Rex Backhaus-Smith tells stories about the outback through paintings within paintings that reflect his love of the landscape.

Story By Jane Milburn

As a child in the bush, Rex Backhaus-Smith was fascinated by the personality and curiosity of emus. A favourite pastime was calling up these birds from a distance by lying low with his cousins and jiggling their hats on poles, tempting the inquisitive emus to come within metres then jumping up and chasing them away.
“Emus recur from one landscape series to the next,” Rex says. “I love the shape of them and their personalities. They have strange, supercilious and arrogant looks and a fluid motion that provides endless perspective. They have a shape and form that can be endlessly manipulated.”
His love of native wildlife and inland Australia are central to the comprehensive body of work created since Rex took the leap into full-time painting more than 35 years ago.
The catalyst for turning professional was a grand tour of Europe in 1972 where he visited the Tate Gallery in England and went on to France, Spain and the United States. This was the first of many overseas trips, which each time affirmed his love for the essence of the Australian outback.
“When I come home, I am more into Australia than ever,” Rex says. “We have a strong art base with wonderful artists and portrait painters, and I think it is because Australia is isolated that we have developed a unique art that has a vibrant freshness. It may be a little brash at times but that’s part of the Australian make up.”
In their relaxed, colourful home nestled in the bush near Montville in south-east Queensland, Rex and fellow artist and partner of 20 years, Judith Laws, have his and hers studios, and a peaceful, creative warmth. They are drawn to art, painting and travelling to ancient civilisations and the great galleries of the world in places such as Russia, France, Greece and Spain.
Every alternate year Rex and Judith, sometimes with other couples, take a trek to the outback in search of fresh inspiration from the sights, colours, light, beauty and shapes they find in the Australian bush. A trek to Lake Mungo in south-western New South Wales provided the source material for Rex’s entry in the Wynne Prize, Eroded Heritage, which captures the historical elements and characters of what is now a national park. This year the safari will be to the Kimberley in Western Australia and on to the Pilbara – one of the few landscapes Rex and Judith have not previously visited.

This story excerpt is from Issue #81

Outback Magazine: Feb/Mar 2012