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Future Shapers Arts Scott Marsh
Photograph: Adam Scarf

Time Out's Arts Future Shaper: Scott Marsh

The Time Out team talk to the exceptional individuals moulding the future of Sydney

Alannah Le Cross
Written by
Alannah Le Cross

Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Sydney in this Future Shaper series. These remarkable individuals and organisations were nominated by a panel of expert judges including editor of Time Out Sydney Maxim Boon, celebrity chef and restaurateur Kylie Kwong, head of talks and ideas at the Sydney Opera House Edwina Throsby, NSW 24-hour economy commissioner Michael Rodrigues, CEO of IndigiLab Luke Briscoe, and NIDA resident director David Berthold. Read more about the project here.

Scott Marsh occupies a distinctly liminal space in the Australian art world. As a creator striding the dual paths of the studio portraitist and the guerilla graffiti artist, he is constantly reckoning with the intersections of those two practices and cultures. Which is one of the reasons he keeps his face hidden, wearing ski masks and face coverings to everything from ritzy exhibition openings to mural painting sessions on scissor lifts.

His highly meme-able, politically pungent murals featuring satirical depictions of politicians and people in power have gained him notoriety, contrasted by works that champion the marginalised and under-represented. You might recognise the image of Tony Abbott marrying himself in Redfern; the Captain Cooked piece which popped up in time for January 26, depicting PM Scott Morrison as a lei-wearing Captain Cook (which was recently attacked and is due to be removed); or the infamous Saint George mural in Erskineville, which was defaced by anti-marriage-equality Christian extremists but rose again last year. However, this is not the only tonality his art inhabits. Marsh also produces a range of native botanical works that bring graffiti sensibilities to still lifes and he has been shortlisted for the Archibald Prize. The thread that connects this duality is his push to have street art's worth recognised by the traditional art establishment, which he says is an uphill battle in New South Wales.

Follow Scott here: @scottie.marsh 

How do you choose the subjects and the statements that go into your work?

It's kind of like I have two different artist practices running at the same time: my mural practice and then my studio practice. When choosing political satire, I work off things that are in the media or issues that have grabbed my attention. I have a notebook of hundreds of mural concepts that I have sat there waiting. In terms of painting a mural, I really try to concentrate on timing. Once something is already in the zeitgeist and people are talking about it, it’s a lot more impactful.

But other than tapping into current affairs and pop culture, is there anything else that drives your artistic choices?

I guess with the murals, it's creating the discussion. I get the most satisfaction when I'm finished painting the mural and I just sit on social media and watch people actually talking. So I guess it's about creating conversation rather than coming out saying “I'm going to change the world” right? That's not really how I think. As long as it amplifies a message and gets the public talking about an issue rather than it just kind of flaring up and disappearing.

How do you manage to straddle the space between studio art and graffiti art?

When I first started painting a lot of murals I was still heavily involved in graffiti. People will often say "Oh, so when did you start painting outside?" It's like, no, it was the other way around. I've always painted outside. It was actually difficult to create a studio practice – it has taken a long time to scale things down and learn how to work indoors. Generally in my practice, I circle back to graffiti every few years. Creating something that's pretty graffiti-centric, for me, it's like therapy. A lot of my floral works as well are more about graffiti than anything else. They're about taking traditional notions in fine arts, like the floral still life, and pairing that with graffiti mediums and energy and symbols, to build a bridge and paint something that's actually about graffiti that the general public and the art world can also digest.

Last year your portrait of Adam Briggs was an Archibald Prize finalist. This year, your painting of Aunty Gail Hickey with her grandchildren was snubbed by the Archibald, but went on to win the 2021 Vincent Prize. Tell us about this work. 

Gail is an activist and the mother of TJ Hickey [an Indigenous boy who was killed in a police pursuit at the age of 17, his death sparked the Redfern Riots in 2004]. I first reached out to her to seek permission to use her son’s name in a mural I painted inspired by Black Lives Matter protests in the States [the mural, featuring a burning police car, was soon removed]. She loved the idea and since then I’ve got to know Gail and the grandkids, there’s a million of them. She's a wonderful person, and she's had a real hard existence. She lost her only son and she's received no compensation, no apology. This year when I thought about painting for the Archibald Prize, I thought of Gail. I thought she would make a great subject to paint, but I thought it would be huge for her as well. Every year for 18 years now she's been holding a rally in Waterloo and Redfern for TJ on Valentine's Day and many images of her are at that rally, as the mourning mother. So the public image that I saw before I met her was distraught and crying. Meeting her behind the scenes, she's a total matriarch, she lives for her family, she's the primary carer for five or six of her grandchildren. She permeates that unconditional love. So I thought it would be wonderful to celebrate that. 

What do you want to change about the local art scene?

You know, we just had street art, the biggest art movement that the world's ever seen, come along, and not one single large commercial gallery or institution in NSW has paid it any attention, apart from maybe one or two artists, which is ridiculous. When you travel to any art fair around the world, it's in the spotlight, because it's the new thing that's current and that everyone's talking about. But for some reason in NSW, the people that I guess hold the keys to the city don't want to look outside of their little bubble for anything that's new or contemporary. 

The traditional model for an artist is not painting murals, it's to find a gallery and then they exhibit your work. And then they take a huge percentage of the profits, and it's not really a sustainable business model from the artist's point of view. I’d like to see more spaces and more galleries that work for the benefit of the artists. Also, maybe having the police not just painting over people's murals. 

What is in the future for your art?

What I've found over the years is that the murals exist digitally, more than they exist in the physical form. The NFT space (non-fungible tokens) has been really interesting to me. For these murals that don't last physically, that live digitally, it's a way of monetizing those so I can continue to create more of them. Ninety per cent of the illegal work and murals that I paint are self funded and self initiated – you can spend thousands of dollars on a scissor lift and paint, and then some asshole comes and destroys it two days later. 

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