By Mark Bagally (President – Victorian Artists Society VAS)
My life so far has been rich and full. I’ve experienced plenty, from the very worst of humanity to the very best and a whole assortment in between. On my retirement from Victoria Police, after 35 years, my transition to full time artist was swift with essentially no down-time in between. Everybody, without exception has a story to tell. This is a bit of my story.
If I go right back to my younger years shuffling my way through school, I have little recollection of being overly artistic or creative as such. I can remember having irregular bursts, where I would draw wacky images very similar to Dr Suess illustrations where everyday items are stacked on top of one another and the cat tries to balance it all. I can remember the thrill of being given a set of the then supreme, Derwent coloured pencils. I used them to draw up the plans for my dad’s soon to be constructed chicken coop. He told me that the plans had to be good enough to present to council to get a building permit, which of course was nonsense, but I remember labouring over the task for hours, with my new pencils. I was so relieved when the plans came back from council stamped approved. That’s pretty much all I can remember about my early artistic years.
My calling to be a policeman came when I was quite young. Each year Victoria Police would have an intake of cadets. You had to be 16 years of age and undergo a rigorous selection process. The benefits were many for those successful applicants. You got to finish years 11 and 12 at the police academy whilst at the same time engage in a variety of physical, operational and administrative activities designed to prepare you for transition to graduating as a fully sworn police member on turning 18 years of age. I was 15 years old when I decided that was the life for me. I worked very hard in preparation for the intake. I surrendered many typical 15-year-old interests, both good and not so good, to concentrate all my energies for the task ahead. I was not a very good student. I was bright, but easily distracted and quite academically lazy. One of the areas I knew I had to smarten up in was spelling. I spent many hours practicing and drove the family mad having them test me. In the end all the hard work was to no avail. Because of my age, I missed the yearly intake. I was six weeks too young to apply. Of course, I was devastated and waiting another year seemed a lifetime away. I promptly left school at 15 years of age and commenced and completed a trade in cabinet making. On finishing my apprenticeship, I joined Victoria Police at 20 years old.
For the next 35 years I was privileged to have experienced life in all its many facets. A former Chief Commissioner told us, as graduating police members, “It’s a front row seat to the greatest show on earth”. He wasn’t wrong about that. I was involved in and exposed to a great deal over the years. I can say, hand on heart, that I enjoyed every aspect of it, from the day I joined until the day I retired. In my early years as a uniformed constable my career direction spun quickly towards crime investigation and was cemented by a couple of years policing St Kilda in the 1980’s. In the late 80’s, following a demanding and rigorous process, I was appointed to the Criminal Investigation Branch as a detective. I held the title of detective for my entire career, except for 2 years where I had a brief return to uniform on being promoted to sergeant. In addition to conducting investigations attached to various inner city Crime Investigation Units, I was also appointed to some of the higher profile state crime squads. In the 90’s I was attached to both the Rape and Armed Robbery Squads. The Rape Squad had a state-wide responsibility to investigate high level crimes perpetrated by serial rapists and cases where the victim and offender were not known to each other. Likewise, the Armed Robbery Squad had a state-wide responsibility to track down gun-toting violent and dangerous criminals doing hold-ups on banks, financial institutions, payrolls and cash security vans. The work was dangerous but rewarding. In the late 90’s I was appointed as an instructor on the directing staff at the Victoria Police Detective Training School before returning to the State Crime Squads as a Detective Sergeant at the Drug Squad followed thereafter by appointment to the Homicide Squad. Homicide investigation is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. Detectives in the squad were not only highly skilled and tenacious investigators, but they also needed steely nerves and the mental strength to withstand constant exposure to scenes of violent death and just as regular attendance at autopsies. They also need the capacity to manage extremely heavy workloads and long hours.
Between 2004 and 2015 I remained at the rank of detective sergeant, working around the inner-city suburbs of Collingwood, Fitzroy and Richmond and finishing up with my last 8 years at the Sunshine Crime Investigation Unit.
Working in these areas was both physically and mentally demanding with constant and at times unrelenting pressure. My working hours were long and irregular and mostly fueled by adrenaline. I had a busy and very supportive wife and a young family and of course plenty of personal challenges thrown into the mix. Irrespective of the regular exposure to death, destruction and violence in all its forms, conducting investigations in those environments could be highly fulfilling, as bizarre as it sounds.
So how did my transition from madness and mayhem to artist occur? Quite serendipitously in fact.
Around 1998, I was going through a particularly busy period at work. Between my younger years sketching Dr Suess images up until 1998, art as such, had never entered my mind in any way shape or form. One particular morning I literally woke up with a strong desire to paint something. I’m not sure what epiphany had subconsciously triggered that craving. It’s a mystery I simply can’t explain. In any event, later that morning, I found myself wandering aimlessly around an art supplies store buying paints, brushes and a board. I had no idea what I was buying really. I didn’t know anything about colour mixing or the difference between paints or mediums. In the end I placed a lot of faith in the store attendant. I went home and painted a portrait of my son. I worked on it over several weeks a bit at a time. I wasn’t overly displeased with the result. More importantly, I found I was totally absorbed and captivated when applying paint and totally free from pondering work. It was quite therapeutic. At that stage it hadn’t entered my head to take classes and there was no real access to internet tutorials such as YouTube. Looking back, I wished I had committed to some type of art class.
So, in the years between this life-altering event and my retirement, I dabbled around with painting and had intermittent outbursts of artistic excitement but nothing serious. I tried a few different things, read some books and bought a few arts related CDs. I can say I was somewhat hooked, but I had no idea where I was going with it. As time went on, the only aspect of my art that I was sure about was my preference of oil over acrylic. I hadn’t tried watercolour, thinking it was far too difficult.
Fast forward to my retirement and transition to artist. Free from the encumbrances of work, I could now get a real run-on learning to paint properly. Not being interested in a life of leisure, I had decided art was going to be my next career, albeit I was starting later in life. The beauty of art is that you can start at any age. I set myself up in the garage at home and commenced to paint with gusto. The change in career had also coincided with sea change and a move to the Surf Coast of Victoria. I was immediately drawn to painting seascapes given my proximity to the Great Ocean Road.
I initially took a couple of art classes and a few short workshops, all of which I picked up bits and pieces from but to be honest none of these took my art to the next level. I felt I needed tuition that was more intense and challenging. I attended a week-long workshop at Katoomba in the Blue Mountains with John Wilson, a successful and distinguished Australian landscape painter and teacher. That week completely changed and influenced my painting and, in my view, took my work to that next level. I decided from that point on, to spend the money and only attend classes and workshops tutored by artists of note that would provide ‘bang for buck’ in progressing my work. I have so much respect and admiration for the talented artists who have made a full-time career out of art and done the hard yards to get where they are. So far along my artistic journey, I’ve met some fabulous people, generous with their time and advice and completely unpretentious.
Workshops and classes are but a small part of my self-education. I now have a purpose-built studio at home in which I immerse myself in all sorts of artistic learning, pretty much every day. For the serious artist I think a disciplined approach to self-education is important. I spend many hours practicing and experimenting with colour mixing,
reading art books (of which I’m an avid collector) watching and listening to other artists and of course doing plenty of brush miles. Although I’m predominantly an oil painter, I have over the last couple of years become totally hooked on watercolour as well. I really enjoy painting en plein air, in either medium and routinely travel around Victoria and New South Wales in pursuit of that pastime.
To broaden my knowledge and build an artistic network of colleagues and friends, I’ve joined several societies. At the forefront is my recent appointment as the President of the Victorian Artists Society (VAS). This historic society was formed in 1800s by early impressionist painters including Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Fred McCubbin. VAS operates from a magnificent two-story National Trust building in Albert Street, East Melbourne. The building houses 5 galleries and the original studio/art school where the aforementioned artists painted.
Another of my roles is National Vice President of the Australian Society of Marine Artists (ASMA), an elite group of around 120 exhibiting marine artists spread throughout Australia.
In 2023 I formed the Brandon Circle Melbourne, an invite only group of 10 exceptional artists which is gaining some traction around the art scene in Melbourne. After a successful exhibition in Melbourne, the group has been invited, in 2024, to exhibit at the Camberwell Art Show, one of the country’s preeminent art shows.
For me the transition is now complete!