PLAYING WITH FIRE, Peter Gardiner, by Brooke Tunbridge / by Brooke Tunbridge


Hidden in the backyard of his home in Tighes Hill stands 2016 Kilgour Prize winner, Peter Gardiner’s art studio. Inside the studio, you’ll find walls covered in Gardiner’s paintings on various sized canvases, displaying a mysterious take on the Australian bush, some mixed with the element of fire. Gardiner apologised for the mess, although my focus was on the works that surrounded me, amazed at his talent. Busy preparing for his exhibition at Olsen Gallery in June, it was obvious that Gardiner had been working hard to produce works for the display – he’s creating around 25 paintings in total.

My attention was brought back to the room by his friendly dog, Frida nudging my leg. A year on from winning the Kilgour prize, I asked Gardiner what that victory meant to him. “I put the painting in [to Kilgour] without expecting too much. When you win a national prize like that, it gives you a lot of confidence and, as an artist, you need confidence, otherwise you’re second guessing yourself. That was the main thing I got out of it,” Gardiner revealed.

Gardiner was the first Newcastle resident to win the $50,000 prize since Dallas Bray won in 2008 and 2010. “The money itself was good - of course it’s good, it frees you up a little bit - but the main thing was that endorsement.” Peter explained that soon after winning the prize he signed with another gallery and knew the direction he wanted to go.

Telling a tale from his childhood, Gardiner recalls a memory of discovering oil paints that his late Grandfather had left behind. “When I was young, probably about 10 or 11, my grandfather passed away and my grandmother was cleaning out the house. She had this little beaten black metal box and I had a look at it; it was full of oil paints. I took it and started playing with it, as a kid does, and I think then I kind of got an idea of what it is to make a painting and play around with paint.”

Gardiner left school in Victoria when he was 17 and came to Newcastle to attend art school, but admits he wasn’t convinced that was the right path for him, “it’s the same for a lot of people when they’re 17,” Peter added. “You don’t always know what you want to do.”

“In those days, the art school was a vital and slightly anarchic place, like an art school should be. I just got absorbed into that whole world and fell in love with it,” Gardiner explained.

“I’d always liked art, but it wasn’t until I went to art school and saw the whole scope of it. I became pretty obsessed with it after that and gave up any other ideas of what I was going to be.”

Talking about the commitment it takes to be a full-time artist, Gardiner recalls a piece of advice given to him by his closest friend in art school. His friend was a mature-aged student, a tradesman, who had the same attitude towards making art as he did for work. “You’ve got to turn up every day and you’ve got to do it every day.”  When Gardiner left art school, this advice stuck with him. “I painted every day and made that a habit that became engrained. Now I do it every day, and I think that’s what you have to do, you can’t turn it on and off.”

If you’re an artist and are in it for the fame, Gardiner says you’re in the wrong business. “That’s not what it’s about. People come to see your work if they see your commitment to it.”

Admitting he has painted over and destroyed more paintings than finished artworks, Gardiner says, “you have to be happy to destroy things rather than be all too precious about everything you make.”

Exposed to art from a young age, Gardiner’s father was a member of the National Gallery in Victoria and visited the gallery with the family three times a year. “From a very young age, I was looking at paintings - not looking at them academically, just through a child’s eyes, which is the best way to see it. I was never bored.”

Aside from the obvious advantage of the beaches and mountains close by, Gardiner’s favourite element of Newcastle is the cultural character of the town and how it’s evolved. “I’ve travelled a lot, art has given me the chance to go to places all over the world, and when I come home, I just can’t fathom how lucky I am to live here”.

Peter Gardiner’s upcoming exhibition will be held on the 10th-25th June at Olsen Gallery, located in Sydney. Find out more information about Peter’s art on the gallery website (