JAMES Drinkwater is being a child.
Wearing only swimming trunks and with a towel slung over his shoulder, he scoops a stalk of Neptune's necklace out of a rock pool just near the Cowrie Hole.
"They've got pellets, and as kids we used them as guns," Drinkwater says animatedly, as he squeezes the plant.
"Popping them off!"
As Drinkwater watches each pellet fly off towards the wide blue yonder, a broad grin blooms from under his bushy beard.
James Drinkwater is in his element here on the rock platform between Nobbys and Newcastle Ocean Baths.
As an acclaimed and much-awarded artist, Drinkwater views this place as a bottomless source of inspiration.
"There's a lifetime of information here in 100 square metres," he says. "Because it's different, and you're different, every time you come to it."
As a Novocastrian, this stretch of coastline is home.
"It's not only the kind of matter and the exotic and the wonder and the strangeness of it all, but it's also that my life is given value, my family's life is given value, by the proximity to this location," he says.
Drinkwater, his wife and fellow artist Lottie Consalvo and their two children live a couple of minutes' walk away in a terrace house in Newcastle East.
And this area lives in his most recent paintings, including works to be featured in a major survey exhibition opening on June 1 at Newcastle Art Gallery.
The influence of the coastal environment, and the life it nurtures, swarms and swirls around his abstract expressionist paintings.
Looking at a Drinkwater painting is often like peering into a rock pool, discerning the different layers, working out what is underneath in the work's nooks and crannies.
As a result, a James Drinkwater painting can make you feel like a child. You are filled with wonder, searching for mysteries in the dynamically applied paint.
A Drinkwater creation is a sensual treasure hunt, and, by simply immersing yourself in his art, everyone wins a prize.
The artist looks down once more at the rock platform, gazing into the pools. I ask him what he is looking for.
"I'm fusing my brain and my heart together," Drinkwater replies. "And the thing is I'm not looking for anything actually. I'm waiting for it to happen to me."
"And does it happen?"
He bursts into laughter.
PABLO Picasso famously said, "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up".
James Drinkwater seems to have found a solution. Don't grow up. Or at least hold onto the best aspects of childhood.
He exudes a child's delight and excitement at everything in the world. He is a barely contained vessel of optimism, bubbling with a joy of life.
"He's such a gem. I don't know how you could possibly not get along with him if you encounter him," says Drinkwater's long-time friend, Oscar Dawson, a Melbourne-based member of the popular rock band Holy Holy.
Dawson says he's never seen his friend being anything other than optimistic and joyful.
"I can't understand it. Because I'm not," Dawson says, describing himself as a "grump" when he's on his own. "When I'm around him, I become way more optimistic and joyful. It's just a delight."
Apparently James Drinkwater has always had that effect.
Drinkwater is the youngest of four children who grew up in Hamilton South. He recalls how his mother, Michelle, used to say that when her boy came into the world, "James expected everyone to love him - and therefore they did!"
Drinkwater wears that attitude on his skin. On his left arm is a tattoo that reads, "Love is the Answer".
He is also adorned with the scrawled name of his son, Vincenzo.
Vinnie wrote on his Dad's arm, and Drinkwater had it preserved in ink. Drinkwater is about to have his daughter Hester draw on his arm, and then he'll be visiting the tattoo parlour.
Love and family are everything to James Drinkwater. They are the guiding lights in his life, and they are the recurring themes in his art.
"It's the bondcrete actually," Drinkwater says. "It underpins the whole thing. Intimacy underpins the whole thing."
So does talent. And the 35-year-old has shown plenty of that from a young age.
When he was a kid, Drinkwater's parents encouraged young James' interest in art. He would attend classes at Ron Hartree's art school in the city. And whenever he could, James would ride his bike to Anne von Bertouch's gallery in Cooks Hill, sitting with painters, sipping orange juice and talking art.
Drinkwater's early life wasn't all about art. He would head to the coast, usually Bar Beach.
"My parents weren't really beach people, but as it happens in Newcastle, if your father didn't push you into the water, someone else's father would," Drinkwater recalls.
He took up surfing, learning to read the waves, but he also revelled in walking along the sand and across the rocks.
"A constant reference was the ocean and the sea, as a place of respite or jubilation," Drinkwater says. "It's something I've always found incredibly useful."
While he began honing his ability to look down, searching for life and ideas in the rock pools, the teenager also looked out, trying to peer over the horizon.
As so many young Novocastrians do, he left the city, studying for a while at the National Art School in Sydney, then playing in a rock band based in Melbourne. It was there he became mates with Oscar Dawson. Their bands would tour together.
A decade later, when Holy Holy was releasing its second album with the title of Paint, Dawson knew whose art to feature on the cover. A Drinkwater painting depicting the south of France is the visual gateway to Paint.
"I think James' art is sufficiently unique and sufficiently visually arresting and textural, and the way he uses colours in his paintings, makes his imagery feel not like an obvious or literal take on our album title," Dawson explains.
"It made it feel like it fitted quite well without it being blatant."
While living in Melbourne as a musician, Drinkwater also met Lottie Consalvo. Like Drinkwater, she had drifted away from her art.
So they made a pact. They would return to their creative core. They would be artists, no matter what. The couple scrimped and saved, and their currency was paint. A couple of beers equalled half a tube of paint.
They travelled to Italy and London, before setting up a base in Berlin. They lived in Germany for three years, absorbing influences, growing as artists, and painting every day.
"I'm eternally looking back on that time, because it was so definitive," he recalls. "We really cut our teeth."
When they returned to Australia, Drinkwater and Consalvo chose to live and work in Newcastle. The decision was both practical, as they could afford to pursue full-time art careers in the city, and deeply personal. They both had family here.
And part of the pull of home for Drinkwater was life by the sea.
The sea helped bring him back. The sea had brought his mother's family, the Ferraris, and members of his wife's family from the Old World to the New.
The sea has provided dramatic moments, such as the beaching of the Pasha Bulker at Nobbys in 2007, it has provided reflective moments, calming moments, beautiful moments.
The sea, and the sum of those moments, has helped shape Drinkwater and his art.
Which is why the sea's influence will flow through Drinkwater's survey exhibition at Newcastle Art Gallery, right down to its name.
"The show is called 'the sea calls me by name', which is so dramatic and romantic and over the top, but it's true!," Drinkwater says. "I feel it's very personal, it's like I'm returning to a friend."
So what name does the sea call him?
"James James Ocean Face."
More than provide a name, the sea, and his life by it in Newcastle, has helped James Drinkwater discover and explore who he is.
"It's that constant trying to return to yourself," Drinkwater says, as he looks across the rock platform to the baths. "That's what coming down here does. It allows you to return to yourself."
In art and life, he says, you can follow lots of avenues, go down lots of rabbit holes, "but when something relocates you back to who you are, your authentic self, all that falls away."
Returning home to Newcastle, James Drinkwater reckons, has been integral to finding himself.
"I tremor at the thought of what could have happened, if I didn't come back here, where the work would be, and whether it would be more vacuous! Because this gives me meaning."
"Whenever I leave Sydney, I put in my navigation system 'Newcastle Art Gallery'. It's sort of a homing thing, because that is my church."
Newcastle Art Gallery director Lauretta Morton offered Drinkwater the survey exhibition.
"We've been saying for the last few years, 'It's time we did a show'," Morton says.
"We've been watching him, we've been collecting him [since 2013] ... It's important for us to give our local artists a place in this public institution, because this is their gallery."
The gallery director believes Drinkwater is not too young for a survey.
"I think he's shown he's more than deserving of it," Morton says, citing he is a four-time Wynne Prize finalist, and he won the Brett Whiteley Travelling Scholarship in 2014, so "he's been recognised nationally".
"I don't see his age at all. I see his work, and I see the passion in his work."
"James Drinkwater: the sea calls me by name" comprises more than 80 works that display the artist's prodigious and roaming imagination.
As well as paintings, the show includes drawings, ceramics, bronzes, assemblages made from objects he has found in his travels, clothes he has designed, and a monumental sculpture crafted from century-old industrial artefacts he uncovered in a foundry at Mayfield West.
What most of us would toss out or ignore, James Drinkwater considers potential art materials and souvenirs of a time and place, just waiting to be crafted and converted into an artistic statement.
As a result, you couldn't accuse James Drinkwater of minimalist living; the spaces he inhabits, like his artwork, are gleefully filled.
"It's all one thing," he says of the various mediums and materials he employs, "whether I'm using steel, clay, painting, found objects; it's the same chemicals being let off in my brain. So it's just one language."
The Newcastle Art Gallery exhibition begins at the time when Drinkwater and Consalvo resolved to be artists, enshrined in a portrait titled Poor Boy.
The survey's works travel the world, including collages he made from garbage he picked up on Berlin streets to paintings recording his time in Paris, Kenya and Tahiti. And the artworks come home, reverberating with a sense of place and scented with seaspray.
Drinkwater has also been painting new works for the show in his warehouse studio in Hamilton North.
True to his ebullient nature, he paints with an unabashed enthusiasm, free of self-consciousness, and with the kind of energy you would expect to find after red cordial has been served at a preschool kindergarten.
"Anything that slows me down, I discard," Drinkwater says. "There's an urgency. For years, I thought that was a weakness, but now I embrace that urgency."
To gain an insight into how Drinkwater paints, look at the video clip for Holy Holy's song, That Message.
It features the artist creating a work, drawing with charcoal, wiping on paint with his hands, even flinging it at the image. Indeed, he throws everything at the canvas when he's creating.
"I love the way James paints," observes Holy Holy's Oscar Dawson. "Every movement is so thought out; it doesn't seem like it is."
Even as Drinkwater and I talk in his studio, the artist is still revising and finishing a painting that pulses with references to Newcastle East. He breaks off mid-conversation, and steps over to the work on the wall.
"I've realised I want to ...". Drinkwater mixes a dollop of green, which he dabs onto the painting.
"There we go! I just wanted that green to have a friend to link it to the yellow."
He squints at the work and smiles.
"I don't see these works as abstract at all. To me, they're very, very real depictions of an experience or an event."
IN a natural pool beside Newcastle Ocean Baths, James Drinkwater is immersed in the water, and in memory.
"I swam here as a kid with my cousins," he says.
A friend of Drinkwater has referred to him as a sea monster without fins. Which is kind of how the artist looks at this moment, as he wallows in the water, smiling contentedly.
On the horizon are coal ships waiting to enter the port.
Over that horizon is a whole world waiting to be observed, explored and depicted. After all, with that imagination of his, a sea monster without fins can swim far and dive deep, all the while staying close to home.
"No one knows what I'm going to do next, because I don't know what I'm going to do next," James Drinkwater says.
"And that's the exciting thing."
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