Interview with artist, author, composer Matt Ottley
Gifted, multi-disciplined artist Matt Ottley has been aptly described as a modern renaissance man. He has led a busy and varied life, not only as an illustrator, writer and composer, but also working as a jackaroo (stockman) on cattle stations in remote parts of Australia, as a landscape gardener in Sydney, and as an equestrian artist in England. He has traveled widely through Australia, South Asia and Europe. As a musician, he composes music in a variety of genres and plays flamenco guitar. He also works as a volunteer wildlife rescuer, specialising in snakes and bats.
He has received much critical acclaim as an illustrator, both of his own and others' picture-books, mainly for younger readers. Most recently, his YA/adult tour de force, Requiem for a Beast, which combines image, words and music, received the Children's Book Council of Australia's 2008 Picture Book of the Year Award; and Home and Away, also for older readers, has been short-listed for this year's award.
Matt was born in Papua New Guinea and lived there until the age of 11, when he moved to Sydney, Australia. He currently lives on the opposite side of the continent, in Perth.
I was born in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, at a time when that country was a mandate (under the guidance and governance) of Australia. The population of Australians living there at that time was very small, and the indigenous people still lived very much in their traditional ways. So, as you can imagine, my eleven and a half years of life there were very important ones in my aesthetic development and in my outlook on the world.
I love the rainforest, the sound of dripping water in brilliant sunshine, the look and feel of soaring mountain ranges. When I was in my early twenties, I wrote a piece of music for two classical guitars, flute and viola, and when my dad heard it, he said he could hear the sounds of the singing of the highland people of Papua New Guinea.
Your recent book for young adults and adults, Requiem for a Beast, which combines prose, illustration and music, as well as some oral history, must have been a very ambitious project. Each element provides a layer of meaning to the communication of the whole work. What was your starting point and how did you work with all these different strands? What research did you carry out?
When I finished high school, I travelled into the Australian outback to work as a jackaroo - or stockman - on a cattle station. Cattle stations often cover huge areas of land, sometimes thousands of square kilometres. Working as a stockman means working on horseback, mustering cattle. Requiem for a Beast contains two stories: one is based on my own experiences, from my days as a stockman, and the other is the true story of an Aboriginal woman – her experiences of childhood in Australia when past governments removed Aboriginal children from their families. The people taken from their families during this episode in Australian history are often referred to as the “Stolen Generations”.
My starting point was the music. I originally wrote a piece of music, only half as long as the version of the score recorded for the book and completely different in style, in which I expressed, musically, what it was like chasing and capturing a wild bull. I then planned a series of paintings to go with the music, but had a chance meeting with the Aboriginal elder whose story is represented in the book. Her story affected me so much, I decided to expand my original concept and include her story in the work, which meant filling out my own story to make it a larger narrative. This, of course, then led to me expanding the music.
The idea that made me want to develop the whole thing into what it became, was a notion that struck me as I listened to the elder telling me her story. It occurred to me that my story - of chasing and capturing a wild bull - would make a wonderful allegory, a metaphorical story for her story.
I think that the European invaders of this country - my ancestors - were afraid of the indigenous culture. It was so utterly alien to them that they did what we humans all over the world do when we are confronted by something that makes us afraid: they attempted to control and subdue it. They killed much of the population, then did the ultimate act of control: they attempted to break up families and communities, culminating in the Stolen Generations. When I was a stockman, it was with an enormous amount of adrenaline and fear that I chased wild bulls, and my only way of controlling them was to subdue and tether them.
As far as research goes, well, I spent two years getting to know (and love) the particular Bundjalung people I worked with. My Aboriginal elder character is a Bundjalung woman. Bundjalung is a nation of indigenous Australian people from New South Wales and Queensland. I also researched the Stolen Generations issue, reading as much material as I could find, and listening to the personal stories of many people; and I researched the history of the Requiem Mass within the Roman Catholic church.
Your main character is referred to as “the boy” throughout and we never learn his name. Why did you decide to keep him anonymous?
For me it was important that “the boy” have no name. He represents all young men. One of the themes in this book is that of the transitions, or rites of passage, that young men (and of course young women, though this book is particularly focused on young men) either put themselves through, or their cultures put them through, on their journeys towards adulthood. Also, on a personal note, it’s what I was often called when I first worked as a stockman.
A talk given by an Aboriginal elder about the Stolen Generation, and attended by “the boy”, is central to Requiem for a Beast. From your reference at the beginning of the book, it is clear that some of the words are quoted directly from an Aboriginal elder; is that the case for them all?
It is more or less true for all of the elder’s words. I was very careful not to misrepresent her. I spent many hours interviewing her. I selected excerpts from what she said, and only really edited her words so that they would read smoothly.
The chapter titles and the music itself are a combination of the mediaeval Latin text Requiem from the Roman Catholic church, and Aboriginal poetry and commentary. What for you are the parallels between the two?
I chose the Requiem after a conversation with an old mentor of mine, writer Rodney Hall, who suggested choosing a musical format for the book (because the work would involve music). I chose the Requiem partly because it is an iconic work from Western culture, but also because the Requiem text is, at heart, about coming to peace and resolution. The word Requiem literally means “Rest”. When I talked to the Aboriginal elders about the Requiem text (of which I would only use a part), they told me of stories and songs from their own culture that have similar ideas and themes.
The first movement/part of the book, for example, is called Dies Irae, which means Day of Wrath, and is about when the world changes. The Aboriginal story and song, Ghost Story, is about when the world changed for Aboriginal culture - their own Day of Wrath, when they experienced their first white man.
In the second movement, I chose an Aboriginal song that works ironically with the Latin text. The Latin talks about the world being flattened, destroyed (Mors Stupebit et Natura means Death and Nature shall be Stupefied), when God comes to take account of all things. The Aboriginal song talks about singing and dancing the world into existence. This is how God, in Aboriginal culture, takes account of things – by creating a song about it.
The third movement, Lacrymosa, which means Weeping, is about grief. The Bundjalung song is about the grief one feels when one is not in one’s spirit country - a grief many people suffered after being separated from their loved ones.
Were the artists involved in the recording aware of the other media involved in the project? What did that mean as far as their performances were concerned?
Yes, all artists were fully aware of what the project was about, and how it would all fit together. I was indeed gratified, and humbled by the dedication and support that all of them gave to the project.
What did the recording process entail and were you involved in it?
It was funded by the Australia Council for the Arts, Australia’s premier government funding body, to work with musicians from the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, one of this country’s leading orchestras.
I was living on the east coast at the time, which meant two trips over to the west, a four or five hour flight. The first was to record the music after it had been written. Until I was in the room with the players, I had not heard, in real life, a single note of the work, except as I could hear it in my head! The second trip was to rerecord passages I was not happy with in the initial recording. I sat with the recording engineer as the ensemble played the work. At one point I hurriedly rewrote a passage that wasn’t working, in front of the musicians. It was a very intense two days!
It must have been a very exciting moment when it was all brought together – can you tell us about it?
Yes, it was a very exciting moment to see the book, with its CD, for the first time. It was the culmination of five years of hard work. It was also very exciting to see the full exhibition of the paintings, some of which are large (a metre and a half wide), on show with the book, at the Fremantle Children’s Literature Centre, which is the premier institution for literature for young people in this part of the world.
What reactions have you had from young people?
Requiem for a Beast has now notoriously become the most complained about book for young people in Australian history! That’s because it contains one graphic illustration of a bloodied axe, as well as two vague references to suicide and five incidences of the “f” word. What a lot of commentators didn’t seem to take on board when the book first came to public notice, is that this is a picture book for young adults, not for little children.
My young adult audience has been unfalteringly supportive, and I’ve received the most amazing feedback from them. The book is now selling extremely well in Australia, and is getting the serious literary reviewing and attention I think it deserves. I’m very happy with the general response from readers.
Recently, a theatre group in Perth, called Redfoot Theatre, affiliated with Hale School, did a stage production of the work, involving 70 young people. I was overawed by what they did with the work, and the critical response was astounding. I’m looking forward to working with Redfoot Theatre in the future on other projects.
You recently co-authored another hard-hitting picture-book for older readers, Home and Away. It is a terrifying, heart-breaking read in diary form of an ordinary, busy, happy Australian family caught up in a war which causes them to flee in desperation and seek refuge in another, unwelcoming country. What was the stimulus for Home and Away? Did you work closely with co-author John Marsden to complete the book?
The stimulus for Home and Away was the awful situation in Australia before 2007, due to government policy, when many refugees arriving in this country were treated as prisoners. John Marsden wrote the text as a personal response to the situation, but it was only some years later that I came to illustrate his words.
Thankfully, Australia has changed its policies on refugees, and I believe that we now offer as much humanitarian support as is possible. Of course, it’s impossible to know this absolutely for sure, as most people from the public have no access to refugee camps: but the refugees I have been speaking to are certainly happy with how they’re being treated. The refugee crisis is a worldwide issue, and it was important somehow to give readers the experience of walking in the shoes of refugees for a short while.
The collaboration was not really a collaboration, however, as John and I didn’t speak once during the whole process. I don’t normally work this way, and was at first a little unsure as to whether it was all going to work: but then found that, as an artist, it was the most amazing and rewarding challenge. John’s words are powerful, and complete in themselves. They don’t need illustrating in order to make the meaning clear, which is how a lot of picture books work. This meant that I had to focus on the subtext, on what was going on underneath the story. My images are all about the mood of the family as war comes to their city and they have to flee.
Your finely honed oil illustrations are interspersed with crayon drawings ostensibly by Toby, the narrator’s 5-year-old brother. What effect were you aiming at and how did you manage to make your drawings so convincingly like a 5-year-old’s?
If you look carefully at Toby’s drawings, you realize they are actually like the drawings of a seven-year-old. I did this to reflect the reality that some people stay in refugee camps for years. The cover image of Toby depicts a boy who is perhaps seven or eight, or even nine. Although Toby is five in the story, I wanted to show his drawings as being like the kinds of images children do in detention centres as part of their healing process. I did Toby’s drawings with my left hand.
You have illustrated many other picture-books, mostly for younger readers, which are set to become modern classics, including three about a dog called Faust. Can you tell us about him?
Faust was a real dog, owned by my friend Rodney Hall. He was a real character, always getting into trouble. When I met him, I decided I would do a story about him. The first book is called What Faust Saw. The second two stories, Faust’s Party and Faust in Space, act as a mirror to, and a reflection of, the first book. Together they make up a long romp that Faust has with a bunch of aliens who like him, for some reason, and seem to want to hang around with him. His ultimate act of mischief is to travel into outer space with his alien acquaintances, which just gets him into even more trouble. I had a lot of fun making the Faust books.
You have spent some time on cultural exchange programmes in South Korea. Can you tell us a bit about your visits and how they have influenced you as an artist?
I’ve been to South Korea twice now, each time working with an organization called Choice Maker; and each time I’ve thoroughly enjoyed and been stimulated by the experience. I visited many schools in the Seoul region, as well as a wonderful children’s literature festival on Nami Island, where there were something like 70 nations represented. I met the ‘President’ of Nami Island, who made me an honorary citizen!
I’ve also done residencies at schools in Japan and Singapore and I’ve travelled quite extensively in Cambodia, a country I have a particular fondness for. I’ve spoken with artists from all of these places, and it has been wonderful to gain an insight into their lives and their work. Of course one can’t really learn much about a culture by just dipping into it for short periods of time as I have, but one of the truly wonderful things I’ve learned, which I always suspected was a truth, is that underneath the different languages, different cultural practices, different ways of living, and vastly different life experiences, we are all the same. We all laugh and cry at pretty much the same sorts of things. We all love our parents and our children and friends, are moved by music and poetry, and want only the best for the people we love.
Just recently a soldier on the Thai/Cambodian border smiled and nodded at me in the way strangers might smile at each other in Sydney, or London, or Seoul. And yet he was someone living in a remote part of his country, away from his loved ones, probably missing them sorely, involved in a tense border dispute, of which he may or may not have known anything about the politics. That’s the other thing my travels have taught me: that the affairs of humans are just as baffling and nonsensical, and potentially tragic or funny, no matter where in the world they are.
Can you tell us about what you are working on at the moment and what future projects you have lined up?
At present, I’m working on the illustrations for a wonderful new text by Gary Crew called The Serpent’s Tale, and am about to begin illustrating a text, also by Gary, called To the Distant Stars. Both will be picture books for young adults. The Serpent’s Tale is a broad view of the human story, from pre-hominid times to the distant future, and is haunting in the way it’s told. To the Distant Stars is an extraordinary and poetic science fiction story that will be partly picture book and partly graphic novel.
I’m also working on a large musical project based on the Rapunzel story, and written by Australian author Catherine Bateson. It’s a gritty story set in contemporary times, written in the form of a series of poems, which I will set to music. Apart from that, I’m half way through a symphony, which I hope to have completed by the end of this year.
*Marjorie Coughlan is PaperTigers' Associate Editor .
Posted August 2009
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