Throughout his life David Gregson held a strong, abiding desire to relate to the world around him. It was a desire explained by his passionate and ardent belief that communicating with life and communicating with art were inseparable experiences.
With such a rare and unique passion, it is little wonder that, from an early age, an artistic life seems to have chosen David rather than he choosing it. While considered somewhat of a scholastic ‘failure’, his artistic abilities were identified as outstanding and his father was advised to seek out an art teacher who could train him in all aspects of art.
So in 1947, in addition to his secondary schooling, David was sent for art tuition under Iris Francis. He later commenced study at Perth Technical College on St George’s Terrace, arguably becoming Perth’s first full time fine arts student. This was somewhat in defiance of the commonly held opinion of that time that viewed painting as nothing really more than a hobby, and certainly no respectable means of earning a decent living. While he acknowledged the role of Bob Thompson and Ivor Hunt in his early art education, it was Howard Taylor that David credited with having the most important influence on him in these early years. He admired Taylor’s belief in art for art’s sake as well as his single-minded dedication to a life as an artist, despite the financial insecurity this inevitably invited. David particularly valued Taylor’s absolute perfectionism and his rigorous and detailed lessons in colour theory. Not only did such technical and philosophical insights come as a breath of fresh air in these formative years, they would go on creating lasting ripples through his artistic career.
In 1955, having successfully completed his tertiary art training, David’s father provided him with the opportunity to travel abroad and study at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. Living in France amongst the company of creative temperaments akin to his own, David discovered that art could be experienced and appreciated anywhere and everywhere as an integral part of everyday life. So, upon his return to Western Australia a year later, he determined to maintain this artful disposition. While Perth offered a decidedly more limited cultural scene than the one he had encountered in Europe, social gatherings such as those hosted by the stylish designer David Foulkes Taylor provided an environment within which David, and other aspiring artists of this era, found a means of forming and cultivating their own creative identity.
With no permanent source of employment, David initially supported himself by painting murals around Perth. While various commissions from restaurants, hotels and hospitals provided some form of income, it was through teaching that David found a reliable means of earning a living. This also allowed him to remain connected to his artistic community and fulfil his need to paint. In 1957, on the suggestion of Rose Skinner, David began offering private art classes above Skinner Gallery. Soon after, he found himself teaching at Perth Technical College, an opportunity that would mark the beginning of a long and influential career in the field of tertiary art education. By 1971 David had taken up teaching at Claremont Technical College, where contact hours with students were extensive, at least by today’s standards. Classes actively involved teachers in the sharing of their practical knowledge, experience and techniques, an interaction David found to be highly rewarding. He also found himself working alongside fellow art practitioners, most notably George Haynes and Ross Morrow. In George Haynes, whose painting he respected immensely, he found a highly enthusiastic colleague, while in Ross Morrow he witnessed firsthand this man’s great love affair with art. These professional experiences helped shape in David a profound realisation that the language of art was a precious and privileged thing.
As his understanding of the communicative power of art deepened, so too did David’s desire to share his perception of the world with others. For the next twenty years or so he set his own art practice to one side and dedicated himself to the field of education. In so doing, he forged a career which included teaching positions at Perth, Fremantle and Claremont Technical Colleges as well as a three year, full time role at W.A.I.T. (now Curtin University). In his many conversations with students David would often strive to articulate his own understanding of painting, which included an appreciation of the significance of brush marks, the importance of colour relationships and the sheer joy of seeing. He would draw an analogy between the understanding and appreciation of art and the very nature of humanity’s relationships with the world around us. At the heart of this philosophy lay a firm belief that art and artists could lead the way; that we all have the ability to open ourselves to our senses and meaningfully relate to the world. Although his teaching methods did not sit comfortably with every student, for those who were willing to set out on the journey, David provided intense and rigorous tuition that often challenged inherited ways of seeing. David’s passion and keen attitude of enquiry also revealed themselves in many of his other interests, particularly music, theatre, dance and cooking. Not only did he enjoy sharing such pleasures with friends, family and colleagues, these experiences often became the subject of his paintings. Indeed, it was through the act of painting that David found a true means of expressing his love of life and of communication. For him, a desire to relate to the world and the business of painting was inseparable. It was almost inevitable then, that in 1980 David resigned from teaching in order to address the issue of where he stood as a practicing artist. By the following year he had built Brook Studio alongside his family’s Darlington home and determined to leave the official world of academia and education behind. His new working environment and financial independence allowed him the physical and artistic freedom required to take his art to the next level.
In the years that followed, Brook Studio became the centre of David’s world, a world in which painting became an intense and very private affair. For subject matter, he favoured interesting objects from around the family home. His beloved violin, decorative textiles, antiques, furniture and vases of flowers appear again and again in his artworks; far from a repetitious exercise in visual description, these compositions became the means by which he recorded his visual and emotional responses. Every painting was treated as a conversation, an opportunity to engage all of his senses in an exploration of his thoughts and ideas about the language of art.
David often likened the act of painting to a magnificent dance, intricately orchestrated to express the mood, character, atmosphere and even temperature of the moment. The considered placement of colours, arrangement of lines and application of brushstrokes all become essential to the visual communication taking place on his canvas. Consistent with his belief in the close proximity of art and life, he consciously tried to remain open to the notes of elation and melancholy, discord and harmony he found in both.
It was undoubtedly this open embrace of all sides of life and art that allowed David Gregson to reckon so positively with his diagnosis of leukaemia in 1986. For the proceeding decade and a half, David threw himself into living and painting with as much dedication and energy that his illness would allow. In defiance of a prognosis of just 5 to 7 remaining years of life, and against a tide of taste that saw painting as somewhat old hat, David remained as dedicated as ever to the paintbrush and his personal idiom. David faced this challenging period of his life with characteristic optimism laced with a new exuberance and spontaneity in both his subject matter and style. In addition to several solo exhibitions in private galleries and at Brook Studio, he participated in numerous group exhibitions around Perth, the Eastern States and overseas. He was a finalist in the inaugural Doug Moran Portrait Prize and undertook several high profile commissions such as a 30 metre mural in a football stand at Subiaco Oval.
This period often saw David also venture out of his Darlington studio and into environments that satisfied his passion for movement and human activity. These included residencies at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts and New Norcia as well as field trips to York, Rottnest, Broome, New South Wales, Kakadu and Provence, France. The paintings from this period document David’s irrepressible joy for life, particularly his many works on paper. On field trips, he often returned to painting en plein air in gouache rather than oil on canvas. While he likened gouache painting to a casual chat, as opposed to the deep conversation allowed by oils, he nevertheless enjoyed the direct, spontaneous and abstract gestures that gouache made possible.
In 1995, after residing for over 30 years in Darlington, David relocated his studio to Kellerberrin in the Western Australian wheatbelt. This move ushered in the final period of David’s painting career and one that he found enormously satisfying and productive. He felt at one with the comparative remoteness and isolation of this environment and, for the first time in his life, ‘truly Australian’. The pleasure that David derived from choosing, mixing and applying paint to canvas ensured that he continued to experience the joy of feeling personally connected to the world around him. Continuing to defy the fickle tides of fashion, critical opinion and taste, David worked in Kellerberrin as prodigiously as ever before until he passed away in 2002. The body of paintings he left behind still endure and continue to reveal his profound love affair with art and life.