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Shelter Island Reporter Profile: A long way from Wagga Wagga

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO David Rankin in his Island studio.
David Rankin in his Island studio.

David Rankin is a rare and gifted artist, one of the few to make painting and sculpture his livelihood for most of his 68 years.

His Shelter Island home near Wades Beach is a refined compound of studio, house and pool. But growing up in Australia, an Irish immigrant and precocious son of an illiterate, itinerant bootmaker, he recalls receiving career advice from a well-meaning friend of his father’s: “You’re a bright young lad. You should do a little studying and go for one of the glamour trades — a sparky.”

Instead of taking the advice to study the trade of electrician, David, who had worked as a boot maker with his father, left home for good.

David embarked on a series of experiences that would shape his artistic vision. He attended Wagga Wagga Teacher’s College, in a city with a name that means “a place of many crows” in Wiradjuri, the local aboriginal language. He taught briefly in remote Bourke, assigned the “slow learners,” which in rural Australia of the 1960s meant aborigine children.

Next was a job as a hydrographer, recording stream levels in a part of Australia so remote and parched there was no water to measure. Again and again he recorded: “No flow.” He described this job as “Pure Zen. There was no water. No flow.”

By age 22, he was living in Sydney where he had the first show of his paintings. At 30 he was one of the most prolific, successful and best-known artists in Australia. “Being an artist, there is no guarantee that you are going to make a living. I’ve never had the luxury of being secure,” he said, “If the painting thing ever falls through, I’ll go back to shoes.”

Self-taught, David was influenced by Western painters such as Klee and Motherwell, but saw the world in a distinctive way that brought together the Eastern, Western and aboriginal cultures that characterize Australia. “I was saved by not being corrupted by education,” he said. “I had to make it up myself.”

David’s first wife died of cancer when he was 33 leaving him with a seven-year-old daughter. “Contrary to what you would think and you would hope, people don’t tend to rally when there is something really catastrophic,” he said.

Lily Brett, a well-known writer from Melbourne, had become a friend and they gradually fell in love. Lily’s five-year-old daughter, her 11-year-old son and David’s daughter became a family when David and Lily married in 1981.

The couple was so celebrated in Australia that when they decided to move to New York in 1989 a late-night TV show devoted half the program to say good-bye. “It was corrupting, the way people saw us, they didn’t say normal things to us anymore,” David said. “They didn’t want us to change.” He told Lily, “We‘ve got to be somewhere we can make mistakes.”

David and Lily continued to be both productive and successful based in New York. In the decades since leaving Australia, David has had over 100 solo shows at galleries all over the world. He created murals for the Vista Hotel in the World Trade Center in 1994, works that would later be destroyed in the attack of 9/11.

The couple endured catastrophe when an electrical fire in 1997 destroyed their New York loft filled with art, manuscripts and personal belongings.

In the aftermath of the fire and the destruction of the World Trade Center, David’s art for many years dealt with themes of mortality. His current work is lighter. He tries, he said, “to give expression to that life-affirming spirit that we all have … beyond our physical selves, and our physical reality … images of love, vitality and spiritual renewal, animation.”

David and Lily’s first experience of the Island came when they visited friends in 1992. David found it “unpretentious, with that solidity and calmness that I had experienced in Australia.”

Lily at first found it a little too quiet. After they moved into a cottage on Midway Road, David was relaxing in a chair one day when he realized Lily was circling him like a shark. “She said, ‘So that’s it? Three weeks in a plastic chair? What am I going to do?’” he remembered. She found her answer swimming in Fresh Pond, feeling a sense of release and calm.

The Island quickly became a place for David and Lily to work. From 1995 to 2000, David made a studio out of a barely habitable space above what is now Marie Eiffel’s Market. At the time it was Piccozzi’s Bike Shop and David became friends with Bobby Teodoru who ran the store.

One day, Bobby came up the back stairs, while David was listening to music, and said, “David, could I ask you a favor? Could you play something other than Bob Dylan? It’s really depressing the customers.”

The physical environment of the Island is often reflected in David’s work, such as the sun reflecting on the water of Menantic Creek and stones and shells on Wades Beach. Even more significant, he said, is the effect of the Island on his spirit. “I can slow down, disconnect and start to evaluate things, see where my life is, where I am headed,” he said. “I love that you can be quiet and enjoy that stillness or you can sit in the gas station and have coffee and catch up.”

Pointing to the work in progress on his studio wall, he said, “These paintings have to do with life and spiritual renewal.”

“This place was rocking last week,” said David, referring to the visit of his and Lily’s three children and eight grandchildren.

As he sees his children and grandchildren and anticipates great-grandchildren, increasingly he sees himself less as an individual, and more as part of the sequence of life. “It changes your view of yourself, a change in the notion of love and time,” he said. “I now see the continuum that came before me.”

You can view some of David Rankin’s work atmossgreen.com.au/content/artists/david-rankin-2012/.