JAMES Drinkwater wears his heart not on his sleeve but on his skin.
Tattooed on his left arm is a family crest, and on the right is a rendering of John Lennon’s self portrait and the word “Imagine”. So inked onto his body are the two pillars of James Drinkwater’s life and being: family and art.
He may cherish what those two images stand for, but Drinkwater is not entirely comfortable with all of his tattoos. He had most of the work done in his late teens, “so great years for a man to make life decisions!”.
“I’ve made peace with my tattoos,” he shrugs, as he sips on a glass of organic red wine through his bushranger’s beard at Pino Italian restaurant in Islington. “I don’t baulk at barbecues with bankers and collectors anymore; this is who I am.”
However, he has proudly added to his skin art collection recently. His young son Vincenzo penned his name, along with a small doodle, on his Dad’s upper left arm. Drinkwater went straight to the tattoo parlour.
“It’s clearly the most meaningful tattoo on me,” he explained, adding when his baby daughter Hester is old enough to scribble on her father’s skin, Drinkwater will repeat the process on his other arm.
The marks that James Drinkwater make tend to come not from the outside onto his body but from under his skin, deep within. The results – beautiful, vigorous and life-affirming – in turn can leave a permanent mark on the viewer’s memory.
WHENEVER her little boy was being restless in church, Michelle Drinkwater knew the best way to distract James was to give him a notepad. The two-year-old would sit still and draw the Catholic iconography all around him.
“That’s the clearest memory I have, under five,” Drinkwater says. “When I think of that, it’s very abstract, but that is my sense of self.”
By the time he was in primary school, creating pictures was more than a distraction to James. When he was about 10, he would repeatedly borrow from Newcastle library a documentary about the Australian landscape painter Fred Williams.
“It just flicked a switch,” Drinkwater says. “At that stage, I couldn’t describe why. Now I think it presented a whole other way of existing and viewing your world.”
In the family’s Hamilton South home, Drinkwater’s passion for art in a city that was still largely industrial was warmly encouraged. Born in 1983, James was the youngest of four children. He reckons he was a little spoilt by his parents, who were teachers. Even when James took over the garage and fashioned it into a studio, that was fine.
“Dad used to sit in there after work, having his ‘unwind coffee’, and just rejoice in it,” Drinkwater recalls.
“I think I was the kind of young boy who could carry being different, because I was loved by my mother and father so incredibly much. That gives you a level of confidence. And I liked being different. That was part of the allure.”
The boy found the potential for creation in everyday activities. Each night, he would watch his mother preparing dinner, revelling in “all those rituals of chopping; it’s the same as squeezing out colours and preparing a surface”.
His observations at home as a child helped shape the artist he has become. Earlier this month, Melbourne fashion label Alpha60 unveiled a collection of wearable art, created in collaboration with Drinkwater. A large part of the reason he became involved in this project was because of childhood memories of his mother dressing up for a dinner party or ball.
“All the ceremony, the powder, the perfume and the hairspray, the lights and the mirrors,” he reflects. “I think ceremony is a big thing that attracted me to painting.”
Yet a lot of hard work also led him to painting. As a boy, Drinkwater’s art training was both formal and casual. He learnt at school – “I was fortunate to have incredible art teachers” – and by observing his mother’s sister, who would paint landscapes on her kitchen table in Broadmeadow.
Drinkwater would ride his bike to visit Anne von Bertouch’s gallery in Cooks Hill. He also attended Ron Hartree’s art school in the city, delighting in sketching and painting in a warehouse filled with music, the aromas of food and coffee, and an intoxicating atmosphere of creativity: “It presented bohemia, I suppose.”
Although he can still summon that feeling of mild terror when Hartree recommended to Mrs Drinkwater that her boy was ready for life drawing classes.
“I remember waiting for the model to come out, I was just shitting myself; ‘Please don’t take your clothes off, please don’t take your clothes off’,” he says. “She came out, and with the first few drawings, [she was] draped. Thank God! After three or four drawings, the gown just fell to the floor. I was just mortified … I’ve still got the drawings. [The classes] became a religious thing for me, part of my training, two nights a week for about eight years.”
As a teenager, he also “apprenticed” himself to an Italian-Australian painter in Hamilton. James had noticed an ornate fresco on the ceiling of the painter’s home and knocked on the front door. The school kid introduced himself as “an artist” and asked to see this man’s work. After that, Drinkwater turned up at the man’s house every day after school for about six months. More than learn new painting techniques, Drinkwater muses it allowed him to connect with part of who he is. His mother’s heritage is Italian.
By the end of high school, being a painter seemed a given for Drinkwater. He was accepted into the National Art School in Sydney. It may have been “an incredible course”, but it didn’t hold his interest. He quit after a year.
“I was just eager to get a studio and start expressing myself, book a room, and have a show,” he says. “To me, it [art school] was just getting in the road of that ambition.”
Yet he deviated off that road for a time. He pursued music. Ever since he was a small child, James and his brother learnt music from their mum, who played guitar and piano.
“I learnt three chords and I could write a song, so I disappeared to my bedroom, and my brother would stay and learn scales,” he says. “For me, it was a tool with which to make something.”
For about five years from the age of 19, Drinkwater was a musician. He moved to Melbourne and, along with brother Nick, was in a band called Dirty Pink Jeans, which recorded and toured. For Drinkwater, being in a band wasn’t about the fame or the money – which didn’t come – but “it was that brotherhood, that camaraderie, that total faith; it’s an incredible rite of passage”.
One night at a gig in Melbourne, he met a young woman he thought was stunning in every way. Her name was Lottie Consalvo. He went to an after-show party at her apartment. She showed him her art portfolios. But she wasn’t doing much painting then. He showed her images of his paintings. Not that he was doing many new works, even if he had a little studio in his bedroom and he took drawing books with him on tour.
“I did a drawing of her really quickly and she said, ‘Why are you not painting?’.... You’ve got to paint, you’ve got to do this’. And I said, ‘Well, why aren’t you painting?’. At that stage she was doing a degree and other things. So I think we created something there together, we almost made a pact to get back to that.”
James Drinkwater broke up his band to return to the journey of being a painter. But it was no longer a solo journey. He and Lottie became a couple. They increasingly devoted their lives to painting and even measured the cost of living in paint. A pint of beer, for example, equalled half a tube of paint. They married and decided to move to Berlin to be full-time artists: “There has to be that moment where you lose the safety net and back yourself.”
Living and working in Berlin in a two-room apartment, showering with buckets, and having to haul coal for heating sounds a little grim, but in Drinkwater’s memory, “it was incredibly romantic, and I bought into all that.
“It was just magic, and that was our apprenticeship,” he reflects. “I think that’s where we cut our teeth properly.”
After three years in Germany, their art and reputations were blossoming. They could have gone anywhere. They chose Newcastle.
Lottie also had family connections here, and it was her idea to move to James’ hometown.
“There was a little bit of caution - ‘Are we dropping off?’ - but again we backed ourselves, thinking in tubes of paint,” he says. “And looking at friends in Sydney working multiple jobs, here we could just paint.”
They have continued to journey far and wide. After winning the Brett Whiteley Travelling Scholarship in 2014, Drinkwater, and his young family, spent three months in Paris. They have also travelled to Tahiti, and Drinkwater has recently been on a painting expedition in Central Australia with another Novocastrian who opens eyes with his vibrant abstract expressionism, John Olsen.
While those locations make their way into Drinkwater’s paintings, his art is not strictly about place. It is about finding place. It is about celebrating his place in the world, and those he shares it with. In the past few years, with exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne, London and Singapore, the world has been opening up for James Drinkwater. Yet James Drinkwater’s world is very much at home.
“The best week I can ever have is a clear Monday to Friday, where we get to do normal nights with bath, dinner and books [with the children], seeing what Lottie made that day in the studio; that’s the richest thing I could possibly experience,” he says.
From December 9, the art of Lottie Consalvo and James Drinkwater will be on show at The Lock Up in Newcastle. They may be a supportive and creative couple, but they are individual artists, so there will be two exhibitions, two different visions, in the space.
Consalvo’s exhibition is titled “Final Remembering”, while her husband’s is “In the Halls of My Youth” and, according to its creator, “my show is about my family”.
Drinkwater explains he and his wife had explored different ways to collaborate for the show, but ultimately “that felt too obvious”.
“This is the most significant way we’ve been put together,” he says. “Although it is two solos, side by side, we do stand together. Until we’re lying six feet under, I dare say this will be the last time we’ll be shown so closely. I don’t think it’s something we’d rush into again.
When asked why, he replies, “Because we are our own people, as well as a union.”
And it is a strong union, as Consalvo and Drinkwater create a fulfilling life for themselves and their children in their Mayfield home, and in their studios.
“A lot of artist couples don’t work, because there’s a lot of jealousy,” Drinkwater says. “We’ve never had that. We just celebrate. As long as we can potter around, doing what we’re doing, we’re blissfully happy.”