Falling Awake: Paintings by David Whitworth

David Whitworth is a Sydney based landscape architect and artist. He is also an ex-Planthunter intern. We go way back. Everything David touches – a garden, a canvas, an urban landscape, an idea – is made better as a result of his attention. More beautiful, more meaningful. His way is thoughtful, curious and poetic, and his latest solo exhibition, titled Falling Awake, is no exception.

I caught up with David recently to find out more about the works in the exhibition, the connection between his output as a painter and his work as a landscape architect, and what it means to him to care. Falling Awake is open until February 21 at Saint Cloche gallery in Paddington, Sydney.

Hi David. Let’s get straight into it. You’re trained in both fine art and landscape architecture. Tell me about the relationship between landscape architecture and painting for you.

Both vocations appear close because of my subject choices, but I find they differ in practice. Perhaps this is because it is hard to separate the idea of landscape architecture practice from romantic notions of the profession. 

In reality, landscape architecture is largely digital, desk-based work, often focused on negotiating contested, difficult urban sites – where we act in some ways like advocates, fighting for better ecological or environmental outcomes. This is important work, far removed from the ‘hands in the soil and tree hugging’ many imagine.

What painting and landscape architecture share, for me, is thinking through the body. Reading a site with your senses and imagination, trying to listen holistically and reflect thoughtfully; telling the story of a place, or getting out of the way and letting it tell its story. The places that move me most, make me want to paint and engage, are rarely designed spaces. Critically, painting has an immediacy and autonomy that design work lacks –I can’t give it up.

Field 2, 2020, acrylic on board, 23 x 31cm
Warrah Trig, 2020, acrylic on board, 23 x 31cm

I was listening to a lecture the other day about the relationship between science and the arts and an example was used of a painting of a landscape and how it is unlikely to be ‘accurate’ in a scientific context but that it offers something beyond the rational. Something that can, perhaps, say more. And that this connection often reaches places rational thought can’t. The heart. This, of course, comes down to ways of seeing and perceiving the world around us, and then how this perception shapes our actions. I wonder what your thoughts might be on the topic of seeing?

When I was a student, I may have been the odd one out in enjoying the theory classes. I loved Kant’s idea of art being a place where the senses are at play, and art’s role in providing the senses freedom – a source for the senses, particularly sight, and intellect to be engaged without the need for practical outcomes. 

I used to paint only from memory, trusting that the result would be a kind of distillation, leaving some essential essence of place – but that became a crutch and a dead end. Now I’m interested in using every faculty available, memory, history, things I can bring from my profession, an understanding of topography and landform, site reading, mood. In that sense, I am trying to see a site with everything I can bring to it – a very subjective kind of seeing but one that is hopefully informed, full.

To go back to comparing painting and landscape architecture, perhaps they both attract me because they promise a similar chance to balance reason and emotion/intuition as complimentary ways of knowing – to see with all of me.

Gate, 2020, acrylic on board, 23 x 31cm

I like how many of the paintings in the exhibition are not of vast, impressive landscapes, but gutters, stairwells, edges. Unseen places. What draws you to paint a particular place? 

I think I pay attention to the un-glamorous or more intimate elements of the city because I like to know the city by walking – at this pace you notice small details, like trash floating in the bay. Its also an antidote to the pastoral or sentimental tendencies that can haunt landscape painting. I kind of track the city’s mood swings in these interstitial spaces.

I find it hard to paint places I don’t know. I’ve lived in the inner city since my early twenties, so my focus has shifted to more urban subjects, even as a predominantly landscape based painter. When I was a kid and teenager, we lived in two houses that both had no backyard fences, running into the bush, and in the US, the woods. I suppose I miss that edge – a place where you can slip between the suburban and the wild. Fortunately, Sydney has that quality, bounded by national parks and bodies of water – and I’m often drawn to an edge as a compositional device.

The exhibition draws its title from poet Alice Oswald’s book Falling Awake. Do you read a lot of poetry? If so, why? What is it about poetry that you are drawn to?

Yes, that started in high school with a brilliant English teacher who pushed an ambitious reading course that I’m still very grateful for. I like the chance that novels give you to inhabit someone else’s subjectivity, interiority, but poems do it better, reshaping ordinary experiences into insight. It’s like skipping ahead in your wisdom; you can see the world, an experience or a thought through a poem, with greater richness, diversity of thought or subtlety than you might come up with alone. Equally, good poems age with you – they’re able to startle you with new insights when you’re ready.

I also like the alchemical nature of poems, that ordinary words used in conversation suddenly carry meaning, transforming perception, as when paint, an inert product, becomes a painting.

Skypuddle, 2020, acrylic on board, 23 x 31cm

You said to me once, that to tend was your favourite verb. This was in relation to your garden, which now I know you have moved from. Has the action of tending changed for you?

I like the idea of putting energy into an action that bears fruit over years, an action that’s continuous, like gardening. It’s a relationship rather than a singular event.

I would love a garden of my own to tend, but I equally enjoy living in the city, so the two are not particularly compatible. But really, it’s a joy to know I’ve played a role in planting something in the ground, and I’ve been lucky to design gardens for family and see them come to life and be enjoyed. They don’t necessarily need to be exclusively mine. 

Actually, painting isn’t that different. Having an exhibition does, in some sense, make me feel like I’ve attended to a contract I made with myself, to keep painting – to tend to and maintain the things that make me feel like I’m living a meaningful life. 

David Whitworth.

One last, sort-of unrelated, question: do you still have dreams of growing an arboretum? 

I would love an arboretum – what a dream! I feel like COVID-19 squashed daydreams. I’ve been lucky since re-training as a landscape architect, given the opportunity to not only work in practice, seeing my jobs built, but also offered the opportunity to write and teach, which both breathe air into my work life, but the future’s hard to picture. I like to stay broad, engaging with my profession from multiple angles.

I think I’m an introverted people person, and with lots of competing interests I’ve always thought I’d make a great retiree. In the meantime, my dream is a fairly simple one: to re-balance – away from screens and back to faces – maybe slightly more achievable than retirement right now? 

Falling Awake by David Whitworth
Saint Cloche, Paddington, Sydney
10 – 21 February 2021
Meet the Artist: Saturday 13th February, 11am – 2pm
Catalogue & Price List: View PDF Catalogue (7 Mb)

Midnight, 2021, acrylic on board, 23 x 31cm
Unromantic Romantic, 2020, acrylic on board, 23 x 31cm