When Greg Clarke left Adelaide in 2015 after five years at the helm of Fringe, he moved interstate and became creative director at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras – an organisation best-known for presenting one of the biggest and most colourful street parades and LGBTQIA+ celebrations in the world.

The glitter and glam of that party scene seems far removed from where he is now, living in an idyllic location on the New South Wales mid-north coast with partner Slade Smith and focussing on his first love: visual art.

“We live on a mountain called Big Smoky,” Clarke says with a laugh.

“We’ve got a property that’s all subtropical rainforest, so we live in a rainforest but near the beach.”

He was speaking to InReview while on a solo road trip from New South Wales to Adelaide with a carload of paintings that are now on display alongside works by his friend Louise Vadasz in an Adelaide Fringe exhibition titled Clarke & Vadasz at Fleurieu Arthouse in McLaren Vale.

Little Smoky, Big Smoky, by Greg Clarke.

Clarke, who grew up in Blackwood, explains that he and Vadasz have been friends since they were around 17. They lived in share-houses together in Adelaide and both studied fine art at the South Australian School of Art.

“I did photography and printmaking while I was at art school – I had [leading Australian contemporary artist] Fiona Hall as my lecturer. As soon as I graduated I went to Sydney and wanted to become a famous artist,” Clarke says with a laugh.

“So up until I was about 30 I was a practising artist in Sydney, trying to scratch a living out of it.”

In an effort to forge a sustainable career, Clarke did post-grad studies in art gallery management and in 1990 secured a job managing the Downstairs Theatre at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre. During the 1990s in Sydney he was also known as “Jamie James” ­– producing and performing in the city’s “infamous” Jamie & Vanessa dance parties alongside Vanessa Wagner (AKA Tobin Saunders).

Clarke went on to hold producing and events management roles at the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority before coming back to Adelaide in 2010 to lead the Fringe for five years, during which he was credited with doubling audience attendance and increasing the number of events by 50 per cent. After returning to Sydney, he dovetailed his role at Mardi Gras with the position of artistic director of Junction Arts Festival in Launceston.

I said to myself: I’ll go back to being an artist when I’m an old man

Throughout all this time, he tells InReview, he was still incorporating his visual art into his work – whether it was providing the visuals for the Jamie & Vanessa parties or co-creating the giant Sirens that sang and danced along Rundle Street during the 2015 Fringe parade.

Ten years ago, when he was still at Fringe, he showed his street photography alongside Vadasz’s figurative paintings in an exhibition at the State Library.

“When I was 30 and I decided to give up the art and pursue another career, I said to myself: ‘I’ll go back to being an artist when I’m an old man’… so I got to 58 and I was like, ‘Oh shit, the time has come… I just want to be an artist again’.”

For the past couple of years he has been focused full-time on his visual art practice ­– which encompasses painting, photography and sculpture – living on Big Smoky with Slade, who is also an artist.

After Clarke returned to Adelaide following the death of his mother towards the end of last year, Vadasz mooted the idea of joining forces for an art show in the 2024 Fringe.

Both are said to “share a love of painting colourful landscapes and still life drenched in light”, and their works sit comfortably alongside each other in the gallery at the Fleurieu Arthouse, an arts hub in the grounds of the Hardys Tintara winery.

Louise Vadasz with some of her paintings in the 2024 Fringe exhibition. Photo: supplied

Vadasz – who is still based in South Australia and has been a finalist in numerous art prizes ­– said in the lead-up to the exhibition that she felt “a great sense of artistic freedom” painting her two artistic loves of abstract landscape and still life.

Simply Still, by Greg Clarke.

“I’m switching from each subject with a similar technique of layering the thick oil paint to create a rich surface of intense colour,” she explained.

While Vadasz is known for her abstract landscapes of the Fleurieu Peninsula, Clarke finds inspiration in the landscapes that surround his NSW home. He also collects vases, some of which feature in his still-life paintings.

In a departure from the more abstract, hard-edge paintings Clarke has shown in three solo exhibitions in Sydney in recent years, his latest works are rendered largely in soft blue and green hues with a pared-back aesthetic.

“I paint very simple paintings that are more about line and form in very calming colours,” he says, adding that some of the works were created in collaboration with Slade.

“The paintings are very soft with blurred lines – I love the idea that paintings can make you feel calm.”

With family and friends in Adelaide, Clarke is keen to maintain his connection with his hometown. He has also enjoyed the “adventure” of the road trip, with podcasts keeping him entertained along the way.

“And I just love Fringe – and the great thing about Fringe is that anyone can register a show and be in it.”

Clarke & Vadasz is showing at the Fleurieu Arthouse until March 17 as part of the 2024 Adelaide Fringe program.

Read more 2024 Adelaide Fringe coverage here on InReview.

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