Costume designer turned fine artist, we spoke with Matthew Aberline about his journey through different creative fields, his process and new works on the horizon.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you’ve got to this point?
Originally, I studied fashion design and then I was lucky enough to do, not one but two scholarship Masters in Design for film. I have been doing that for a long time, and I got to a stage where I had literally lost count of the number of shows I have done at the Opera House. It was amazing, I finally felt like I belonged. But I was thinking back to when I was young, and I love costume and fabric, and I love storytelling and characters, but I decided to transition from costume designer to fine artist. I took everything I had learnt about fabrication, manufacturing, design, storytelling and beauty and found a new market for that.
A year ago, I literally fired all of my clients and I said I am going to be an artist. I had some clients come back, some theatre design clients came back, but everything had to be renegotiated and the relationships had to all be reinvented. I was much clearer about what will work for me and that was the first amazing revelation, that if I am actually going to be doing design work for the entertainment industry, it had to work for me.
I went on to do my first exhibition, which was called, ‘Of Beauty Rich and Rare,’ which was a joint exhibition with another artist called Maurice Goldberg, and we were looking at what it means to be Australian, diversity and in particular taking inspiration from the national anthem. The second verse from the national anthem which goes:
For those who have come across the seas…
And we were like, what?! The exhibition was about what it means to be Australian, most of the works were based on fabric, but a lot of them ended up made with paper and I have also become a paper artists since that exhibition.
Gillian Trigs, the human rights commissioner, came to the exhibition twice and bought a bunch of stuff for her home and office.
There was one work which didn’t sell, which was a portrait of Pauline Hanson. I still have Pauline.
The exhibition was a sell-out and I was asked to do a whole lot of commissions in paper. One of them, this enormous piece which is three meters high, is being installed as we speak.
Now I am trying to work out how to marry the world of fashion and costume and turn that into fine art to bring both worlds together. Overall it is a very joyous experience, it is a hell of a lot of fun, I am so lucky.
As an artist and a designer who sits in a studio all day making stuff, it’s hard getting your work out and getting people to know about you. I am a late convert to Instagram, but I seem to be picking up a lot of followers just in the last few weeks. It’s amazing and it’s really great to have people say really wonderful things about your work, and I’ve had people buy pieces from what they see on Instagram so the system is working.
What inspires your creativity?
Well, I have a genuine fascination for creative engineering and as a costume designer, most of my work always lends itself to understandable how things are made, and really intricate, complicated, silhouette constructions. I love technology, everything I do has a technological base, whether it is design and photoshop, laser cutting, there is always some sort of engineering process that happens in it.
As a consequence, most of my artwork is also about incorporating all of these elements. There’s designers that I really admire, like Izzy Miaki, who I imagine would go to his workshop every day, and ask what are we going to invent? What are we going to create? We are going to build something new! It is that building of something new that is exciting, when you tether that with my love of storytelling and my love of character, I step into being an artist, and for me, my biggest conundrum is asking what is the story you are telling/what is the meaning? Certainly for ‘beauty rich and rare’ it was heavily contextual and about stories, and there was quite a lot of research and referencing and layers of storytelling.
One of the pieces that was surprisingly a favourite at the exhibition, was called, ‘Mrs Macquarie.’ It was an add on piece, I didn’t think I was going to do it, and it almost got cut from the exhibition. Framing was a bugger, because it was 15 cm deep, we had to work out how to do it. We opened the exhibition, 30 seconds later it was the first piece to go, to a really highly esteemed artist, Mark Thompson, so it was amazing that it went to his place.
Why do you create?
Because I can’t do anything else. Some of my earliest childhood memories, are sitting in my mother’s flower shop, laying with scissors, chopping bits of ribbon and paper and making things out of that. Growing up, we lived all around Australia. My parents got bored easily, and they would move from the Whit Sundays, to Pagilgera to Gippsland, to the South Coast. Lastly as a family, we moved to Canberra, and I was lucky it had a really strong grassroots emerging artist scheme. I was able to start working as a professional designer when I was 18, I was involved in a whole bunch of programs where I was able to write, direct, act and create imagery that I wanted to put on stage. The community there really cottoned on to what I was doing and started paying me to do it. I was getting support from local companies and a bit of funding, and I never really had any other job, I was able to work through most of my schooling, just being a designer.
I guess that is only half the answer, the other part of the answer would be, I believe in beauty as a force for good. As a non-religious person, I just look at energy in a simple way. I think beautiful work has a resonance, and an energy that affects people’s lives and so I think that’s what my job is. I have got so much energy that flows through my head and through my hands, I can’t imagine not taking a job where my hands were busy creating something that has a meaning. It might be a diagnosable condition. It’s like, beauty changes lives, it makes people’s lives better.
It is probably a ying and yang thing, there is so much ugliness in the world, but we live in an era where we are very blessed. We really do need soldiers of beauty to make the world a nice place, a just place.
Can you tell me about your creative process?
I am messy, because I’m impatient. I work best when I have a little army around me, and used to have a team helping me manufacture stuff, but as I changed what I did, people in the workshop have changed too. I am impatient because I just want to get it done and I always want to try something else.
I am a prototyper, my creative dialogue with myself and my workshop and the objects that I create is all about manifesting stuff into 3D. If I have a downfall, it is because I do that too much, I am so reliant on being able to gradually grow an object. If I have to do something that’s purely conceptual, I get into trouble because I can’t quite visualise it.
I am tinkerer, I tinker at things or I will sketch things and see how they work and I will get responses from a range of key people depending on what it is. You know that expression, fail fast, you put some pictures out and see how people respond to it and see if there is a connection or not, then I will go out and develop it.
Why did you choose design and now fine art as a form of creative expression?
The answer might be little bit unexciting, it was just that people started paying me. I was 18, and people weren’t paying me to write and direct which I was doing plenty of. They were paying me to design and to be honest I thought it was a cop out, to be a designer rather than an author or theatre person who did everything, choosing to be a designer felt too simple. Then of course I went to school to study and everything became much more complicated, blessed are the naïve.
I guess, that the particular part of the industry that I found my home in was very theatrical and regally based, I always went into these projects to create moving pieces of art.
The transition into fine art, seems like a logically extension of all that energy but putting it behind glass. It is about finding the right market, the right demographic and the right people to tell your story to. That is what I am doing now, I am extending what I have learnt in the last 2 decades of designing for theatre and transitioning to finding new markets and to work as a visual artist.
And what an amazing time to do that, we are pioneers in the digital age, working out how all of these new relationships work. We are building a digital culture that has never existed before and what we do now will resonate for hundreds of years. And so I think finding new ways for artists to be creative and build audiences and get their work appreciated, to be successful and feasible, I think it’s an amazing time to do that.
Back when I was a costume designer, I was doing a project called Hound and Tooth. I was making these beautiful tailored very chunky, ye olde world waist coats for gentleman, each one was custom made, bespoke, they were sent all over the world – Ukraine, Texas, Devon to Wollongong. We live in an era where it is perfectly feasible to be creating a global product from a small cottage in the street.
You were the principal fashion designer for the Mardi Gras festival. What were your responsibilities and who did you design for?
That was a very interesting time, working for Mardi Gras, and that became a significant time of my life, I was there for about 8 years. Basically, I was in residence, and for my time there Mardi Gras would put on 2 major events, the Parade and party and the Sleazeball.
I would look after both of these things and had amazing creative relationships with the people around me at Mardi Gras. Initially, they had so little funding, but the scope of the ambition was so huge, it was a non-stop fight. However, it was also a period of unbridled creativity, if you could make it and you could make it fabulous, then you could do whatever you want. I was lucky enough for some of the time that I was there, they had a bit of a budget and we could achieve some really amazing things.
One of the things that I most loved about it was the engineering. People look at Mardi Gras and think of just hot pants, baby oil and glitter. There are 10,000 people in the parade, there are 300,000 people who come to see. My job as a Mardi Gras official was to create stuff in the parade that wasn’t just hot pants. They were big, structural, and filled up space, and it makes you feel like you are watching this huge event. It was all about the engineering, how to get the scope, the size, the scale and learning how to design something when your audience is 50 meters away, at night.
We really tried to push the limit of the width we can do, for example, and so we would make costumes that were literally the legal limit of the space we could fill up in the parade or the maximum height. We were showing off what we could do in the most amazing and cheeky way we could, almost trying to break the rules.
At the end of that period I went and volunteered at Carnival, in Rio, for a month, and I met all of these people and they were using construction techniques that were really similar to what I was doing, that feeling of being validated, feeling like these people are the experts at this and they have been doing it for decades, and you are in this shed in Petersham, with no Mardi Gras school or training, thinking how do you do this?! But I felt pretty good after that.
You have been working with people with intellectual disabilities, how has this experience been and why was that important to you?
After doing some very big commercial shows, I was thinking holy shit I am working with Australia’s leading companies and leading directors, but I was so shocked by how much of a sausage factory it was. I was hoping it was going to be this deep soul searching, amazing creative process, but it wasn’t quite like that. I started working with Lisa Nash, who was a director who worked with actors who had intellectual disabilities.
We did a bunch of shows together, and these people were devising their own shows and performing on stage. I saw the transformative effects of design and beauty and how we could give people the scope and freedom to realise their ambitions.
A lot of it was done on a shoe string budget, and performed in little community festivals that mum and dad and the dog came to see, but there was some oddly beautiful stuff. I was a designer in collaboration with these people, they would have a character that they want to become and an idea of how it would end up visually. So I would have to realise that, and through this process, we came up with something really visually interesting, and you get that warm feeling, that you can help transform somebody else’s vision and make an impact in their lives and to an extent, you get transformed from that process too.
You have a hands-on approach to your work. Has that always been the case?
Yes it has. One of my masters was photo realistic illustration, and about how designers communicate at a photographic illustrative level as opposed to metaphoric level. So you can create really gorgeous imagery of what it is you want to make, but there is something that happens when you cut a piece of fabric, when you see how it cuts, when you see how it sews, when you see how something gets glued together and there is this dialogue that happens between the artisan and the hands and the material and design that is unique and on-going.
That is the reason why I am hands-on, there are a whole lot of opportunities that happen on a workshop floor that you can run with and explore and a lot of the time they are unexpected. There are all of these serendipities and happy accidents and you can make the most out of them.
What is it about working with paper that you find so fascinating?
Working with paper has always been part of my process, or part of my aesthetic vocabulary. It is also very zeitgeisty right now, it is a trendy medium. That’s another value of fail fast and Instagram and social media sites, you can put stuff out into the world and see what people respond to. It quickly informs where the popular tastes are going, and all of the paper stuff I have done has been much more popular than my fabric based work. It made me realise that there is a something there.
You exhibited with Maurice Goldberg, what was that experience like?
I collaborated with Maurice, he is a really interesting person to work with because he has been listed by the business review weekly as one of Australia’s most interesting CEOs, three times. He is a really profound thinker, how he can mentally develop projects is extraordinary. He has a gift, when the GST came, he was popularising investment property, the idea of investment properties in Australia, even though his business hadn’t had any issues of paying off any bank loans, the banks freaked out and shut it down and ended his career overnight. He decided to become a fine artist.I met him at a time when he was doing his fine art exhibition which was called, What’s Love Got To Do With It. It was an interesting process, he wanted to work with photoshop and so we spent a lot of time training him, and bringing him up to speed and a lot about photography and how to photograph stuff, all about focal plans, how different objects photographed at different times, how they need to behave together and what we can do in the camera to make that happen.
It hasn’t been an easy process because we are both very opinionated, egotistical people, and ‘Of Beauty Rich and Rare’, really was a collaboration. Even though we did our own works, the subject matter and what we were doing was all about collaboration. We also had an enormous banquet one evening with 60 people and raised funds for aboriginal kids in the outback to access quality secondary school education. We did a lot of videos where we talked to society leaders, politicians, sports people and Aboriginal elders, about the direction of Australia and we ended the exhibition with a conversation about where Australia is going. It was an amazing collaboration, exhausting, but I would do it again.
You have had an extensive career in theatre production and have worked for some of the best national and international theatre companies, how does one manage to move up so quickly in the industry?
You don’t read the paper and see they are looking for a designer for the next opera, it is all based on who you know. What usually happens is that you build teams and you make sure you look after your team. If you all do a good job, you will keep looking after each other.
Once you get yourself out there, people aren’t going to work with you if they don’t necessarily have any relations with you. There are moments when they become aware of you, and they might start following you and seeing what you are up to and sooner or later they might pick up the phone or email but it can be a long process.
I think it is very difficult for an artist in any field, to really know what it is they are worth and how to value themselves. I think that is part of the process of being good at your job is to know how much you are worth and what you need in order to do a good job. I think a lot of creatives fail because they under value themselves.
I am lucky that I have had some really amazing mentors in my life, not just in design but in business, like Maurice. I’ve learnt you need to value yourself so then you can create a system that is feasible for you to be able to do good work. That way your good work gets known, you can create some really amazing teams, and you can all move on to doing some amazing projects. Having a good life, work balance is the next challenge, because I really believe there is no point in working your guts out if you are not having a good life, so many things you need to get right.
What’s next for you?
So much fun stuff! Doing some wonderful commissions, a bunch of theatre projects which end in a few weeks. My next big project is called bubbles, which is to be in 12 or 18 months’ time. But before that I am going to have a paper based exhibition in August. I have lots of lovely new ideas where I want to go with that, I am very interested in painting paper at the moment, that will be pretty, lyrical, organic, and complicated, all behind glass.
Bubbles, is going to be this amazing fully interactive, inflatable space for people to play in. It is all about colour and form, imagine walking into a basketball court, and it like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory level of amazing stuff flying at you. It’s about texture and shapes, form, patterns lots of colour, hugely saturated glossy colour. I am looking at doing 3 creative developments during the year, one of which will be in Hong Kong, and the idea of it being inflatable means it fits into a suit case and can go other places. I am particularly excited because I want to incorporate my art show with my background in performance. It is like a colourful blob forest, with creatures that come out at certain times. One of the reasons that I am going to Hong Kong is to work with a group there to develop the movement and choreography for these people wearing absolutely amazing creature suits, I am very excited about all that.
What is your main goal/aim?
This crazy idea, in thinking that you can have money, happiness and health from helping the world be a more beautiful place and helping other people see the beauty. I want that beauty to change people’s lives for the better.
Also, I am very passionate as a designer about facilitating other designers to be successful and powerful.
If people want to find out more about you and your work, where can they go?