NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Memories Fallible and Glowing: the Unique Languages of Art School before and after Dawkins

Going to Art School at the in the early months of 1980 was a shock. My previous life had to become over-ridden in order to embrace the new languages involved in manifesting and understanding art through many forms.

By Dr Paul Uhlmann

Going to Art School at the in the early months of 1980 was a shock. My previous life had to become over-ridden in order to embrace the new languages involved in manifesting and understanding art through many forms.

The Canberra School of Art was at that time headed by Udo Sellbach and he was in the midst of pioneering and crafting a School which respected difference for particular disciplines and competing philosophies. The foundation-stone was the Bauhaus and therefore, each Workshop had a Head of Studio who created their guiding concerns. Such a system was organic and similar to osmosis – ideas were planted and methods of making and critical thinking were set in motion so that the student absorbed through attention and through the body – presence in the studio was absolutely essential. 

Each Workshop was a hive of very particular focused activity … The Ceramics Workshop was always white – everything was bathed in the dust of porcelain. Painting was a forest of easels and jottings. Printmaking was orderly and business-like.

In the main, traditions of enquiry emerged from Europe, however at least one innovative lecturer filtered understandings of Aboriginal cultures. We were aware that these traditions, which were interrogated and questioned, were seed-potential concepts rarely experienced outside the School. Each Workshop was a hive of very particular focused activity. It was a diversion of mine to wander from Studio to Studio during breaks. The Ceramics Workshop was always white – everything was bathed in the dust of porcelain. Painting was a forest of easels and jottings. Printmaking was orderly and business-like. Graphic Investigation was introspective and scholarly with each student huddled over books, etching plates, papers, inks and bottles. Leather Workshop was an oddity, which gave a friend of mine unholy fetishistic fantasies. Sculpture was a universe of physics, chisels, hammers and plaster – it always seemed cold there – the idea seemed to be to challenge each other to lift very heavy objects. Glass was alchemy and fire. Gold and Silver was a fusion of miniature sculpture and excellence. Woodwork was odd, Gothic and uncompromising.

I don’t want to make the mistake of blaming one man for all change … However my observations are, that bringing art schools within the halls of the university set into motion a chain of processes which are still unfolding today.

Each was a world unto its own but unified through drawing. The Drawing Studios were marathons that went into the evening. We had then the gift of time. We drew because we wanted to know. Know what? There was a sense that if we drew, especially from the model, we would grow to understand something fundamental – something that in essence revealed how to create through movements of the body tracing space, shape and line. The students were also products of difference – one gifted painter was always applying his body through performance as a daily ritual in order to understand the world anew. Another was profoundly dyslexic – but his drawings were a wonder. Others I knew seemed finely balanced on the rim of sanity – to make for them was more than just a matter of creating – it was a mode of survival.

I don’t want to make the mistake of blaming one man for all change, much of what I describe above, though the fog of the unreliable past pre-Dawkins-reforms, may still be the same within Art Schools today. However my observations are, that bringing art schools within the halls of the university set into motion a chain of processes which are still unfolding today.

Many art schools struggle to be understood, struggle for identity and autonomy within the framework and hierarchy of a university; for example, the particular languages of making through painting or graphic means are not readily understood as being valid modes of knowledge production in their own right. Today, as we well know, the word is of primary importance and art must be translated and validated through comparative critical text and writing.

I have often wondered how students of difference, as I briefly sketch out above, would fair in today’s integrated culture where art schools have been folded into the fabric and corporate demands of University. It is possible that such students might not find a way into university. If that is the case then we as a nation are much the poorer, as I know firsthand that the students of difference really do see the world in new and unique ways; they really do utilise irrational logic which opens curiosity and a desire to know more. Such qualities are highly valued by research, however we may be locking out our best practitioners unwittingly.


Dr Paul Uhlmann is coordinator of Visual Arts in the School of Arts and Humanities, Edith Cowan University in Perth and is a practicing artist who works in painting, printmaking and artists’ books. He is interested in philosophies of impermanence.

He studied art in Australia, was the recipient of a DAAD scholarship to study in Germany (1986-87), an Australia Council Studio Residency grant to study frescos in Italy (1994), and an Anne and Gordon International Samstag Visual Arts Scholarship to study in the Netherlands (1994-95). His PhD was conferred at RMIT in 2012. He has exhibited nationally and internationally since 1983 and his work is held in many collections including the National Gallery of Australia, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of Western Australia and National Gallery of Victoria.

He was one of the featured artists in Batavia: giving voice to the voiceless exhibited in 2017 at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery at UWA – a book of this project, where art intersected with science to give new perspectives of the Batavia shipwreck story, is forthcoming. His work is represented by Art Collective WA.

More from this issue

More from this issue

By Jenny Wilson — Thirty years ago, in July 1988, the Commonwealth Government introduced a policy paper that was to reshape the Australian Higher Education landscape and introduce concepts and ideas that were to influence university operations over the following three decades.

The changes brought by Minister John Dawkins refashioned Australian higher education and its institutions. Over the course of a few years, the government ended free education and introduced HECS, turned an elite education system into mass education, made vice-chancellors into CEOs, and turned higher education teachers into both teachers and researchers.

The Dawkins moment began outside the university sector. For while diversity was hard to find among the traditional universities, it could be found in many other post-school education institutions.

Let me begin with a claim some will find problematic: creative disciplines have been wildly successful within the structure of a unified Higher Education sector. As counterintuitive as this sounds, it has to be admitted that the post-Dawkins reforms era has clearly demonstrated their value to the Australian university.

In the late 1990s I wrote about various directions of music institutions post Dawkins reforms … the main changes have been funding clusters, increased student contributions and the sector opening up to include more private providers … 30 years on since Dawkins, the tertiary music environment now involves many stakeholders (old and new), one in which total deregulation seems inevitable.

The very phrase “The Dawkins Reforms” evokes an image of Minister John Dawkins adding the flourishing touches to a paper that was, overnight, to disrupt the settled and contented life in Australia’s art and music schools, and send tertiary creative artists trudging in Lowryesque procession to the university ‘factories and mills’.

The 1998 Strand Report on Research in the Creative Arts was triggered by a decision of the then Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs to shrink the 22 categories in the national data collection, that determined the allocation of research quantum funds to individual universities, to just the “big four” and wiping the short-lived Design and Creative Arts research categories, “H” and “J”, respectively.

By Professor Jen Webb — I arrived in Australia in the midst of the Dawkins Revolution – a revolution that was the product of bureaucratic imperatives rather than community demand, and one that has radically transformed the culture of Australian higher education.

The period up to the mid-1980s was, for the technical and further education (TAFE) sector in Australia, a time of relative stability and consolidation. A national TAFE ethos began to emerge, with state TAFE systems working together to develop national consistency on curricula, statistics and credentials. At a Commonwealth level, education under the ministership of Susan Ryan remained relatively unaffected by economic rationalism. This was to change with the appointment of John Dawkins as Minister for Employment, Education and Training in 1987.

The British Empire mandated the export of a democratic concept of the nation that made laws on the basis of voting or counting and suppressed forms of customary governance that operated across the planet. For the descendants of empire in the settler colony, the mechanism of “nation-building” suppressed our memories of global colonisation that established our economic and social structures.

In July 2018, DDCA Board Member Professor Kit Wise moved from Head of the School of Creative Arts at the University of Tasmania to take up the role of Professor of Art and Associate Dean of Art at RMIT. NiTRO Editor Jenny Wilson spoke to Kit about his move to Australia in 2002, his time at the Tasmanian College of the Arts and on the changes he has observed in Australian tertiary arts education.