Packed with whimsical surprises and tiny secrets, Leon Pericles’s art works have been delighting viewers for almost 60 years. Nina Levy relished the opportunity to dive into his magical world.
Leon Pericles is an artist who appreciates the small stuff.
His works, which traverse etching, painting, collagraph and sculpture, are like microcosms, worlds filled with tiny moments for the viewer to explore.
As a child I was very much aware of Pericles’s work because I attended the same primary school as his two children, sandwiched between them in age. I remember my parents buying his book A Bunch of Pictures (1984) in the mid-80s, and being entranced by the little playful details, the everyday objects (teabags!), and the way I could explore the images like a Pick-a-Path novel. Then, as now, I relished the subtle humour in his works, embedded in details that are there for those who look closely.
That attention to detail, Pericles tells me, dates back to his own school days at Thomas Street Primary School in West Perth, in the 1950s.
“We were always taken, as primary school kids, to the museum and the art gallery. At the museum I used to love the dioramas, which were three-dimensional, boxed into the wall,” he recalls. “You’d have some poor unfortunate taxidermied animal, like a numbat, in the foreground, then rocks and grass and stuff, and then painting of the hills in the background … and there were little signs saying ‘wandoo timber’. And there may have been a card showing what their breeding time was and, and what food they ate, and what temperatures they liked.”
It was the dense information provided in those dioramas, illuminated by the expertise of the museum’s lead guide Harry Butler – an Australian naturalist and environmental consultant who became the presenter of the popular ABC television series In the Wild – that Pericles believes underpinned the development of his idiosyncratic artistic style.
“I like giving lots of information [in my works]. The more you know about something, the more you enjoy it.
“So some of my major pieces are done like this, like the pearling etching from Broome [Teardrops of the Gods (1999)] has a large drawing of a diver in his old brass helmet outfit, and maps of the early and late Broome and the equipment that they use to dive, and the gear that they use to artificially inseminate the artificial pearls, and history around the town. It has old images of the jetties and the boats that were there and information about the history of the town.”
Pericles’s work is layered physically too. Though he only has a limited amount of space to “come off the wall” in his etchings, he makes the most of that space, cutting and gluing pieces of artwork to create a landscape much like those memorable museum dioramas. An Apple A Day (2006) is an example of this way of working, he says.
“An Apple A Day was a sort of statement about the very first artificial heart. So we made this artificial heart out of bits of brass and hose clamps. And then there was a bandage where there was a leakage … and in it we had the passion agitator lever … and a palpitation controller. It was clockwork; the first one had to be wound by the recipient every morning. The heart was made up as an object first, and then adhered to the artwork.”
When Pericles says “we”, he is acknowledging his collaborator and wife Moira Pericles, who played a crucial role in his success not just as an artist, but as a teacher. As readers who have seen daughter Nia’s 2019 documentary Storm in a Teacup will be aware, Moira was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 59. Poignantly, Pericles tells me that she has just moved into full-time care.
It was Moira, Pericles explains, who filled in the gaps that untreated dyslexia left in his education, enabling him to teach at tertiary level. “Moi gave me the confidence to push ahead into areas that I didn’t think I had any capacity to go into at all,” he says.
One of the many aspects of their collaboration has been creating studio spaces within their homes. I can remember vividly a primary school excursion to visit Pericles’s home studio, then in Mount Lawley; the rich greenery, the generous light, the fish pond. Being a child of the mid-80s my experiences of homes were mostly beige and visiting the Pericles’s home made me realise that interiors don’t have to be neutral.
The lush greenery that colours my memories of that Mount Lawley studio is present now, in Pericles’s Margaret River studio. That studio will be open for visitors in September, as part of Margaret River Region Open Studios, and Pericles promises that his garden is an attraction in its own right.
“It’s quite large, it’s got unusual plants in it. And the most recent piece is called the Moss Ruins … It’s a brick structure that we’ve built into the area, just south of the studio and it’s a spiritual sort of place to walk through. The walls are all animated with rocks and little figurines from various religions, human sort of passions and stuff.”
Once inside, visitors to Pericles’s Margaret River studio may find him working on a number of projects.
“I’ve got so many ideas,” he says. “I literally keep myself awake with ideas. In the early days, I’d get up and write them down into notebooks. My early notebooks were just scribbles so that I could remember what I was talking about the night before to myself, so they’re not very attractive little sketch notebooks which I am very sorry about because I love artist notebooks with a passion. They are just such beautiful things. I’ve made a couple little tiny ones. But in the long run, it’s on my list of things to do, an exhibition of notebooks.
“Another idea is an exhibition of things in boxes, little boxes. But at the moment I’m working three-dimensionally again. The work I’m finishing off at the moment is a nautical piece that’s got a collection of round objects … that represent nautical themes. So the barometer is an absolutely essential thing for a sailor, so that you can work out whether you’re going towards a storm or not. And then you’ve got the round steering wheel, you’ve got a round coil of rope, you’ve got a round clock … and a compass, which is important at sea, and all sorts of things like that.
“And it all fits into that narrative that comes from the museum, the dioramas and trying to tell stories.”
You can visit Leon Pericles as well as 140 other artists in Margaret River, Busselton, Dunsborough, Cowaramup and the surrounding areas during Margaret River Open Studios, 11-26 September. Check the MROS website for opening days and times.
Pictured top: Leon Pericles ‘North to the Station Shed’, 2021, mixed-media, 30x40cm
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