Farewell, Young Arthur!

arthur russell

On the weekend I received sad news from Perth, that Arthur Russell has died. He was just shy of his 82nd birthday.

The above photo, taken by Mickie, is from about 8 years ago, when we three visited Kings Park together to check out a memorial sculpture to the volunteer fire brigades by artist Jon Tarry.

Often our adventures with Arthur would involve photography – not just to document the occasion, but also as an act of making compositions. Later, having gotten the photos developed, Arthur would sit with the shots and shuffle through them one by one, comparing the image’s cropping and shapes and tones and colours, and asking anyone in reach to nominate their favourites.

You had to be able to give a reason why, or else you’d get in trouble for a kind of aesthetic cowardice. This was a funny process, because initially you might just choose one of the shots at random as “my favourite” to shut him up, but then, facing the Russell Inquisition for Aesthetic Judgement, you’d have to scratch around your brain and come up with a communicable reason for your choice.

This wasn’t easy, but you’d manage to dredge up something, like “the shapes of the trees anchor the rocks, they almost seem to embrace them” which would then prompt Arthur to scrutinise the photo even more closely. If he could follow what you were saying, he’d laugh out loud and say “Yes! That’s Right!” as if you had shown him something he could never have worked out on his own.

He loved this game. He played it with any pictorial compositions, found or made: his own painstakingly crafted pen and wash drawings, a random photograph from the sports page of the crappy West Australian newspaper, or a cheapo calendar with pictures of horses he’d got on special at the newsagency.

I remember he once told me that he even asked his cleaning guy to help him select the best drawings to be framed for his latest exhibition. Arthur really listened closely to the opinions of others, and you didn’t have to be “qualified” to say something. “Looking”, he believed was a skill everyone had. And Arthur’s skill, I guess, was to get others to look with an increased clarity and intensity.

Arthur was, after all, a teacher. For many years (way before I met him) he taught art at high schools, and also ran the educational programme at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. I met him first, back in 1993, when our teacher Barb Bolt brought him in as a guest lecturer to run a series of life drawing classes. I was only 17.

Here are two things I remember about that class:

great artists (1). Arthur lugged in a whole bunch of these 1980s periodicals called “the great artists”. (Here’s one I found a picture of, in fact, I’m pretty sure he brought this particular one to class.) He wanted us to give our opinion on which artist made the most interesting drawings of bodies: Leonardo or Klimt or Schiele etc. We had to point to specific things in the drawings as we grappled to express our half-baked preferences. Schiele‘s drawings seemed very tortured and contorted, I remember we students liked that. We thought Klimt was a bit decorative. And so on. The point is, he always validated our thinking: the Russell Inquisition was gruelling and sometimes irritating, but if we got into the spirit of it, he made us feel important and intelligent, like we were coming up with new insights that were fresh and special.

(2). He brought along oranges cut into wedges for “half-time”. We thought this was hilarious. The oranges made the life drawing session seem like a sports game rather than a dreary educational obligation. It was a small gesture, incredibly cheap and easy for him to execute, but it really made us feel like he gave a shit about making our encounter into an event.

Later, Mickie and I became good friends with Arthur outside of the university context. We would visit him at his home in Scarborough, later at Northam, then at the crazy Serbian Retirement Village he wound up in. His house was scrupulously clean, and he had nothing more than what he required: just the right amount of plates and cups and glasses, all carefully chosen for their utility and aesthetic value.

He liked lunches. When assembling lunch, an important job (delegated to the visitor) was to choose which plates to use. Once again, it was important to discuss why you made these crockery choices for this particular food: decoration, form, functionality, food: there was no ordinary lunch with Arthur. But none of his kitchenwares were expensive, usually just accidentally “marvellous” designs that had somehow made their way through to the discount store at the mall.

He was crazy about iced coffee. He developed odd ways, as I suppose happens to people who live on their own. He would make up half a dozen iced coffees at once, and then store them in the fridge, ready to go, in six separate glasses. I’m not joking – one day a few years back I documented the process:

iced coffee factory by arthur russell
Sharing the huge batch off coffee into six glasses…

iced coffees lined up
Lining up the glasses in the fridge…

final product
Look at how pleased he is with himself…

When he wanted an iced coffee (which was quite often) Arthur would add cold milk (a 50-50 mix) just before drinking. (I guess this just-in-time milk addition would give him the option of offering his guest a black coffee…)

After you visited him, undoubtedly you’d get a phone call a day or so later to reprise some tiny corner of a topic of conversation you’d already forgotten about. Even if he was a bit cranky sometimes, “Young Arthur” excelled on the phone. He would ring up abruptly to share “a new thought”. Even though these thoughts were often compliments, they were delivered in a very brusque manner, with very no time for pleasantries. The call would go like this:

Me: Hello?
Arthur: Arthur here.
Me: Ah, gday, how’s it going?
Arthur: Two things: first, I think you’re spot on with what you were saying about that [insert name of exhibition or movie here]. I think that was a bloody good insight. Second, your latest project is a real gift to [insert name of institution or community here]. It’s an act of generosity, they’re lucky to have you.
Me: Yeah well I wonder what…
Arthur [interrupting]: Did you hear that? I just paid you a compliment and you moved on and changed the subject without acknowledging it!
Me: Oh. Thanks.
Arthur: You have trouble taking compliments, you know that?
[…this would carry on for a short time… Then, as abruptly as it began, Arthur would decide it was now time to end the call…]
Arthur: Are we right then?
Me: Yep.
Arthur: Righto. Talk soon. Bye.
Me: Bye.

Speaking of phonecalls: Arthur was one of those “old people” who pride themselves on being able to guess who is on the other end of the phone, just by the sound of their voice. So it was pretty alarming to me, last May, when I called him up and said playfully “guess who this is ?” – and he couldn’t guess.

I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t. And his voice had gone all slurry. Oh. God. “Young” Arthur was now old. My eyes were filling up with tears on the phone, I didn’t want him to hear me cry as we talked. Arthur had changed. He struggled to tell me what had happened. They didn’t really know, but he was going into the hospital for some tests. Maybe Parkinsons.

But it wasn’t Parkinsons, the doctors thought it was a series of “mini-strokes” which had rocked his body. I visited him in hospital. He found it easier to communicate in person, still trying to make fun of the nurses and the fluorescent food they served him for lunch (which he tried to fob off on me). His life was already flagging at that point, but he sat up in bed making drawings, getting the orderlies to sharpen his pencils for him.

Here are the drawings he was working on the day I visited:
arthurs hospital drawings

These are the last images I have of Arthur.

arthur reads my acdc dream

I brought him a copy of a screenprint, the handwritten text of a dream about AC/DC which I made during the Bon Scott project I did last year. It’s a pretty funny dream, with the members of AC/DC sharing a warehouse with the members of a feminist architecture collective. He immediately engaged with it, reading it from start to finish in front of me, in silence, while I sat waiting, watching him, and taking these photos. When he got to the end, he cracked up:

arthur cracks up

After I returned to Sydney, I sent Arthur a few postcards to keep him updated on what I was up to, especially what I was trying to write about in my thesis. I knew he was not much chop on the phone – there was too much “what?” and “say again?!” from both of us – but I guessed he would enjoy getting the cards. Every time, a few days after I sent a card, he’d call me up. Sometimes we’d talk, but more often, he’d get my answering machine, and leave a long, convoluted and mumbling message I could only half make out. These messages were incredibly sweet, and incredibly sad. His last message was full of praise for me: he said something about how it was really marvellous what I was doing, how my project was generous and intelligent and most importantly, “not at all elitist”. I saved it on my phone, but after seven days the phone company cleared the saved messages and it was gone.

And now, so is he.

Farewell Young Arthur, I loved you old fella.

14 thoughts on “Farewell, Young Arthur!

  1. lizzie

    A lovely elegy lucas. I never met Arthur – but i enjoyed those phone messages he left for you. They were slurrred but eloquent in feeling – I remember one he left where all we could make out was something like: “good about you…. not ambitious”. It made me feel that Arthur had spotted something righteous about you which made me proud – even though I really had no idea what it was all about.
    I’m very sad that he’s gone.

  2. Deanside

    Dear Lucas
    What a lovely remembrance of Arthur.
    Everyone in the office will be wondering why I am crying.
    I think he is right about the iced coffees.
    Cheers Arthur.
    x Bec

  3. Philip

    Thanks Lucas,

    I was an old friend of Arthur’s going back to 1979 or thereabouts.
    You describe him well – many thanks.
    I’ve lived away from Perth for nearly 20 years and didn’t always get to
    see Arthur when I was back there. I saw him once when he’d moved to the Serbian joint but we spoke on the phone, just like the conversations you describe.


  4. Jasmin


    One connector remembering another! My parents have become more distant over the phone in the last six months so I relate to your savouring of scraps of conversations and calls.


  5. jon tarry

    Arthur a person of a time, in life that time you made present, you carried it forward and us forward with you.

    You are not a figure of sentiment, even tho you possessed it in a healthy way. I first met you Arthur at a post-artschool artist-initiated drawing session held at Oddfellows buildings in perth, we all chipped in hired models critiqued each other, you always bought fruit and baked things to share, and a wealth of knowledge of drawing, yet always being one of the strange family of artists of that time.You rang me once to tell me off as i had offended you by not speaking to you at an opening, i never did that again, eventually i understood what was meant about how people delete, deny and avoid.We always spoke with great honesty after this and always with an engagement with the Art. A conversation over 28 years. Jon

  6. lauren

    you’re spot on with what you’ve written about Young Arthur – bloody good bit of sensitive insight. into him and you.

    we’re all luck to you have you , you know. take care lucas.

  7. raquel

    Vale young-Arthur

    We can only hope that we too will have your never-ending creative spirit.

    Dear Lucas,
    A lovely piece of writing. I remember your phone calls with Arthur well. Particularly one where you where describing the peanut butter and avocado salad sandwiches we where eating. He didn’t buy the satay explanation. I saw him in 2004 when I was in Perth, someone had brought him to an opening. He looked smaller, in height and energy, but not crankiness. In Kellerberrine last year I heard someone call him Old Arthur from Northam, it made me cranky!

  8. Anne-Maree

    Thank you so much for your memories of Authur-what great observations of his character. I first met him in 1993 at ECU where I was lucky enough to have him as a life-drawing lecturer. What a good lecturer he was too- he had a keen eye for badly drawn angles of limbs etc..or the miss observed placement of body weight in the drawings. At a split second glance he could tell where the drawing was off. Students knew they were doing well when Arthur passed behind them saying “good shot!”.

    A few years later and for several years I attended life drawing groups along-side Arthur and got to know him a little more. He was given to frequent loud sighs (if his drawing wasn’t going well) or at times, laughter, in an otherwise very quiet room. He was good fun ‘Young Arthur”.

    One evening I accepted an invitation to attend a orchestral concert with him (his usual partner was not available). We sat in the second row, mostly in full spotlight. When the conductor appeared on stage Arthur burst into laughter (and at times throughout the concert-usually during the quiet moments). He enjoyed the conductor’s theatrical comedic quality. Rather much like his view on life.

    Arthur could see the funny side in everything. He was a generous, humorous and uplifting human being. It was a priviledge to have known him.


  9. Quang Vo

    I’ll miss him much now that he’s gone. He is the most wonderful and homourous person I have ever met. I am sitting here think about him, did a google search and it take me here. Thank you for the wonderful post about Arthur.

    I remember when I was cleaning for him, everytime I visit him, he always ask me to choose which drawing I would like best, and yes he always make you explain why you choose that drawing.

  10. Lucas Post author

    Dear Quang Vo
    thanks so much for your tender dedication. Whenever I visited Arthur in Highgate, he always talked fondly of you, and he always valued very highly your opinions and feedback on his work.

  11. sunny

    beautiful writing lucas, i almost shed a tear at the end, the bit about the phone company. this arthur sounds like an amazing fella and he was right about you being brilliant too

  12. Patrick Carter

    Your writins brought back so many fond memories of Arthur.We arrived in Perth in 1990 and Arthur was living in the flat above, in Scarborough. Right from the outset Arthur made us feel immensely welcome. He drove many of the neighbours wild with his poor rendition of Irish Eyes were smiling. Being Irish we thought it quaint but the Aussie neighbours couldn’t wait for the end.
    Over the years we maintained a friendship, visiting him in Northam and Stirling st.
    I had the least interest in art but Arthur always asked for my useless opinion.One time we visited he was doin drawings of the Grand Dame of Australian Opera and I couldn’t help but burst out laughing when he showed me the scribbles. I had to ask was she talking or singing in these musings.
    I rang him today thinking to myself that its a while since we had popped in to see him. Operator on the line said line is out of service or words to the effect. I jumped on the net and there I was greeted by the very sad news that this world had lost one of its finest human beings.
    Arthur I will indeed miss you and thank you for asking the interesting question,for seeing behind the bigger issues and most of all for all of these people you have touched in this world with your humanity.

    love Patrick and Aine


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