Giles Bettison on the state of the arts

This year, Giles Bettison was the SA Living Artists Festival’s featured artist and the subject of our beautiful monograph.

Giles made a speech that brought the house down on opening night, and he’s kindly allowed us to share a bit of it with you here …

Good evening everyone. Tonight I would like to acknowledge the Kaurna people, whose land our ancestors occupied and on whose land we are standing now.

It is an amazing honour to be the featured artist for the 2015 SALA monograph. I never imagined that there would be a book about my work: it’s amazing and a bit overwhelming. Part of the price I have to pay for that honour is that I get to give this address tonight.

I never thought anyone would let me loose on a crowd like this. […]

Being recognised in South Australia and Adelaide like this is a very humbling experience. I hope that Margot Osborne and my contribution to this great series of documents will be both a useful addition to our South Australian cultural history as well as to artists and crafters alike all over the world. The opportunity to chronicle my work in the monograph is of inestimable value to me and I hope to the rest of the art and glass appreciating public.

I want to share with you ways that I think about the glass things I make and how I think about art. The things that keep me going and what I see as important things about art and what it does.

One of the things that I think art is for is to engage people. Art is a tool to help us to see ourselves and our world. More than ever, in these busy times people look without seeing, which is sad and dangerous. There is so much to see and know around us; we need to recognise it for our health and the health of others, our souls if you like.

Art helps us to know our world and engage with it. It gives us a different perspective than our own. It is people making representations of things and telling stories, something we have done for millennia. It shows we are seeing and thinking, that we are engaged.

We notice art because it is a different point of view than our own, it can take us outside ourselves and be a point of contact with others. We can see the difference between what we see and the perception of other people. It is also a perception of time. When you really see art you become part of a discussion about different ways of seeing things. When we are engaged and connected like this we are better able to care and to take care. With art the conversation begins and the dialogue goes on – if you let it …

In our high-tech and hyper-connected world people are more disconnected and disengaged than ever. Increasingly people are overloaded by the speed and intensity of the barrage of information being slung at us, most of it arbitrary and irrelevant at best. The so-called social media is actually anti-social media. People are interacting with screens more and more and interacting with actual people and things and their environment less and less. I have been to parks, restaurants and art galleries where most of the people there are on their devices, not interacting with each other. It’s tragic. It’s like they’re blind.

The more disconnected and disengaged we are, the easier it becomes to make decisions that don’t take the care of other people into consideration. We become isolated. It becomes easier to make decisions that are informed by fear and misunderstanding that do not have broad positive outcomes. I’ve experienced how destructive people working this way can be. I think we have all seen it and are aware of it.

It seems to me that there is a trend for people to isolate themselves from other people and from their environment. We need to engage and to commit to each other and to turn this trend around.

There are a whole bunch of things that happen when you are engaged by art. When you listen to a piece of music that moves you, you get tingles down your spine and your hair stands up. Your brain and body are being activated and it is usually a very good experience. I experience this when I attend great music concerts. At the beginning of the show we are just people trying to get to our seats or to a good position close to the band, but at the end of the show when we have all shared this expanding musical experience together and as we are all leaving, I feel a kind of connection to everyone. I imagine that my fellow concert goer feels this also. We have all shared the same experience and had similar uplifting feelings and everything feels right. We’re connected.

I have similar experiences with visual art. It can happen in nature, in crowds, in many ways in many different situations, but art specifically is the gift of people trying to elicit this connection and engagement a discussion with other people – one of our survival tools I believe.

When we are moved by art it is exercising our engagement muscle. The more we have these experiences and recognise them the better we are able to attain and maintain this condition. When we are in this state we are empathetic, we are more likely to make smart and caring choices. Art is good for the environment.

One of the important things about art and artists, this art gallery and all other galleries, is that they are places where discussions and engagement can happen. There is all the potential to engage and to be present and to give back. We need to engage and we need to make careful and compassionate choices.

SALA was and is visionary. It gives a huge cross section of artists across South Australia a valuable opportunity to engage in a dialogue with the broader public, a very important thing. I hope there are all kinds of discussions started and carried on as a result. We are all here to celebrate this kind of positive dialogue.

So, on that note please look and please think, please care and please speak.
Enjoy this event and as many other SALA events as you can.

This part of tonight’s entertainment is over. Thank you.


To read more about Giles and purchase his monograph, head over here.

Adrian Mitchell on writing our early stories

Adrian Mitchell has released two books this year, The Profilist on S.T. Gill (or someone very like him) and From Corner to Corner on Henry Colless.

Adrian’s written a wonderful meditation on these two characters, and he’s given us kind permission to share this insightful essay with you all —


Our past is full of old stories, the kind that go wandering about and are very often just out of sight, or memory. There’s a delight in retrieving these, whenever we come across them; and another in determining how to re-present them.

Samuel Thomas Gill and Henry Colless then: two figures who couldn’t be more disparate if they tried. They both inhabited an all too recognisable Australia, the colonial Australia that gave rise to our culture, our ideas and stories about ourselves. Gill observed the colonial world closely, and drew his conclusions. Henry Colless lived right inside the culture of the outback, the Australia of Russel Ward’s Australian legend. In part, he helped to make it.

Sturt's overland expedition by S.T. Gill

Sturt’s overland expedition leaving Adelaide, 10th August 1844 by S.T. Gill

Gill was an onlooker, Colless was a doer. They both took a lively interest in their country, and neither was disheartened by adversity or downturns of luck. Indeed, that was part and parcel of the colonial experience. That is why in The Profilist I give prominence to the theme of the adventitious, not just in Ethan Dibble’s/S.T. Gill’s fortunes, but also in the lives of governors, explorers, entrepreneurs of all cuts of cloth. Henry Colless took a gamble and made his fortune; then the hard times of the Federation drought withered it away. But what a heady ride he had along the way.

One of the things I like about Gill is that he is remarkably verbal in his sketches. Which is not quite the same thing as narrative art, though he does that too. The details of his scenes are explained when we translate them for ourselves, the reason for the arrangement becomes clear. The tensions between the different parts declare themselves conceptually just as much as visually.

And there are all those punning titles to encourage us down that tricky path too.

The Profilist

The Profilist by Adrian Mitchell

Gill saw his world in precise and colourful detail. He took it all in, and delighted in it. That is where he is so out of the ordinary. He was not interested in doing those grand heavily varnished quarter-acre sketches in our major galleries, and before which we are meant to genuflect – the ones that gave rise to Marcus Clarke’s view that weird melancholy is the keynote of the Australian landscape. Gill is all about light and life and energy. He had his own view of what to draw – people, all sorts of people, people on goldfields or in burgeoning towns, or people in landscapes. What we see through his eyes is what he thought about it all. He had a very intriguing sense of wry amusement.

Henry Colless on the other hand was as large as life and twice as busy. He was one of the Cornstalk boys from along the Hawkesbury who evolved the type of colonial independence that gave grief to officers and officials – not just from being curmudgeonly (undoubtedly a touch of that though) but from refusing to be bossed about. At quite a young age he was moving large herds of cattle about, trying to dodge the worst extremes of drought. Eventually he took a large mob across the Corner country to establish Innamincka station, and build the first stone building anywhere in that country. And the cattle he raised and fattened there were amongst the best on the market.

From Corner to Corner

From Corner to Corner by Adrian Mitchell

In Bourke, where he had been mine host at the Tattersall’s Hotel, he busied himself in the town’s affairs, a leading figure at the times of the various floods, a councillor, a pastoralist and a respected appointee to the Pastures Board. And a long serving member of the local Jockey Club. He loved his horses, even when they kicked him, bit off his finger, rolled on top of him. He was a complete pioneer, and was buried with his swag and stockwhip.

Both were worn out by life.  Gill died on the steps of the GPO, Melbourne, and the deposition at the coronial enquiry makes for sorry reading. Henry Colless outlasted all his many siblings but died equally impoverished, of what used to be called senile decay.  There wasn’t enough money in the family to put up a headstone; which makes his ending comparable with Gill’s pauper’s grave.  Death the great leveller indeed.

The Profilist is available here and From Corner to Corner is available here.