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John O'Dal

John O'Dal

Otway Ranges, Victoria, Australia


Below is a preamble for an exhibition sent to a friend who is curating it with me.

I include it here on Redbubble because the exhibition, to me, is a concrete work of art which will bring together years of stuff which has been happening around me: in my head, in my classrooms, in my studio – even in my soul.Please don’t see this as being dark. It is in fact the complete opposite. I am sure all artists will relate to what I am doing – if not actually wish to do it.

I will post reminders in the coming weeks and hopefully meet the Melbourne and Victorian locals who occasionally follow my offerings on Redbubble at the show.


Current and past works of assemblage, poetry and prose by John O’Dal, even his mother didn’t know he was making in the back room over the past decades.
Inspired by his diagnosis of cancer

I was born in Fitzroy in 1948.

So, Fitzroy was my very early learning ground for life. And it wasn’t all done being seen at laptops over lattes. We lived in a terrace house in Greaves Street that was then considered part of a slum that held back the working class. Nobody consulted the working class in those days. Among the myriad lessons of growing up in Fitzroy – for me – is that today’s wisdom/expert is tomorrow’s folly/fool. Those slum houses are now recognised as architectual gems unique to Melbourne.

Much of Fitzroy (and thankfully not Greaves Street) was razed in the 1960s (or can I say raised – the slums only becoming vertical). My parents, true Fitzroy natives, partly agreed that Fitzroy was not the ideal environment to bring-up their children – and work opportunities were in the offering afar and they sought greener pastures in the wilds of Dandenong – much of which is now seen by some as an area only holding back the working class.

In 1959 our new weatherboard Dandenong house had a hot water service but no Saturday buzz of neighbours calling in and out for a cup of tea or a game of cards at night. No street parties. No auntie or uncle offering comfort by just living a few houses away.

At 17 – just a few years or so lost to Fitzroy and still living in Dandenong – I was working in a bank and the powers-to-be there thought it quite reasonable for me to be appointed to their Fitzroy branch – travelling over and hour and a half each way, each day on public transport. But I loved it. Fitzroy still held its charms for me: the eccentrics wandering the streets, the ‘flea houses’ and wine bars, the empty shops of Brunswick Street (very few of them ‘coffee shops’) and the endless activities of Smith Street. As a child I had free reign to wander from Carlton to Collingwood. We learned where to cross the street to avoid the avoidable.

In 1968 I was called up for service in Vietnam – and I had my send-off from civilisation to the jungles of Asia from the Perseverance Hotel Street. One occasion where I drank both copiously and legally – there being many illegal nights after bank work and still 17.

Fitzroy made me as much as any other influence.

Art also made me.

The work of a bank clerk was an aberration never to be resolved in my head – other than to say to seek work as an artist as a working class boy was as equally unrealistic and as much an abberation.

Returning to the bank after Vietnam I quickly realised that such a life was a living death. I trained as a potter and sculptor and then teacher.

Over the 1990s and 2000s I exhibited occasionally at the ‘Artists Garden’ in Brunswick Street and at the BSG – as well as other venues elsewhere – including the internet.

A particular favourite was during a Fitzroy Fringe Festival – where artists had to have a direct connection to Fitzroy in order to show. I exhibited an assemblage of my father – included in this exhibition.

I also managed The Central Goldfields Art Gallery, Maryborough, worked in community arts and generally amused myself playing at being an artist – with no real drive to seek fame or fortune. Hence, even my mother knows little of what I did or what went on in my head. All the time surviving in the comfort of an art teacher’s promised and liveable salary – an advantage not enjoyed by Van Gogh – to better or worse effect.

In 1990 I was diagnosed with a chronic disease which I might well survive – provided it didn’t go pear-shape at any time. In 2009 I was diagnosed with emphysema – a condition which would eventually turn pear-shape, but could also well allow me a ‘normal’ life span time-wise.

In July this year (2011) I was diagnosed with lung cancer – with an aggressive secondary growth in to the shoulder. Prognosis is poor, with a 50% survival rate over 12 months. At the time of writing (September) I don’t know if I will see my/this show.

But this is not a dark venture.

Indeed it is a small celebration of my life.

Mortality has been in my thoughts for over twenty years. Only now it is crystallised.

Since childhood I have ‘played’ with art. Like so many artists I know and have read of, art has been my refuge – where we, as artists, can disappear and nobody has the right to ask where we are.

Around 1990 (before my first diagnosis of an illness which might take me out) I sought, for my own purposes, to put some value on what I did. I looked to find a meaning in my art and a meaning for the whole damn thing of existence.

Who are we? Why are we here?

It’s that simple. To analyse what I do any further serves no purpose. Except to say – art gave me meaning while I sought for meaning. I know it is the same for every artist of every colour.

Now, I’ve already admitted to being semi-educated. But I am educated enough to know that it is sheer arrogance for me, or any other person, to claim to have anything like an answer to these questions. And I’m educated enough to know that if we have one meaning, we might have one hundred meanings. My meaing will not be your meaning.

But to not search for a meaning is not human. Artists do this through art. Others have their way.

The one thing I did know in 1990 – and certainly know now – is that we and all living things are, without exception – mortal. All life and all experience revolved around the simple fact that we are finite.

So, in my work I simply ask the viewer to ask the same question of themselves while they can…………….

Who are we? Why are we here?

YOU CAN’T TAKE THE BOY OUT OF FITZROY is a showing of some of the work (assemblage, ceramics, poetry and prose) I have created over my personal search. There can be no other place than Brunswick Street Fitzroy and the Brunswick Street Gallery for me to hold it.

To me there is perfect synergy.

My answer after searching for meaning?

Whatever the mystery is, I accept that I am part of it. I’m happy with this.

If I don’t make the show – the drinks are on me.

John O’Dal Sept. 2011

Journal Comments

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