Mentor, inspiration, genius. Words that are bandied about a great deal. Yet, how many times in our lives do we come into contact with such a person? A fellow illustrator, recently commented on how lucky I was to have worked with artist, Ted Dutch. On reflection, I can hardly believe just how fortunate I was. Although I didn't really appreciate his influence on me until much, much later. Perhaps only when he died in 2008 did I fully realise the true impact. I worked for Ted as an assistant designer for 5 years (fresh out of art school) and every single day, I learned something new. He was not only technically brilliant and the most generous teacher, but kind, compassionate and hilariously funny.
At the time he told me it was the best job I would ever have, and as with everything, he was right.
A key element, he would say, was to walk out the door every night and totally forget. I should be surprised the next day as to which piece of work was taped to my drawing desk - it should be a shock when I opened the studio door. Whilst I thought he was utterly mad, once I had perfected that technique, I realised it actually worked. Of course those were the days before children and mortgages and responsibility. Before working from home. Before the ten thousand interruptions in
a day that come from phone calls, email and unwashed dishes.
He knew about balance and being present to your work. It was the curse of the artist, he often said, that the ideas come too quickly or at the wrong time. To that end he created 3 distinct studios at his home in Titirangi. The garage loft for ceramic work, the downstairs studio for graphics and screen printing and an upstairs painting room (pictured here). Ted divided his time between the disciplines, forever dogged by the thought that whatever he was working on he should really be in one of the other rooms doing something better or more interesting. His ideas, they overflowed. Cramming margins and notebooks and post-it notes. They ran off the blotter page and down the side of the desk - a crazy, continuous tide of line work in a language all its own.
He was a collector of not only images, but thoughts on life and funny stories. On most days the conversation would range wildly from oddball relatives or his pre-war childhood in London, to the greats of the art world, the cricket score or some new/clever technique he had invented. There are only a select few of us that know how to draw a perfect circle and nearly pass out at the same time.
His breath holding technique was easy enough once you learned it, but just for kicks he would start you off with the biggest circle he could find and watch you turn faintly blue. His musings on life covered the gamut. Ted never pressed his opinion, but whatever the issue there was an anecdote about some 'bod' or another that fit the circumstance neatly. His truisms always stacked up. 'If you can't wear jeans, don't go - it's not worth your time'. 'Art societies should be banned on the grounds of visual pollution - if you can't sing, you don't go busking do you?'. 'Don't trust a man who doesn't like eggs on toast'.
Humour was his greatest asset - being able to revel in the utterly absurd. We laughed a lot.
When I read the polished gallery spiel written in the 'artspeak' native to exhibition catalogues, I'm unsure about the perception of his work that now remains. To me anyway, it was the comedy of life that propelled him to create. Ted had absolutely no idea why he created his figures and said so openly - they just appeared to him fully formed. Whilst his creations were deeply intelligent, he had no pressing political or social motivation in his art. Nothing remotely revolutionary he wanted to say
. . . 'It's all been done before '.
That unassuming reserve coupled with absolute precision in his art practice across a vast range of media, was a rare combination. Ted was quietly brilliant. The very real thing and a dear friend. It is one of the saddest recollections I have, that on a shimmering January day whilst I sat on the sand in Cheltenham with my children, looking out to a heat haze on the flat sea around Brown's Island and thinking life was pretty great - Ted was dying. I never properly got the chance to say thanks Ted, thanks for everything . . .You were a true genius.