It crouches under Hong Kong bridges, sprawls in English warehouses and basks in the nocturnal glow of New York City. Closer to home, you’ll stumble upon it in Bunbury laneways, CBD restaurants, shopping centres in Claremont and even the exterior of Perth Airport.
The work of Perth artist Kyle Hughes-Odgers is not only international, it’s unmistakable, with its spindly characters and colourful geometric patterns. It’s whimsical, childlike and now as much a part of our streetscape as Norfolk pines and ocean glimpses.
“I’m interested in folk art, patterns, storytelling and obsessiveness – I enjoy the indulgent side in getting lost in the pattern,” says 33-year-old Kyle. “But this is just where I’m at now. It might stay this way for a little while, or it might stay this way for 20 years. Who knows? With art, you have to push and change and constantly move forward instead of thinking you worked it out.”
It’s a quest he began at a young age. Kyle’s family moved around a lot, living for stints in Perth, the Solomon Islands and Amsterdam. The travels inspired and sustained his love of art, but it didn’t guarantee him a spot in art school.
“I wanted to study fine art and illustration, but my folio was a bit all over the place!” laughs Kyle. “Not getting into school was actually really positive for me because it forced me to experiment out on the street to see what was working and not working. You find out pretty quick if people like or don’t like something – they paint over it, or it gets taken down.”
This honing of his style started with hand-drawn posters on the street, leading over the years to street art, exhibitions, formal commissions and public art projects.
Throughout his career, Kyle’s artistic method has stayed the same. “I always have
a sketchbook with me – I probably go through one every six weeks,” says Kyle. “I’m just constantly writing down little sentences, or concepts I’m thinking about or maybe something I overhear on the bus. And then sometimes I translate those sentences into drawings. But everything starts with pen on paper, including all my gallery work. I’m not a painter that just looks at the wall and starts throwing paint. There’s a bit of consideration of what I’m doing. I like the romantic idea of throwing paint at a wall, but that’s not how I work.”
So how does he feel about seeing so much of his work displayed around town? “It’s amazing to have the opportunities,” says Kyle. “I paint in lots of places around the world, but it’s important to me to work in a city that I grew up in and invested in. But the term ‘street art’ doesn’t sit well with me. It’s just art that happens to be outside. If people painted murals in the 80s they were just artists, not street artists. I guess I don’t like the idea of being pigeonholed.”
Kyle’s latest project certainly breaks him out of the ‘street artist’ mold. The soon-to-be-released On a Small Island is the artist’s second book, a story about Ari, who lives ‘on a small island, in a gigantic sea’. Instead of yearning to move to the mainland, Ari uses his creativity to attract people to his home.
“I’ve always loved children’s books,” says Kyle. “To have the opportunity to work on Ten Tiny Things – the first book I illustrated, which was written by Meg McKinlay – was amazing because it’s this tangible thing that’s not going to be painted over or eaten by snails, like some of my murals!”
What makes On a Small Island special is that Kyle wrote and illustrated the book himself. He hand-painted the book’s 30 pages on canvas, a labourious process that adds texture and charm to the images. “There are a lot of digital books out there, but I really like handmade things and I wanted this book – and all of my future books – to be hand-painted,” he says. “It’s more time-consuming but there’s just something in it, that’s a bit more… soulful maybe. It’s the opposite of a super-clean vector.”
For Kyle, the publishing process was a lot like that of an exhibition, in that it’s a very steady and focused creation of a body of work. “Keeping the continuity was a challenge for me,” says Kyle. “I seem to have a small attention span. I can spend hours painting something, but keeping everything the same by page 30 that I started on page one? So hard.”
The easy part for Kyle was the book’s message. “I was in New York when I started doing the thumbnails and I had this idea playing in my mind, this concept of being happy with what you’ve got, but more than that, being excited about what you’ve got, rather than boohooing.
“I’ve always had this view that it’s very easy to move away. The only reason other cities are the way they are is because people are attracted to stay there and invest their energy into that place. And that ends up being why a place is good – because people are passionate about it.
“The book wasn’t directed at Perth – but it’s certainly a message that’s relevant here. There’s a terrible lyric in a song I can’t remember by an American band that goes, ‘If you’re bored, you must be boring’, and I’ve always liked that idea, that you can make your own world and get excited about your life and the place that you live in. If it’s not what you want it to be, then make it what you want it to be.”
This message is important for Perth artists, whose industry is hindered by the brain drain to more notoriously creative places like Melbourne, New York City or Europe. “The nature of art is that people are driven to do lots of different projects, and travel is a part of it, especially for street and mural-based works,” says Kyle. “I just don’t know why staying in Perth has become something that you have to defend. With my artist friends in Sydney and Melbourne, no one asks them in interviews when they’re leaving, but it happens with Perth artists.
“Obviously, we’re a smaller city, but there’s a strong creative community here in Perth and we’re surrounded by so much amazing stuff. That’s what I’ve tackled in the book. Ari doesn’t have anything but the rubbish that washes
up, and yet he gets excited about that rather than looking over to the horizon at someone else’s dream.”
On a Small Island is avaliable from October 2014 and published by Fremantle Press.