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Q&A with our Artist in Residence, Joe Frost

Each year the Library invites an artist to take part in its artist in residence program called, ‘Drawing the Library’. This year, the Library is pleased to welcome Joe Frost, an artist who exhibits at Watters Gallery Sydney, is a drawing lecturer at the National Art School, Darlinghurst and writer for the popular art magazine, Artist Profile.

His recent exhibition, Human Formations explored “the way that spaces we inhabit create odd languages for our bodies to speak” (Laura Fisher, “Seeing Human Formations”).

For the ‘Drawing the Library’ project Joe will be looking at the ways people inhabit the Library as a social space but he has also found inspiration in the Library’s rich collections.


What will be your focus for ‘Drawing the Library’?

I have discovered a couple of different subjects in the Library. The first one – an obvious one - is people reading. People reading books and people working at computers, whole banks of computer screens. I am interested in the different postures of readers; there is a different quality of concentration between reading from a book or a screen. Reading is work of the mind, and the activity of the mind is hard to depict pictorially, but in drawing a person reading a book I can discern a great deal about what they are reading, or what reading is making of them. Looking at people working at screens, I find less variation in that. Peoples’ individual character, their style of reading, is stifled somewhat, and you could almost say their spirit is less tangible and visible.

I have also discovered items in the collection that have given me fresh inspiration for a body of works I commenced prior to my residency at the State Library of NSW. The Library’s subdivision plans of suburban Sydney have provided me with a different way of thinking about certain locations in Sydney that have interested me for a long time. I have been struck by how closely some of the subdivision plans corresponded with my own representations of places, and how evocative the subdivision plans are of the places, even though they were drawn by commercial artists for purely commercial purposes.

What has inspired you at the State Library of NSW?

The buildings are the most immediately inspiring aspect of the Library. The Mitchell Reading Room with its beautiful interior and light have inspired me but I also think there is a special atmosphere in the Governor Marie Bashir reading room, especially the lower ground level where there is an unexpected oasis out the window and a lovely light. There is a sense of quiet and of people doing their work; it’s a nice place to be. I have also been inspired by how the Library supports research. It seems to be a place that is serious about that.

What’s the history of your relationship with the Library?

I don’t have much of a history here. I have been to exhibitions here but I haven’t quite known who or what the Library is for, and I have never really used it as a place to study or do research until now. So now, I am discovering it almost from scratch and I have been excited by what I have found since commencing the Drawing the Library project. 

Your latest exhibition, Human Formations explores the ways that our embodied selves react to the physical spaces we occupy.  What are some of the ways that people using the Library are responding to the reading rooms?

I have already alluded to the differences in peoples’ postures when they are reading from books or screens. The screen must, at some point, have changed the atmosphere of the Library and the way people relate and respond to one another. People seem to be more sectioned off from each other than I imagine they would have been previously. There is a certain relaxation and abandon that people are able to fall into when reading a physical text like a book or a newspaper. By comparison, there is a tense or frozen physicality to people at screens, and of course, phones make people run around as they exit to answer a call. But still, the Mitchell Library with its vastness and beauty does feel different from other places in the city. Having drawn and painted shopping centres and city streets, there is a real difference between those commercial sites and the Library. The Library is still a refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city.  

I should also acknowledge the work that John Bokor, the first artist in residence here, made in the Library. John created some really good drawings that tapped into the buzz of the space, and I wouldn’t be here working in this residency if not for his request to draw from the elevated walkways of the Mitchell Library.

How do you integrate research or inspiration into your practice (the final product)?

Time is the biggest factor in getting from initial research to the consolidated image. I find that separation from the place can help.  While I need to be located here in the Library to see my subjects I then need to remake them in the studio. The process for me involves looking at the sketches I’ve made on site and generating new drawings, to find a stronger articulation of the figures (or the landscapes) that I am looking at.  For me, at some point in the process, the picture becomes the projection of an imaginary image. The first impression is augmented with a more robust sense of form, through a process which I call synthesis. Synthesis incorporates what you see but also, what you think and feel about what you see.

What has been something that surprised you while undertaking your residency with the Library?

I have been surprised by how easily people are able to access the Library’s collections and in particular the many people using the Mitchell Library to access research materials and manuscripts held by the Library. I have also been surprised at how many HSC students are using the reading room. They seem to be working pretty hard. Some of the alternative uses of the Library have been a surprise: jewellery auctions and weddings, for example. It was a great surprise to discover some of the artworks held by the Library, for example, artists like Herbert Badham whose works are hard to find in most major collections as he wasn’t the most celebrated artist of the 1930/40’s but was nonetheless a very good, idiosyncratic artist. There is good depth to the collection of Badham held by the Library.

How will the artist in residency program at the Library help you (what are the benefits or the program), and what’s next?

You often don’t know the benefits until later. But it may well expose my work to a new audience. It has allowed me to extend two subject areas in my work (paintings of places, drawings of figures) and to find something else within them. In April 2017, I am scheduled for an exhibition at Watters Gallery of paintings of places and the residency will help me to bring those works to a better resolution than I otherwise would have done. Along with that body of work, there will be the Drawing the Library works that I hope to exhibit at the Library. 

Joe Frost, State Library 'artist in residence', sitting with a book in hand, in the Governor Marie Bashir Reading Room.

Joe Frost, artist in residence at the State Library of NSW