Ralph Kerle is a true local success story. The Willoughby artist, like so many, struggled to find purpose after retirement. Always creative, when kayaking in Middle Harbour he was struck by the patterns made by the reflection of the water onto the boats moored there. His photographs of that subject have since been exhibited all over the world, including being recognised as an emerging artist at Berlin Art Week, being commissioned by Louis Vuitton, and invited to take part in a residency in Latvia. Here we chat to Ralph about his inspirational story.
What was your career and life prior to becoming a photographic artist? Have you always worked in creative fields?
I have spent my entire life working creatively in the creative industries. I graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts majoring in dramatic art in the 80s. I established a reputation as a creator of multi-media performance events before multi-media was highjacked by software technology companies. Multi-media performance in the 80s involved creating a synthesis of live performance and technology using large scale slide projection to create highly visual settings and what was then revolutionary moving lights to create atmosphere. Think large scale mirror balls, laser lights, strobes, neons, rock concerts, dance performances etc. This practice is what gave me the eye for the single image artwork I am now creating.
You describe battling depression after retirement and the relief and solace you found on the water while kayaking around Middle Harbour. How crucial was this activity to your recovery?
A true creative never really retires. They instead lose purpose in their creative journey. The creative world is littered with examples: Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Marilyn Monroe are just a few of the better-known names who lost their purpose after highly successful careers and paid the ultimate price for that loss – suicide. I think the same can apply to people that have retired as well. Creativity and use of the imagination is known as one of the great panaceas for depression in mental health. Start externalizing creatively and the mind stops the continuing internal conversation to which there is no answer. Physical activity in nature stimulates externalization in our brain. Kayaking the natural beauty of Middle Harbour lifted the unanswerable internal darkness for me and opened up new pathways of thinking.
While exploring Middle Harbour you began to notice beauty in the way the water reflected against surfaces such as the many boats moored there. Tell us more about what made you interested in this.
I wanted to document the experience of the external and new thinking I was sensing. I started to take shots with my iPhone of the fully formed abstract reflections the light was creating on the surface of the water. I posted some of the photos with no explanation except for a title to my Facebook friends. The response was totally unexpected and highly encouraging. Surprising as my peer group of actors, artists, set designers, film makers are cynical and hardnosed. Simultaneously I started to recognize the fully formed reflections seemed like representations or homages to many of the modern masters such as Jackson Pollock, Mondrian, Monet, Dali, Rothko even Brett Whiteley. Had I stumbled onto something serendipitously?
You began taking photographs of these reflections – at what point did you realise other people may be interested in and appreciate your work?
I was taken aback by the immediate reaction viewers seemed to have to the artworks. Words such as peaceful, beautiful, magical, stunning were thrown around. Not words I had expected. These words seemed to come from a deeper experience of not instantly recognizing the content of the photographs as viewers tried to articulate what they were seeing and feeling. The conversations became more interesting and informative when I asked viewers what it is they thought they were seeing. In almost a decade, with only one exception, viewers have failed to correctly identify what the content of my photographs is at first glance. When I sold 11 out of 16 works at my first exhibition in 2013 it seemed people wanted to buy into this mysterious visual experience – a strong sense the artistic process was working.
What has been some of the favourite feedback you have received about your art?
The feedback I have enjoyed most is that the work is aesthetically beautiful and a source of constant peaceful and calming meditation and inspiration. That viewers are experiencing the same emotions and feelings as I do when I create the art is affirming in a very personal way.
Images: Ralph Kerle Art Facebook
How regularly are you out on the water in Middle Harbour? Are there certain areas you particularly enjoy (where do you set off from, for instance)?
I try to be on the water in Middle Harbour at least three times a week all year round. I launch at Tunks Park, Northbridge and have two regular routes I follow that over the years have provided wonderful sources of inspiration – Balmoral via the Spit and return and Roseville Marina and return.
Weather conditions and the time of day play a large role in finding potential source material. People will often assume early morning is the best time whereas 9.00am – midday when the sun is at a higher angle to the earth is best. There needs to be little wind and cloudy days are surprisingly fruitful offering a silver water surface where colours register more strongly than the normal deep blue water surface. Clontarf, Seaforth, Beauty Point, Sailors Bay and Long Bay have consistently been my favoured locations.
Your art is even more impressive given you are legally blind in one eye, and have undergone a corneal transplant in the other. Do you believe that your eye condition actually enhances your artistic endeavours?
My eye condition has played a huge role in what is unique in the works. I have written a blog on this entitled the Good Eye that can be found at https://www.ralphkerlesart.com/journal/2018/11/29/a-good-eye to explain in detail how my eye condition has affected my creativity.
Tell us about where your work is available and the exhibitions you have been part of.
I have had exhibitions in Sydney, Melbourne, Lisbon, Riga, Berlin and Palm Beach, Florida USA since my first exhibition in Willoughby in 2012,
I was selected as one of 42 emerging artists in Europe for Berlin Art Week 2018. In 2019 I was awarded a commission entitled “The Art of Navy” from the Royal Australian Navy that resulted in a major solo exhibition at the Australian National Maritime Museum. This exhibition is now under negotiation for an Australian national regional tour commencing in 2021.
I was commissioned in 2019 by Louis Vuitton to provide all the artwork for their retail stores in the new David Jones flagship store George Street, Sydney and am honoured to be considered globally as a Louis Vuitton artist.
Selection by the Executive Director and Curator at the Mark Rothko Art Centre in Latvia in 2020 as a guest international artist with a three months residency in their Baltic and Central European cultural programme has been a real highlight in my career to date only to be cut short by the pandemic. The date has now been moved to 2022
Current work is available for viewing at my new exhibition gallery Ralph Kerle Gallery at the Cosmopolitan Centre in Double Bay 7 days from 12.00 – 8.00pm and at my studio in Willoughby by appointment.
Ralph Kerle Gallery
Shop G7/8 – 22 Knox Street Double Bay