A Place in the Sun
It’s a sign of the times; a place once filled with families, friends, fun and laughter has now become the pursuit of solitary individuals. Our cover artist has noticed what’s been happening at the beach lately and the subject has been central to his work, as John Caruso discovers.
Mitchell English had to clean a day’s worth of debris from renovating off himself before we could talk. He told me he was building a brand-new studio and workshop, and that he was covered in glue. His business had outgrown its current space and by the time you read this, Mitch’s new artistic space will be up and running on Leo Alley Road, Noosaville.
“It’s a couple of doors down from Kim Wallace Ceramics which makes this area a cool, little creative hub. I’ll have a showroom at the front and a large working studio in the rear,” he explains.
Our cover artist has been creative all his life, starting when he was a kid and sold his first piece to a stranger, someone he didn’t know. That memory has stayed with him forever.
“My thing was drawing, watercolours, paint! I came from a middle-class family and there were opportunities to go to art classes and stuff like that, so I divided my time between my two passions: surfing and art, and art felt natural to me, like something I was always meant to do,” he said. “When I was in my first year of art college and sold a piece to a government organisation that excited me because it meant that people outside my sphere of influence were looking at my work and taking it seriously.”
Mitch’s work is connected to the beach however the sea isn’t always depicted.
“My focus is on the peripheral view. What’s happening around or near that body of water,” he said.
“I paint elevated views of crowds on beaches, almost like a seagull’s perspective of that crowd and I’ve been doing this long before drones became a thing; I call them my Heatwave series.
“The sea isn’t always a part of my paintings. I like the idea of the figures on the beach looking like they could be in the desert. If you take the ocean out of a beach picture, the viewer then has to ask, ‘Where are these people? Where is the water? Is it a mirage?’,” he explains.
Over the years Mitchell has noticed just how different our experience on or at the beach has become compared to a few decades ago and he reflects that in his work.
“We’re becoming more and more disconnected and COVID added to what was already happening where there’s this polite spacing between us and I’m seeing this at the beach too,” he said.
“If you look at old photos of Bondi Beach, people were shoulder to shoulder, and we don’t have that these days. There used to be this kind of awareness of everyone around you.
“I’ve got some old photos where there’s a dozen teenagers right on the beach in a huddle around a transistor radio and this highlights another aspect of beach culture. These days, people tend to be very solitary and they’re on their phones. Before the iPhone, people use to look out to sea and now they’re looking down at their device. Sometimes when I’m painting from an old photo, I’ll remove people from the scene and give the subjects that polite spacing to tell that story in my paintings,” Mitch says.
Compared to the UK we’ve never experienced a class system here in Australia and if it exists in certain ‘nose-in-the-air’ suburbs, Mitchell believes that being ‘at the beach’ has always been a great leveller.
“You get all classes of people at the beach and there’s no differentiation. It’s a great melting pot,” he says. “There’s suburbs and towns that divide people, city versus country, economics, race, religion or whatever, yet the beach dispenses with all of that. Once you strip down to your bathers it doesn’t matter whether you drove a Range Rover or a Commodore to get there, on the sand everyone is the same,” he says.
The image that graces the summer issue of IN Noosa Magazine is part of a work that started with a simple photograph.
“I was captured by this gnarly, knotted prickly pear that this guy had on his front lawn in Portugal. I was walking along with my camera photographing crowds on the beach; this is how I start with my paintings,” he shares. “I turned and saw this guy watering the front of his yard and there was this great looking white house with a young girl standing on the veranda and I put two-and-two together and it dawned on me that they were a couple and that he was about three times her age, and she stared out to him looking nonplussed about the whole scene and I loved how it captured this point in time while demonstrating how opposed to each other they were within the frame of the picture.
“Now I should have been satisfied with the photo, however I like to make small changes to the composition from photograph to painting, I like to use a bit of artistic license so I don’t slavishly copy the photo. I use it as a reference point for my painting, sometimes amplifying a particular object from photo to canvas such as the stylised prickly pear,” Mitchell explains.
Sydney was where Mitch grew up, however Noosa is home now.
“There’s a real environmental sensibility about this place and the local council seems to be responding to that. The place is green, and I just love that,” he said. “The walk from First Point to Granite Bay is one of the most beautiful walks in the world. I’ve travelled around the globe 30, maybe 40, times and I keep coming back to Noosa, there’s nothing better,” Mitchell says.