The Dirt: Dan Kyle
The rusted metal entrance gate rolls open revealing a four-meter-tall man with a gas mask staring at us from amongst the trees. A collection of huge sculptures lay scattered around him – the scene creates quite an entry statement, heightening my curiosity about the man we’ve headed up to the mountains to meet, artist Dan Kyle.
First, however, we meet Boston; a rescued great Dane who takes issue with men in hats. Daniel the photographer, not one to tempt fate, removes his immediately and peace is quickly established.
We take a wander around the garden, learning the 40 acre property is also used as sculpture storage for a Sydney gallery (hence the man with gas mask greeting us at the gate), before sitting down to lunch under the trees, on a table made by Dan’s partner Andy a few days earlier. Dan tells me his story over soup.
“I was born in Blacktown and went to a catholic boys high school,” Dan says. “I was 14 when I was outed as gay by a friend. He hacked into my MSN chat thing and spread the word. It opened up a shit-storm at school.” He felt good afterward, he says, but the bullying was tough.
If you’re different at a boy’s school they bloody well make you know it, you know?
Regardless of the bullying, and the school’s inactivity in response to it, Dan loved high school, and says he learned a lot from his experiences there. “It sounds really clichéd but it makes you stronger, it puts the fight in you. I didn’t just take the bullying; I learned how to give it back.”
Art seems to be the way Dan explores and understands the world, and has clearly been an important part of his life since childhood. His grandparents owned an art supply store in Sydney and when it closed down, they filled their garage with leftover stock. Hence, “I was always painting,” says Dan. “I turned my dad’s workshop in the garage into an art studio and spent lunchtimes at school in the art rooms.”
On finishing high school Dan left suburbia behind and headed immediately to the National Art School in Darlinghurst. “It was like coming home,” he says. “Everyone at art school is a bit fucked up and weird, and so was I. It was great, really great.”
In his second year of art school Dan met his partner Andy. Within a month or so he had moved from the city to Andy’s property at Kurrajong Heights. Perched on the edge of the northern Blue Mountains, the house looks east over the city, flanked by bushland as far as the eye can see. It’s a gorgeous spot, and Dan clearly loves it. He’s lived here for around eight years; painting, cooking, and gardening. All the good things.
Dan’s studio is a short walk from the house, with windows looking out, again, to trees. He paints every day and had his first solo exhibition last year. It sold out. His subject? Trees, bush, landscape. “I’ll paint landscapes forever. That’s one of those things I know,” he tells me. “Something draws me to it. I didn’t really paint landscapes before, I was doing abstract painting. When I moved here it was so accessible. I just looked out of the window and started painting it.”
Despite being drawn to it as a subject, Dan has a real fear of the bush. It’s vastness and otherness unsettles him, he suggests. “I guess painting the bush is my way of understanding it. I sometimes feel as though I need to know it through painting it.” His work is quiet and beautiful. There’s a stillness found within his scribbly gum landscapes, and layers of detail that reward close attention.
Whilst Dan’s relationship with the bush is complicated, gardening is part of his daily creative practice.
Every morning I get up, make a cup of tea, and do a lap of the garden in my gumboots. It’s the best thing,” he says.
He then heads over to the studio, paints for a bit, gardens for a bit, and back and forth. Gardening is very much a learning process for him and he credits his grandfather for his green genes. “He was just the most inspirational man, and a great gardener. He passed away recently and I’ve now got a lot of plants here that were his. I’m growing them so I can give cuttings to the rest of the family.”
Dan’s garden is experimental and loose, peppered with detailed artistic compositions as artists are wont to do. There’s tables overflowing with cuttings in jars, plants sprawling out of make-shift wheelbarrow planters, potato towers built with chicken wire and straw, begonias from his grandfather’s garden and a bunch of newly acquired hellebores growing in the shade of a cluster of gum trees. It’s most definitely an artist’s garden.
Looking down from Dan’s garden, on the horizon, is the city. A contrived landscape illustrating the best and worst of what it means to be human. It feels like another world, down there. Floating above it, in the trees, a sense of perspective comes easily. I wonder whether the landscape and the separation from the noise of the city has affected Dan’s desires and focus.
There’s a strength, quiet confidence and groundedness within Dan, which emerges as our conversation winds with us as we wander through the trees. He’s crafted himself a simple, elegant existence driven by his desire to create art and live well. “I’m happy and grateful that I’m able to sustain myself with my art. But I don’t think I’m lucky. The idea of luck devalues talent, ambition and drive. I’ve worked really hard to be lucky.”
I ask Dan if there’s somewhere he wants to go with his art in the future. “I just want to keep painting,” he says. And he will.
Painting, gardening, cooking. Dan’s got it sorted.
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