City Art Reader 7: Studio visit – Philip Trusttum

28th Nov 2018

Philip Trusttum is a respected Christchurch painter. He paints quickly, on a large scale on unstretched canvas. City Art Reader editor Cameron Ralston visited Trusttum’s studio in central Christchurch to discuss this space and his art practice.

Trusttum’s house came down 31 days after the earthquake. Since then, the house has been reduced in size and moved to the back of the property and in 2013/14 a large artist studio was built to specifications where the old house was situated. It features a 30-degree pitched roof, three-meter-high walls, double glazing and pull up carpet. Numerous paintings on loose canvas cover the walls all completed since Autumn this year, while other are rolled and piled on the studio floor.

“I just fill these walls up and when they get full I pull them down and replace them with another group of works. So, I work pretty well every day – Saturday and Sunday. Generally, every day is a work day because the studio is so close. I spoke to a New York artist when I was over there in 1984 and he asked where do you live and paint and he commented, ‘You must be a millionaire’ because he has to travel an hour or more to just get to the studio. It’s good to have it close, you can keep revolving.”

It’s evident that Trusttum makes a lot of artworks, and fast. I asked him how his day is composed.

“It’s like a factory really, except it’s just me. I get up at 8 o’clock every day, have breakfast, and generally start work at 10am and I stop when I’ve finished the painting, or when it’s been done. I tend to have things planned the night before. So yesterday I got here about half-past-ten, I worked until about half-past-two to complete the work, had a read and meditation/sleep and was back in here about half-past-three and worked until 7 o’clock. So, I got two paintings done yesterday. On a good day that’s what happens.

Van Gogh would polish off a couple of paintings a day, Cezanne saw him painting and said he would paint like a madman. Cezanne himself would never have painted like that. Every painter has their own pace. I’ve always been quick at everything that I’ve done, sometimes that leads to all sorts of problems and positive things too. One thing about being quick is that you can get rid of a bad series in a couple of months where someone else spends three years doing that work. And the expectation is that you are only going to get two or three major works a year anyway. So, if you work fast you have more chance. (Edward) de Bono talks about the more things you do the more productive you are. I’ve been painting sixty years almost so I try out different things to break that pattern.”

The studio is divided into two large rooms, both have paintings covering the walls. The first room has large tables with paints, materials, books and CDs everywhere. The table he paints on has been raised by piles of books to be more comfortable and the sky light shines directly onto his working space. The second room has paintings piled in imposing stacks or rolled together along with a loose file system. I asked if he has a way of keeping track of it all.

“I photograph every work. I didn’t used to because I was broke most of the time and couldn’t afford film. I’m having the work collated at the moment. But I could find 90% of the work, y’know it’s piled up over there. You don’t want to dwell on that for too long because it’s in the past. I asked Colin McCahon what he does when he’s finished, he said, ‘I just roll them up’. I don’t quite go that far, I put them up on the wall and then do the next one and the next one. Because the next one frees me from the last one. If you were to come back in another few weeks all the walls would be bare probably. Having to fill a wall up is a good way to start again. Any excuse to start a painting.”

Trusttum often paints on the activities and objects of everyday life. Selected works of his currently on show at the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū feature children’s toys, horses, wood chopping and road cones. Where we sat and chatted Trusttum had loosely pinned up some costume masks, which, looking around the room, had been monumentalized into vibrant, excited paintings. I asked how he decides what to paint.

“In my 40s when I was over in America, I was in a bit of a bind – I didn’t know what to paint. As Kitaj said to Hockney, ‘Paint what you like.’ So that’s what he did. You have to ask yourself what do you want or what do I like? The old saying is ‘Think like a king and work like a peasant’.

If I get killed in a car crash or plane crash then thank god I won’t have to paint another painting. Your start is your downfall because being dissatisfied is part of being an artist. And that rears its head as soon as you do that first drawing. I think that should be emphasized more than it is, every artist has that. I spoke to a defence lawyer and he said that same thing. I asked him, ‘What do you do when you finished a trial?’ And he said, ‘I lie in bed and think ‘Why didn’t I say that, what the dumb prick I am, I let the guy down, or I could have done better.’’ At the end of the day – and you have to discount the quality so you don’t let your aesthetics come to the game, that’s for the gallery – you just hope that you’re on the right track.

A painting should look good close up, and it should look good further back. When you do a painting you’re very aware of every centimeter in the rectangle, whether you leave it or touch it. You know every bit of the painting. It’s the overall concept that’s the bracing.

It’s the little things. Such as Alex Katz who writes Whistler’s portraits have trouble with their shoulders. I’m very aware of the shoulders now, the higher they are the more monumental the picture. Sometimes you get trapped, and think I could have done that better. It’s the little details that I find fascinating, there’s a lot that goes into a painting.”

The exhibition on at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū is composed of works Trusttum donated to the gallery. He is a smart operator and knows how to run his painting practice in a way that keeps the work flow. I queried as to whether there was a degree of self-promotion involved.

“Like many decisions it’s made up of multiple answers. Every institute has its policy. They had around 8 or 9 of my works, they weren’t buying my works at the time and they obviously thought they were better buying other people’s works, which is fair enough. I thought why not give them some. In some ways it’s a passive aggressive stance. It’s like I haven’t been invited to a dinner but I turn up and bring a plate. ‘Oh, good to see you, bugger, why didn’t we invite you’. I’m not the only one who’s done that. Gimblett did it for example. It’s sort of a largess, like any decision it’s a selfish decision, it’s a grand decision. It forces their hand in a way, and I got a show. It benefits everybody I think.”

So, Trusttum obviously knows his paintings and his practice well. But does he plan his compositions? There’s an expressive quality and speed to each work in the studio that I wouldn’t call slapdash but rather striking and composed.

“Sometimes I have drawings but generally I just start and see where the line goes. At the moment I’m trying to make as many accidents happen as possible. I’ve done something like 5000 drawings overall but they are an artwork in themselves anyway. I call them 4×2 drawings, like builders do sketches on their 4×2.”

There’s a multiplicity of things – the works roll on from each other. This is aided by the continuation of materials and sizes. I asked why he doesn’t stretch his canvases. Once again the decision came down to maximizing the time spent making artworks and the space allowed for them.

“It’s easier for me to roll up for one thing. I used to paint on hardboard and chipboard, and I got criticized for that, they said I should be painting on canvas. They also said I should be signing my works. So, I made a thing of my signing of a work. I moved to canvas and acrylic paint. Board is good but it’s difficult to handle, store and freight. I have over 2000 works in here and if these were hardboard you wouldn’t be getting in the room. Matthew Smith, the British painter, used to buy houses, fill them with paintings and lock the door an buy another one. I certainly don’t want to be stretching stuff, it’s too laborious. It’s about how much time do you want to spend working on that versus creating something. Thank god I’m not a sculptor because they take so long to make things.”

The paintings become a bit like a personal collection. But paintings aren’t the only things he has lots of. He also proudly shows off the around 7000 CDs he owns which he had to tally up by measuring rather than counting.

“I’m extremely eclectic. World music – I love Indian music. Classical, jazz, rock… They’re all sort of crazy, the composers compose things that go with the flow really. If things are going tough I turn it off. The music I listen to has got to be fairly robust. Delius I can’t cope with, he just disappears in the void. Beethoven is quite robust, he can surmount your problems.”

Having been painting for so long I wanted to learn more about where he started out and how that might compare to the experiences of my peers who have graduated art school in the last decade. Trusttum was 30 years old when he made the leap to being a full-time artist.

“It was bit scary. I was a postman up until then and Peter McLeavey said it was time to pick up the brush more full-time and so I did. I was earning modestly – still earning modestly. I’ve been self-employed since then. I’ve had bad years, one year I only had $1500, that wasn’t much fun, I was crook at that time with septicemia. And the last four years – this year’s the first year the first time I’m in profit, the previous three I plundered the Earthquake insurance money. Having said that in the late 90s there were big cheques when $1000 was a bit more to spend, now $1000 is two rolls of canvas. So, there was a certain amount of trepidation, but we’ve done okay. The good thing is that I’ve always got something to sell, even if it’s for $100 each.

I remember when I did go solo, and Gopaz said, ‘You should be alright, you’re a fast worker.’ He said, ‘Some artists shouldn’t have another job.’ Having said that there are artists like Trevor Moffitt who was a head teacher at Burnside, when he was earning enough from painting he quit. There comes a time, you’re also dealing with the social question (children, marriage, mortgage). We were lucky, I had 500 pounds to buy the house with and we needed another thousand. My Mother-in-law brought the mortgage out and then she erased it. When I left art school I had an 800 pound paint bill, that would have bought half the house. Which is the equivalent of a student debt today.”

For Trusttum a lot comes down to drive and hard work. He admits he doesn’t keep up with all the new artists and openings. I asked what he perceives as the differences from when he was starting out.

“It must be different. I don’t answer the phone in here. I have a cell phone but I only use that when travelling, I don’t look at it or listen to music on it. I do look at YouTube for painters. But younger artists, I have no idea. They’re much more knowledgeable than us at that time but having said that they’re not in some areas. I’ve got no idea what they think. I would like to think they do what they need to survive like I did.

There’re thousands of artists coming out of art school every year and it’s always about the new ones. And you’ve got to have that drive because you’re going to get run over eventually. It’s much more diverse now. It was just painting, sculpture, dance, music, drawing and that was it. And now what you can do is enormous, it’s almost too much.”

I get a that sense the way galleries operate has changed a lot too since his earlier days.

“When I was younger Peter McLeavey and New Vision would come to see me, they look at the work and say either they’ll give me a ring or they say we’ll get that one, that one and that one. I found that initially, while working as a postman, I was doing one work a month and it nearly killed me, I would agonize coming back to them – should I change it, should I not change it. I got some good paintings out of it but I don’t want to work under that regime again. Robert Rauschenberg said, ‘Do a work, finish it, then leave it.’ I get around those sleepless nights by painting this way.”

We finish by wandering around the studio, he points out to me some paintings which share compositions and subjects. In some he adjusts and zooms in finishing on mouths with gnashing teeth or vivid eyes. He also shows me works that resemble road signs, a familiar sight for the inner-city artist. Trusttum keeps looking forward to the next paintings, he tells me given a few weeks the place will look entirely different again.

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