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Sitting at the wooden kitchen table in his Stanwell Park home, the successful Australian painter, John Vander blushes. “I met Frances at the Texas Tavern in Kings Cross.” He slowly runs his hand through brown hair which is beginning to show signs of ageing. “She beat me at noughts and crosses and I wanted a rematch!”

The Texas Tavern in 1973 had great music,
excellent food and a very, very good happy hour. Over a flirtatious game of noughts and crosses played on a pub coaster, Vander was captivated by the young brunette. Through laughs, Vander reveals his romantic side. “Every anniversary I buy Frances a naughts and crosses set.”

Thirty-five years on, Frances jokes that she has the game in every material imaginable. “Timber, glass, I’ve got it all!”

Together Frances and Vander have travelled the world in search of his next painting. Not only is the enthusiastic Frances his number one fan, but also, “She’s always my best and worst critic,” Vander says, his blue eyes twinkling behind his silver frames.

Numerous paintings by his favourite artists cover the walls of Vander’s lounge room. With his elegant fingers he proudly points out a painting by his late friend, Pro Hart. A timber cabinet stands near the kitchen table and is full of books featuring the places Vander has visited. But the Belgium born artist is most comfortable in Australia.

Sitting back while sipping a glass of water, he describes the island as a catalyst for adventure. “I know that a lot of people don’t think it anymore but if you travel the bush, you feel that nothing is impossible. You feel that you can do anything you want in Australia, even now. If you’ve got a dream you can do it here.”

Vander’s high school dream to travel the world brought him to Australia at the age 24. He had visions of becoming a crop dusting pilot, but upon realizing he had little experience and the danger of the profession he settled on being a professional painter. “Two mates of mine died during crop dusting so I thought a brush is less dangerous than a plane!”

Dressed in the common black attire of artists, he attributes his personal style to being self-taught. “What happens is when you are taught you often take the style of your teacher. In a way it’s better if you’ve got a natural talent to use your talent and experiment yourself. Then it’s your own style and no one else’s.”

Natural talent flows in Vander’s family. His mother discovered she could paint later in life and his daughter is a successful jewellery designer who owns shops in Cronulla and Stanwell Park. Frances however chooses to stick to the bookwork. “She did try to paint once and when I came back I told her what I thought and we wiped it,” Vander says.

At the time, canvases were expensive so he simply painted over Frances’s attempt. The edges of his grey moustache curl upwards as he thinks about someone owning a ‘John Vander’ painting with his wife’s work of art underneath it.

Frances may not be as gifted with a paintbrush, but she plays a significant part in Vander’s career. Her nurturing attitude is apparent as she straightens Vander’s shirt for a photograph and looks on adoringly as he grabs a magnifying glass to read the small print on a letter. Together this duo runs, ‘Articles, Fine Art Gallery’, Vander’s personal space in Stanwell Park.

To escape the loneliness of the studio, Vander created ‘Articles’, the brightly lit gallery that stands among pine trees on the south coast. For 28 years his paintings have glittered inside gold frames and the gallery has housed sculptures, etching and drawings of other artists.

“He seems to promote quite a range of artists, not just those in his own style, which I appreciate. It’s very commercial to do that but I admire that he’s making a business out of it and getting art out to the wider community,” Wollongong City Gallery assistant, Kate Fitzgerald, says.

His unique style using warm colours that portray run down houses, stretching landscapes and quiet street scenes are traits of his European background. His individuality is not lost on other artists.

“I do find his landscapes to be slightly romanticized in that way that Europeans would do things. He’ll capture a really beautiful moment whereas other artists might put a more sinister angle on the landscape,” Ms. Fitzgerald says.

“I’ve seen a few landscapes that he’s done and they were brilliantly done. I admire his attention to detail and the light in the way he does his work.”

The light captured in his work comes from being at the scene at the perfect moment. Vander will set up his canvas early in the morning to immortalize the serenity of the place and the beauty of its environment. “I like to capture the haze or the fog or the morning mist rising up with the sun hitting the buildings at a certain angle.”

Unfortunately this magical moment doesn’t always happen. “I’ve done some paintings that I’ve travelled five or six hours to get there right on time, early in the morning and the mist never rose…pointless.”

Vander paints on location with acrylics and later completes the art with oils in his studio. From experience he knows that this is easier than trying to fight with nature. “You know you go bush and you get flies going and with their wings trying to muck up my sky – terrible,” he says shaking his head.

The mess and involvement with oil is the most enjoyable aspect of this medium. “When you paint with oil it’s like a paste so you can more or less work your painting like a sculpture. I use everything - cloths, fingers and knives.”

Vander jokes that by using pallet knives to carve his painting, this saves him from constantly buying paintbrushes. “I’m not a good customer for the art material place because I don’t buy that much material!”

Vander’s paintings come alive with the story behind the art. Before beginning a painting, Vander will visit every building in a town on a quest to uncover the history of the place. “If there was a gold miner in that building, or there was a man that came from South Australia or from England or Finland and made a living there and brought up a family in that building, then that building to me is not just a picture, it comes alive with the people that lived there.”

The open space and adventure of Australia is Vander’s utopia. Old gold mining towns fascinate him. “In those towns just imagining in the hay days they had about 30 pubs, it must have been quite a fascinating place so when I walk in the street I can hear the sounds of people dancing, singing, the drunks in the street. Movie scenes appear in my mind.”

Although Australia claims Vander as its own, he still thinks of himself a traveller. “I’m still on an adventure, I still consider myself as a tourist here and I’m still looking around.”

Tenille Bleechmore