Robert Brownhall is a realist painter, inspired by his local environment of South-East Queensland. Over nearly thirty years of painting, Brownhall has developed a unique style characterised by a strong connection to place with his moody nocturnes, broad sweeping panoramas and gritty vignettes of urban life.
Painting and drawing are very special to me. I know I will be practising them passionately for the rest of my life. If you visit one of my exhibitions you will see paintings of buildings in warm sunshine, beautiful lights shining in the night, beach scenes and rain. Most of my subjects are from my ‘old friend’ South East Queensland, where I have lived since I was four. I paint from drawings and create the lighting, the shapes of trees and clouds, and the figures from my imagination. Everything is re-imagined to look like a dream or surreal memory. This process feels the most natural to me. Some paintings are funny comedies, others are explorations of the darkness of night or the melancholy of rain, but none of them are angry. They are dramatic but peaceful in mood.
My painting subjects are unusual. I have kept on painting them for thirty years despite the criticisms from the Australian art world. “Buildings are just boxes”, “Rain is miserable” and “Night is gloomy and scary” they say. But I have to paint what is in my mind. When I see these subjects out in the world they seize my attention. I feel something dramatic and emotional as I stare at them, then I feel the need to turn them into paintings. The artists I admire most from history painted what they felt. So this is the rule I live by. A few years ago I discovered why I paint my unusual subjects. They are ‘memory triggers’ for the things I saw and felt during a life and death drama from my childhood. When I was three years and three months old I fell into a still lagoon of water near the Sea at Kellys Beach, Bundaberg. I struggled and fought the water but drowned. I was then revived in a nearby beach car park. After this, I fought my way through a very tough night in hospital. My caring mother was there by my side all night. I know all this is true because my father once told the whole story to some people, right in front of me. I remember every single word he said. The most important thing he said was that rescuers “couldn’t find a pulse” after I was pulled out of the water. This shows the severity of the accident.
While I was reading the old newspaper article about my accident a few years ago, I became overwhelmed. As I was imagining myself choking and drowning in the water I stared across the room at two of my rain paintings which feature the landscape barely visible under a deluge of rain. I have been making these paintings for thirty years, but now I could see that they were actually telling a story about me. The trees and buildings were drowning like I did under the water. I wondered if my childhood drama had been with me all this time. I went into my studio and saw the dramatic use of black in my night paintings in a new way. I could see a sense of struggle in my over energized imaginary crowd scenes. The lonely dogs on night streets, hospital rooms, spooky headless manikins in shop windows at night, bad luck broken down car paintings and abandoned buildings all made sense now too. I decided to ask a Psychologist if it was possible that my long ago drama could be somehow stored in my mind. She told me that images and feelings from near death experiences ‘embed’ themselves deeply into the subconscious. She had no doubt that had been painting the story of my drama throughout my life. She also said “You have been dead and brought back to life, and the way it felt is stored somewhere in your mind”. She informed me that I had been using art to process my life and death drama. I then decided to visit the place where I drowned and the hospital to find some answers. I planned to draw and paint these places. Everything became obvious as I explored them. I was like a detective discovering long ago evidence and relating it back to my life and my art. After creating a whole exhibition about these places, I changed as a person. I let go of an edgy ‘struggling’ feeling that had haunted me for most of my life. My mind felt much clearer. It was the best thing I had ever done for myself. The mysterious subconscious memories from the accident that I have painting for decades can be seen in every one of my exhibitions over thirty years, but it all began under the water.
I have been painting rain for decades. When I see trees and buildings disappearing into heavy rain I feel something dramatic and sad. This reminds me of the last thing I saw and felt as I my body broke down and died in the water, blurred sticks, rocks and branches above the surface. A powerful “unforgettable” subconscious memory was forged at this moment. When I paint rain though, I always end up turning it into beautiful, cool, blue grey poetry. Why live with a nightmare in your mind when you can transform it into beauty?
Elevation is a strong recurring theme in my artwork stretching back for decades. I love being high in a tree or drawing the view from a tall building. Every show has a large elevated city or beach view in it. I am an ‘elevation addict’. I was always up in trees when I was a child. Instead of feeling scared up there I always feel safer than being on the ground. Safe from any creepy ponds of water below I suppose. To ‘get up’ out of the water that day is what I was so desperately trying to do. When I was lifted up I was being pulled away from death. This was a hugely important moment in my life. I believe I could see the tree branches above the water that day, but I could not reach them. Trees tossing in heavy rain feel very familiar when I look at them in storms. Now though, I can climb very, very high into the tops of the biggest trees. I have been a professional tree climber for twenty seven years. This involves either bringing them down piece by piece with a chainsaw or climbing all around them, pruning them, at great heights. It is a very dangerous job, so many others have had terrible accidents but I have never had a chainsaw cut or a fall from a tree. I think my mind is ‘wired’ to survive death from my childhood brush with it. I think the fear of death is not there as much in me because I have already experienced it. If you can stay calm up there and keep a clear mind, you can work everything out and survive.
Every time I am at the beach I take a moment to recall my revival. I close my eyes and listen to the waves and the wind blowing in the trees. Though my eyelids are shut a reddish glow of light comes through them. Then I open them slowly until the bright light blasts in. It feels like I am waking from a dream. I feel warm and very comforted by the sunshine. This is what I felt that day. I am an artist who is forever obsessed with light. I study sunrises and sunsets everyday, and the way the sun shines on and through things like water, walls, trees and glass. But when I paint I make up all the lighting from imagination. There is something about light that lives deep in my mind.
There is a beach units building that stands directly over the car park where I was revived. I have painted scores of flat roof 1960s style beach buildings just like this one for decades. This is no coincidence. They are all front on, just the way you see my revival building from the car park. This building was the first thing I saw as I was brought back to life. Out of the cold water and up into the warm comforting sun. When I stand in front of this building at three o’clock in the afternoon, the same time as the revival, and stare at the sunshine on the bricks and the shadows casting across it, I remember it, without a doubt. This is a sacred place to me. I love painting sunshine and shadows on walls. I love being alive. Filling in every tiny brick hour after hour is not a chore but a wonderful therapy. I have always felt comforted by beach buildings. I regularly surf using them as a markers for a good break. They watch over me while I am out in the Sea. I know the sun was shining warmly through cane smoke during my revival because I have always felt the need to glaze my beach units paintings with warm, surreal, yellow varnish. They do not feel right until they are warm and yellow, with all the blues and greens knocked back. While I was in Bundaberg drawing from my car the sun did exactly this, and I ‘knew it’ straight away. After the revival I was taken to hospital with water in my lungs. Despite the odds I survived the night and while I was in an outside courtyard the next morning I looked up at the sun and shadows casting across the old buildings. My mind flashed back to the drama of the revival. But my many ‘old buildings in morning light’ paintings have always had a surreal but fresh, optimistic sky above them. This tells me I was feeling relief at surviving that dramatic night. It felt so good to be alive on that beautiful morning. My life was not over, it was just beginning. When I returned to my house in the suburbs I felt much more comforted. It was good to be home. But when the sun shone across my house and others on the street, casting those shadows again, the drama returned to my mind. My suburban paintings have always included this drama but they also have a comforting, heart warming quality to them. I often turn them into comedies. Everything is alright now, have a laugh at the funny old man painting his house a silly colour or that lady who’s strange little dog refuses to walk. It is just wonderful to be alive.
Every show of mine from the past has paintings of beach car park views in the mix. Where the land meets the Sea, that is what I am obsessed with. When I come out of the surf and sit in my car looking back at the sea, I feel something dramatic and emotional. Then I start drawing. It is that combination of bitumen or concrete, some grass, a few strangely shaped trees and that strip of ocean that ‘gets me’ every time. You need to be at adult height to see this combination of things from the car park at Kellys Beach. This tells me that I was picked up by someone and saw this view of the water, that had just killed me, over their shoulder. Another “unforgettable” subconscious memory was forged.
I have always loved watching lights shining and flickering in the night. When I stare at them I feel something powerful and emotional. My scores of night paintings over the decades show my obsession with this subject. This is my most mysterious subject. I am not entirely sure what began it but it must have come from my childhood life and death struggle, because everything else does. Perhaps I was staring at the electric lights in my hospital room, in the ceiling, across the room or outside the window. If you were desperately trying to breathe and stay alive, then they would be a very useful focus. Keep your eyes on the lights. Do not fall asleep, or you will die again, as you did in the water. When you recovered and realized you had escaped death, they would look truly wonderful, probably. I realize now that my regular drawing trips to high hotel rooms that look over thousands of lights are a re-enactment of my childhood hospital night. I am up over the town ‘struggling’ to draw the whole city in one night. I hang on and on, because this is what is what you have to do. After midnight I am finally starting to win. I have ‘survived’ and I feel that wonderful sense of contentment. I suppose there could be another explanation for my obsession with lights in the dark. Many death survivors do report seeing or feeling a beautiful, comforting light in the darkness as they die. I have read many, many accounts. Is this what is locked away in my mind? I cannot be sure, but I do believe that after the struggle there could be something beautiful right at the end of life. If I stop for a moment, close my eyes and imagine I am at the very last moment of my life, after the nasty struggle, I do not feel fear but euphoric, powerful peacefulness. A wave of goosebumps passes over my skin. Maybe there really is an angel of death who comes to take us away when we die. Maybe we are just programmed to feel this in our minds to cope with the extreme fear of it all. When I was a teenager my favourite thing to do was to drink alcohol to excess in night clubs and then find a chair to pass out in while the spinning, flashing lights and loud music took over. I would then experience a familiar euphoric out of body experience, as if the life inside me was being drawn out and away. Then fear would grip me. If I indulged too much longer in this state I felt I would be gone forever. I remember once a bouncer grabbing me by the hair and telling me “Wake up, party animal” around 3am in the morning. He was right. I needed to find a healthier way of processing my childhood trauma.
I am not scared to die because I know there is some kind of euphoric peacefulness at the very end of life. But the thing I treasure the most is being alive. Having a place in this incredible story, the story of life on Earth, is the greatest privilege of them all. Life is ‘gold’. It is more important than money or power. Put your hand on your heart and feel it beating. You are so lucky. Don’t waste a day. Use your life to do something special. Overall, throughout my life, I have always been a very positive person. I am not a little pile of bones in a cemetery. I am living my super precious ‘second chance’ every single day.
I cannot really understand how I survived drowning to death as a child. I cannot understand how I have survived climbing eight or nine thousand trees over twenty seven years without a serious injury. There were near misses with power lines, runaway cars and many other deadly situations. I have also survived a drunken midnight fall into the Brisbane river, snapped leg ropes in huge cyclone surf and several serious car crashes when I was younger. The Psychologist that I met with told me she had never met anyone who had experienced so many close calls with death. I wonder sometimes if I have a guardian angel or protector looking after me through everything. I use the Eagle in my paintings as a protector of life. While I was drawing in Bundaberg I saw one there in the sky and it felt very familiar. I believe I saw one above me as I was being revived in the car park that day. This would explain the obsession. The ‘big bird in the sky’ memory. I think this explains the scores of imaginary jets I have created in the skies of my paintings for decades.
After my drowning I had a bad phobia of the water. I was unhappy near the Sea in Bundaberg. Afterwards, when I lived in Brisbane there was a trip to the beach on a perfect sunny, blue day. I was very reluctant but as I stared at the white morning Sun shining on the blue Sea between the big Pine trees, I began to see it in a different way. It looked so peaceful. Maybe the Sea and I could be friends. A lifetime of surfing was beginning. As a child I taught myself to stand up and surf on a knee board at the Sunshine Coast. My grandparents owned the first house at Kawana Waters in the 1970s, and my family and I were there every weekend. My dad swapped a carton of beer for a single fin knee board that I loved so much. I would surf for hours and hours until the sun was going down and my fingers were all ‘wrinkly’. Such good times. When I got my first car I drove straight to the Gold Coast, the place with the legendary tall beach buildings. After many years of not surfing I stood straight up on my first wave. Though I have always lived in Brisbane, I have surfed one full day almost every week, for forty years. I struggle out through the waves, ducking under and battling through the white water until I get out to the offshore breakers. Then the Sea lifts up, threatening to engulf me and drive me underwater. But I rise to my feet on my board instead, race and turn across the face and off the back to safety. The drowning and dying are defeated in my mind again and again, with every wave. What a wonderful feeling.
There has always been a dreamlike feeling in my paintings, especially the warm building ones. Maybe my accident felt like a dream as I went in and out of consciousness, on the beach and in the hospital. Maybe dying feels like a dream. Maybe this was actually the most peaceful, pleasant part of my accident. Drifting away, relieved from all the struggling and pain. I did read a science report that proves our minds continue thinking on for several minutes after the body has died and stopped. Maybe this is what I was woken up from when I was revived. I am not entirely sure why the ‘dream’ is embedded in my mind, but it must be there in the paintings.
There is often a feeling of strangeness in my paintings. If they are too normal they feel wrong, and then I change them. Strange imaginary characters walk through my paintings. They are all me, really. Rocks, waves, clouds and trees take on surreal shapes. It feels so strange that I was dead but then alive again. Did a little boy die that day and then I began? Who am I really then? I can never fully understand this. A doctor told me that if there is a little life remaining in the cells of the heart and it is pushed, it can begin beating again. How bizarre. In my late teens I would often lie in bed feeling my heart with my hand and wonder what was keeping it going. The ‘strange’ must always be included in my paintings.
It is very dramatic to die and then be revived. My paintings do not feel right until they are dramatic. They have to be strongly built and have some ‘bite’ to them. In my paintings the drama can be seen in the strong light and shadows, the tight, hard edges, the heavy rain, the blackness of night, the wind blowing trees around and the generally over strengthened composition. I have always loved Edward Hopper’s dramatic paintings. My favourite painting of all time is “Early Sunday morning”. When I stood in front of it in New York I felt as if I was looking up at the hospital buildings that I saw after I had survived my accident. Though I am a calm, reserved, quiet sort of a person I think my subconscious mind was permanently ‘charged up’ with drama during my accident. But I can see now that this is my energy source. It drives me to paint on and on and on. I regularly have waves of adrenaline passing over my skin as I paint, especially now that I know what I am actually painting.
Dying is sad. Your part in the amazing story of life on Earth is over. But this is coming for all of us, it is part of nature. If I am being bashed around in huge swell and losing the battle against the Sea I do not feel panic that I might die, I just feel sadness. I would like to be here on Earth until I am an old man. It was disturbing to be dying at three but when I am old I think it will feel natural. Life is ‘time’. Do something to be remembered. Make wonderful memories. I make paintings which will live on forever, long after my death. But there has always been a melancholy in my work. Though I am a positive, happy person deep in my mind there is a sadness, embedded in there from those intense drowning moments. My paintings do not feel right until the melancholy is included. It can be seen in the muted colours that I keep using, the pouring rain, the darkness of night, the lonely lost dogs and the long shadows. I cannot turn sadness into happiness but I can transform it into beautiful, peaceful poetry with my brushes and paints.
I am a tough person from my childhood drama. When the sun is burning hot and I am struggling around a giant tree with a thin rope holding me up sawing off huge pieces of timber, I do not give up. I hang on tight. When I am trying to get past those big crazy breakers out in the Sea, I do not give up. Without air for a long, horrible time I held on at the creek in 1971. With my lungs full of water and close to death in the hospital I held on to see the morning light. All of this taught me that you have to be tough in this world to survive. This is embedded in my mind. This explains why I choose super complex, super difficult scenes to draw and paint, looking over huge sprawling cities or super detailed old buildings. When I look at them I tell myself “you can do this, you’ve been through worse”.
After my accident my German grandparents sent me a toy Dachshund to cheer me up. His name is ‘Waldi’. I still have him in my studio. He was the mascot toy for the 1972 Olympics. I tied a string to his neck and dragged him wherever I went. He made me feel good. I have owned seven real Dachshunds over thirty years. They have all been great friends. Dachshunds often feature in my paintings.
Burning black, poisonous, dead stuff from under the ground for hundreds of years has led to extreme weather that is killing life. But the people in charge put quick cash above the next generation. In my opinion Human Beings were put on this Earth to be caretakers for life. It is time to do the right thing and take our energy from the Sun and wind. Life on Earth is so very special and sacred. This is the only planet where it exists. I cannot invent a new fuel source but I do what I can. I have solar panels on my roof and a house battery. I have an electric car now. I use mainly battery chainsaws and mowers. I have planted hundreds of native trees on my property. I paint renewable energy subjects like wind machines. They fit with my ‘strange trees in the beach car park’ memory. This is all I can do for my children. I hope it will be alright.
At fifty four years old I am a calm, peaceful person. After all, I have had thirty years of art therapy. I was not calm as a teenager though. I missed out on the Art, Architecture and Engineering courses I applied for at University by a frustratingly small margin. My friends were all busy in careers and courses but I could not get a job anywhere. I had a job in a mail delivery room but the boss tried to punch me in the back of the head. I quit a cafe job when the owner yelled at me. I felt left behind by the world and struggling, like a drowning child. I became a Gothic. I dyed all my clothes black and started drinking heavily on the weekends. I was unsettled and anxious. My mind and heart would race and my jaw ached and ached. It was during this low point that I turned to drawing. I bought a sketchbook and drew everything in my house. Then I bought a bike and a backpack and started sketching around Brisbane. I would draw old buildings and gnarly old trees in every detail for many hours. Half way through the drawing I would stop and notice that my jaw muscles had released their painful grip and I had forgotten all of my problems. When I finished the sketch I would take a big beautiful breath of air, and sit there in complete peace. I had found my medicine. My very favourite thing to do is to sit back and look at a finished exhibition of my paintings in the studio before it goes to the framers. I take nice big breath and ‘feel the peace’. It is simply all of the parts of the traumatic accident turned into peaceful poetry. The rain, the buildings in the sun, the beach car parks and the lights in the dark. They are all there. This is my story. I cannot escape it, but I can change the way it feels in my mind with painting.
I am so grateful the rescuers who came to save me. My family, the Barry family, who’s little son Dean helped sound the alarm, the doctor who just happened to be there at the time and the life guards, especially the lifeguard who actually revived me. These people are my heros but the fact that I had to die before they came disturbed me afterwards. I couldn’t help it, I was left me with a feeling of being ‘unimportant’ to people. It was a confusing mixture of ‘gratitude’ for and ‘mistrust’ of other human beings. This explains the lonely, abandoned subjects I have always drawn and painted. Though I was happy enough as a child, I was not overly confident. I was always sitting at the back of the bus and the back of the classroom. I hated doing talks in front of people. As a teenager, I did not approach girls. I would wait for them to come to me. That way you know they really do like you. But as I began having exhibitions I found myself surrounded by appreciative people. Humans that love what I do. How wonderful. I have slowly overturned and reversed this feeling of being unimportant over the decades. I feel I have an essential role in my city now, and maybe in my country, telling stories with paint. Thank you Art. Thank you Art lovers.
After exploring, and drawing and painting the places where my childhood drowning and recovery happened, I have noticed a change within myself. A disturbing struggle has left my mind. It began with that nasty battle in the water and the fight in the hospital room that night. It is not surprising that I went on to choose a life of struggling. Struggling in trees, struggling in the Ocean, struggling through detailed paintings, crazily working over and over areas, chasing something that I could not explain. In the past every show had a madly over energized crowd painting in it. These crowds were swarming through the Ekka, or building sites, or shopping centers, or the airport. So frantic. But this seems to have come to an end now. The urge to paint ‘struggling’ is gone from my mind. This will disappoint some people but I just feel great. I do not need to struggle and prove myself against death as much now. I say no to the really dangerous dead or leaning trees now. If the surf is choppy and not very good, I will just go for a walk instead of diving in desperately to battle it. A new ‘peace’ has arrived. When I laugh it is a real relaxed laugh. I do not feel ‘muddled up’ anymore, I think in a clearer way. I can take criticism better too. Everything just works out more easily now. My health is greatly improved. I researched nutrition and made important changes. Those artery clogging animal fats are gone from my diet and sugar is greatly reduced. When I gave up diary my leg joints, that I broke as a crazy teenager, healed up and began to move perfectly. My cholesterol has dropped down to a safe, low level from dangerously high. No tablets needed. I am lighter now which helps me to surf and climb better. And finally I have reduced the alcohol right down to a safe level. It looks like death will have to wait a long time before it claims me again.
In 2022 a close member of my family died in hospital and I was not there to help or comfort him. I thought I could do this because have been through the dying process myself. I learned a very valuable life lesson from this. I was on my verandah staring at the city being engulfed in rain as he passed away. I could felt it very strongly. I had planned to go in later. It was just bad luck. In this overwhelmingly sad moment I suddenly realised that you cannot always be there to save or comfort the people you love as they die. They could be across the world in a plane that is crashing or drowning in the water, just out of view. It is just bad luck, no one is to blame.
My best subject at school was not art but science. I believe science is the way of the future. It is like a new religion taking over the world. If you are falling behind and living in the ignorance of the past, you had better catch up. Scientific countries will have better weapons and win the wars. Climate Change believing countries will prosper by adopting renewable energies, as the fossil fuels are dumped. I have always believed in Science. When the Climate Scientists tell me the world is in trouble, I believe them. When the doctors tell me to cut out animal fats or develop heart problems, I believe them. When the Psychologists tell me I have a childhood drama locked away in my mind that influences my life and appears in my Art, I believe them. But it is time now for me to take control my old trauma. It has made me do some strange and self destructive things but a better future in my life and my art is beginning now.