Interview by Madeleine Dore
Photography by Jessica Clark
Filmmaker, artist, activist
Chances are, you’ve wandered past a poster sprawled with the words ‘Real Australians Say Welcome’ or spotted the profile of Aussie folk hero Monga Khan titled ‘REAL AUSSIE’ plasted to a street wall.
Adelaide based artist Peter Drew is behind the annual project and typically spends four months of the year travelling across Australia to install the posters across city streets.
Each campaign exceeds its crowd funding targets on Pozible, with the latest Real Australians Seek Welcome having just launched. The work utilises public spaces and connect thousands of people with a message of unity that bucks a political climate that demonizes those who seek asylum. As he explains in an artist statement, “I enjoy examining our collective identities and my aim is always to emphasize the connections that bind up, rather than the fractures that divide us.”
For the remaining months of the year, Peter is busy in the studio conjuring up new projects and producing videos for independent makers and the creative industries.
While his most prominent work can be found in public spaces, his artwork has been also been exhibited in state and national galleries including the Art Gallery of South Australia and the National Gallery of Australia. In late 2016, he also published a collection of short stories, poems and illustrations featuring 36 contributors.
Taking on varied projects ensures there is continuous pursuit of novelty, flexibility and wonder in his work.
“I appreciate my work most when there's an element of novelty to it. For artists or anyone that does something creative, at some point you can become trapped by your own skill set or brand. You start to believe that you have to fulfil a project or idea, even if it's not something that satisfies you anymore.”
Drew doesn’t resist the natural ebbs and flow of interest in a project or idea. “I think I started doing the poster project because I thought it was novel idea and I wanted to do something different. So at some point, I'm sure I'll want to do something different again.”
It’s a lesson in knowing it’s okay to change your mind. As another example, while his current work carries a clear political message, he wasn’t always interested in activism art. “It seemed that so much political art was just one political persuasion patting themselves on the back and reassuring their ideas. There are so many ways to make bad political art that I just wasn't interested.”
Then he changed his mind. “It feels very comfortable to me. I feel like that's what I should have always been doing in a way.”
With so many acts of creation to balance – from commercial clients to crowd funding campaigns; travel to dedicated studio time – it’s no surprise to hear that his daily routine is also subject to change. But instead associating such variation in his days with instability, he sees it as fueling his creativity – a lesson for us all to find what can drive us each day.
“I definitely don't have a typical routine – I think a flexible routine is one of the key ingredients of having a creative life.”
I definitely don't have a typical routine – I have routines at times but they always change. When I’m in Adelaide, I wake up around ten or so because I will stay up till four o’clock in the morning working. It can feel daunting to be a late riser – whenever people say that they get up at six o'clock I get annoyed at myself.
Since I was about 14 years old I've eaten four Weet-Bix for breakfast every day and so that I don’t have to think about it. I'll probably grab an instant coffee so I can function on a base level. Then I can sit down and start going through emails for about an hour.
Then I'll ride to the studio in the CBD and print for maybe three hours. I'm always printing, throughout the year and when the project is on as well.
"It can feel daunting to be a late riser – whenever people say that they get up at six o'clock I get annoyed at myself."
Around 3 o'clock I’ll usually go out for lunch before everything closes. I usually go to Abbots & Kinney when I'm having a good day and getting things done on my list I like to reward myself with a sausage roll and a coffee.
If it’s a bad day with too many distractions messing it up, then it just leads to an overall feeling of disappointment. I'll probably be too stressed and not really thinking about lunch. I do miss lunch quite often, actually.
I work solidly, it's just that I let too many things in. That’s why I enjoy the poster project and the simple routine that comes with it – nothing else is allowed in. When I’m in Adelaide during the lead up to the project, I say yes all the time and find myself juggling way too many things. Once you're jumping between things, you just can't have that same level of focus.
"When I'm having a good day and getting things done on my list, I like to reward myself with a sausage roll and a coffee. If it’s a bad day with too many distractions messing it up, then it just leads to an overall feeling of disappointment."
After lunch I will go back into the studio and do a little bit more preparation work so things are ready for me to come back in the next day. I like to get that sort of cycle going so I do that for another hour and then go home and do some editing for a client or my own project work.
My routine changes depending on my partner Julie – she's been working in her studio until eight o’clock or so. I’ll edit at home and then ride my bike back into the city and have dinner with her and we'll both ride home around nine.
If we eat at home, Julie cooks and I clean everything. She really makes use of that deal – she'll leave everything exactly where she last had it and there's just a huge mess. The food's so good that I can't really complain!
Then it's our time together at home until she goes to bed between midnight and one. We run things by each other all the time – usually at the end of the day when she's just about to go to bed, and she really doesn't want to have to switch her brain on again!
After Julie goes to bed I'll stay up do editing or designing. That quiet time when everyone else is asleep allows me to focus and I enjoy that alone time that I can't really have during the day.
I don't think it really matters if I get that quiet time early in the morning or really late at night, but you've got to get it somewhere.
Sometimes when I should be working I end up reading articles, which is kind of important as well, but what it turns into is just a cycle of reading things that I don't like and getting frustrated about it. I’m really attracted to opinions that I disagree with, and it’s a bit of a bad habit of mine. At the same time, that's really where ideas come from a lot of the time – an accrued frustration with the world.
I’ll go to sleep around three or four o’clock in the morning. If I wasn’t able to get any physical work done during the day like printing or putting up posters, I have a lot of trouble sleeping. On days like that I will go for a run, or maybe a really long walk.
I really like doing a project because it forces me to have a regimented routine. For four months of the year when I’m putting posters out on the street, I will get up at six in the morning in a hostel and I'll have everything ready to go – posters rolled and bucket of glue ready – so I can be out the door at 6:15 a.m to put up a few posters before I have breakfast.
I’ll typically jump on a train until it reaches the end of the line, which helps me wake up a bit, and then I'll walk back towards the city. I’m usually in a city or town that I don't really know all that well and I really enjoy the peace and quiet.
After I have breakfast I'll put up posters until about four o'clock in the afternoon when I completely run out of energy. If I put up 50 posters, that's a very good day. I always set out to do that, but it's rare. One confrontation can set you back an hour or so if you have to leave the area. Anything can happen. But I have this theory that when it comes to work load, you really don't know how much you can do until you try, so I will overload myself and then try to manage. Same with the posters – I don't know whether I will be able to do 50 a day, but if I try, some days I will. The days that I don't it doesn't particularly matter too much.
At the end of the day I have dinner, make some glue for the next day and sit down to deal with messages and emails, but I try to keep that to a minimum during the project. If I have an idea or a distraction pops up, I email it to myself to get it out of my head and attend to it the next week.
Before bed I'll call my wife back in Adelaide and explain how I’m starting to feel deflated and she’ll remind me that I call her yesterday about exactly the same thing! I sleep well because it's so physical and repetitive – completely unlike my normal life, which involves emails and all sorts of distractions.
"I have this theory that when it comes to work load, you really don't know how much you can do until you try, so I will overload myself and then try to manage. Same with the posters – I don't know whether I will be able to do 50 a day, but if I try, some days I will. The days that I don't it doesn't particularly matter too much."
We both usually work throughout the weekend and it is often a good time to have a video shoot because people are available if you need help.
Sunday afternoon and evening is really important because Julie's grandmother is Italian and she has a big family dinner every week. It’s a few hours of being around family and not thinking about work at all. It really puts a full stop on the week and helps you feel refreshed going into the next. It holds everything else together, in a way.
We see friends during the week sometimes as well, or during the weekend. We've got a few different groups of friends, but not a huge extended group, really – maybe ten people we see regularly. I think it's really interesting because with friends you’ve had for some time, you don't necessarily need to see them very often. Then there are some friends where the whole group has to be there in order for it to have a dynamic that works.
I meet lots of people through my work and sometimes it turns into collaborations. Likewise, collaboration is a great way to make friends, I think. It's got a set outcome and then you get to share creativity.
"I don't necessarily think an extraordinary life is a happy life. Creating a story for yourself is something that makes sense to me, because we know what a good story is. But each story has changes and transformations throughout it, and that can be a painful process. I’d rather have that than something which is just vanilla all the way through."
– Peter Drew