Peter Kennedy

Peter Kennedy

Last updated September 17, 2012


Brisbane-born, Melbourne-based visual artist Peter Kennedy’s CV is quite overwhelming. Fortunately, he isn’t driven by fame and money but as the man who introduced neon lighting, live performance and sound works to Australian art in the early 1970s, Peter is a trailblazer of conceptual art.

From a young age, Peter recalls being inspired to challenge the status quo, and to look at alternative ways of expressing ideas beyond conventional art forms. Asked when he knew he wanted to be an artist, Peter explains it was a gradual realisation. Born in Brisbane in 1945, he says he didn’t have a childhood dream, but at seven years of age spent one rainy day beating boredom with a tin box of watercolour paints.

From that moment he fell in love with painting landscapes and remembers inveigling his parents to take drives into the countryside so he could capture the scenery. For inspiration, he’d visit the Queensland Art Gallery on Sunday afternoons and breathe in the heady scent of oil paint wafting off the canvases.
Peter left high school at 15 to work as a trainee commercial artist at a studio in Fortitude Valley for three years.

Within that time he realised he wanted to be a full-time artist and enrolled at East Sydney Technical College in 1965, but found the classes too conservative and didn’t stick it out. But it was at college he picked up his first art magazine and stumbled across acclaimed light artists abroad such as Dan Flavin, Keith Sonnier and Bruce Nauman, “… and it was then I felt that light was an interesting thing to work with,” he recalls.

He promptly scored a job designing neon lights at Claude Neon in Sydney and gained expertise to launch his first pioneering exhibition of neon works at Gallery A in 1970. Also at that time, Peter and a small cooperative of artists launched an artist-run space, Inhibodress, in Woolloomooloo to exhibit their own work and the work of progressive international artists.

Asked what challenges he’s had to overcome to get to where he is today, Peter says that maintaining momentum and confidence has always been a test. His health has also been a major hurdle. In 1999 he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and wasn’t expected to live much longer.

“But that concentrated my mind in ways I had never before concentrated my mind … and I have to say that some of the struggles I’ve had artistically seemed to me, in retrospect, to be beneficial to how I tackled the battle with cancer,” he observes. Peter goes on to explain that he approached his cancer as he would an art project – he researched the issue, looked at options to resolve it, dug deep for self-confidence and discipline, and rode the ups and downs to reach a successful conclusion.

While Peter is not cured, he is doing quite well and his doctors are keeping a close eye on him. The chemotherapy has stolen his youthful energy, but Peter says he is driven to keep creating new work daily because there is still so much he wants to achieve. He loves what he does because of the “small epiphanies”, and he cares because he knows that some of his works have had a real connection with viewers. “I don’t feel I’m working in a vacuum.”

Art and Politics: Jasper & Jackson's Cold War
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Acquired by the judge, Ann Thomson, from the 1994 Award.
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