*(Photo: Zachary Bennett-Brook)
From A-listers to Campbelltown Public School, the work of Zachary Bennett-Brook is in demand. Cassidy Pearce spoke to the artist to find out why.
From a young age, Torres Strait Islander artist Zachary Bennett-Brook (Zac) showed an immense passion for creativity.
Now, at the age of 29, he has shipped his art all over the world and created pieces for celebrities such as actor Chris Hemsworth and pro-skateboarder Tony Hawk. But despite being “drawn to art” as a child, he has learnt the hard way how to navigate selling it professionally.
He recalls how his project for the star of Marvel’s Thor and The Avengers movies, almost didn’t happen.
“The surfboard that I did for Chris Hemsworth was through TAG Heuer watches,” he begins.
The brand had contacted him requesting a board with a large snake and handprints, which he politely declined. He then referred them to another artist, who he believed could create the design they wanted.
“At that stage I didn’t know who the project was for. They called me back the following day and said ‘look, we really love your surfboards, we’ll give you full creative freedom as long as it can be red. We love how true and honest you are to your art form and to yourself, you know what a good product will be’. They ended up telling me who it was for and it all worked out”.
Since the beginning of his artistic career, Zac has worked out of his home studio creating canvas pieces and surfboards, as well as on location painting murals and street art through his business Saltwater Dreamtime.
Initially, he says it was difficult financially to work as an independent creative: “Like anything, you have to spend money to make money.”
“As I say to young artists, especially in terms of public art, if you want to go into street art, there are a lot of upfront costs. You can’t just rock up and paint a wall”.
“I [also] learnt the hard way around licensing agreements and contracts, which was probably good for me to learn so early on… now, that’s one big thing that I share with young up-and-coming artists.”
Lee Hampton sells Zac’s art at his Penrith business “Black Door Gallery”, which started as a custom picture framing business in 1987.
“Because I’m also a contemporary Indigenous artist, I wanted to open an Aboriginal art gallery in Penrith,” he says, “because we didn’t really have anything in the area that helped support Aboriginal artists or culture”.
The gallery now supports around 50 other artists from all over Australia. But Lee finds it easy to spot Zac’s unique style: “… when you see his work, you know that it’s his. I’ve been out driving around town with my family and straight away said ‘look, there’s one of Zac’s murals on the side of a building’, because there’s just not anybody else who does the same style that he does”.
Zac Bennet-Brooke’s distinctive art style has been cultivated from a young age. He credits his mother with kicking off his career.
“My mum has always been very passionate about letting my sister and I explore different creative outlets. We were always encouraged to paint or play musical instruments and different things like that. We always had different artworks around the house… and we’d always go to galleries and things like that.
“Year 12 was when it all first started,” Zac says of his art career. “I didn’t necessarily want to be at school. I was working in a surf shop at that stage. I just wanted to surf and do my thing.”
“But my mum – being an educator – knows the importance of education and that for Indigenous people the more education you get, [the more] it adds to your life expectancy”.
Ultimately, Zac made the decision to stay in school, choosing subjects such as music, photography and art.
After struggling to come up with a concept for his art major work, Zac decided to explore his family’s culture and heritage. He created a piece inspired by artworks he had in his house as a child, which led to multiple awards. “It started off as four canvasses and grew to 20-something. They all were interconnected and the artwork just flowed across all of them. Being a young male that was doing it, people were really positively responsive to it.”
His mother then encouraged him to study a teaching degree in Personal Development, Health and Physical Education (PDHPE). Although he’s not currently teaching, that education has served him well throughout his career.
Relieving Assistant Principal at Campbelltown East Public School Natasha Claussen, hired Zac to paint a mural in the school. “We wanted [ours] to be a little bit different to what other schools had,” she explains. “[My co-worker] had sent me a picture of a place down in Wollongong that he had done, and I had been looking him up as well.”
Ms Claussen discussed Zac’s suitability with Indigenous families at the school and after a positive response, he was asked to begin work in October 2019.
Despite students not being able to play a direct role in the painting, Ms Claussen believes Zac’s teaching background helped him openly discuss his work with them, in a way they found relatable. He was more than happy to have us bring kids down from their classes while he was [painting] the mural, and having conversations with the kids about what it meant and why he was doing it.”
“The kids were really engaged.”
Some initial feedback was not so positive. “One parent was a little bit concerned when he’d done the black undercoat, that we were painting the school black and that the buildings would become quite hot,” she laughed. “But once it was [finished], it was really well received by the community”.
(Photo: Supplied, Principal Janene Cook)
(Photo: Supplied, Natasha Claussen)
Zac often works with charities that encourage further education for Indigenous youth. “I work closely with AIME Mentoring… which is all about educating Indigenous youth to gain higher education – generally getting on to Year 12. I work with GO Foundation, which is Adam Goodes’ charity. [It provides] scholarships for Indigenous youth to get them a higher education.”
“I’ve got amazing relationships with these charities. I don’t need to turn around and go, ‘hey guys, look at me, this is what I’m doing, this is how much my artworks just raised,’ because it’s not about me, it’s about the work that they’re doing for their charity and bettering our future generations.”
Lee Hampton describes Zac as very giving as an artist and as a person: “He’s very much about [working] for his community and sharing. He’s never, ever too busy to answer questions for anybody, he’s always the first one to put his hand up, he’s always the first one to donate his time to do things for fundraising.
“If I could have 10 artists like him in my gallery, I would be very happy.”
— Cassidy Pearce @cass_pearce