(detail from a portrait of the artist made by R. Hu as entry for the Archibald prize)
Few Lithgow people know that a certain grey-haired figure they see around town in worn, paint-stained overalls is not (only) an accomplished craftsman but an artist whose technical and artistic finesse permit him to work as easily with wood as with paper and inks; in hollow cast bronze as in 'found art', mosaic, oils, watercolours or concrete, to adopt for one work the restraint of a Chinese motion and brush, in another meticulous realism, and in some other again the emotionally charged movements and brushwork familar from western works of the twentieth century.
Apprenticed to a European artist from the age of twelve, Antony Symons studied first at home in Sydney and then abroad, the warmth of the Greeks towards artists being something he remembers fondly still.
His years spent in mastering his art, his constant emphasis on technical ability, together with his working-man's dress can lead the unwary to suppose Symons some 'artisan made good' ~ but his work itself soon corrects that error and shows the opposite to be the case; that Symons' range of professional accomplishments frees him to adopt not only the media, but the specific techniques which will best express his intention and the innate character of the intended work. (On this point see the essay "Symons' Birds")
Respect for past masters is thus balanced in his pieces by a healthy interest in modern works and post-post modernism; in perfection of realism and simultaneously in deconstruction. To follow a theme through his six decades of work is an exercise in illumination, and to the present writer it seems that Symons' work is preoccupied by the still-unresolved (and increasingly urgent) question of nature and humanity, of realism as the true reflection of a natural state and simultaneously of the need for human beings to labour within (and thus inevitably to alter) the balance of that same nature which is our environment.
Interestingly - and due not least to his having mastered the techniques of classical and modern artists before him - Symons does not mark out his own work by claiming some idiosyncracy as definitive - as his 'style'. His own practice is at once more original and less egocentric, for he moves easily across a remarkably broad range of styles in his expression. That is to say, his repertoire is so broad that he is able to adopt a quite specific technique for using his pencil, pen, brush, wax or bronze to suit a given piece, in just the way a conventional painter might choose his palette or (to use a different metaphor) as a golfer might choose the right wood or iron.
Symons' philosophy, in combination with his artisanal range, means that this artist requires of himself not only that he can maintain his vision through every particular stage of a creative or technical process, but that he do so as a matter of course. Thus Symons' sculptures begin at the practical level with a choice between pencil, charcoal and paper, then continue through each separate stage of the practical formations. Until these past few years, he himself did the work of casting even his larger than life sculptures in bronze.
Now entering his eighth decade, Symons recently has been obliged to employ the services of a Sydney foundry for the physical effort of casting, but it is indicative that for his most recent work, Dancing with Strangers, his imagination and technical knowledge together enabled him to produce forms unlike any others yet seen in that medium. For this to be possible, Symons had to invent a new detail within the stages of the traditional casting method - though of course that detail is presently the master's trade secret.
Because Symons' emphasis has always been equally on conception and technical execution, it is not rare to see among the those visitors from abroad and dedicated art-collectors at Rydal, some professional worker in timber or in metal. Artists from the local area, too, have sometimes demonstrated and openly expressed their gratitude - not rarely in efforts to reproduce one of the master's works, just as students did in previous centuries as part of their own apprenticeship.
Symons' tea-house (set in the sculpture garden below his studios at Rydal) manifests a similar willingness to follow in the footsteps of earlier generations. He constructed its frame in the formal Chinese manner, without use of either nails or screws, resting it simply on blocks of wood and stone.
His bronzes (such as the hollow-cast solid bronze torso or his work Judith) show mastery of, and respect for, classical and later works. But such demonstrations of understanding for works of the past should not lead one to overlook Symons own ability (and indeed pronounced tendency) to treat the same traditions to satyrical and ironic comment.
In this regard, one might mention, for example, his 2 Arps make a Moore, a work made in two sections, each repeating a single element from a sculpture by Jean Arp, but in being offset one against the other, made to form a piece which evokes the style of another twentieth century sculptor, Heny Moore.
Again, among the found-art pieces which are likely to stop a visitor to the garden in their tracks is the work shown below: Australian Classic ~ a unique statement which somehow carries a scent of one modern American painting: American Gothic.
The Sculpture Garden.
Any artist is paradoxical by nature, so it is less for Symons to reconcile his ironic, caustic or satyrical pieces with the garden's pervading sense of gentleness than for the viewer to appreciate their interaction.
Another of his works in progress, the garden's stone paving, terracing and design is all his own work, intended not only to focus attention on his works in Rydal, but also on the broader work of nature acting in the hills and valleys which enfold the artist's studio. It is perhaps that facination with the interactions of antithetical qualities - of nature and art; art and technical detail; inspiration and artifice - which gives the constant thread through his decades of creativity. The complex of studio, workshops and sculpture garden at Rydal is named for one of his earlier pieces, known as Gaia (here given the emblems of Demeter).
Symons considers sculpture to be his principal medium, an attitude which must leave to visitors and guests (such as the present writer) the pleasant task of properly appreciating his large number of sketches, oils and watercolours.
In nearby Lithgow, though, there are still only a few who know Antony Symons the artist - or where he lives or what an extraordinary range of media he has mastered.. His sculpture, The Lithgow Flash may be better known to them at present than its maker, the local council having installed it some time ago in a small Lithgow plaza. Since then, that piece has justified their choice (despite being lifted higher than the artist intended it to be viewed). These days, The Flash has become the point at which travellers plan to meet, where bands of tourists gather to begin their tour of the old coal-mining town, and where friends arrange to meet before going to lunch.
And so, though you might happen to be near Lithgow, and see there crowds gathering about the Flash, yet you are unlikely to have the artist himself pointed out to you. He might, of course, be passing by, his shock of white hair under a flat cap, his body curiously muscular for a man in his seventies, and his eyes a pale and uncomfortably penetrating blue ... ... but not many of those around you are likely to notice him passing.
Symons welcomes visitors within specified hours. Students and selected international visitors are permitted to stay in his home. Details here - but please confirm in advance because the artist may not be available when major works are underway..
Antony is happy to talk with artists wishing to develop their skills and has, in the past, agreed to provide a lengthy tuition programme to suit the student's needs and available time.. more here.