In his paintings, John distils the character, history and beauty of a place to capture its essence on canvas.
“Before I paint a town I paint every, or nearly every, house, every shop, individually,” he tells the South Coaster, at an interview at Articles Fine Art Gallery.
“Also I try to meet the people in the town: who lives there, who used to live there, what is the history of the place? Then I do an overall painting, a larger painting of the whole town. By that stage I will know every nook and cranny.
“You should see my library of research – when you travel in those villages, they’ve got a local historical society, right? And they released a book which only six people bought – well, I am one of the six.”
John is fascinated by the relatively brief history of settled Australia, compared with his native Belgium. “It’s a short history; where I come from, at the back of my grandmother’s place, there is a Roman highway … here in Australia, the [colonial] history is about 200 years old.
“You travel the bush and discover all these places where a gold rush took place; 40,000 people lived in a small town and now there’s only 180 people there. I walk in these places, I can relive the past, I can see these people and I try to capture that in my paintings.
“To me, a landscape or a seascape is beautiful, but I like a touch of man in the landscape, something which makes it different. This area is an example: Stanwell Park has got a lot of history, whether it is [aviation pioneer] Lawrence Hargrave, whether it is bush rangers.”
John admires Australia’s Heidelberg school of artists but has only one “favourite” artist: Salvador Dali, who he once met at an exhibition in Ostend, Belgium. John recalls Dali never used the word “I”, referring to himself only in the third person as “the Genius”. “His paintings were fantastic, they are not just paintings of a landscape, they are paintings of the mind.”
John was born in Belgium, the son of a World War II resistance fighter. He did his national service in the special forces of the Belgian Air Force. Later John became a pilot and worked in the taxation office. Then in 1969, aged 24, he travelled to Australia in search of adventure.
“I wanted to become a crop-dusting pilot,” he says. But after two friends died on the job, John left to work at Citicorp First National in Sydney. And he started to paint. “At one stage I used to decorate all the offices at Citicorp. I decorated all the associated businesses with my paintings.”
In 1976, he quit his role as Bankstown branch manager and became a full-time painter. For the past 36 years, John and his wife Frances have run Articles Fine Art Gallery – now an icon on the Grand Pacific Drive. “The first Christmas people were queueing like 20m out the door. And we said: ‘Whoa, what have we done here? It looks like it’s going to be successful’ … ”
It was. The couple would travel for a month, then John would paint for a month. In the 1980s, fine art print distributors Art Nouveau picked up his work. “It went berserk and now we’ve sold about three million prints. I’ve had exhibitions all around Australia … travelled all around Australia.”
Locally, John is known for his community service, including as a founding member of the business chamber – and as an engaging storyteller with a wickedly dry sense of humour.
Nationally, he’s won many awards, including a fellowship from the Australian Institute of History and Arts, and is in Kevin Hill’s prestigious Top 10 Australian Artists list. John is now working on a new series featuring the Rocks in Sydney.
His advice for young artists: “Work every day.” And his greatest achievement? “Living my dream, that is all.”
Articles Fine Art Gallery, 111 Lawrence Hargrave Drive, Stanwell Park, open Friday to Sunday. Visit www.johnvander.com.au