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Getting to know Kit Messham-Muir

This week on Engage Newcastle we’re catching up with Dr Kit Messham-Muir, senior lecturer in Art History at UON’s School of Creative Arts. Kit encourages us to get out and see art – in our galleries, in the streets – and engage with ideas.

Tell us about your background, including what drew you into Creative Arts?

I was born in Wrexham, a town in Wales that is quite similar to Newcastle in many ways – with a long history of coal mining.  I recently saw my family tree and I come from a long line of coal miners.  And no, I didn’t inherit the Welsh singing gene.  I moved to Sydney in 1987, where I did my Bachelor of Visual Arts and PhD.  After I got my job at the University of Newcastle in 2008 I moved to here with my wife, Loretta Tolnai, a corporate trainer.  She’s my biggest supporter, biggest critic and one of the smartest people I know.  What drew me to studying and teaching art?  I was considering a career in journalism, but when I was 18 years old I had an inspirational teacher in Wales called Pat Cooke.  She taught me that art is not about providing answers, but asking questions.

What’s been the most unexpected aspect of your work so far?

I teach art history, and I always expected students who come to learn to be artists might not be so keen on the theory side of things – but they seem to really love it!  I think it’s because they see that their work fits into a large conversation of art, which has been going on for centuries.  It’s really exciting to see students discovering art history.

Do you draw on any people or resources for inspiration?

We have so much access to many different types of information today, and I think that’s really exciting.  People learn all the time, and these days learning has become much more social – sharing articles on Facebook, spending hours trawling through YouTube videos.  That connectivity that we have now is something I find inspirational.  It led me to create my own YouTube channel a couple of years ago, called StudioCrasher and now I make video resources for my students, often interviewing artists from around the world.  We just didn’t have those kinds of opportunities when I was an art student 25 years ago.

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What are you passionate about? Can others in the community get involved?

I know this is a bit of a cliché to say this, but the thing I’m really passionate about is teaching, giving gallery talks – just talking about art and ideas.  I always hope to draw people in with my own enthusiasm, into engaging more with art and ideas.  And I really believe it’s important to see art in the flesh – get out there, go to a gallery, look for art out there on the streets.  It’s everywhere.

What’s been your proudest achievement to date?

I learned how to fly a plane a few years ago.  I’ve given it up now, but my last flight was an hour solo over the Hunter Valley.  I started to learn in 2007, when I had a boring government office job, during a brief hiatus from teaching, and it was the best way of injecting something exciting into life.  After being chained to a desk from 9 to 5, there really is nothing like being 4,000 feet above somewhere as beautiful as the Hunter Valley, on your own and completely in control.  It’s not anything related to my academic work, but it was interesting learning something new and complex from scratch.  Was it exciting?  Absolutely.  Was it scary?  Well, I don’t fly anymore.  It was amazing fun, but there’s a saying pilots have. ‘flying is hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror’.  I did used to be scared of getting on a commercial jet, but I realise now how safe those big ones really are.

What would be your dream project?

I’ve just been in Paris talking to two famous curators, Paul Ardenne and Barbara Polla, about working on a book, exhibition and symposium on images and war.  It’s still in its early stages at this point, but it sounds very interesting.  War and imagery has long been one of my research interests – I did a lot of research on Holocaust museums and how they use images and objects, and I have a book on its way on the work of Shaun Gladwell, a video installation artist who was recently an Australian Official War Artist.  This project taking shape with my French colleagues continues from that, and if it develops as planned during 2015, it really would be my dream project.

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KIT’S NEWCASTLE 

What’s your favourite Newcastle neighbourhood and why?

Cooks Hill, without a doubt.  It’s like a tiny sliver of Soho in New York or Camden in London, right in Newcastle.  It has a life and an energy that just buzzes.  I love the fig tree-lined streets, tiny hidden gems, like Glovers Lane, and of course the cafés, bars and restaurants.  And it’s just getting better and better.  And I love Goldberg’s.  Their coffee wakes me up every morning.

Can you name a local hero?

Marcus Westbury.  He may not be as famous as Silverchair or Jennifer Hawkins, but the things he’s done for reviving the city with Renew Newcastle will have impacts on Newcastle for years.  I really enjoyed his Not Quite Art documentary series on the ABC too, which were about finding art in unexpected places, and in things that aren’t quite ‘art’, in the usual sense of the word.  I’ve never met him, but he seems like someone with a bottomless supply of energy and an attitude of ‘why not?’.

What do you look forward to doing most in Newcastle in summer?

Dawn swimming at the Newcastle Ocean Baths.  After all these years living in Newcastle, I only recently discovered the beauty of watching the sun rising over the Pacific Ocean while doing a few laps.  I’m a woeful swimmer, but no one cares or notices when they’re also distracted by the rising Summer sun shimmering across the surf.  It even sounds beautiful.

And winter?

For me, the best thing to do in winter in Newcastle is to have dinner and a glass of red at Goldberg’s on a cosy evening with Loretta.  It has a homely atmosphere, and when they light the candles in the evening, it feels like you’re in a different age.  The colour of the decor makes you feel like you’re in an old sepia-toned photograph.

Where and what was the last greatest meal you had in Newcastle?

There’s a new Malaysian restaurant on Darby Street called Serambi, which is just excellent.  The food is amazing and the prices are great.  The chef is a guy called Vishnu, who is an absolute perfectionist, and very welcoming.  He’s just introduced laksa to his menu, but it’s not your usual noodle shop laksa.  It’s beautiful, fresh and rich.

Best place to getaway to?

My absolute favourite place to getaway to is New York.  For an art historian and theorist, New York is the centre of the universe.  I love the big galleries, such as MoMA and the Guggenheim, and the hundreds of contemporary commercial galleries in Chelsea.  The city itself is also one of the most visually spectacular places I’ve ever been.  When I cross the streets and avenues in New York, I can’t help but gaze down the long canyons of skyscrapers.  It used to be a dangerous place, but these days it’s one of the safest cities to visit.

Your #1 Newcastle insiders tip?

Visit Newcastle Art Gallery.  Some Novocastrians don’t fully appreciate what an amazing collection we have in our own local gallery.  It has some of the earliest colonial works, significant Indigenous Australian works, as well as modernist pieces.  The Gallery owns a major work by Carl Andre, an important pioneer of minimalist art, which the artist gifted to the Gallery.  Not many regional galleries can say that.

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