‘Art is a consuming fire’ | Raymond Agius

Ahead of his portrait exhibition ‘Behold the People’ – to be held at the Casino Maltese Ballroom, Valletta – the Maltese-Australian artist Raymond Agius, formerly also an engineer and car designer, speaks to us about his career so far.

Raymond Agius.
Raymond Agius.

When did you decide to become an artist?

Tricky question. In my opinion one does not really decide to become an artist, rather it is like art chooses you as its 'victim'. It is like a need that grows day by day till the urge to create is overpowering no matter how much one pushes it away. Artists have historically answered the call of the muse and I guess I was no different in that respect.

However, I keep coming back to this one particular incident which happened when I was eight years old. I was encouraged to send one of my 'spidery' drawings to a children's show on MTV. A few days later I saw that same drawing pinned in the background behind the show's presenter. That may very well have been my first artistic success and what justified what I believed to be a life calling.

How would you say Malta and Australia are different in terms of the way art is both created and consumed?

Not that much, since creating art is a universally human expression. Having said this, cutting edge trends in art do, however, take more time to emerge and find acceptance in Malta. There are always those in both countries who invest in well-known art. Some are true art connoisseurs, some less so.

There are those who buy art purely for its design value or utility, rather like furniture meant to fit into the desired atmosphere in a room - or even to simply complement the colour of wall. Then there are those who buy art according to its subject matter. Animal lovers and military art collectors would fall into this category. So I suspect similar buying patterns exist in both countries.

With regards to the artists themselves: some create a commercial products for tourist consumption while others are commissioned because of their artistic prowess or unique vision. Some create around a theme for specific shows and sell through websites all over the world.

Obviously, religious works are much more prevalent here whereas aboriginal 'Dreamtime' pieces are coveted in Australia. Also, Australian desert landscapes replace the seascapes so abundant in Malta.

All in all, it is mostly the prices that can be fetched that describe the main difference.

Out of all the professions and practices you've been involved in over the years, what makes painting so special?

One has a special affinity to anything they do, but nothing is as satisfying as the devotional art of creating art. art is a consuming fire.

As an engineer I have created out of necessity (it being the mother of invention); as a car designer I have created to international rules that defined safety and technical innovations within the shape of current fashions. But as an artist I have created from within my soul, taking no one's needs or preferences into consideration and being fulfilled only by what my mind, heart and hand alone decide.

That is when I become not only the artist but also the art. I love that feeling!

Would you say that art is a viable career path? Given your varied work experience, have you ever considered doing art full time?

Is art a viable career path? Perhaps not for everyone, but it has been so for me in a strange way: few decisions as an engineer or designer can be made without sketches, calculations, or detailed analysis through the study of mating bits on paper or computer. We have a saying in the car industry: "The most cost-effective change happens at the drawing board." So my artistic traits and tendencies seem to be informed by the discipline of my technical life, whether in the military or private industry, to good effect, I think.

In a real way, I do art full-time now. Although my interests are divided between travel, research, engineering, graphic design and even naval history, now, since I am technically retired, I pursue my interests through the art I create for others.

The only constraint for me is time and next year, time will become  even more compressed as I am planning and creating a Naval Exhibition of 14 paintings to be on exhibition at the Maritime Museum. The exhibition in Vittoriosa will be based on the Santa Maria Convoy of World War II.

What attracts you to portrait painting? Do your selected subjects themselves kindle an artistic interest in you, or do you select them beforehand?

In portrait painting, one does much more research than they do painting. After all, how can one assume to understand the inner workings of a person from a single sitting or a series of photos and expect to present their facsimile to those who have known them a lifetime? So what attracts me is that very challenge  -the engagement with my subject and the effort in trying to faithfully capture a minute part of someone's life , in a frozen moment in time.Those that have drama or fire or intelligence in their eyes take first billing. Those that hold court over their personality catch my attention. Those who by their actions advanced themselves or others received my admiration.

'Behold the People' will be on display at the Casino Maltese Ballroom, Republic Street, Valletta from September 27 to October 6, forming part of Notte Bianca on October 5.