Remembering Ian Hale, 1950-2017

Mr. Hale in his former printmaking workshop in Dundas, Australia.

Ian Hale died on Monday, Nov. 13. He was 67. He was my teacher, mentor, and friend.

No one, except maybe my parents, has been a bigger influence in my life than Mr. Hale.

Here’s one example: In twelfth grade, when I was deciding what degree to pursue, for a brief moment I’d put art school as my first choice.

“Don’t do that,” Mr. Hale, who was an artist and an art teacher, said. “You need to get journalism out of your system first.”

I took his advice, applied to UTS, got in as a journalism major, and, hey! As of this writing, I’m a Los Angeles Times reporter. Not bad, Sir.

Mr. Hale and I in his printmaking studio in 2006.

Here’s another: In ninth grade, he took me and one of my peers to a student art exhibition held at Pymble Ladies’ College, or PLC. It was the first time I’d stepped foot into a private school. The place looked like Hogwarts. The exhibition was in their auditorium, but tens of thousands of dollars had clearly been spent on the installation of temporary white walls and lighting. Every artwork had at least three lights on it. They had catered hors d’oeuvres. I walked up to the snack table, picked up a large cube of food that I thought was tofu, and put the whole thing in my mouth. Turns out it wasn’t tofu. It was feta cheese. I’d never had feta before.

At Fairfield, our catering was the forty dollars Mr. Hale gave us to go to Woolworths to buy bread rolls and sliced ham. Our exhibition budget was zero. The lighting was always too dim. We mounted our paintings directly onto the auditorium walls and called it a day.

Standing in PLC, surrounded by incredible art and wealth, Mr. Hale, who had once taught at the school, detailed the resources the students had access to. It seemed like a completely different world from Fairfield. Except, Mr. Hale said, it wasn’t.

“These are the students you’re going to be competing against in the HSC,” he said. “These are the students you’ll have to beat.”

I’d already had an inferiority complex from not getting into a selective high school. Now I had to worry about rich kids, too?

I told Mr. Hale that I felt like I was screwed, and that I resented my family for not being able to afford private schooling.

 “No, no,” he said. I’d missed the point. It wasn’t about getting into a private school. It was about knowing the competition, and figuring out a way to compete on your own terms.

“Play to your own strengths,” he said.

If I had an inferiority complex, I should use it to push myself. If I had nothing to lose, I should take the risk. If I was handed a lemon, I should squeeze the lemon dry.

Mr. Hale cutting into the birthday cake my friends and I had gotten him in 2005.

Mr. Hale wasn’t just a well of wisdom, though. He helped us compete. He built canvas frames for us and stretched the canvases himself. He’d supply us with etching plates and show us how to submerge them in tubs of acid and brush away air bubbles using a feather. He let us hang out in the art studio at recess and lunch just so we had a place to go. He encouraged us to enter art competitions such as the Archibald, Wynne, and Sulman Prizes. It didn’t matter if we didn’t stand a chance against established, adult artists. He liked to quote Teddy Roosevelt’s “The Man In The Arena.” I didn’t know who Teddy Roosevelt was, but I liked the quote.

When I entered the Wynne Prize in eighth grade, we didn’t have the budget to ship my painting to the Art Gallery of NSW, so Mr. Hale and I carried the thing to Fairfield Station, rode the hour-long train with it, and delivered the bulky painting from St. James Station to the gallery.

That same year, I told Mr. Hale I didn’t know how to get a foot in the door at Dolly Magazine, which was, at the time, my dream employer. He said, “Why don’t you paint their editor for the Archibald Prize?”

So I wrote a letter to the then- editor, Virginia Knight, asking if she’d sit for me. She said yes. A month later, Mr. Hale accompanied me to ACP where I met Virginia and photographed and sketched her. Two years later, I entered her portrait into the Archibald Prize and got an internship out of it.

Miranda (R) and I with her Archibald entry of Dawn Fraser. My portrait of Virginia Knight is behind me. Mr. Hale built every frame and stretched every canvas for us.

Look, I never won anything in any of the art competitions I entered. I was never even a finalist. I just wasn’t that good a painter. But it was never about the art. At least, not really. It was about ambition, the willingness to give something a go, not doubting yourself, because what did I have to lose?

“Your biggest enemy is self-doubt,” Mr. Hale used to say.

“Never accept mediocrity,” was another thing he used to say.

Oh, and there was also: “He was an idiot when he was alive and he’s an idiot now that he’s dead.” I don’t remember who that was about, but his own dad had said it about someone, and he liked it, so he relayed it to me. I liked it, too.

There were so many things Mr. Hale did for me. There were so many things he did for other students. On days when he wasn’t teaching art, he’d teach kids who had a hard time staying in class how to spar (he was a boxing trainer, too). When a student lacked confidence and said they couldn’t paint, he’d ask them, “Well, can you feel?” When the student inevitable said yes, he’d say, “Then you can paint.” (He got that from a letter John Constable wrote to Rev. John Fisher, in which Constable said, “Painting is but another word for feeling.”)

And that’s not even half of it. He hoisted us up, up, up. We were never too dumb, too poor, unworthy, or hopeless. I felt like the world was mine. Sometimes, I still do.

Mr. Hale and I in 2014.

The last time I saw Mr. Hale, I was back in Australia visiting friends and family. I was just about to start my job at the Los Angeles Times. Mr. Hale had retired. He took me out to dinner in Canley Vale and told me that he was proud of me. And then he told me about how he had just returned from a trip to Cambodia where he was teaching children in villages how to paint so they could sell their art to tourists, because, of course.

Then, like the time we went to PLC, he drove me back to my parents’ house. I thanked him for everything he’d done for me and told him that even though I was no longer his student, he was still my mentor, and I was his friend. He told me he was my friend, too. And then we said goodbye. And then we said see you soon.

First published November 13, 2017