We all have a calling.

Not some profound pilgrimage through distant landscapes or spending four years flat on your back and inducing RSI through devotedly muralling an Italian chapel ceiling.

A calling can be anything. For some, it is as simple as creating a family, devoting themselves to the hood, be that mother or father. Some are swayed by the siren song of power, finding their niche, their passion and their gift in the austere halls of financial institutions. I once knew a girl whose deepest joy and lifelong mission were to be a tax agent for fuck’s sake – and she was bloody good at it.

A calling can be a gift, but it can also simply be the thing that resonates with us and feels like home, the task that spawns contentment, that career or action or purpose that embodies what the French call votre raison d’être – your reason to be.

Angus McDonald knew for a fact that economics wasn’t his calling. The homuncular timbre of inner reason was drowned out by the sensibilities of a stable career path, good income and parental persuasion. Though always supportive, Angus’ parents, particularly his father, were more inclined to encourage him towards the white-collar world. And so he studied hard, tossed his mortarboard and ventured forth from uni a graduate in economics.

“I felt like I wanted to go to art school straight out of high school,” Angus recalls of his earliest forays into the big, wide world of adulthood. “I knew I’d eventually get into the creative realm, but none of my peers really were creatives, so I didn’t really get a lot of support [as an artist].”

Though a passionate and adept artist from a young age, with a natural aptitude for illustrative creativity, he was unsure of which area of the art realm he wished to explore. Like a highway sign that alludes simply to ‘All Other Destinations’, the calling can be infuriatingly nonspecific.

“I buckled,” says Angus. “My dad was from a conventional business background, so I kind of just went along with it.”

The challenge we all face is to first hear the whispering voice within and then to act upon it. What it lacks in volume, it more than makes up in persistence and, like the falsetto drone of a mosquito at midnight, Angus’ passion for art nagged tenaciously at him until, at the age of 32, he returned to school.

Established in 1890, the Julian Ashton Art School is like the Steiner of art education, built on an unconventional yet supremely creative premise, best surmised by former principal, Henry Cornwallis Gibbons: “Ashton used to say to me, Teach them to see, Gibbons, to see the beauty of the form, the tone and the colour of the world around them and represent it on paper and canvas. Individuality is to be fostered at all times, in the knowledge that technique is the vehicle of the creative spirit.”

Though he was self-trained and as yet unaware of his preferred area of expertise, Angus was drawn to the libertarian philosophy of the atelier-style Ashton School.

“After I got there, and for the first time in my life, I felt that I was in the right place. I took the leap, basically, and it was a good leap!”

Despite painting and drawing from youth, Angus had had no mentor, no one to nurture or guide him, or means and benchmark to define himself as an artist. The Ashton School, to which he gained a scholarship in his final year, allowed him that unique combination of defined education and freedom to grow. For three years, Angus poured himself into his artistic discovery, studying the masters, investigating the movements and finding his persona in paint. The clarity and determination of this older-than-average student coalesced into a defined style, a synergy of Renaissance composition and the honouring of the subject and space with modern hyperrealism, gathering droplets of Magritte, the surrealists, and iconic still life artist Georgio Morandi, along the way.

Despite having a library of books and a faculty of artists at his fingertips, it was not the visual creator who helped him find his style, but one of the literary world:

“One of the authors I read a lot in that first year was [Ernest] Hemingway,” Angus recollects. “I think he was the key for me in unlocking my painting style. Not his subject matter, of course, or his personal characteristics – he was probably pretty objectionable! One of the things I found in Hemingway was that he had a very economical style of writing. He had this incredible innate ability to paint very emotive literary pictures with very economic use of language.

“I took that as a cue to become that sort of painter. I decided I would use that similar approach in my work – trying to think about ideas of utility and effort and energy in trying to tell the story of the painting; only concentrating on the areas I needed to, trying to be understated, not trying to be flashy and just letting the picture speak for itself.”

Emerging from education and emersed in his art, Angus undertook his own Grand Tour – the 18th-century rite of passage of budding artists and aristocrats through Europe – and, with paint and canvas, left Australia for the small Greek island of Leros.

Inspired by his brother, this six-year sporadic summer sojourn was the immersion Angus required to shutter his distractions and define himself as an artist, and cheap enough to sustain himself for extended periods. The small fishing village in which he rented his humble, rustic studio apartment may have quickly lost its appeal to a landscape artist, but Angus concerned himself with the minutiae, finding random artefacts and nuanced nooks more than rich enough to nourish him.

“It was such an amazing first summer that I had there, painting and living in this tiny fishermen’s village of only 900 people,” he smiles nostalgically. “I just kept going back. I absolutely fell in love with Greece. It was off the grid, my dilapidated studio was $20 a month, and when the fishermen would roll in after their day on the sea, they’d come up and check out my paintings and sit around and argue over my subjects and compositions!

“Quite a lot of the older fishermen in the village had hardly ever been to school, but they were still very interested in aesthetics and beauty. I really liked how they would critique my work but there was never any pretension.

“It was such a fantastic period for me to be able to stay out of that more pretentious dimension of the art world and just concentrate on my art.”

This sensory deprivation of sorts allowed him to evolve of his own accord, not swayed by peers, mentors or the imposing weight of the hundreds of years of art history influencing his style. This priceless artistic adolescence soon took a radical shift in the most abundant way imaginable in 2000, a Mediterranean migration catapulting Angus from the inspirationally-rich yet artistically bereft Leros to the foundation of Renaissance art, Florence, Italy.

16th-century Florence suffered a widespread spate of talented wayward graffiti artists, all jostling for position to add their own frescos to the dusty facades of the already ancient city. Brunelleschi, Botticelli, Giotto, Dante and, of course, Florentine heavyweights, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo – all left their authoritative impressions upon the city. Today, you can barely take a leak without dribbling over some 500-year-old masterpiece. So prolific was the creativity of the Renaissance period that Florence still bows under its consequence.

“It’s got a lot of history – it was the centre of the Renaissance – and when you walk around Florence, you feel like you’re wading through art history. You go into some little church in a tiny side street and there are all these incredible artworks, and there’s no one there. If you brought just one of those paintings to the Gallery of New South Wales, there would be a line around the corner to go and see it.

“The other side of that is that it was such an important period in history and the shadow that it cast was so big that I don’t feel the city can escape from it either.”

Spending his days advancing his own work and studying the great masters, Angus was able to literally walk down the street and see these paragons of art in the flesh.

Angus’ initiation was complete. Though, by his own admittance, an artist never stops learning and developing, he had affirmed his place in the art world and established himself as a career artist.

Returning to Australia in 2001, Angus already had six years of exhibitions under his belt and continued to embed himself over the coming five years in the artistic society. Numerous exhibitions followed, primarily in Brisbane and Sydney, commissions came and went and his reputation grew further until, in 2006, an offer came from left-of-centre that Angus simply couldn’t refuse.

Sir Douglas Mawson was an early 20th-century Australian explorer responsible for much of the fundamental exploration and research of Antarctica. Establishing Australia’s integral part of the frozen continent, Mawson duct-taped his name into the annals of history. He and his team built timber huts to protect them from the bitter climate and from which to undertake their research.

The Mawson Huts Foundation seeks to restore and preserve these fragile timber dwellings as living testament to Mawson and the hardy men who first ventured out into the white wilderness.

The Foundation approached Angus in 2005 to join their next journey to the Australian Antarctic Territory as expedition artist, echoing the early explorers who documented their explorations far more in paint and pencil than on film.

“In order to gain sponsorship and raise some funds, they invited me to go down to do some painting and photography in order to hold an exhibition when I got back.

“When they sent me down there, I think they were interested in me really focussing on work I could do around the huts themselves, which are slowly being renovated. I found that really difficult because when you go to Antarctica, there’s only one thing you really notice, and that’s the landscape.

“It’s the most amazing place I’ve ever been and very hard to describe the feeling of being there. The landscape, the nature, is so dynamic, so powerful, that you feel completely insignificant. The conditions, obviously, are really harsh as well, which only adds to that sense of dislocation from everything you know. It was a deeply affecting and very beautiful experience for me and gave me a new appreciation for the environment, just how small we really are, and how futile it is that we think we can control our environment.

“It’s a particular breed of person that goes down there to work on these huts. The guys I went down with asked me why I was there. I told them I was the expedition artist. ‘What’s that?’ they said, and I explained how I was going to document the trip. ‘Okay – you can cook’ was their response!”

The exhibition, which was taken to London, was a resounding success, bringing attention to the history of Antarctica and the need to preserve the unique history of this remote outpost of humanity.

Shortly after his return from a second Antarctica trip in 2008, Angus submitted work, and was shortlisted for the Archibald Prize, arguably the most prestigious of Australia’s artistic awards. The portraiture competition was a curious decision for a somewhat vehement still life artist, but this would be the first of his finalist positions over the next decade.

“The Archibald is a bit of a funny thing. A lot of people talk about how it is such an important prize to get into for your career, or if you win it, it can take your career to another level, but to be honest, I’m not really sure about it. I don’t think it has a big impact on artists’ careers, because it’s just one picture in one prize, and often off the usual topics of the submitting artists. I do think it is really good in that it has jumped into the cultural mainstream of Australia. Most people know the Archibald, even if they don’t have a personal interest in art, so it can engage people who don’t otherwise look at art that much. I’m glad we have it and I’ve really enjoyed it but, personally, I don’t really see it as a significant part of any artist’s career.”

Something that has become synonymous with the Archibald Prize is its ability to transcend art into the socio-political world. It has been a platform for indigenous culture, with 2009’s winning portrait of Aboriginal musician Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, Ahn Do’s impression of indigenous actor Jack Charles taking the 2017 People’s Choice award, and another actor, David Gulpilil, being the subject of Craig Ruddy’s winning piece.

Through art, the Archibald raises awareness of subjects such as racism, domestic violence, indigenous rights and political injustices. “From my point of view, I think this is the best part about it,” Angus suggests. His 2015 entry was of singer/songwriter, Abbe May, of whom he says, “She is a supremely talented songwriter, [who] is also motivated by political and social issues, particularly equality and human rights, and is never afraid to express her views.”

In 2016, the Syrian Civil War was five years old. Tens of thousands were dying and tens of millions were fleeing. This disparity in Angus’ tale may seem somewhat incongruous, but his connection with the Greek Islands abruptly brought this swelling humanitarian crisis to his doorstep.

After 20 years of painting continuously and the completion of his 30th exhibition, Angus decided it was time to take a little hiatus from his creative work. As is so often the case, when the silent void left behind by his artwork opened up before him, the hushed words of the calling crept in. Still in touch with many of his Greek friends, stories began reaching Angus of refugees arriving in their hundreds of thousands on the shores of Lesvos and several of the islands he was familiar with. Desperate and fleeing for their lives, these displaced individuals, many of them from good backgrounds, solid educations and all walks of life, were embarking in Turkey and arriving in the tiny, unassuming fishing villages Angus knew so well, just as he knew that those villagers were in no position to be able to accommodate or support this tsunami of human despair.

“I was probably being hopeful that I was going to take a year’s break, but I really wanted to reassess where I was heading with my work and with my painting. I had decided i wanted to introduce a lot more narrative into my work and had been slowly introducing it over the previous ten years, but I decided to amp it up a bit more, so I took that time off.

“After that last show, I started getting calls from friends in Greece, friends I had made all those years ago when I was living there, They were telling me about the situation that had started in the Summer of 2015 with massive numbers of migrants reaching the shores of about 10 or 12 small islands in the eastern part of Greece, people seeking asylum who had crossed the Mediterranean from Turkey.”

Angus found a necessity to witness this catastrophe for himself, to see the faces, to offer a gentle hand and to find out how he could have a greater impact on managing this wave of refugees.

Over a 15-month period, over a million people crossed from Turkey into Greece. Many of these asylum seekers were from Syria, but persecution in Afghanistan, Iraq and parts of Northern Africa was also responsible for this displacement of children and grandparents, men and women, families desperate not just for a better life, but for life itself.

Lesvos alone, an island about the size of Bendigo, Victoria, and itself far from well developed or financially secure, received 700,000 migrants in a little over a year. Every day, the fishermen of the village would ply the seas as they had for years and generations before them, but instead of their usual catch, they were hauling the less fortunate to have risked the eight-kilometre crossing. Some were clinging to wreckage or floating free in the water, but with heartbreaking frequency, the Greek sailors would be bringing lifeless bodies aboard, lost to a sea of desperation. Such was the influx that vast sprawling hills of discarded life jackets steadily grew on the shoreline.

The sense of compassion, humanitarianism and hospitality in the Greek people was overwhelming, shaming many nations far wealthier and more able to cope with such populous influx than Greece. Philoxenia, literally translated as ‘friend to the stranger’, is integral to the Greek culture and it was this that fed the aid efforts bestowed upon all – regardless of creed or colour – who arrived on the islands.

“At that time I was becoming increasingly aware of the opposite policy that Australia had put in place in 2013 for the very small number of people who were coming here by boat.

“Rather than just sitting in Australia feeling uncomfortable about it, I decided to do something about it or at least learn more about it, so I got a plane and went to Greece.

“I travelled around for a few weeks. In fact, the island that I had lived on all those years before was one of the islands that had had a lot of arrivals. I went there first, spoke to people, went to refugee centres and spoke to people there, and travelled to some of the other islands, including Lesvos, which was really the epicentre.

“I’d done some reading before I’d left to find out how some organisations had set things up to try and support and protect people seeking asylum. I was so impressed with what I found – I couldn’t believe it. Greece was a little over a half the population of Australia, it’s been in an economic crisis since 2010 – it’s not an affluent country like we are, yet somehow they managed to look after a lot of those people who were arriving.”

Admittedly, the Greek immigration problem has its own issues. Infrastructure, for one, is collapsing under the relentless tide of refugees, and some of the camps have become somewhat notorious. Yet despite these black spots, Greece is managing its migrant issue far better than we in Australia. The population is far more accepting, the government more accommodating, the communities more welcoming – philoxenia is omnipresent wherever you look. Yet prejudice, segregation, racism and isolationism have all but closed the Australian borders to refugees.

The calling had raised its voice to an overwhelming scream, and Angus felt duty-bound to share the stories of his friends, the refugees and the fishermen of the Greek islands – and there was only one title he could use…

‘Philoxenia’ was released in 2017. The series of short films gave voice to the locals and the migrants, and in doing so, reflected the duty of responsibility we have in Australia to alleviate even slightly the burgeoning humanitarian crisis around the world.

“I decided that I would try and share those stories for people here and try to advocate, or at least contribute in some way, to changing the policy here, which was an absolutely brutal, very cruel, xenophobic, racist policy, but it was also costing a huge amount of money and designed to deal with only 3,000 people.

“I rang a friend of mine from Byron – a young filmmaker I’d done some work with – and another friend, and we just hopped on a plane, went back to Greece and just started filming.”

Self-funded and free to the public, Philoxenia started casting ripples as soon as it was released. The first episode alone focusses solely on a stoic fisherman, recounting tales of pulling bodies from the ocean, waking in the middle of the night to screams and shouts as more migrants flooded onto the beach, and how he and the 119 other inhabitants of his small village helped between two and three thousand refugees find safety and sanctuary every single day.

Learning lines for Philoxenia

The artist had become a humanitarian, the calling had metamorphosed, but the voice was the same. Through his art, albeit now in cinematic form, Angus was able to share his message, addressing the humanitarian crisis and shining a harsh and justifiably critical spotlight on Australian national refugee policy.

Australia’s role in the Greek emergency was non-existent, nor – in a political sense – should it be. Of course, the world should unite and rally at such times to overcome the atrocities and suffering, and in that Australia could have been doing more, but it wasn’t their shores that were being overwhelmed. Though the influx was far less, and easily manageable, Australian government chose instead to do what it thought was right: to hide their own refugee crisis away, far from the eyes of the public, do abhorrently little about it and pretend that it wasn’t happening at all.

“I started getting invited to contribute to other organisations in other ways,” Angus recounts, “including by making art for auctions and so on, so I started to develop a really good network and understand the issue.

“Eventually, at the end of 2018, [Walkley Award-winning documentary filmmaker and video-journalist] Olivia Rousset, contacted me. She had been smuggled onto Manus Island [one of Australia’s controversial offshore detention centres] with two other advocates. They spent the night filming and interviewing the people being held on Manus and when they got back, not much was done with the footage they had created.

“We had a chat and she eventually offered me all the footage she had made, so we began work on a piece about Manus Island.”

The footage Angus had received from Olivia, however, was so impactful that he decided it should be given its own freedom to express the reality of the refugees stranded on Manus Island.

Manus the film was released early last year and a flurry of accolades swiftly followed. Best Byron Film at the Byron International Film Festival, Best Documentary at the 2019 St. Kilda Film Festival and Best Documentary at the FIFO International Film Festival – MANUS even qualified for selection at the 2020 Academy Awards.

“I wanted to do something more with my art than just paint it and sell it. I wanted to see if there was a way in which I could contribute in a social sense to improving something. It’s been a massive change for me and I can’t really see myself creating anything now that doesn’t have at least some element of trying to improve society in some way, the way we think about each other, the way we look after each other.”

From this place, Angus returned to his artwork with newfound inspiration, a zealousness for using his artwork as a tool with which to send a powerful message.

So it was that he returned to the Archibald.

In 2019, Angus’ submission to the Archibald Prize, again a finalist, captured Mariam Veiszadeh, a lawyer, writer and social commentator. Herself a Muslim refugee, Veiszadeh fled Afganistan at the age of seven, escaping persecution with her family to arrive in Australia only to find that, while the violence had abated, the prejudice remained. She has been an outspoken advocate of equality, tirelessly standing against the bigotry against Muslims that takes place within Australia.

Heightening this cultural conflict, Angus chose to mimic Vermeer’s ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’ in both the posture and style of his submitted work, casting very much into perspective, in his words, “the juxtaposition of an iconic Western European painting with a powerful, contemporary Muslim woman. I wanted to challenge these old-world distinctions of race and religion because they do not serve us well.

“Social change is such an excruciating process – it takes such a long time, and the change is very, very incremental. It takes the work of us all, at every level of society, to make that change effective.”

Angus’ life has always been about challenge. Not the personal challenges that many of his subjects and those he now so ardently stands for have faced, but challenge of the self, the challenge to heed that calling, listen to its words and, most challenging of all, act upon them.

He stepped away from the staid security of finance and economics; he selected a lesser-known, more challenging school of education because his calling required it of him; he chose not to slip into the obscurity of struggling post-graduate artists and ventured to a remote Greek island; and, when the calling was at its roaring pinnacle, its most impactful yet most profoundly exacting of all, he embraced it, ran with it and championed for the vulnerable.

If we can continue to test ourselves, to hear and step into that calling at every stage of our lives, we can achieve greatness, even in the most humble way, for with every challenge comes a lesson, and with every lesson, we grow.

“I feel that there’s a thread that runs from the first work you ever did to the last work you’ve just completed, and everything you have done along the way builds the continually expanding creative universe of your own making. I’ve never felt that I’ve graduated; I’m always learning, just as there are always failures.”

Angus McDonald with Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian journalist, human rights defender, writer and film producer. Born in western Iran, he was held in the Australian-run Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea from 2013 until its closure in 2017.

Article first published on UnCommon People, Jul, 14, 2020