David Higgins Visual Artist

You have had many residencies take two and expand on how the actual residency developed your art.

It is hard to say which residency has impacted me the most. On reflection the residency that has the most impact on me was when I was appointed the first resident artist for the Zoological Board of Victoria based at Melbourne Zoo in 1980.

Lowland gorilla, 400mmx650mm

For the next 6 years I had intimate exposures to animals from around the world.

Australian Fur Seal illustration

This experience was trans formative and life changing.

Australian stamp art

From John Blakeley’s Australian Decimal Stamp collection

Secondly I have been to Japan about twenty times for exhibitions and commercial activities beginning in the early 1980’s and tailing off around 2013. An exhibition of my wildlife art and sculpture at the Kyoto School of Art and Design was a definite highlight and the other in Tokyo in the Year of Association Japan / Australian Governments. Australian Embassy, Showa no mori, Forest Hotel for Australia Japan week celebrations, Ecological art exhibition and ceremonial proceedings. Both experiences occurred in 2006. Japan has been a huge influence on my outlook and appreciation of what is important.

Kyoto University of art and design exhibition

The other highlight has been my two residencies in China. The International Sculpture Symposiums in Changchun, China in 2014 and 2017. The 2017 symposium was particularly memorable working with master stone masons of 30 generations.

Shell form, Granite and Gail Higgins, International sculpture symposium Changchun, China

The skill levels were crazy good and the people beautiful. It gave me the opportunity to see how big and diverse China is and the importance of handing done skills and working together.

Purnim town entrance, basalt

How will 2020 effect artists residencies we are all hearing of the change’s athletes are making due to the cancellation of the Olympic Games.  Discuss this issue in relations to art residencies.

The global pandemic has affected the creative community enormously. There is no national or international travel so


artists have to think how to stay active, relevant to their craft and keep their head space balanced. I had decided at the start of 2020 to scale back overseas art chasing and focus on making Nirranda Arts work here and see this as the future. The Covid-19 situation has reinforced that the future is online teaching, workshops and sales. I am working towards this and at the same time expanding my offers at the studio to cater for domestic customers and art lovers.

Indigenous dreaming, illustration 400mmx650mm

When did you move into textiles and silk painting?

I resigned from my university job 14 years ago and needed to find a way back to being a full time working artist. My body and mindset needed real change from the institution and the difficult work of illustration. By chance I met Marion Hera-Gorr of Beautiful Silks, did her silk painting workshop and instantly saw I could move ahead with this. Perfect timing as I needed something to set me free. I moved into silk painting not knowing anything about the discipline. This proved to be a strength as the rules meant nothing to me. I made my own way as I went to suit my already existing drawing and design knowledge. The nature of silk painting technique is instant and spontaneous. This is what I wanted in my art production, no pre-planning and to work totally intuitively.

Desert song, satin silk 1400mmx3200mm

What are the constraints and restrictions to the works size and how do you overcome this and adapt to suit what is achieved?

I make wooden frames to stretch the silk to suit the size I want or need. For workshop teaching and production silk scarves I have frames at 1000mmx1000mm. Bigger frames at 2000mmx1200mm and 3000mmx1400mm and a range of other sizes. (preferred silk size is 3500mmx140mm).

I use flat tables and fold silk to create longer pieces up to 8000mm x1400mm. So in a way the constraints are minimal and I am constantly thinking on how to make the process new, achievable, and creative.

Pollination, silk painting in process

I use different types and weights of silk depending on the work I want to make, silk crepes, satin and chiffon. All have their individual characteristics and abilities.

Ready for a silk painting workshop

Do you ever use the principal of repeated pattern similar to William Morris?

No, it is very different. Whilst I admire William Morris and the processes of that time, my method is almost opposite in that there is never pre planning except for a vague feeling what i might like to do, no guidelines or pre drawing on the silk. Morris’s work is highly regimented and controlled. My technique is totally intuitive, flexible, grounded in basic design and illustration.

When I do a repeat in the design it is because I want the ends to join up seamlessly. This is done for commercial runs of yardage and digitally printed for clients and garments.

Silk Painting:

Discuss the importance of the drying time between adding colours?

The drying time between colours varies and depends on what I want to achieve. Also the atmospheric conditions at the time can influence the timing. The process of applying dye to silk is traditionally by brush. I have a beautiful selection of Chinese brushes, all have their differing qualities and purpose. I tend to use my favorited brushes and have broadened the application of dye by using spray bottles and squirt and throw dyes onto the work depending on what I want to achieve. I generally wait until the surface is dry before applying more colour but it also needs to damp if trying to achieve a tonal or blending effects. I use hair dryers, the sun and the waiting game during drying and like to think about the next step.

Lilly pond, satin silk,1000mm x1000mm.

How much time do you do in preparation before commencing?

Preparation takes time before the task begins. It is important to have a clean work space, clean frames, correct silk, mix the dyes, prepare the gutta and resistant, make ready the various applicators and tips, water containers and sprays. All are gotten ready before the silk painting begins so when the chaos of making is happening the only thing to really think about is what the next step is and not get diverted or have accidents due to lack of preparation. It takes a couple of days to get things ready. Applying the silk to the frame is also a sort of meditation and helps me get into the right frame of mind and become accustomed to accepting the path I am entering.

Commercial scarf design

Discuss the thickness of some lines?

The thickness and quality of line is important. Over time I have become increasingly aware of the timing of line placement and its variance within the design. Line is used to separate colour and controls viewer’s eye tracking. Line can help emphasize and create the mood I am seeking. I use various applicators with different tips to create different line widths. I also have developed a tendency in my work to deconstruct and destroy the line. This gives a layer of freedom to the work and looks a bit like batik. The line if placed in the correct position can be deconstructed and not loose its potency. There is not one way to make lines, it depends on the maker’s intent about what is to occur.

Silk painting, edition of scarves chiffon silk

What happens to the silk when you add salt?

Salt when applied to dye on the silk’s surface when wet or damp will create a natural pattern, a sort of fractal, a chemical reaction where the moisture is drawn into the salt crystal. The size of the salt crystal will determine the strength of the reaction. I use rock sea salt in a medium to small sized crystal. I also grind the silk in a mortar and pestle for finer effects. The application of salt can occur any time during the process and I generally wait till the majority of the piece is nearing completion. After applying salt it needs to be dry and scraped off the silk surface before steaming or other working. Again the process varies depending on the piece at hand.

Salt effect on silk


How is most of your silk painting displayed?

Wall art – 2D

Wearable Art

Pollination, silk painting, 1400mmx 2000mm on satin silk

My silk painting is dual purpose. First of all I see the work as a fine art practise, hence my attitude is primarily making a work of art especially with big works. I primarily make for exhibition and from there I apply the designs to commercial uses such as digital runs for rolls of fabric yardage, runs of scarves and for garments. Clients buy originals for wall hangings, stairwells and just as art pieces that are framed. I make small editions for scarves and sarongs. I also make pieces that are quite long for garments that need a lot of fabric and make silks for specific wearable art garments.

Satin silk garment

You lectured at University level from 1984 – 2006.  Can you discuss several aspects (technical) that changed are teaching during this period?

I had done various sessional stints at different universities early on in my career. From 1991- 2006 I worked full time at Deakin University, School of Communication and Creative Arts.

Primordial Paradox. acrylic painting, Deakin University

Lecturing in graphic design, drawing and sculpture. I think the main thing that has changed over that time has been the leap from the individual artist and that analogue mind and real hands on creativity to the digital realm where we see a flattening of the creative landscape. Here many people can do amazing work. Once artists were reliant on their ability to research, keep journals, work conceptually and then full fill the creative task. That market allowed talent to find their way up the creative and commercial ladders with logical ease. The digital era has broadened accessibility and made it easier to make great work. This means also that the market has become smaller, more competitive  and overwhelmed with visual stimulus, hence the mystery of creating art diminished and somewhat undervalued.

Take one piece that was added to the Collection of an Institution.

How did it come to be acquired?

Why is this piece the one of many you have chosen?

I have had many commissions and institutional works acquired over the years in various art disciplines and differing circumstances. Monetary value does not outweigh what is important. I tend to like the commissions that push me out of my comfort zone into areas where I am not well known or published, where I really do have to compete and vulnerable to criticism. I love the work I did for the new cancer hospital in Warrnambool.

ICON Cancer Hospital Warrnambool Flying Ganett sculpture

To create art where healing is the main objective is a luxury for an artist. I was approached by the main driver of the project Vickie Jelly. It started as a small discussion and turned into two sculptural pieces and 3 oil paintings.

ICON Cancer Hospital Warrnambool Leafy sea dragon sculpture

It was a good feeling to know that the art would be viewed by patients, staff and visitors all there for the same purpose.

Tell us about Nirranda Arts Gallery.

The art business relocated from Warrnambool to Nirranda in early 2017 when my partner Gail and I purchased the Nirranda Community Hall (est. 1896) and obtained a permit to trade as an Art and Craft Centre. Today Nirranda Arts operates as a professional art and design studio focused on silk painting, textile design, sculpture, drawing, painting, workshops, teaching and other commercial activities.

The underpinning philosophy of Nirranda Arts is of an ecological consciousness which is concerned with how one living thing is connected to another living thing. That art is purposely made to heal. To create positive emotions and help people feel happier and empowered.

What does the name mean?

The name is thought to have been derived from an Aboriginal word meaning moon. There are also other indigenous words meaning moon.

Where is the gallery?

Nirranda Arts is located on the Great Ocean Road, nestled between the Bay of Islands and Childers Cove in rich dairy grasslands, 300 kms south west of Melbourne and 25 kms east of Warrnambool.

Comment of the importance of its physical environment?

Nirranda Arts is an art sanctuary, a sort of creative retreat far away from the city. No pollution, few people, no competitiveness or noise. The physical environment impacts me all the time. The coastline of the region is spectacular and relatively unspoilt. Fresh air, big skies, pure water and surrounding farmlands combine to create a pleasant work place where I feel like a free artist.

Big sky at Nirranda

The art and the environment are part of the same in that sense and those natural patterns, rhythms and emotions become part of the creative process whether I intend it or its unintended but is there.

Childers Cove

Comment on the importance of art for the health of the viewer and the artists.

In my mind the purpose of art whether in textiles or any other art form is to heal. I am not interested in my emotional state or telling people how I feel about society or the current politics. I see making art as a contribution to the greater good of humans and hope this translates and transcends into a more caring and kinder world.

The state of mind of the viewer can never be taken for granted. The application of design strategies and control mechanisms within the artwork will either aid or hinder visual communication. In all my work I use basic design principles to control the viewer to achieve the emotional response I am aiming for. Whether this is done unconsciously or blatantly doesn’t matter because once seen the message is delivered. This is how all successful visual communication is made.

Toledo zoo poster

As for the health of the artist. I can only judge my own journey. A blend of posture pain and an aging body has meant changing methods and technique to compensate. It is never easy working alone but seems to be the way. I find it is important to treat everything I make as if it was for the first time. This gives the work and myself space for renewal and growth. New when creating and gives me a voice and freedom of expression I have grown more and more to be grateful.

How do you think your time in Japan, China and the USA has blended with living and working on the Great Ocean Road, in Victoria?

Working in Melbourne in the early years became quite limited very quickly. To me the best work was done elsewhere. For many years I chased this illusionary dream. The international experience over 40 years has given me many things. The exposure to different cultures, to their artists and craftspeople, seeing amazing art and design, learning other ways, methods and approaches to life. The realisation that there are many amazing artists out there with fantastic creative minds and hearts is a humbling and earthing experience.

Southern Ocean Godess, Bronze, International sculpture symposium Changchun, China.

Today I base myself on the Great Ocean Road at Nirranda Arts, an old community hall located in a rural setting wedged between the Bay of Islands and Childers Cove. I have seen enough of the world to know how lucky it is to be here. With this in mind I try to continue the art practise and contribute to our society and help people to make art and walk softer on this beautiful earth.

Bay of Islands


David Higgins

Email: d.higgin@bigpond.net.au

Interview by Deborah Blakeley, August 2020