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Life Imitates Art: DION HORSTMANS

By Dan Hutton on March 1, 2017 in People

Picture: Tim Jones

Picture: Tim Jones

Where are you originally from?
I was born in New Zealand and then I spent half of my childhood between New Zealand and the Cook Islands. My father’s Niuean, so from a little rock called Niue in the middle of the Pacific Ocean between the Cook Islands and Fiji.

How did you come to live on the shores of Bondi?
I had travelled around the world and I was in Indonesia and my three months was up. I needed to get out and Darwin was the closest port. I didn’t want to go back to New Zealand. I arrived in Darwin on a Dutch passport that said I was born in New Zealand. They gave me a two-week visa on entry and I left Darwin, worked my way down the coast and eventually arrived in Bondi. I’ve now been in Bondi for 25 years.

Do you reckon you’ll ever leave?
If I’m living in Sydney, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else but Bondi.

What do you love about the Eastern Beaches, particularly Bondi?
It’s a wild, rugged ocean beach at the end of the street. It’s 15 minutes from the CBD. It’s multicultural; it’s got any number of different cultural dialects and languages at any given time. On the sand everyone’s equal; you could be running with a billionaire or a baker, everyone’s doing the same f**king hard slog.

Where are you favourite haunts in the Bondi area?
Bondi’s best-kept secrets are best kept secret. If you were to ask me where I was to hang at the beach I would probably direct you to the ‘grassy knoll’ at the north end of the beach, because I never go there. If I have to share, I love Sean’s Panorama, I love the boat ramp, I love Icebergs, and I love Da Orazio.

What grinds your gears about the area?
We live in a populated area; park with consideration for others. It’s a no-brainer.

Bondi’s obviously changed a lot over the 25 years since you’ve been there; has it changed for better or worse?
I think ultimately the biggest difference between 25 years ago and now is the demographic of people living here. Now it’s more owner occupied. It used to be more rentals. That was always going to happen. I don’t think it’s for better or worse. Bondi is what it is. In winter it’s a little local village, and in summer it’s a pumping beach. If you get the shits with it, leave.

Given that you’ve been living in Australia for more than half your life, do you still identify as a Kiwi?
Only when the All Blacks are playing. Other than that I’m Australian. I live here. I’ve got kids here. I’ve got parking permits and tax. A life. I suppose the other main difference between Australia and New Zealand is history – New Zealand’s indigenous integration, mostly. I think for Australians it’s a vicious cycle of denial. Indigenous Australians have been here for a long, long time, and Australia’s human rights record isn’t great. But New Zealand really celebrates its Maori history, and it’s got the Treaty of Waitangi, which is a fast read, but it’s still a treaty.

You’ve long been known as the bald-headed, bearded bloke with the chiselled rig running soft sands down at Bondi, but now you’re also recognised as a renowned sculptor; how did you first get into sculpture?
I’ve always drawn and I’ve always aspired to be an artist. I dropped out of art school really early; I didn’t really have any formal training. Then in 1996 a mate of mine, Aaron Crothers, gave me the confidence to work three dimensionally. Since 96, which is also when my first daughter was born, I haven’t looked back. I started in a very organic, kind of figurative place. I was bronze casting, but the cost of bronze casting was so inhibitive that I had to find another way to generate cash to do that. I went off on this other kind of abstract geometric tangent.

When did you first decide you were going to become a full-time artist?
I was working on [the film] Superman as a props maker. A mate of mine, Rory Unite, who is an incredibly talented sculptor, said he was going to leave film and go and do his own thing. I was like, “Get the hell out of here, how do you get to do that and I don’t?”

Is it just coincidence that your studio/workspace is next to a props workspace?
Funnily enough I was doing a job for an advertising agency and they wanted me to act in an ad for them. The guys who’d made the props for the set had a place next door up for lease. Bang. I took their space, and then my current space became available and I jumped in there.

Have you done much acting?
I’ve done a little bit of acting. It’s not what I want to do, but it helped pay the bills. I was doing everything. I’d do a campaign for Wonder White bread, I’d do vodka, gin, beer, anything to pay bills, just to supplement my art. The materials and finishes are expensive. Then you’ve got rent on top of that.

How many years did it take you to become an overnight success?
Things really kicked off for me in 2013. The last four years have been hectic. I got two public commissions, then I got picked up by a gallery in Melbourne. Momentum started to pick up. Architects started to see my work develop. I won a public commission in Bondi, in the Adina on Hall Street. I’ve got two pieces hanging in there. At the same time I got a massive commission down in Melbourne, which didn’t go to tender; I was directly approached by the owner. It was fantastic. The one in Melbourne is 85 metres long. It’s 30 tonnes of steel. It’s a massive thing. At around the same time Instagram came online. A mate of mine said, “You should be on Instagram, dude!” I kind of embraced it. It’s an amazing platform.

To really make a career out of art, do you have to be a bit of a self-promoter as well?
I think to make a career out of art now you’ve got to be prepared to stand in front of a camera, or you’ve got to be prepared to do interviews and blogs. You’ve really got to push it. You’ve got to be proactive. The landscape’s changed with galleries. It’s great to be represented, but at the same time it’s not everything. You’ve go to take the bull by the horns and have a real go.

What do you think it is about your geometric sculptures that appeals to people?
Geometry is pretty amazing. I think it’s the bold, strong lines. I don’t know. Nowadays it’s as much about being the face of your own ‘brand’, too. On my Facebook page I describe myself as ten foot tall and bulletproof. That’s kind of how I roll. My catchphrase is ‘Fuck Yeah’. ‘Fuck Yeah’ is not coming from a place of anywhere but excitement. My zest for life. It’s like, I’ll have a go at that. Damn straight I will. Why not?

How did you hone your skills?

In the prop shop I learned everything – fibreglass, plastic, steel, timber,. I bullshitted my way into that gig. Someone asked me if I could do it and I went, “Yeah.” I went into the workshop and the boss wasn’t there. I walked up to this dude who was running the workshop and he had no hair on his body. The first thing I asked him was, “Have you got cancer or something, dude?” He was like, “No, I’ve got alopecia.” I was like, “What’s that?” He goes, “All my hair fell out of my head and all over my body. I’ve got one hair on my left nut, you want to see it?” I was like, “No, I don’t want to see that.” Then I asked him how to use a table saw and I listened. I made mistakes, I learnt. My point being, don’t let your pride get in the way; stay humble.

Growing up, you must have had some idea that you had some mad skills, right?
As a kid I drew lots, and I used to make little model houses for my Action Men. I’d get a bunch of matchbox cars and I’d strip them down and make them into completely different cars. I made guns out of wood, too.

Do you have a favourite commission that you’ve worked on?
No, I loved working on all of them. Every one has got its own challenge. I love residential commissions as much as I do public work. I just love making.

What inspires you to create art?
My work itself is self-generated. It inspires itself, so it’s never-ending. What I can do with one thing is continually evolving. You have thousands of ideas in nano-seconds, but to realise an idea takes hundreds of hours. That’s what inspires me to keep the momentum, to keep moving, to keep self-exploring and reflecting on a piece. Two steps forward, one step back.

Have you ever entered Sculpture by the Sea?
Yeah. I’ve done five of them, but I’ve been knocked back more than I’ve exhibited. I’m a big fan of what [founder] David Handley and what Sculpture by the Sea has created and done for three-dimensional artists, and artists across the board. I think it’s a great thing. I think David’s vision was incredible. Five million people are going to see these artworks. Heaps of them are kids under the age of 12. If one of those kids goes out and becomes an artist it’s a good thing.

Do you think that the arts in Australia deserve more funding, or do artists need to create more works that people want to pay for?
I’m kind of in the second camp. I’ve never had a grant or any help from the government. I’ve never asked for it. The amount of paperwork is enough of a deterrent. There are serial artists who go for grants and spend all their time doing paperwork. But, obviously, the more money spent on arts and education the better – probably education before art, though.

You’ve got an exhibition coming up in March with legendary Bondi-based photographer Tim Jones; how did you two come to work together, and what’s the exhibition all about?
Tim and I have known each other for 10 years. We met through a mutual friend of ours and we’ve run in the sand together, and we’ve swum, and Tim’s taken photographs of me and my daughters. I really love working with Tim. It’s hard standing in front of a camera, and Tim makes me feel very comfortable I think our collaboration just comes from the ‘Fuck Yeah’ mantra. Tim came to me with an idea and I gave him some offcuts of sculptures, then he came back with the founding works for the show that we’ve got, Kaleidoscope Series 1, and from there we’ve developed it and workshopped it over a couple of weekends.

I suppose for me initially I loved the fact that my sculptures are represented horizontally [in the photos] as opposed to how we shot them. For me they’re much more warrior-like than sculptural, in a sense. They’re kind of warrior type pieces based on Battlestar Galactica and tribal masks, or samurai soldiers, or Transformers. I think they’re very strong, bold and beautiful.

Why should people go to the exhibition and buy the works?
You get to go along and drink some free beer and check out some art. The exhibition is being held at M2 Gallery, at 4/450 Elizabeth Street, Surry Hills. It’s beautiful and it’ll be fun.

The names of your artworks often reference speed and motion; what are you seeking to portray in your work?
When I name the works, mostly, it’s about speed or space or exploration. I want my works to feel like they have a certain amount of tension to them. It’s the same with the works in the new exhibition. There’s a lot of tension within the work, but not just static images of samurai masks. They hold you.

How do you stay motivated and productive in the workshop?
It’s called ‘discipline’. I turn up every day and put the time in, if I’m struggling to create or finish a piece I’ll clean the workshop. Mostly I just work; I try to stay focused. Going to the gym helps. It gives you the energy to stay clean and focused. Being in the workshop, I come here every day; it’s a job. If I’m not creating I’m not earning, and then I’m going hungry. I like to eat three meals a day, and if I’m going hungry that’s not good. I never bought into the struggling artist thing. I look at it as being a privilege.

Speaking of sculptures, you look like you’re chiselled from stone; what’s the secret to staying in such good shape when you’re approaching fifty?
Don’t drink too many beers, or any beer, and train every day. I had 13 years without a drink, but I was fit before that. I became fit as an adult. I wasn’t a sporty kid at all, by any means. At the moment I’m training twice a day, six days a week. I like being strong and fit and healthy, but the other thing is I spend all day on my own. Going to the gym and training with a couple of mates is how I debrief. I’m on my own all day, and the dialogue’s internal all day. Training gets me out of my head.

You’ve got two daughters from your first marriage; how do you find balancing work and family?
It’s a really tough one. Work’s my life and my life is my work, but my family are incredibly important. My daughters have grown up now, and I’m just an ATM to them these days – “Dad, can you pay for this? Dad, can you pay for that?”. But I’m there for them. I love being a dad, and I miss being a dad to young kids; I really do. I think my wife Grace and I will have a child early next year, with a bit of luck, and I look forward to that a lot. We’ll have to go to IVF, though. I had a vasectomy for 13 years, then I had it reversed and now it’s not working. So IVF it is.

Tell us about your cars, because you’re a bit of a car man, aren’t you?
I like American V8s; actually, I just like V8s. They feel really good. They make a great sound. I’ve got a 64 Pontiac, which I love. I’ve had it for 21 years. And then I’ve got the F-Truck, the big Ford F-100, which is just proportionally really beautiful. I think they’re really brutal, but tough, functional. But when you’ve got a baby, you get a family car. You get a Subaru, a Toyota, or something safe, with airbags and ABS brakes and air conditioning and electric everything. I might be in for a few changes, or additions.

Do you have any advice for young people looking to make a career in the arts, particularly sculpture?
Yeah, don’t do it. Don’t do it. Go back to accounting, merchant banking. Ultimately, if you’re doing it then you’re in direct competition to me. I would rather you spend your money on me than take away from me (laughs). I suppose the only advice I would have would be that you’ve got to be prepared to work really hard, and you’ve got to be thick skinned. Art is subjective; some people love it and some people hate it. No one’s going to love all of your work.

Do you have any role models?
I have a lot of role models. My role models are everyday guys. Tim Jones, for example. Tim’s a super talented guy with a fantastic eye. My role models are everyday guys that I am in contact with on a daily basis or a weekly basis. They’re my mates.

Do you support any charities?
I support a charity based out of Melbourne that builds schools in Africa. I donate a couple of artworks to them a year, which they auction off. Other than that, I try to support local indigenous causes, rather than things overseas. I think that support needs to start at home.

In an ideal world, what does the future hold for Dion Horstmans?
Another child. A bigger truck. I’d like to be working in the States three months a year. Not their summer, probably their winter, based out of LA. I want to keep producing art, and bigger and better things. I want to be constantly challenged. I want to be doing what I’m doing. I’m not taking that for granted. What more can I want? I’m living the dream.

You can check out Dion and Tim’s first exhibition of collaborative works, Kaleidoscope Series 1, from March 22 to 28 at M2 Gallery, Shop 4/450 Elizabeth Street, Surry Hills.