Memories Fallible and Glowing: the Unique Languages of Art School before and after Dawkins

By Dr Paul Uhlmann

Going to Art School at the in the early months of 1980 was a shock. My previous life had to become over-ridden in order to embrace the new languages involved in manifesting and understanding art through many forms.

The Canberra School of Art was at that time headed by Udo Sellbach and he was in the midst of pioneering and crafting a School which respected difference for particular disciplines and competing philosophies. The foundation-stone was the Bauhaus and therefore, each Workshop had a Head of Studio who created their guiding concerns. Such a system was organic and similar to osmosis – ideas were planted and methods of making and critical thinking were set in motion so that the student absorbed through attention and through the body – presence in the studio was absolutely essential. 

Each Workshop was a hive of very particular focused activity ... The Ceramics Workshop was always white - everything was bathed in the dust of porcelain. Painting was a forest of easels and jottings. Printmaking was orderly and business-like.

In the main, traditions of enquiry emerged from Europe, however at least one innovative lecturer filtered understandings of Aboriginal cultures. We were aware that these traditions, which were interrogated and questioned, were seed-potential concepts rarely experienced outside the School. Each Workshop was a hive of very particular focused activity. It was a diversion of mine to wander from Studio to Studio during breaks. The Ceramics Workshop was always white – everything was bathed in the dust of porcelain. Painting was a forest of easels and jottings. Printmaking was orderly and business-like. Graphic Investigation was introspective and scholarly with each student huddled over books, etching plates, papers, inks and bottles. Leather Workshop was an oddity, which gave a friend of mine unholy fetishistic fantasies. Sculpture was a universe of physics, chisels, hammers and plaster – it always seemed cold there – the idea seemed to be to challenge each other to lift very heavy objects. Glass was alchemy and fire. Gold and Silver was a fusion of miniature sculpture and excellence. Woodwork was odd, Gothic and uncompromising.

I don’t want to make the mistake of blaming one man for all change ... However my observations are, that bringing art schools within the halls of the university set into motion a chain of processes which are still unfolding today.

Each was a world unto its own but unified through drawing. The Drawing Studios were marathons that went into the evening. We had then the gift of time. We drew because we wanted to know. Know what? There was a sense that if we drew, especially from the model, we would grow to understand something fundamental – something that in essence revealed how to create through movements of the body tracing space, shape and line. The students were also products of difference - one gifted painter was always applying his body through performance as a daily ritual in order to understand the world anew. Another was profoundly dyslexic – but his drawings were a wonder. Others I knew seemed finely balanced on the rim of sanity – to make for them was more than just a matter of creating – it was a mode of survival.

I don’t want to make the mistake of blaming one man for all change, much of what I describe above, though the fog of the unreliable past pre-Dawkins-reforms, may still be the same within Art Schools today. However my observations are, that bringing art schools within the halls of the university set into motion a chain of processes which are still unfolding today.

Many art schools struggle to be understood, struggle for identity and autonomy within the framework and hierarchy of a university; for example, the particular languages of making through painting or graphic means are not readily understood as being valid modes of knowledge production in their own right. Today, as we well know, the word is of primary importance and art must be translated and validated through comparative critical text and writing.

I have often wondered how students of difference, as I briefly sketch out above, would fair in today’s integrated culture where art schools have been folded into the fabric and corporate demands of University. It is possible that such students might not find a way into university. If that is the case then we as a nation are much the poorer, as I know firsthand that the students of difference really do see the world in new and unique ways; they really do utilise irrational logic which opens curiosity and a desire to know more. Such qualities are highly valued by research, however we may be locking out our best practitioners unwittingly.


Dr Paul Uhlmann is coordinator of Visual Arts in the School of Arts and Humanities, Edith Cowan University in Perth and is a practicing artist who works in painting, printmaking and artists’ books. He is interested in philosophies of impermanence.

He studied art in Australia, was the recipient of a DAAD scholarship to study in Germany (1986-87), an Australia Council Studio Residency grant to study frescos in Italy (1994), and an Anne and Gordon International Samstag Visual Arts Scholarship to study in the Netherlands (1994-95). His PhD was conferred at RMIT in 2012. He has exhibited nationally and internationally since 1983 and his work is held in many collections including the National Gallery of Australia, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of Western Australia and National Gallery of Victoria.

He was one of the featured artists in Batavia: giving voice to the voiceless exhibited in 2017 at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery at UWA – a book of this project, where art intersected with science to give new perspectives of the Batavia shipwreck story, is forthcoming. His work is represented by Art Collective WA.