Interview: William H Luke

That’s Life, 2008 & Raised Left Arm, 2008

I was introduced to artist Bill Luke through Rick just over a year ago. The first thing that struck me about Bill was his energy and his ability to story tell. Bill seems to suck you in, take you this way and that and then leave you in a world of wonder.

My interest in Bill grew after Rick, Myles and I joined a local life drawing group with him. During these Wednesday nights there is plenty of banter and laughs, but what is most gratifying is the guidance Bill provides to each of us.

The more time I have spent with Bill, the more intrigued I am about his character and his life. So I decided to have a chat with Bill in his studio whilst working on his current art project. And this is what I discovered….

Down a side street tucked away in an industrial area of Richmond sits Bill’s studio. As I ventured up a set of dark stairs, the artworks lined along the wall provided me with a sense of what was to unfold. A cluster of furniture, sculpture, canvases and materials greeted me at the door. And there in the corner near a window sat Bill on a milk crate focused and working with a slender paint brush.

Tell me about what you are working on…

I am working on a series of portraits of musician Broderick Smith. I wanted to work with Broderick as a subject because of “my love for him… love of his music, his performance…”

I am working on a few things at once. This one here [a large portrait of Broderick singing] I have just put a light wash over, this one here I have [a board with a newspaper spread] I have just fixed down the paper. That’s the thing with paint, everything takes time to dry.

Right now, I am painting one of Broderick’s lyrics, ‘send her just one journalist, who has never sinned, emails murmur secrets, computers glare in hate’. I love that; it’s a piece of poetry. I could write it perfectly, but I want the text to be painted to reflect the light & shade in the music.

Just as Broderick believes lyrics should say something and not just be something to sing along to. Bill tells me everything he creates is “highly considered”.

As I walked around the studio I could see Bill is very much an organised artist. He himself says

I am methodical…every day I write lists of what I am doing. Every idea I have, I write it down on the list. Everything has its place, the paint swatches live here, the oils here, the charcoal here…

Bill Luke in his studio

Why are you creating this and what are you going to do with these pieces once finished?

To see what is around the corner.

It’s about working with the ideas and working until the ideas don’t come anymore.

I would love to have a party with all my friends and have Broderick performing whilst surrounded by the pieces I have created.

Are there any mediums you like to use in particular? A favourite?

No, I use a material to enhance what I am doing at the time.

I found this board [the material Bill was painting the text onto] on the side of the road after a gig Broderick held in Castlemaine. This newspaper over here [another work in progress] I found a couple of weeks ago with Broderick’s performance advertised.

I pick up paper that is littered in the street. I am the sort of person that will pick up a bottle and put it in the bin 10 meters down the road. I will watch people walk past that same bottle, before I come along and pick it up.

Where did it all start – the love for art?

My love for art really developed when he was living in Sydney working for Ron Barassi in office furniture and I met a guy with good taste and a good eye.

Bill dabbled in art long before that. In the late 60’s he studied at Preston Tech, which was the first young education program dedicated to the arts. Then he went on to complete an apprenticeship as a sign writer. In the early 80’s he developed the company Luke Design, which would produce signage. Those days’ theatre signs, bill boards and street banners were all painted by hand. In between he worked in furniture, imported European classics such as Knoll and Eames and then onto Danish furniture. He project managed the installation of enormous sculptures, installed the first automatic teller machine in a shop window and put up the first and last banner that spread from the buildings on one side of Collins Street to the other.

The history of Bill Luke is immense and full of many good stories.

What other artists inspire you?

All of them do. I think about other artists whilst working, it all comes in. Everyone has an influence on me. Influence is knowledge and knowledge is art.

It is about keeping it real. The thing I like about Broderick is that he keeps it real. We are able to read each other. Although we are two different personalities with different art forms, we are both on the same page.

As we talk, Bill moves from one artwork to the next. With a wet sponge he rubs cold milky coffee over one of the portraits, lightly staining the image.

Bill Luke in his studio

What’s next?

A holiday! This project takes up my time 24/7. Most days I am here in the studio, but if I am not here I am thinking about it. Whether it is at home or walking down the street, I am always thinking about it.

That’s why it is so hard to price design or art by the hour. Design is about knowledge, vision, ideas. You might think about the project over a couple of days and develop the concept before you actually put a pencil to paper. Art is about ideas. You absorb everything, you live it.

How then do you put a price on your art?

My main objective is to do it and get it right. Not to create it to sell it. I hope people buy my art because they like it. If I want to sell the piece, I mark it at a price that will sell.

I buy art because I like it, or I like the person who created it. Not because of investment or price. Judging by the amount of canvas carefully stored in his studio, Bill likes a lot of art and a lot of people.

Do you have any hobbies?

I love walking. I will walk for a couple of hours at a time just looking around – observing, thinking. My eyes are everywhere.

I was a marathon runner in the 80’s. Twenty-seven years ago I organised the first ever foot race from Sydney to Melbourne sponsored by a company called Apple & Pear. I even put a big apple on the top of my car. There were six athletes and only one person made it. A Scottish man named Walter McGrorie. A few months later Westfield approached me with the vision of sponsoring the next foot race, so I went in to talk to them about it. I never heard from them again, but the following year a Westfield sponsored foot race from Sydney to Melbourne was held. It was won by a Cliff Young who apparently trained in gumboots.

In a few words how would you describe yourself?

Enthusiastic, Hyperactive, Passionate, An observer

When I mention to Bill he strikes me as being modest he comments

modest….not really. I like talking about my work to people, I like talking about what I am doing.

Bill Luke in his studio working on one of the Broderick Smith portraits

Any regrets?

No regrets. They are all life experiences, although I have sometimes regretted getting pissed. I am a person who confronts my issues. I walk in and tackle the hardest things in front of me first at the start of the day.

How would you like to be remembered?

Great question….fun…someone who does things and doesn’t just think about it. Someone who has a broad interest in the arts.

No excuses. I am not a person who avoids going somewhere because I am sick with a cold. I will get out of bed, go down to the gig and then get back in bed.

I would like to be remembered as someone who is fair & reasonable, a good dad and tough – I am not a wimp.

I am not a ‘yes man’. I am a lover of confrontation – I will be the first person to oppose something (even if it is just for fun).

I am not materialistic. Like all, I like beautiful things and most beautiful things cost money. But I don’t rate success by the amount of material things one possesses.

Time is the great asset in life.

It was hard to draw myself away from the world of Bill Luke, but once I did I was in a bit of a daze. This man is truly inspiring. Just as his paintings are built up with layers of paint, charcoal, posters and stains, Bill himself is a layered character, layered with experiences, knowledge and stories. I felt privileged that I have had the opportunity to peel back just a few of the layersthat make up Bill Luke.

For more on Bill Luke and his art, visit his website