On Process – Artist Jeremy Hawkes


Epicormia Collective artist Jeremy Hawkes at work guilding bones in his artist studio in Lismore September 2016
Epicormia Collective artist Jeremy Hawkes at work guilding bones in his artist studio in Lismore September 2016



Q. Tell me about your visual arts background Jeremy, arts education, and when, how, why you decided to become a professional visual artist and what continues to inspire you with sculpture and/or installation work? 


I’m not sure when I decided to become an artist…do any of us really make that decision, or do we just follow our interest to its illogical conclusion? I know that by age 15 or 16 I was taking myself very seriously and art played a big part in that.


For my HSC (higher school certificate) I took as many art subjects as was possible along with English and psychology – still my main interests to date. I moved to Lismore at age 19 and enrolled in the art school here for a BA in Visual Arts. I naively thought I was going to be taught how to be an artist – you know, learn how to grind pigments, stretch canvases and spend countless hours in a cavernous studio drawing naked people. Imagine my surprise when it was all post-modern theory, deconstruction, the death of the author – and figurative drawing was passé.


Leaving art school and moving to Melbourne was a further shock, one that many art students never recover from…how to survive and make art at the same time? Fortunately, I am very stubborn and I have always kept up an art practice often in the face of dire poverty and crap jobs… some ten years after finishing my degree and with a few commercially successful exhibitions under my belt, I went back to the art school environment and did graduate studies at both RMIT and VCA.


For the first time ever, I received real encouragement and support from some of the staff there… my work was so different from what everyone else was doing I thought I must have it very wrong, but one of my teachers in particular was very supportive and told me not to give up or give in to art trends.


Q. Tell me about your family background Jeremy, something of your family heritage/immigration story, and are there other artists in your family perhaps, if so tell me a wee bit about them? Did you grow up with arts and culture in your family, art on the walls/primary or secondary schooling etc., tell me about these things too? 


I was born in Papua New Guinea and whilst we left before my second birthday, I grew up with many artefacts on the walls and about the various houses we lived in. I think these objects had an enormous influence on my aesthetic.


If I close my eyes now, I could still describe some of these objects – drums, spears, figurative carvings – by touch alone. I remember lying on the floor and gently tracing various carvings with my finger-tips. Definitely a strong influence on me when I was primarily a wood carver. I think of these objects as psychic technologies – imbued with such meaning and power though alien to me. I don’t recall much other art in my childhood except for a large print of an Aubrey Beardsley – from his Salome series – that both fascinated and repulsed me in equal measures.


My grandmother’s husband was an artist, but as far as I know there are no blood relations who are. He was an incredibly skillful draughtsman though very traditional in his approach and subject matter. I remember staying with them and being taken to see art exhibitions at the NGV; Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series in particular. On a tangent, many years later I met Nolan’s grand-daughter whilst travelling in India and designed a tattoo for her which she had done…


I guess you know you’re good at art when, at both primary and secondary school, the teacher picks your drawings to hang on the wall. How many artists are created this way? Can we sue?


Q. Tell me about your experience of illness and disability Jeremy, what happened, when, where, how, why and how – what happened next? What are two or three experiences unfolding now/ happening now with some measure of reflection, about your own experiences of “epicormic” regrowth, what has this direct lived experience over time provided you, is providing now? 


I have identified as an artist with a disability since 2009 following a work-place accident in 2007. Because it’s prejudicial, I can’t really go into the details except to say I have had two surgeries (so far) on my cervical spine, which is my neck, and many many procedures to address the ongoing severe pain.


I have a chronic, degenerative condition called spondylosis/spndylotitis which affects the discs in my neck, causing them to break down, whilst at the same time, the vertebrae continue to grow causing compression of the nerve roots.


It’s incredibly painful and has caused a lot of damage to the nerves in my right hand…my right hand and arm no longer function properly – my limb is very weak, unresponsive, uncoordinated, often inflamed and hurts to the touch. I am, of course, right handed. I developed a tremor (myoclonus, dystonia) in this arm which has worsened over time and led to a diagnosis of ‘parkinsonisms’ by some specialists and early-onset Parkinson’s disease by others. Time will tell.


I still find it difficult to talk about.


All artists work within certain confines, it’s the nature of life. They can be economic, physical, environmental, culturally contextual – whatever. Living with a disability gives you a very set series of boundaries. They can be explored and challenged, but they are known, concrete in a sense. After being injured and over the subsequent years, I have lost track of how many times I’ve heard the phrase ‘silver lining.’ It can still incense me, as can a suggestion of a ‘cure.’ Becoming involved with the disability community has been a life-changing and revelatory experience.


Disability need not be just an illness or pathology, it can be an identity and a very powerful one at that. The social model of disability, made public and so well-articulated by the late, great Stella Young, teaches us that it is society and it’s constructs which disable us, not the illness or condition.


This whole experience is epicormic. I have learnt to re-think my art practice, and whilst I still mourn my lost physicality and what I was able to achieve as a ‘body’ I have discovered my mind and its ability to generate art.


Physical limitations have set new boundaries for what I can do in my practice, and given me a wealth of subject material to explore. There was no ending of art, as I had initially thought when given a series of diagnosis, but rather a blossoming of new possibilities and ideas. Certain doors closed, but bigger and more inviting ones opened. I have stepped through and I’m not looking back.


Q. Tell me about your passion for research into (and new scientific knowledge springing forth now about) the neural realm, neuroplasticity and so on Jeremy? How is this research of interest to you as an artist?


Chronic pain, myoclonus, dystonia, aphasia etc. are all neurological conditions, as is Parkinson’s obviously. I have always had an inquisitive mind, and after these conditions were diagnosed (and lived) I felt the need to educate myself as much as possible… who wouldn’t? The science of neurology, neurobiology and it’s various interweaving branches, is frontier science and fascinating.


I am treated with various medications that effect my neurochemistry and manage the severe pain I experience. Neuroplasticity suggests that the brain can be re-wired both unconsciously and deliberately. The implications for evolution – both on a species level, and on an individual one are enormous. The intersection between these sciences, identity and the self as both object and subject informs my current practice, indeed my whole existence.


Q. Tell me in some detail about your work in the arts and disability sector today and how it is informed by your past experiences in the field, how have things changed for the better or worse, and what needs to change, why so, and how do you think this can be made possible? 


That’s a complex question…but, I’m currently working as an arts facilitator at a local disability service provider with a very strong arts program; including visual art, drama, music, dance etc. We have been quite successful in the last 18 months in securing state and federal funding for a wearable arts project which is growing exponentially and proving to be a real learning curve and a lot of fun for everyone involved. We are fortunate enough to have our own studio in downtown Lismore which in my experience is quite a rarity.


Most of the (participating / client) artists I work with are very experienced and have been attending supported studios for many years, with a lot of talent and professional experiences under their belts. Without wanting to sound trite, it’s incredibly inspiring work and I’m sure I get more out of it than do the attending artists.


No job is without it’s frustrations but the major issues that we face are beyond organizational and speak instead to national policies around both disability and the arts in general, and then compounded by this strange rubric which is disability-arts, or arts and disability.


Previously I worked for the peak state body in Victoria for a number of years and in a variety of roles – the predominant one being in quality assurance and compliance. Whilst it can be quite dry and there is a lot of box-ticking involved in accreditation processes, it gave me invaluable insight into policy development, the changing face of the sector with particular regard to the NDIS, which will roll-out in the northern rivers mid-2017.


Much has been said of the NDIS, and at this point I am no expert due to the vast changes that are continually taking place but – whilst in principal it is a tremendous step forward, it actuality it leaves a lot to be desired, and the repercussions it’s instigation will have on disability arts organizations, and supported studios like the one I work in will be drastic and quite possibly disastrous.


The basic problem is that it is a business model and not a social one. Art is for therapy or craft. So many professional artists living with disability stand to lose their funding for attending dedicated studios, and everything will be measured against quantitative standards – not something a self-directed art practice meshes well with.


At present, and in the foreseeable future, supported studios will need to compete with each other federally for project funding…meaning there is no security beyond each project and we must lurch from funding stream to funding stream with an over-emphasis on public outcomes and grandstanding. It will be very difficult (post-Brandis changes to Ozco and the creation of the Catalyst grants) to secure organizational funding for basic overheads and a commitment to seeing studios function beyond single-source funding streams…I could go on…


Our strength must come from collaborations and collective bargaining. Perhaps I’m a naïve Marxist at heart, but if we refuse to compete with each other, and insist on sharing all available resources, we can’t be made to join the funding rat-race…


Q. And your involvement in the Epicormia Collective, sixteen months of professional development so far and a new exhibition opportunity at NRCG Ballina this November 23, 2016. How has this shared journey helped you change and grow and think, and how has it hindered you? Tapping into the curatorial idea/metaphor of the “re-authoring impulse”, re-authoring from an artist’s perspective rather than a therapeutic perspective, or both perhaps? 


Isn’t all art therapy in a most general sense, just as all art is objectification?


This has been a unique opportunity for me and one that couldn’t have been more timely. It seems to surprise a lot of people I know but this is the first grant I have received for myself and my work, in collaboration of course.


I’ve worked very hard for the past eight years to secure funds for other artists and projects I have helped facilitate, but I have never, as a practicing artist in my own right, been fortunate enough to be the recipient of a grant…


Very timely in that after a long, long break following my injury and subsequent diagnosis – and after not being certain that I was capable of engaging in any real way with an arts practice again – that this collective asked me to be part of this endeavor and we were subsequently successful in securing funds.


I had also just moved to the area some months before and was very uncertain of how to connect with the local arts community and other artists experiencing disability in a similar vein to myself. Amazing.


It’s a sad fact but true that as an artist I’ve always felt a failure unless my work sold, or that there was some sort of financial recompense or incentive involved. After being a practicing artist for over twenty years, this is where you end up unfortunately. I’d been quite successful in a commercial sense in my previous incarnation as a sculptor / wood carver, but as I could no longer physically do this, I had no idea of what my art practice might look like post-disability…or is that post-ability?


I love words, and felt a real affinity for the idea of the epicormic growth – it was a real ‘aha!’ moment. This is how I work. This is how I deal with this new identity, perspective, physicality, ideologue or epistemology. I’ve had an incredibly productive time – I don’t think I’ve ever been so prolific. It was a joy to start again with simple marks…scratches on paper that grew and grew. I was locked away in a cabin in the bush, surrounded by such verdant growth after years in a big city, my imagination unfurled its tendrils and like the heliotrope that I am, searched out the sun.


I drew and drew…images and atmospheres suggested themselves to me and I began to take photographs, an entirely new medium for me…but a way to think about sculpture as arrangement, tableaux, instead of always as objects. I kept reading everything I could about my neurology and this led into further epicormias, those of an intellectual kind…I found evolutionary theory, the writings of Crick, Sacks, Ramchandra and for the first time ever, my brain, my conscious thoughts, became part of my process.


There has been enough time, and enough distance now that this has become therapeutic but also somehow beyond therapy – if finding new identities can be devoid of the personal, then this has been an un-looked for outcome.


Q. And this exhibition project also links in to the International Day of People with Disability on December 3, what insights and/or issues about living and working with arts and disability are you hoping to share or highlight through this artist-run collaboration Jeremy? 


I think that we must aim for and hope that one day such a separation won’t be necessary. In the meantime, whilst I am somewhat averse to the over-used word ‘celebration’ this is indeed what we must do: acknowledge our triumphs over difficulties, support each other in our endeavors and decry discrimination against PWD whenever we see it. Disability arts, or arts and disability is not just about funding – it’s about everyone’s right to full cultural participation as practitioners and as audience.


Q. Having a shared and independent care support network in place is so necessary and crucial for artists living and working with disability? What are your thoughts about this for artists needing added professional development opportunities; exhibitions, studios, funding investment, networking and so on, particularly artists living in regional areas like the Northern Rivers? 


Artists with disability obviously face additional challenges such as issues around access requirements, physical abilities, personal and professional support networks. Living outside a major urban center can make this issues both more complex and sometimes easier.


I have quite unusual support requirements that can pose some real issues when it comes to making artwork. Having been in the area for nearly two years, I have these needs fairly well sorted, but there are ongoing issues which take up my greatest and most problematic resource – time.


Employment options are more limited in regional areas, as is access to transport, public or otherwise. Health services are fewer and further apart, and specialized disability and arts organizations are fewer and harder to access.


There definitely needs to be an increase in funding and professional development opportunities to address this. Because the majority of PWD in Australia live below the poverty line, I’m seeing a real increase in professional artists with disability leaving the big cities for areas like the North Coast for an increased quality of life in reaction to greater financial challenges.


I think there’s a lot that the community can do to support this, as well as more structured support. I’m a big believer in being pro-active, the power of grass-roots organizations and networks and united voices for advocacy. I have found it very difficult at times to get the support I need on both a personal and professional level…there are many possible reasons for this which I won’t go into here.


Q. Bones are an ongoing thematic in your work, tell me about your work with bones as metaphors? Looking back at your work over the past three decades are there other key themes that have been there that are only more apparent now, that you are perhaps more aware of/alert to now or perhaps that you have a greater understanding of now? Tell me about these themes in more detail? 


The last series of major sculptures I completed in I think 2006 were Ossuaries / Carapaces. I was fascinated by bones, shells, structures that describe our forms – the mash of meat that we are without them. They were the last large scale works I completed and when I look back at them I see spines in distress, damaged and deformed by internal and external pressures. A few months later I suffered a spinal injury and it was discovered that unbeknownst to me, I had a degenerative spinal condition.


Beyond strange…


I’ve returned to these themes quite instinctively, without any conscious notion of what I was doing…Lacquering, gilding millimeter by millimeter these found bones, then reorganizing into a new structure…beyond Freudian.


I’m still working out what it all means. I’m more interested now in theory as a starting point for my art practice but not in a direct way…I can see how my reading is made actual in my work, but there is rarely any conscious decision to employ a visual language to make evident my theoretical pursuits. I’m an artist not an engineer and to me the process is everything.



Jeremy Hawkes Artist Website:






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