCPHEE: Was there a particular artist or work you focused on with your high school art teacher? How did it impress you or what did it make you feel?
JB: I made a cow in clay, the only sculpture I created at school but I have a BA Honours degree in Fine Arts with a major in sculpture so … what does that say about influences. My cow was pregnant, very pregnant and probably fitted more into surrealism than naturalism. Perhaps it was my introduction to the Facts Of Life that was taught by the Head Master to only the boys in Year 7 that eventually came to the front?
MCPHEE: Did you stay in touch with your art teacher? What are they up to now?
JB: Yes, for a short while but they are now dead I imagine.
MCPHEE: Were you encouraged by your parents/family as well as teacher?
JB: Only my family once I stated that I was going to teach art. My art teacher was only interested in the female members of the class or is this just my perception?
MCPHEE: Do you still have anything that you stole from art class?
JB: I did not steal from my art classroom, as there was nothing worth taking.