15 September 2009

While not an avid churchgoer himself, 81-year-old artist Leonard French has drawn upon Christian symbolism to inspire his painting for St John’s residential college at The University of Queensland.

Mr French and his wife Elaine recently travelled from Heathcote, Victoria, to view the painting, which has been installed in the St John’s chapel.

Commissioned by the St John’s College Council, the work, titled Earth Creations, is a commemorative piece marking the jubilee celebration of the college’s relocation from its original site at Kangaroo point to the St Lucia Campus in 1956.

“I always think art itself is religious. Not necessarily Christian, but religious,” Mr French said.

“For some reason I’ve ended up doing a lot of work in churches, for years.

“I think the Christian imagery – the fish, the birds – for an artist, it’s fantastic.

“You’ve got a ready made story.”

The work is comprised of three sections – the base features three turtles coming out of the earth, the middle panel depicts salmon swimming up and downstream, and the top portrays three doves.

“It’s really the creation of life – from the turtles to the fish to the birds; from the land through the water to the sky. The trinity, three things,” Mr French said.

“The Indians interpret that the turtle carries the world on its back. Not that I’m following that, but I’m interested in that sort of thinking.”

Member of the St John’s College Council and renowned Christian artist Kerry Holland describes Earth Creations as “a happy, reflective piece”.

“But what really intrigues me is the choice of fish, bird and animal, that is; salmon dove and turtle,” Mr Holland said.

“The turtles, not unlike Leonard’s sun crosses in other works are full of energy and hope. Rising from burial underground they are a sign of new life and resurrection.

“Swimming upstream the salmon, symbolic of wisdom and heroic, sacrificial journey bear the cross. Swimming the other way in the same horizontal panel we see the new generation to come.

“Reminiscent of God’s Spirit at Jesus’ baptism and Noah’s flood, the doves hover above in the clouds, circular and angel-like, watching, each with one large eye, and fanning with their wings.”

St John’s College Warden, the Reverend Professor John Morgan, who has followed Mr French’s work since about 1962 said Earth Creations was the perfect addition to the St John’s chapel.

“I’m overjoyed. I love the use of colour and the juxtaposition of symbols,” Professor Morgan said.

“To my mind there’s a blend of the sacred and the secular in his work, which he does by the use of the different colour tones.”

Mr French’s career enabled him to travel extensively throughout Asia and Europe, with many of those experiences also inspiring his art.

Much of his imagery is drawn from Celtic sources, having spent several years studying Celtic mythology and symbolism in Ireland and the UK.

His most well known works include a ceiling of stained glass at the National Gallery of Victoria and an anti-apartheid mural commissioned by South African diamond king Harry Oppenheimer.

Mr French, who has been painting for more than 60 years, said while teaching was essential to earn a living during his early career, art was not a passion which could be taught.

“You can’t teach people about art – they either have it in them or they don’t,” he said.

“Over my lifetime, lots of people have said ‘I want to be an artist, how should I do it?’ And I say, ‘just do it. Just do it.’ And they do it and they’re bloody good and they know it. Straight away they know it.”

Now in his 80s, Mr French is no longer able to work in stained glass but is still producing the occasional painting from his studio in Victoria.

Earth Creations was hung in the St John’s Chapel by the UQ Art Museum installation team.

Media: Penny Robinson at UQ Communications (07 3365 9723, penny.robinson@uq.edu.au)