artist Alexander Mckenzie on art and discipline

River Bennett (Photographer River Bennett)

Standing in front of Alexander McKenzie’s work put chills through me.

It was the same feeling I got a couple of months ago as I watched the sun rise over the peaks of China’s breathtaking mountains and heard the distant village sounds, as though a symphony played. I felt it too last year, in rural Uganda, as the sun went down at dusk. It brought an unusual inner peace. And yet a longing - a pull that I couldn’t quite define. These works were more than just paint on canvas. These works were more than just a copy of a landscape the artist had seen somewhere. These works held an important narrative, a message from some place I ached to know - mysterious and confronting, as though it told the story of my own mortal life while offering a sense of eternity.

Alexander McKenzie, son of Scottish migrants, acclaimed artist who’s held 20 solo exhibitions in both Australia and the United Kingdom, 5 times finalist in the Archibald Prize for portraiture at the Art Gallery of NSW, 7 times finalist in the Wynne Prize for Landscape, as well as being in numerous group exhibitions across the globe. 

After 25 years in the Art industry Alexander’s drive rests on a steering wheel of discipline and a deep sense of calling. 

Son of Scottish migrants, can you tell us about what life was like as child?

We moved around a lot. My dad was a sailor and he worked for Child Detention centres where most kids had been abandoned or abused. Because we moved around so much we were often on farms and big estates so we had loads of room and space to make a lot of mess. 

I was painting from very early on and I often had a separate room in the house where I could paint. There was never any pressure to put stuff away and I think that had an impact on me. 

Was the goal always to be a professional artist?

I knew I wanted to paint and I loved painting and I would have rather painted than do anything else, but how could I do that in the real world? How was I possibly going to make money on that and survive? 

I had options to be a graphic designer, or to work in design houses, or to work part-time, and I did that for years and hated it. And it never really worked for me. I never had quite enough time to paint, and when I did have time to paint I was just too tired. 

When I was at work, all I could think about was painting, so my day job suffered. The only real answer was to somehow find a way to make money from the painting.

So, in the end, being a professional artist was the only thing that actually worked.

So when did you decide to give your art a good go?

Well, I tried it straight out of Art School. I would have been about 21 or 22 yrs. old but I didn’t make a cent for at least 10 years.

At least 10years?! That’s a long time…

It’s dogmatic isn’t it. And maybe foolish, haha.

So in that 10 years there would have been many times when you would have wanted to quit and thought, “That’s it. I’m out.”

Yes. And it’s within that 10 years that all my peers were getting married and buying homes, travelling, getting cars and having babies - and here I was completely broke and just wanting to be an Artist. Everyone thought I was mad.

So there was something in you that said, “I’m going to keep going.”

Yes. I just had a deep conviction that this was what I was called to do, that I was on the planet to do this.

Wow. So with that conviction, tell us about your first Show...

It was a disaster of course. I mean, I thought the Show was good. 

There was a lot of build-up. It would have been 10 years after high school, and 6 years out of Art School, and I finally had enough work to actually be represented by a dealer. There was a lot of prep and anxiety too of course. I ended up selling only one piece of work, to a friend, for $300. The gallery took half, so I think I took home about $150!

Whoa. Ok, so the day after, what were you honestly thinking?

I was thinking - what on earth am I doing? Am I insane? It was actually a really difficult time and I thought, ok - now I have to pick it back up.  But how can I possibly become driven enough to go again?

You would’ve had to have dug pretty deep.

Yes, I did. Absolutely.

So what were your friends and family, the people closest to you, saying?

There was a lot of talk about getting another string to the bow, and lots of clichés dragged out about maybe I should do something else with my life.

By this stage I was about 27 years old. I should have had my life a little bit more together by now, so yeah, there was a lot of pressure from people. 

I have to hand it to my parents though, they were really encouraging and supportive. They allowed me to live back home with them. And at the time I guess I was just going through it. It’s only with hindsight that I realise how extraordinary that was. I realise now who actually believed in me.

I’ve been reading the book “Shoe Dog” by Phil Knight, the guy who created Nike, and in essence his whole idea of success is that if you don’t quit, and you know deep inside this is what you are meant to do, you will eventually see success. Do you believe this to be true?

Yes, but you have to work. I think the biggest thing people believe is the fairytale that says, ‘Do your work and you will be discovered on the street corner, and all of a sudden riches and fame will come at you.’ But the real story is, it’s a lot of work.

I remember the first time I heard you speak at an event and the thing that intrigued me the most was your thoughts on discipline and how you have to just show up.

Part of being an artist, and some of my early memories of being an artist, is sharing studios. I would share studios with guys who would turn up at lunch time, make a coffee, do a bit of work, then go have a beer. Then maybe they’d go out to an event. They never seemed to do any work. And it became clear to me that if I lived like that, I would get nothing done, and go nowhere. So it was then that I became really disciplined in my approach. 

I wake up at the same time each day. This is my outfit when I come to work. I have the same routine every day, the same coffee, the same classical music, the same sequence of events – this all helps me to get my head into 'work mode'. It can be a real issue for artists, even if they are in their own room or space. If they aren’t in the right frame of mind, if they aren’t ready to work, they can’t work, they get blocked. They can  sit there and waste an entire day - and once that day is gone, you can’t get it back. 

In this generation there is such a demand on people’s attention. The attention span, especially in the younger generation is decreasing more and more, what are your thoughts on this when it comes to discipline?

Yes, totally. I have to discipline myself with no social media before I start work. No computers, no phones, no phone calls - anything like that shifts my mind to another place, which is not where I want to be in order to create.

When I teach sometimes I often teach this focused approach. 

A lot of students ask me to have a look at their work. 

I ask them, “How many have you done?”  If they say, “one.”  I tell them, “I won’t come and look at it until you have done another one, and another one. And then do 20.” It’s by repeating, and repeating, they will then be able to see what has worked and what hasn’t worked so well. It’s through that discipline of repetition that an artist can start to make a way.

A lot of artists need to wander to find inspiration for their work. Is this necessary for you? What are some of the things that influence your work?

More often than not I do a trip somewhere and spend time regenerating and refreshing not just physically, but also in the sense of refreshing my eyes to look at interesting things. I do that a couple times a year and once I have fed on all that information I come back to the studio.

Favourite places to travel?

The last few years I have been going to Japan, and before that I spent a lot of time in the UK - Scotland in particular. 

How do you arrange all the information and create such stunning imagery? I heard once that you dream it before you paint it.

I’m quite interested in how memory works in selecting information. 

I often get an image that appears in the back of my head, and it’s actually the completed work fully formed with colours and arrangement. Often it’s the collection of imagery I have seen or have been interested in. It just appears. 

Like a vision?

Kind of. It’s like I’m in a white room and the painting is hanging at the end of the room. Then I have the hard task of reproducing that image. 

The process is the real hard slog because as I begin to make that image I have to try and hold on to that image that I’ve been given. I then have to make it real in a physical sense. As my hands begin to work the picture starts to dissolve and vanish. I have to try and hold onto that original image and wrestle it back.

So I guess it’s down to obedience at the end of the day?

Yeah, I think it’s that divine inspiration, and the urgency to get a move on and get it completed.

Do you get that drop in your heart where you think, “Ok, I’ve done all I can.”

Yes, and from that point I am quite removed from it. Even to the point where when I walk into a Show I feel like they are somebody else’s work because I have already stepped away from them. 

The important bit is the process of actually making it. It’s not entirely what happens to the work. My role in it all is to create it and once I’ve done it, I hand it over and that’s it.

It’s quite the process…

Yes, and it’s been something that I have learned and refined over the last 25 years, it’s taken a lot to get to that point.

In a lot of your landscape work you have added the colour red. Is this symbolic of something - tell us about the red…

The landscape is just the setting to the narrative. The red is something that I have weaved throughout the painting that is part of the narrative. Over the last few years the narrative has become more important to me than the actual landscape itself.

So the red objects are usually symbolic of a warning sign. I’m quite often interested in pathways that run through landscapes and how they symbolise how we are trying to find a path through our environment with our existence. The red is often symbolic of the wrong choices we as people tend to make. So we need to find our way through the landscape, symbolically, to find our way through life. 

Do you think you will one day find a place like your paintings that actually exists?

I hope so.

What are some of the things your job has taught you?

I remember an artist named Jess le Clerc once came up to me at an event and told me a story about one of the kids she teaches Art lessons. This boy was mildly autistic and he was completely shut off. He hadn’t spoken to his parents for six years. He hadn’t spoken to any of the class and was not engaged at all with the lesson. So one day she got the kids to copy something as part of her lesson. She pulled out a brochure from one of my exhibitions and he started to copy one of my pieces of my work. The little boy then started to cry and fell in a heap on the floor in tears. It was from that point he opened up and started talking, he began to speak to his parents again and started interacting with the class. There was a shift. How crazy is that?! So when Jess came up to me at that event and told me that story I was so blown away.

Whoa… makes me cry. It’s the power of art and God using art … you can’t explain that.

It’s simply doing what you have been given to do and God takes what you have done and you will probably never know how it impacts others. 

Like, how was my catalogue in Jess’ studio in North Queensland? How was it that a woman I didn’t even know had it in her possession? Why did she show that particular brochure to this student and not another man’s work?  

That has nothing to do with me. My role was to just do that painting. It’s just mind-bending.

Which is why it is so important to do what we are on the planet to do, huh.


So do you feel like you are living the dream now?

Ha! In some ways, yeah, I do.

Do you think art is instrumental in raising your kids?

Maybe not instrumental, but I think it enriches one’s life.

What do you do on your days off?

If I really want to relax I swim in the ocean.

Who are some of the upcoming artists that have caught your eye?

There is a guy in Brisbane called Joel Rea. I really like his work.

What would you tell someone who is a living younger version of yourself, who is straight out of Art School wanting to pursue art as a career?

Go and work like crazy while you have your youth.

Before you have children, before you have any financial obligations, go and use your time wisely. Don’t be in such a rush to show.  Get as much work done as possible before you bring what you are really, really happy with to the world.



Alexander’s upcoming exhibition, “Katsura”, will be showcasing at Martin Browne Contemporary in Paddington, Sydney, on the 24th November - 18th Decemember. It is yet another narrative written for his viewers to follow on an extraordinary journey. 


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