'It was a stunning experience," says Josh Muir. The young Victorian artist is reflecting on this year's all-night art extravaganza, White Night Melbourne, when the largest scale artwork he has ever worked on, was projected on the façade of the National Gallery of Victoria.
Josh was one of three Indigenous artists commissioned, alongside Reko Rennie and Pitcha Makin Fellaz, to create a major light projection for the event. Still Here, arguably his most career defining work to date, featured a series of brightly coloured animated drawings reflecting upon Australia's early history.
'The work is the story of Aboriginal people and the challenges faced through the European settlement,' says Josh. 'It's a recollection and portrayal that throughout history we Aboriginal people have persevered through pain and remain, still here, living in the 21st century. In good faith, my work also reflects that reconciliation will be the way forward – that an understanding of the oldest living culture in the world and great respect for our survival will be part of that future.'
A Yorta Yorta/Gunditjmara man, Josh grew up in Ballarat. The region's history has remained a steadfast influence on his work, with his digital print Buninyonginspired by a town 11 kilometres outside of Ballarat. The work resonated strongly with the judges of last year's National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, who awarded Josh their National Youth prize. Through support from Creative Victoria's Indigenous Professional Development program, Josh was able to travel to Darwin to receive his award in person and also participate in the Darwin Festival.
Coinciding with his Darwin visit, Josh's debut solo exhibition Phoenix opened at MARS Gallery in Melbourne. A champion of his art from the get go, the gallery encouraged Josh to develop an exhibition spanning three key areas of his life: his early childhood years characterised by love and security, his teenage years tarnished by drugs and depression, and his most recent years defined by intense creative focus.
It's this focus that sees Josh Muir lie awake at night, thinking about his art. 'I'm putting myself in a really vulnerable position, putting what goes on inside my head or inside my soul out there for people to enjoy or critique,' he says, 'But it's good for me to do that, because when people come up and tell me they really like a piece, it makes me feel great. It's a way for me to deal with all the stuff I've been through. It gives me drive, too, because you want more people to see your stuff. The more good feedback you get, the more you want.'
Opportunities for positive feedback have been plentiful. Josh was one of three artists to have a major project featured as part of this year's Lorne Sculpture Biennale, where he brought escaped convict William Buckley back to life in sculptural form. Josh has also become a familiar face at the Victorian College of the Arts, where he's currently on a 12 month residency which, among other benefits, provides him with a dedicated space for artistic experimentation and a financial grant of $40,000.
The outlook hasn't always been so optimistic for the 24 year-old artist, whose parents separated when he was young. He had a promising start as a Primary School Captain representing Victoria in the junior basketball league, but his life derailed in a big way when he hit his teens. Suffering anxiety and depression, Josh turned to drugs. By fifteen, he had a full-blown habit. He overdosed, went into rehab and relapsed, more than once. He didn't see much of a future for himself, let alone as a professional artist.
'Being an artist never crossed my mind, to be honest. I was always interested in doing cool things, creative stuff. One day I was at work and I decided I wanted to do a painting so I went down to the shop and bought a canvas and some paint, and I just did it,' he explains. 'The painting was of a boy, escaping the madness of the city. It was about the relief he felt when he had escaped all the craziness - it was influenced by Astroboy, I just put my own spin on it.'
A few months later, Josh was sitting in a hospital waiting room when he noticed a call for entries for an art competition. 'It was a mental health art prize, part of a whole week around mental health awareness. I figured, I've got a piece at home, I might as well enter it,' he shrugs. 'A few weeks later they called me and told me I'd won.'
It was a life-changing moment for Josh, who at nineteen had kicked the drugs but still struggled with mental health issues; it was the confidence boost he needed to make another go of life. 'I met my local MP at the award ceremony and she helped me get some publicity, because she thought the wider community in Ballarat should know about me, about what I'd achieved. I was able to leverage that into the career I have today,' he says.
In addition to his life as an artist and designer, Josh works as a mentor for Aboriginal youth, with the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience. Leading outreach days and tutoring squads, Josh helps to steer at-risk kids out of trouble and into tertiary studies or employment. Using his own life experience and his creative achievement, he inspires them to dream big.
'I always encourage them to have fun. Try not to be super serious. It's ok to work hard, but make sure you enjoy what you're doing,' he says. 'I always tell the kids, if you're passionate about something and you really enjoy it, don't be afraid to put yourself out there and see where it takes you. You never know when you'll get a big break.'