Rethinking The Gallery Experience


This article first appeared on Broadsheet Perth. Click here to read.

I met with Ros and Ian de Souza at their home in Fremantle, Western Australia, to talk about ArtWalk Fremantle, a biennial event designed to reconnect the community to art through visiting the homes of local artists. Ian's Eurasian roots inform not only his artistic practice (he deals in the delicate business of inks on rice paper), but also the couple's charismatic home, pictured in detail below. Ros, who has been the driving force behind ArtWalk since 2014, shared with me a saying she's picked up along the line: "a home is never finished." Theirs is evidence of this. We talked for hours over a cup of tea and biscuits about how ArtWalk came about, the nature of their home, and what the future holds.

It was in 2014, standing in the gardens at the Fremantle Arts Centre Bazaar, that Ros de Souza had an idea for a new way of accessing art in Perth.

“Things were very quiet in the art world at the time,” says Ros, whose husband Ian has made a living as an artist since 1983. “I thought there was space for a unique event in Fremantle that could see our studios open to the public.”

Enter ArtWalk Fremantle, a biennial event that gives the public an opportunity to explore the homes and studios of working artists for one weekend only.

Ros rallied a small group of established artists in Fremantle to deliver their first ArtWalk on “the small budget of $800, and a three-week turnaround,” she says. They had 400 people through their studios.

This year ArtWalk returns for the fourth time, and numbers are expected to exceed 2000.

“There’s a real hunger for something like this,” says de Souza, “and there’s a niche there.”

The upcoming ArtWalk (June 15 and 16) will feature four working studios within a one-kilometre vicinity, running from Queen Victoria Street, past Fremantle Park, and ending at Ros and Ian’s home on Blinco Street. The event has remained small so as to make it accessible for visitors, and criteria for selected artists is firm.

“This is a group of artists with established practices and an exhibition history, who live and work on their premises, within close proximity, who are prepared to allow anywhere between 800 and 2000 people through their homes,” says Ros.

Along with Ian, this year’s hosts include fashion designer and artist Megan Salmon, ceramicist Pippin Drysdale (Ros: “she’s a living national treasure.”), and painter and sculptor Michael Knight. But the event also plays its role in supporting lesser-known artists. Each host invites a guest artist to join them in their studio for ArtWalk, the aim being to encourage diversity of artistic practice. Visitors can also expect to see work from ceramicist Annemieke Mulders, painter and printmaker Harvey Mullen, photojournalist Tom de Souza, and neon sculptor George Howlett.

According to Ros, such diversity provides a real chance for people to appreciate the creative process and seek inspiration for their own homes or artistic practices.

“People get insight into the creative process, and see how they can apply that to their own life,” says Ros. “They see how the artist’s work informs their home and vice versa. And I see people when they’re here, seeing things and saying, “I could do this at home.”

Ros and Ian’s home is not short on inspiration. It’s been a constant work in progress since Ian made the then-derelict property his in 1983, and reflects a life well lived.

“Ian bought the circa 1880 cottage, renovated it, and then built a rammed-earth studio at the rear of the property in 1993. This was the first rammed-earth building in Fremantle.”

After meeting in 1994, Ros and Ian imported an old railway carriage to act as Ian’s work space. This was connected to the rammed-earth dwelling by a friend’s old yacht sails. A rear garden studio is made of “pre- loved” materials, and has adapted to suit the couple’s life over the past 25 years. It houses Ian’s work table: a five-metre-long bench on old rail wheels. Newly installed blinds can be pulled down to provide shelter from inclement weather without sacrificing natural light. Knickknacks collected all over the world and artefacts paying homage to Ian’s Peranakan roots fill the home.

“Our home reflects Ian’s working life,” says Ros. “Because Ian works with watercolour and, in more recent years, inks on rice paper, this place flows in a circle. There are no blockages. It just spreads, there are layers. When people come in, they see evidence of Ian’s background – one steeped in Malay, Chinese, Portuguese and Indian traditions. As an early artist, he always looked to the West for his inspiration, as so many artists of Asian descent did. He always knew he would be seeking out his Asian roots as his career progressed, but was unsure how that would happen. It’s turned out that his main medium is connected to that history.

“Sometimes people will walk in here and become overwhelmed with emotion,” she says.

Ros’s connection to ArtWalk runs deep, but this year she’s putting things in place so that in the future the event doesn’t rely on her work alone. For the first time the collective will charge adults a $10 fee for entrance to the walk. Proceeds will go into what Ros calls a “future fund” enabling ArtWalk to become more self-sustaining.

“A couple of months ago, someone said to me, ‘The trouble is, Ros, you can’t let it go’,” she says. “And I said, ‘Well yes I can, I just can’t let it go to waste. It’s too good’.”

“If we can encourage artists to stand on their own two feet, and share that with the public, I’m happy.”