All photos courtesy of Allan Wolf-Tasker
“Oh shame on you! It’s the centre of the universe! How can you avoid the centre of the universe?”
Don’t ever tell Allan Wolf-Tasker that you’re yet to visit Daylesford, the (apparently) unmissable town 115 kilometres north-west of Melbourne, and muse for the artist I’ve caught with his hands busy. Painting, perchance?
“No, would you believe it, I’m doing a building renovation,” he enthuses. “It’s just as creative!” A Moroccan-inspired pavilion, it turns out, will be the latest addition to Lake House – the multi-award winning restaurant and retreat that he and wife Alla conjured from a blackberry-infested mine site 30 years ago.
It was all part of their marital bargain. “I built her a restaurant on the edge of a lake in Daylesford so she could pursue her passions,” he says of Alla, the chef and entrepreneur who pioneered the ‘produce to platter’ trend in the region. “The deal was that down the road, I would get to pursue mine – get back into my art.”
A lover (and painter) of life’s good things, this deal far from sullied Allan’s artistic career, offering a wealth of inspiration. His latest body of work, ‘Landscapes of Daylesford’, flanks Lake House’s walls, evoking Allan’s own vibrant perception of its surroundings. “The Australian landscape is so drab,” he protests. “If you look within, all those colours exist, but you’ll find them in relatively small quantities. What I do is take those colours and expand the whole palette.” He drops the uninspiring greens and khakis, injecting a cacophony of cadmium yellow, cobalt blue and sumptuous mauves and pinks into the scene.
Even without his glorious enhancements, the terrain is a damn sight prettier than when Allan first tackled it. “Back in the early ’80s there was an amazing drought. The whole country just got fried.” His earliest exhibitions explored the devastation, and saw Allan develop a somewhat “masochistic” technique. “I took a piece of string, attached it to the end of a paintbrush handle and I used it as a whip,” he says, recalling with delight dragging the string through buckets of paint and lashing it onto the canvas. “I did it in such a manner that it made something attractive out of the drought.”
The man is eternally optimistic, a trait instilled early by his parents who arrived from England in 1945 with nothing more than their suitcases. “I was nearly a boat person,” laughs Allan, who grew up on the coast of Port Phillip Bay in Victoria. Determined to build a better life, Allan’s father (a former WWII bomber pilot) undertook the renovation of their home. “He demonstrated to me that you could do anything. You can achieve anything if you really want to. Because the poor buggers had nothing!”
Allan was 12 when he sold his first painting and followed his tertiary studies with an arts degree and more than 20 years of teaching. The education system introduced him to a certain Alla Wolf. “We got together – a couple of passionate people – and she said, ‘What I really want in life is to have a restaurant that’s a destination in its own right.’” His answer? “Well, we can do that.”
Allan was still heading a school as they built and ran the restaurant, and on adding accommodation to Lake House, became hotelier while showing a host of solo exhibitions and raising a daughter. “Life was busy, busy, busy… but gee it was interesting!” Allan’s ‘Hospitality Series’ documents the parties and palaver of their bustling business, starting with his overnight sensation – a rapidly-painted depiction of Alla (asleep, surrounded by kitchen clutter), titled ‘Rousseau’s Sleeping Chef’.
Despite the exhaustion, Allan assures me the hospitality industry is hugely rewarding. “You’ve got constant feedback from guests, and of course, they buy paintings. The advantage for me was I was there to talk to these customers.” His studio is right on site, with guests often wandering across from the dining room for a gander and chat. “You’re a bit of a dill if you don’t welcome potential customers, and if you chose to make a living out of something like art, you better produce what the customer wants.”
Is that why your paintings are so… “Optimistic, that’s the word,” he says, before expressing his disdain for German Expressionism. “It depresses you. I hate being confronted with work where you have to wonder too hard about what it’s all about.” His favourite works are those sprung from the soul “where there’s not too much calculating going on, and it’s more guts and gumption”.
He paints at night – “I’ll uncork a nice bottle of wine and get in there, turn the music up and just go hell for leather” – working on several pieces at a time to avoid ‘painter’s block’. “If things are going bad, you simply go and do something else,” he says, uttering his mantra for both painting and life. “You can’t allow yourself to be pushed into a hole. I will walk away from bad discussions, I will walk away from bad paintings, I’ll walk away from a bit of bad building and I’ll come back when my head is ready to deal with it.”
And in life’s challenges, he only sees opportunity. “The restaurant was just the biggest bit of sculpture you’ve ever seen – it was a bit of a Renaissance thing. Leonardo da Vinci, Bruno Leski, Michelangelo – they’re all painters and sculptors, but they all built buildings, and really, I’m not that different,” he laughs. “I’ve just done it in reverse order.”