Aaron Fell-Fracasso

Interview and photos by Aaron Hughes

Aaron Fell-Fracasso is a born and bred northern suburbs local, forging his identity here between the mountain and the sea. He has crafted out for himself a unique space in the art scene locally, as well as nationally. Alongside his fiancé Ann Eklund and Irish terrier Albie, he hosts the beautiful picture framing shop and high-class gallery The Egg & Dart in Thirroul. On top of that he is also a brilliant artist in his own right. I sat down with him in his new framing workspace and studio for a sleep-deprived conversation ahead of a big two-gallery personal exhibition and relaunch of The Egg & Dart space.

Aaron Hughes: For those who only know you in relation to The Egg & Dart, or have no knowledge of either your work or your gallery, give us some context...for starters where did you grow up?

Aaron Fell-Fracasso: I was born in Bulli Hospital. I grew up and spent my first twenty years in one house on Rothery Road in Corrimal, just opposite the little corner shop, there's a bait and tackle shop there now. My grandparents on my mother's side lived on Chourding Crescent in Bellambi, right in the heartland of Bellambi. I spent a fair bit of time growing up there, learning to surf at Bellambi and East Corrimal. I guess a lot of the early parts of childhood were also spent around my uncle, my mother's brother. He had a big love for surfing and fishing, etc., so he had a fair bit to do with how I came to relate to the coast and the ocean. It all sort of started from there.

Nice, so you're currently set up very close to home, did you branch out further to study at all?

I finished the HSC and then the opportunity was there to pick up a full time job on the railways or go to art school and I disappointed everybody and went to art school! I had no real understanding of why I was doing it, I just thought that would be the go. I mean, I did art in school for the HSC and things like that, but really hadn't thought about anything else other than that it would be good to go to art school and do some more drawing and painting and things like that.

So I did that. I ended up doing an advanced diploma and then left, did a bit of working around for a few years but I soon realised that I needed to go back to art school. I decided to go back to complete a Bachelor of Creative Arts at Wollongong Uni. I shuffled off to Sydney for a few years and took a fairly big trip over to Europe and then came back, worked for a little while and ended up getting to the place where I was wanting to start a picture framing business back here at home.

I missed mentioning the picture framing part of what I was doing earlier, but that was all when I was up in Sydney. I started picture framing because I was making art and I thought that would be a nice way, a cheap way, of being an artist because I was able to frame my own stuff! 

...the one major cost in art you can cover yourself and don't have to worry about it - good plan! How long ago was it now that you set up shop here in Thirroul?

It's coming up on four years in June. The eleventh of June I opened the doors, 2011.

So it's four years later and now you've set up a new workshop and you're relaunching the gallery...

Yeah, well there was never actually really a gallery as such to begin with. That evolved itself as well. That little space that we had as a shopfront, I always thought it was earmarked for something but I didn’t know what it was. I set up an exhibition of some beautiful indigenous prints with Shaun Poustie, who was a co-founder of Red Hand Prints up in the Territory. He had a number of prints in his private collection from over his years of working up there and wanted to exhibit them somewhere. I thought we'd frame them up and give it a try. That went really well and kicked off the idea of exhibiting works and so it organically evolved to where it is now.

Now you’ve completely separated the spaces. What do you hope to be the benefit of that?

Being able to frame without walking over the top of my father's head!

It will increase productivity and efficiency in regard to the framing. The workshop space will also double-up as my studio, so I'll finally have my own space, which I've done without for quite some time. I've been able to take advantage of other people's studios or other makeshift spaces.

I guess I don't want people to lose sight of the fact that we're picture framers, but we also want to be a sort of hub of activity in art and the new gallery space will enable us to run a more convincing gallery, according to more conventional ideas, as well as being able to have people come in with their stuff and ask for advice and have their framing done.

You mention wanting to be a hub of activity for art here and I know having the gallery you've worked with a number of artists from this area already. What are your thoughts on the arts community here?

Well, it's obviously quite strong. I guess, along with Ann, we have one gallery with a particular vision and that doesn't necessarily allow us to cater for everybody in the area, so it's a great thing that there’s other things starting to pop up, like Black Gold (haha), because it sort of takes the pressure off us as well. I think the more the merrier in a way. If we can make this place more of a destination, with Thirroul being a satellite to Sydney itself, if we all work together that will work in favour for all of us and also keep people here as well; keep the creativity happening within this strip between the ocean and the mountain. I was going to say something else as well…

You were going to list your favourite and least favourite artists from around here…

Ha! Yeah that's right. From A to Z. Top 100. No, what I was going to say, we've talked a lot about the local art community and what's here and being able to harness that, but we also want to try other things and bring more into this area. So naturally with Ann being there, she has a strong link to the Stockholm art scene. Her best friend Sofi is a very strong artist, so we expect that things will naturally evolve there and we'll be able to invite some artists internationally, along with what we have already done in the past; bringing artists from Sydney, Melbourne and Argentina, things like that. So we want to broaden the community's taste buds for art as much as looking after the artists from the area and I think that will help keep us fresh and leading the way in some respects.

I guess one other thing I could add to the idea of The Egg and Dart being more of a hub of sorts, is that although we’ll be having the commercial shows, roughly around eight of those a year, in between we also want to run the gallery as more of an art space where we can invite curators and artists from outside the area, or even around here, and invite them to do something a little bit different, like what we did two weeks ago with Gregory Hodge and Clare Thackway, with their piece The Infinite Everything. We allowed them to just come in and set up an installation. We're looking to do more of that and change the idea of what a commercial gallery is by doing things that aren't commercial! I guess just being a bit more playful and open, keeping us moving and again keeping us fresh and an interesting place to come to.

Awesome, and so in terms of the business, now working alongside Ann, what are the dynamics like here with the two of you working together?

We live, work and play in very close proximity to each other and I think we do surprisingly well for the amount of time that we spend together!

Obviously she's been a great addition to Egg and Dart and we've learnt a lot of things together. Ann has helped the business immensely and we do work so well together. That's probably the reason why I'm engaged to get married to her, which will be happening in a couple month's time in Sweden. Cant wait!

With your current exhibition, Thunderbolt’s Way, there are many elements that aren’t from around here, but I feel like it still has a large flavour from this area even though you went to other places to create it...

I’m a little bit misleading in some ways. I gave the title for this show because Ann and I went on a road trip and we passed through Scone, came over from Barrington Tops, the back of Gloucester, and you get on to a road called Thunderbolt's Way, which is named after Captain Thunderbolt, who was a famous bush ranger...

His actual last name was Thunderbolt?

No, that was his nickname, Captain Thunderbolt, I'm not sure what his real name was, but he roamed around that area and was able to hide up in those hills and make a fairly good living for quite some time. He became quite famous, hence having a road named after him.

I create my work and, although I'd like to be able to call myself an abstract painter, it's quite clear that I'm really kind of not because they always tend to be some sort of landscape work, or landscape-derived sort of work, even though I'm trying my best not to do that.

I did one particular work, called Thunderbolt's Way, which is currently up at Finbox, but will be leaving soon. I did that because I made the work and thought it reminded me of Gloucester, because Gloucester has that big mountain that sort of juts out of nowhere, well not out of nowhere, but it juts out as a backdrop to the town. It's quite dramatic and it reminded me of that, and I like the name Thunderbolt’s Way.

It's a good name!

Yeah, so I just kind of stuck with that for the work I’ve been doing. Well, it also actually ties in with a trip that I did out to Wheeo with Ashley Frost. I like to start the works by going for a road trip and then, even though that has got nothing to do with what I ultimately do in the studio, it kind of has everything to do with what I end up doing in the studio at the same time, so it filters through in some way.

Going back to this landscape here, of course it's always around and we're always in it. You know, living up in the top of Wombarra now and coming down to the coast, even just driving up one of those steep roads to get up there, you're just always looking at it. I'll take Albie for a walk and am always looking I guess.

I feel like landscapes do come out, like you say, but beyond that I think a lot of things come out. Sure they may be landscape driven, but I feel like they're very Australian and very representative of the landscape. Not necessarily all of them come across as direct landscapes or anything like that, there are definitely abstract elements to it, but certainly the costal rocks and the banksias and the escarpment also come into play...

Yeah, I guess where you're going is that there's all those sort of specific areas and there's also the idea of the Australian landscape, the icon, when people look at it they often see Ayers Rock or Uluru. And, although it's not intentional, it would be silly to deny that imagery or that the idea of the Australian landscape is not something that I'm playing with. So I guess I'm using that as a way to formulate my compositions. Although there are a lot of things that are happening, it can be broken down into a very simple composition of three or four elements, just like a good pop song!

Being completely uneducated in art, I don't know if it's common or not, but I find your process in creating the collages quite fascinating. Is that a unique process, the way that you work? To create the separate pieces and then afterwards piece them together. Tell us about that process…

I think that most people have the idea that a painter will have a blank canvas and then will paint a picture from start to finish, but generally speaking I think that's quite often not the case at all. I think for a whole a lot of artists, and you know, there are a lot of people that do that, I'm not saying there are not, but there are a lot of artists who just fiddle about and create fragments or bits...I guess it's like plucking away on a guitar, you know and you're just sort of playing around and then the pieces start to fit together.

Sandra Blow is an English painter and collage artist who works in a very similar way to me, well she's passed away now, but she would work by painting on pieces of paper and just having shitloads of shit all over the place and then she got to the stage where she'd have a technical assistant who would just pick that up over there and she'd sit in her chair and tell him to put it in certain places until she was happy, or got on a bit of a run to start formulating and putting artworks together.

You’ve been there in the studio with me to see that process happening I guess. It's been developed out of pure necessity for me because it was a way that I was able to do fragments of paintings quickly and easily and throw them all in a box. I could walk into a room where I would be able to set up for a couple weeks and just throw it all up on to a wall and put it together. Then when I was finished I could put it all back in boxes and pack that away until I had a block of time to work.

That’s also why I work a lot more on paper now. I used to paint a lot more with oil but I haven't been able to venture down that path for quite some time. So for the last three or four years I've just been working strictly on paper and learning how to make new marks again and learning how to use that medium.

So the way I saw you working, where you had all the different pieces laid out and then you would match them together...

Purely for show. I thought it would wow people and look good when they walked into the studio.

Yeah, it worked! No, is that how you would normally work, to space them out like that? Or was it just because you had the space to work with in Greg's studio?

I hadn't had a large studio to work with in quite some time and I think I was lapping it up. It was like staying at a friend's house, which is nicer than yours, while they're on holiday for a month and being totally in denial and just putting your dirty undies up on the lampshade and kicking back on the lounge naked.

Thankfully I missed that part of the shoot...

I was just really enjoying the space, and it made me realise how important it was to have a studio where you can do that and be able to leave it and come back in a day or two and kick off where you left off. That is important and that's why I'm working hard to be able to do that again now in my own space.

(Chris) Zanko tells me you did not start out working this way. He tells me you started out as a representational artist. Is that true?

Maybe he got that idea from seeing an old painting from art school.

He was really excited about it and wanted to see more because he though it would be great.

Yeah I think what he was excited about is that it had a lot to do with trains and with him being a dirty graffiti artist, he used to frequent those areas...

No, of course, I think I generally dabble in something that's more abstract and you need to revisit those representational skills because they do play a part with important things like proportion and composition. It triggers a different way of approaching an artwork and keeps the mind nimble. So I will still draw something that's more representational, but I don't exhibit them. It's kind of the groundwork to coming up with this. I don't do it a lot and I might go through stages where I don't do it for quite some time, but then if I'm feeling like something's not working in the studio it's often a good place to start, to go back and put yourself through common exercises that you learned back in art school and revisit all that. It's kind of like anything, going back to basics.

Did you always have the work you do now in mind? What inspired you to go in this direction?

I have no idea when I start stuff. I don't even know when I've started an artwork really. I think I do and then it whips me into my role. You just don't have much of a say on where it takes you, you just have to allow yourself to do whatever it wants you to do. That sounds like a real hippie, "Essentially I am a channel…" but in a way I believe that basically if you increase your studio time you're allowing a better chance to have more times where you're connecting with the subconscious and with that other side of your mind, like meditation and those sorts of things. 

So where do you draw inspiration from in general then?

Travel, however I don't get to go as much as I have in the past… 

But you are saving a lot of money on framing…

Absolutely, look at where it's got me now! But yeah, you know, life, (deeper voice) LIFE, NATURE. You could start me on a whole big spiel about how much I hate it when people say that they create art to relax. It's an incredibly frustrating thing to be doing.

I think, to answer your question, the only way I'm able to address making art is when I feel like I've had a good, fun, playful and relaxing time. If you want to call that inspiration, then sure, but I think it's a time after I've been able to be switched off for a while, and then I'm able to roll the sleeves up for a little bit and come in and have a good wrestle because it's a fucking hard thing to do. It's fucking horrible most of the time!

So basically, creating art sucks...

Haha no, I mean, it can also be glorious. It's incredibly rewarding when it's going well, but most of the time it's just not and that's why you keep ploughing through it. Then of course you have the exhibition. I think it's in human nature to seek gratification, you know, why else would you show it? Why else would you perform as a musician?

So you're relaunching your gallery with your own exhibition...

Not just at The Egg and Dart...

Yeah, not just The Egg and Dart, you're actually splitting between two galleries, between our gallery and yours. Tell us a) the ambition behind having a satellite gallery for the show, and b) are you an egotistical prick?

Well, to answer the latter first, I think everyone knows that, so why pretend! I think if someone has a problem with it they should just go out and start their own gallery! Is that why you started yours?

Yeah, absolutely, the Black Gold gallery only exists so I can put my own stuff up on the wall.

That was one of the first things that went up there wasn't it?

It was, but in my defence I didn't want that to be the case. Mine just happened to be stored in our studio and they were the only things hanging around to take up the vacant space...

Look, I said to Ann that we couldn't have my work as the first thing at The Egg and Dart, but she, right or wrong, wanted to do it. I had no control over the matter really… Haha, I can't be serious about this. I guess at first it was a bit of a worry, trying to justify doing that, but I think it kind of was my turn, haha!

So Thunderbolt's Way will be hanging for a few weeks, what can we expect next from The Egg and Dart?

Well we’ve got an exhibition by Frank Nowlan, which is actually an exhibition that I curated. I just barged into his studio one day and poked around and had a look into all the nooks and crannies and underneath piles of newspapers and things like that and found the artworks that I really quite liked, but also showed a dark side, not necessarily of Frank, well in a way it does kind of show a dark side of Frank, because why is he painting this sort of stuff. The works that I've found are more topical in nature than the works we are used to of Frank. The exhibition raises a lot of questions, and is called "Things We Don’t Talk About."

So not only are you starting off with your own work, you're also claiming credit for the second exhibition?

Yeah, I basically painted the exhibition for him and got him to sign the paintings. No, but I did actually come up with the title for the show haha!

Thunderbolt's Way opens on Friday, May 15, 6-8pm and will also serve as the gallery relaunch, featuring live music from the "human canvas," Dane Taylor of Shining Bird.

The satellite exhibition of Thunderbolt's Way will open in the Black Gold gallery from 11am on Saturday, May 16 for coffee with the artist.

It will run May 15-June 6 at The Egg & Dart and May 16-27 at Black Gold.