Words: Michael Sharp.
Photography: Ashley Mackevicius.
When Ben Waters was growing up on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, surfing helped him deal with his adolescent emotions.
“I found a sense of freedom in the ocean,” he recalls. “Getting smashed by the waves was a way of dealing with testosterone. I liked the unpredictability and the fact I couldn’t control things. I would get totally humbled and put in my place.”
Today, still living and surfing on the Northern Beaches, Waters has discovered that painting provides a similar outlet and peace of mind.
“When I come back from my walks around the headlands, I drive my family nuts trying to explain the way I’m feeling. So I paint, because it’s the only way to get it out of my system.”
The Waters family home was in Newport and Ben went to primary school and then high school in nearby Avalon.
“I was always aware of nature, checking the surf each morning as I rode my bike to school. My days were determined by tide and swell and wind.”
He and his sister Missy, who is three years older, spent a lot of time at the beach.
“Our parents said we had to swim seven laps of Avalon pool before we were allowed to have a foam surfboard. On the day my sister was doing her swim, she was 10 and I was 7, I just jumped in and swam seven laps. I so desperately wanted to get a board and be out in the waves.”
Ben’s father, Terry, was a highly skilled signwriter who had his studio in the garage and worked with leading designers and artists including Gordon Andrews and Ken Done. This had a significant influence on young Ben.
“He had paint, he had charcoal, he had chalk – it was all there. As a young kid, it looked to me like Dad was painting on the wall, so one day I did a drawing on the wall in the house. My mum was so cranky, but Dad was like: ‘He’s expressing himself!’”
In his primary school days, Ben was a huge fan of Star Wars and he would make back drops for his Star Wars figures out of leftover materials found in the garage and discarded polysterene packaging. Still today “I drive my family crazy unless I’m making something. Even when I was a full time teacher, I was making handsurfers and little boats out of building material offcuts.”
His mother, Tanya, was also creative, making the family’s clothes as well as picture frames, which she sold for some additional income. His maternal grandparents also had a significant influence as he was growing up.
“They lived in The Rocks and we would visit them every second weekend. So, unlike a lot of my friends in the ‘insular peninsula’, I had a sense of the city. We would wander around the back streets of The Rocks and, as I got older, we would go to art galleries. I didn’t tell any of my mates about this, but it was definitely a calling card of me knowing there was a space outside of here that I really loved.”
Waters “did what he needed to get by” at high school, but he loved studying art and remembers having wonderful art teachers.
“Our school was pretty much right on the beach at Avalon. My favourite day was doing art at lunch time and then after school I’d run to my mate’s house, which was across the road from the school, we’d have a surf and then I’d ride my bike home to Newport.”
When he finished high school, “I wanted to study Fine Arts, but I put the wrong course code on the form and got accepted into Art Education at the College of Fine Arts. I thought, oh well, I’ll just do that. I still did art courses, but we studied education and psychology and I really enjoyed that side of things. I stuck with it and did four years of Art Education.”
After graduation, instead of going straight into teaching he accepted a job with Atelier Paints.
“They were starting up a process of going to art schools, art colleges and art societies and demonstrating the materials they made. I travelled all over NSW, and to Queensland and Victoria, and technique-wise it was a great education for me because I’d missed that training at art school.”
He worked for Atelier for 18 months and then travelled overseas for a year before returning to start work as a teacher. He has taught at Stella Maris College, Manly in various capacities for the past 25 years
While teaching is “incredibly fulfilling”, Waters soon realised “there was something missing, and that was the ability to make stuff”. So he started doing some creative jobs after hours, including producing black and white line drawings of houses in Mosman for property sale advertisements.
He also began working for a surf company.
“I met a guy called Jim Mitchell at Whale Beach. He was an artist working for Mambo and we got on really well, with our shared loved of surfing and drawing. He established a company called The Critical Slide Society and I was involved for about seven years.
“My favourite memories of this time are drawing with my kids as they were growing up. I used to play a game with Dad when I was young. I was totally into Star Wars so he would draw a rocket and stick it on the fridge. I would draw another rocket blowing his rocket up and we would go back and forth for a week or so and at the end we would have a drawing of a full inter-galactic battle.
“With my kids, I would do a drawing and then they would come in and just draw all over it, with no sense that it had taken me two hours to do. For me it was the purest form of happiness, because I was doing something and the kids were involved and it was like we were in a flow state. There was no talking, we were just drawing together.”
Ben’s wife Natalie was literally the girl next door. That is, she moved to Newport to stay with a friend, who was Ben’s neighbour. She is also a trained teacher and it was her decision to apply for a two year placement on Lord Howe Island in 2017 and 2018 that would have a huge impact on her husband.
“We’d been there for a family holiday and fell in love with the place,” Ben explains. “I’d always struggled to devote enough time to produce a full body of work and Nat saw Lord Howe as an opportunity to get some great teaching experience for her, give the kids a wonderful experience that they wouldn’t otherwise have and give me some time to develop a body of work that I could do something with – and that’s literally what happened.
“It was the sliding door moment of my life.”
After making the mistake of doing too many part-time jobs in the first few months – as a bike mechanic, tree lopper and laying out the local newspaper – Waters settled on one job while grasping the invaluable opportunity to observe, draw and paint.
“I spent time with the kids before and after school and then in the middle of the day I had time to paint and go on long walks and immerse myself in nature. From that point, I really connected back to when I was a little kid. That feeling I used to get out in the surf, I got that same feeling on these bush tracks, realising that nature is awe-inspiring and it does wonderful, healing things to your mind. It calms you, it slows down your pulse rate, it allows you to open up to different thoughts – and it’s intoxicating.”
Before Lord Howe Island, Waters had not exhibited much of his work. He sold a few paintings while he was there and this gave him some confidence that others might be interested in what he was doing. His wife’s support through this time was invaluable.
“Nat always says: ‘I knew that you had this in you, you just had to realise you had it in you.’”
Waters was in his mid-40s when the family were living on Lord Howe Island. Is this when he realised he wanted to be an artist?
“I was always scared of the word ‘artist’ because I thought it sounded too wanky,” he replies honestly. “It was more that I thought I couldn’t come back to Avalon and not do this. I didn’t want it to be just a little blip in my life. The reason we had gone to Lord Howe was because we felt a bit comfortable and we wanted to challenge ourselves. So it was more about challenging myself.”
On his return to the mainland, Waters joined the Pittwater Artists Trail and connected with Sydney Road Gallery. He met “a lot of like-minded people” and, because the gallery is run as a collective, learned about the logistics of how an art gallery works.
He also caught the eye of Amber Creswell Bell, who invited him to be part of a couple of group shows before he was offered a solo show with Michael Reid Northern Beaches (titled A Place to Breathe) in May 2021 and again in May 2022 (Quiet Moments). The sell-out success of both these exhibitions led to a solo show at Michael Reid Sydney in January 2023 (Shared Places) – and all the paintings from that show also sold.
The title of Waters’ new exhibition is Come Walk With Me.
“When you go out on your own with a sketch book and pencil and no agenda, you find out all sorts of stuff about yourself. In many ways for landscape painters, the landscapes they paint are portraits of themselves.
“When we returned from Lord Howe Island, I went on long walks around the Palm Beach headlands trying to get some sense of what it meant to be back and wondering how we would replant ourselves. I realised that is what I want to paint – I want to paint the way it makes me feel. Once I decided that, I steered away from painting a particular scene and my works have morphed into capturing some essence of this area but also some essence of myself. That might be memories of walking with my kids or I’ve had something tough going on and I need healing in some way – that is what I’m chasing.”
Waters looks forward to seeing how his audience responds to his work.
“I want to share my paintings with other people even though that can be incredibly confronting. As artists, we spend so much time producing our work in solitude, I want to see what it does when it goes out into the world. It’s like I’ve started a conversation.”
If you would like to join the conversation with Ben Waters, Come Walk With Me is showing at Michael Reid Northern Beaches from 20 September with the artist attending the opening event from 2-4pm on Saturday 23 September.
Michael has been working at Michael Reid Southern Highlands since it opened in March 2022. He has previously worked as a lawyer, journalist and senior practitioner in Australian corporate affairs.
Ashley discovered photography at the age of 15, which proved to be a lifeline for the academically challenged son of Lithuanian migrants. He has had a long and successful career and lives in The Southern Highlands.