Ross Seaton

In Artist Profile 54, Ted Snell shared a tribute to the artist Ross Seaton, who lead a life in which 'all ... activity [was] merged into a grander creative preoccupation' - to understand his own life, and the world around him, through artmaking.

For many Western Australians, Ross Seaton (1944–2020) was the ‘Walking Man.’ He is a vivid memory, a point of reference, a marker in our unfolding lives. A feature of the local landscape for decades, he pushed his wheelbarrow along Stirling Highway, making his daily journey toward the ocean. On the way, he collected cardboard and other treasures left by the roadside. Hunched over, always in shorts, his mahogany-brown legs wrapped in bandages, and his eyes focused and alert, he was mysterious and uncommunicative. A compelling figure, his self-directed quest seemed laudable in an increasingly controlled and directed world. He was his own man, a Don Quixote with his wheelbarrow Rocinante setting out each day to find meaning in the world.  

Whether he reached his beachside destination or was forced to return home by well-intentioned interruptions, he found evidence everywhere of a guiding intelligence that shaped life’s experiences. As he undertook his daily perambulations, he noted bus routes, cash receipts, and house numbers, collected and recorded. Sadly, he left only a hint of the algorithm he had developed to provide answers to their secrets. Each trip was documented. Titled ‘Wheelbarrow Walks,’ they are timed and dated on A4 sheets folded in eights, small enough to be held in the palm of his hand and marked with a pencil as he trudged along. Thousands of them, all indicating directions, listing bus routes, and identifying personal landmarks (like Purdie’s column, his childhood pet’s tombstone). Living was activated research. Every day was purposeful. Each walk was essential. Every document was created with urgency to find an answer, posit a solution, and seek clarity of the greatest mystery of all: existence.

All those people who watched him pass by each day did not know that Ross was an artist. He made that commitment early in his life, and by the age of thirty, he had devoted much of his time to giving his ideas a visual form. Whether in notebooks, on computer paper, old Holland blinds, canvas, or on cardboard collected from the roadside, he compulsively made paintings and drawings to document his ideas and represent the world he encountered. It was the fulcrum of his life for the next forty-five years.

In that time, he created a vast number of artworks, covering a wide spectrum of media, styles, and themes. Some drawings are inscribed with dates, and in journals, he wrote explicitly about other artworks or groups of works, but many more are undated. In that sense, his work’s chronology is a challenge; however, his practice’s trajectory is evident. While some projects or ideas are recurrent and so potentially confusing, it is possible to plot an overarching map of his achievement.

One thread that interlaces all his working life is ambition, both of scale and intent. Ross was not a ‘Sunday painter’ content to make small domestic scale artworks for the home. Indeed, his works were not done for a commercial market, nor for a domestic audience. Ross worked from an inner compulsion, part of a larger project, whose aim was to understand the world he inhabited. As a result, the works he created were the size they needed to be, and if that required a two-metre stretched canvas, he fabricated one. If the work demanded a six by three-metre surface, he found a roll of black builder’s plastic and unfurled it for use. When a project was worked in a series, the number of works produced grew into the many hundreds. This was a rigorous process that did not accommodate compromise in any form. It is one of the characteristics of Ross’s life and work that identify him as a serious and dedicated professional.

Another key factor in Ross’s creative practice was the integration of his life and his work, to the degree that one and the other are intertwined, indeed enmeshed, to such an extent that all his activity is merged into a grander creative preoccupation. Each walk he took was a research trip, every object he encountered a trigger, each new project required an understanding of who had tackled this territory previously and what lessons could be learned. He was an autodidact, highly self-critical, determined to find answers, prepared to tackle any question from any and all perspectives. So, he sought assistance from others, but what was learned was amalgamated into a comprehensive view of the world he had fabricated. While there was much to be learned from others, for Ross, the danger was becoming seduced by ideology and losing his individuality and unique vision. Much influenced by Ayn Rand in her novel The Fountainhead, Ross emulated her central character Howard Roark; ‘His truth was his only motive. His own truth, and his own work to achieve it in his own way.’

Much of the research and thinking was done while Ross was walking, each day, every day, as he journeyed toward the ocean at Cottesloe or Fremantle.  Walking was fundamental to living, it was an activity that took up a great deal of his energy and his time, so it needed to be productive. Each walk was documented in notes, and the information was fed back into his paintings and drawings through various filters. Numerology was one of those filters. Ross’s education in Mathematics and Physics fuelled his passion for numbers, which became an obsession that directed a great deal of his activity and thinking. He would note down bus numbers, street addresses, receipt numbers, and other random numerical discoveries to develop into complex algorithms that he transcribed into his drawings and fed back into his worldview on each walk. 

Over five decades, Ross Seaton dedicated himself to the task of finding truth in his lived experience and communicating that wisdom to others. Although not always welcoming scrutiny, his ultimate goal was to share his work with a wider audience. The book Ross Seaton: Walking Man and the exhibition at the Naval Store in Fremantle in December 2020 enabled the local community that knew of him, but did not know him, the opportunity to see the world through his eyes. It also enabled them to gain deeper insights into how one individual can make a unique contribution to our understanding and enjoyment of the world we all share.

EXHIBITION
Ross Seaton: The Master of Nedlands
Until 4 December 2021
Online, University of Western Australia

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