Some time ago in Innsbruck, Austria there was a strapping young man who had left the battlefields of World War II only 18 months earlier to teach little Grade 1 kids at the local primary school. Among them was Alfred Engel, and he recalls everyone looking up to this giant of a man as their hero.
Imagine how young Alfred felt when, after growing up amidst fear, this teacher taught the children how to laugh, and perhaps more pertinent right now, he praised his drawings in front of class. And so he drew and drew, and then it was his father who praised him for his ability, which was somewhat surprising given the fact young Albert had re-drawn a nude lady portrait from a National Geographic magazine.
They are wonderful memories of a man who has delivered such a profound impact on art in our region, and is considered by many as the father of the award-winning Victor Harbor Rotary Art Show, which remarkably will be presented for the 38th time at Warland Reserve from January 13-21.
The show was Alfred’s idea. Today it is Australia’s largest outdoor art exhibition. It continues to break records with the annual sales of artwork exceeding $300,000, and more than 10,000 people attending over nine days viewing in excess of 1600 paintings.
The Victor Harbor Rotary Art Show also offers some of the highest prizemoney in Australian art – $34,500, including the $12,500 Corporate Award Best at Show award.
Alfred, now 75, recalled his childhood memories because he believes this art show, among many things, does what his primary school teacher and his dear dad did for him – it encourages artists of all abilities to paint their hearts out and feel inspired to be better. With much humbleness, he reflects the support he was given on his success as a professional artist working in oil, egg tempera and watercolour since 1974 and earning acclaim nationally.
“People always talk about talent, but I think in my case we had an art teacher who would say ‘you did well’ and encouraged me,” Alfred said. “He spurred me on to do more and more, and I think you are hunting the reward or the accolades rather than just enjoying the drawing, which also has to be part of it otherwise you would not do art. As a kid you want to be praised.
“I think that is what the Victor Harbor Rotary Art Show is about. It’s encourages artists at all levels. It gives a lot of exposure – more than an artist may otherwise get in five or 10 years, probably a lifetime.
“Even with commercial galleries if you get an exhibition there you may be lucky to attract 30-40 people for an opening even if you are already well known, and then it trickles for a week or two. The encouragement for not just young artists, but people who start painting in their 30s, 40s or 50s who are becoming accomplished is a wonderful thing.
“The way the show is presented in a marquee in the open is not appreciated well enough. People don’t have to go into a building; it’s much easier to go into a place like this.
“If you are an artist or gallery hunter you can go into a building and it is imposing or restricted, whereas this is seemingly so casual. Sure, you have to pay a fee to get in, but it is very earthy; you don’t feel you have to dress up to go there. It’s part of the success of the show; it is friendly, and it is also for a cause.”
It seems astonishing that, given the prestige that encompasses this art show, the concept arose from Rotarians knocking down an old toilet in 1979.
“At the time the Victor Harbor Rotary Club’s main activity to raise a few dollars for community projects was pulling down old toilets and sheds and selling the hardware and iron at an auction once a year,” Alfred said. “All worthwhile things, of course, but from the very beginning I thought, this is a lousy way for a club to make money…. we’re supposed to be made up of leaders of the community, intelligent business people, and this is the best we can do?
“At the time I had a bit of success at the Camberwell Art Show in Melbourne, and driving home it occurred to me that could do something like this in Victor.
“I thought, we haven’t got a big, beautiful building, we haven’t got the population… all the negatives. But I also saw the positives, a beautiful park right in the middle of the town, and the chance to have an open air show which is just wonderful; people are there anyway and they walk past the paintings.
“I put together a bit of a business plan and I convinced the club this was worth doing. Some members were hesitant, but we put the show together. I went back to Camberwell to get advice and their members were wonderful; where to start, what to do, the lay-out and so on; even addresses of artists. The first year we had 170 entries which was very good. We had art in the open on stands and at night put it in a tent.
“We sold enough to cover the cost and have some for prizemoney for the next year, and so the next show was even better and so it went on. The sales have been wonderful; a big difference from the old toilets.”
Incredibly, the art show has raised almost $1.5 million for local, national and overseas Rotary projects. Yet, for all this success Alfred doesn’t feel this overwhelming sense of achievement.
“For me it is nothing to be proud of because I didn’t do all the work,” he said. “I think of all of the volunteers from the club over the years.
“I came with an idea, so to me it is satisfying. Everyone at the club since then has made this art show bigger and they have done a better job and so on. I am glad it is still going. I think the quality of the work in the show is getting marginally better every year.
“When I started painting it was quite difficult to find very good painters… 40 years ago there may have been 10 in South Australia who were top professionals, but now we have 80 or more. A lot of amateurs are very good; many are of professional standard.
“It is wonderful that overall, the awareness and the appreciation of art in this area has grown enormously. People are more aware of what they are buying; they do recognise quality. The reasoning of buying something is that you should like something, but it helps if what you like is also good.”
Alfred immigrated to Australia in 1973, and it was only because there was an airline strike in Brisbane that he came to Adelaide.
“After two weeks in the Pennington Hostel I said l loved Adelaide and didn’t want to leave,” he recalled. “I came to Victor Harbor because I was offered a job as a signwriter, even though I couldn’t speak or write English. It was also a trucking company and I spent most of my time sweeping up the workshop.
“In the meantime an artist around here, Peter Matthews, who became my best friend, and his wife more-or-less adopted me. He was a very good artist and he was the first man I met who could support a family from painting. I think that is a measure of success, not just as a quality of your work, but your ability to make a business out of it.”
These days, Alfred lives and works from Peter’s old gallery in Encounter Bay. “I am a bit slower,” Alfred said. “I don’t have to earn the money so much which makes you lazy, but I have a class once a week for a group of people.
“I paint a bit, but not like I used to every day. I still have the passion. If I don’t paint I get withdrawal symptoms after a month or so. I just have to paint; I want to paint. I paint because I enjoy it.
“To me it gets back to my primary school teacher and my dad. You do it for the applause; not even for the money. The money is wonderful, but it’s the appreciation of the people. If you see someone look at your work and you hear them say, oh wow, how wonderful… look at that, well, that’s the real reward.
“Every now and again someone comes along and they get it… they know what you are trying to do. That’s a bloody good feeling.”
Alfred’s awards and notoriety at exhibitions span nationwide, including first prize at the 2002 Victor Harbor Rotary Art Show upon stepping down from Rotary, and has twice been judge at the show. His life of achievement has also been about daring to live a dream, like the one he and a mate shared as 16-year-olds in Innsbruck.
“We saw an article about a family who built their own boat and went to the Galapagos Islands while Hilter started to get a grip on power,” Alfred said. “We said we were going to build this big boat too and sail to the Galapagos Islands. We didn’t know where this place was, and building a boat in Innsbruck way up in the mountains was different. But it was a dream, and I always carried that with me.”
For the record, Alfred’s love for sailing saw him build three boats here – the largest 37ft – and spent two years living on one in Queensland. Once again, it beats knocking down toilets, and his teacher and his dad would say, ‘well done Alfred.”
The 38th Annual Rotary Art Show opens Friday, 13th January 13 from 6.30-9pm, and then daily 9.30am to 8.30pm until January 21. Entry: Adults $6, children under-16 free.