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Six years ago today the body and spirit of David Ernest Tolley parted ways. “Ernest by name e(a)rnest by nature”, was how he/we joked of this name popular from the turn of the 19th century. I preferred to think of the two words contained within the one; ear – nest !

I am motivated to write of David because of the extraordinary capacity he had cultivated (but also found a way to access, applying a certain kind of effort) in connecting to creative flow and thus, in my mind, wisdom.

Some background around our relation and my perceptions of him are worth telling.

The extraordinary Preston Institute of Technology (perhaps a Melbourne version of Black Mountain College or the Bauhaus, etc.) was where I first encountered David teaching Sound, Drawing studies and other subjects. He contributed significantly to the design of a course that would educate aspiring artists, exposing them to an array of disciplines and creative approaches without necessity of specialisation. I ‘attended’ (and I use that term loosely) from 1973-75. ‘Sound’ was the subject where I got to know this somewhat daunting figure, a powerful presence in every respect, to a degree intimidating, but then I was intimidated by a lot in those days. Over those years and beyond I perceived him as deeply passionate and uncompromising, devoted to pushing the boundaries, primal scream therapy, a strong man who wrangled the double bass pushing it into partnership with severe electronics (an early adopter and pioneer of electronic music and instruments, which he had built for him), a passionate mark maker of sensuously living lines, organic sculptural forms that oozed sexuality, he turned his hand to whatever form suited his drives at the time.

At the end of 1993 just before traveling to Europe I contacted him out of the blue, after 20 years. He remembered me and we agreed to connect again when and if I returned, which I did at the end of 1994.

My inner world was in turmoil and I was struggling with my creative life. David had emerged from a decade long, dark period of his own turmoil and retreat from the world and had been beginning to resuscitate his music and creativity. He and his partner Dur-é Dara, whom I had not met before, took me ‘under their wing’. I began to work closely with David encountering much pain through confrontations with and realisations of my actual condition.

This relation became a commitment and our work, gradually evolved, facilitating my growth and healing, whilst forming a strong creative partnership, embodied in the trio THAT, one vehicle for David’s creative projects (along with THIS, The Other, League of Stringmongers, ReMove, and so on). THAT Performance Project was a broad concept that allowed all kinds of creative and social shenanigans and modally-diverse expression. D&D allowed for almost any kind of contribution or behaviour from me, because of love, permission and trust, which they bestowed upon each other and others prepared to engage in such sharing. Responsibility was part of this equation, everything has consequences, but there was no moral imposition or judgment automatically placed upon me. The freedom to be, to explore what it means to be, was an extraordinary gift to share.

David was undeniably a creative maverick. He, to me, always seemed to position himself and his work in such a distinctive, particular way in relation to its context, in whichever discipline that work manifested. However, he suffered a degree of ridicule and ignorance both from the outside associated bodies of arts practices and the inside peers.

David and Dur-é created a safe haven that physically, psychologically, emotionally and creatively sustained a large number of artists over a long period of time.

They were the John and Sunday Reed of sorts, in a music-performance sense, in Melbourne between from the 1970’s until the early 2000’s. Many who shared their vibrant and generous living spaces and permissive, invitational creative spaces would appreciate what they were participating in, but many would miss the magnitude of commitment required to foster such opportunities.

David moved effortlessly between modes of working creatively. Our conversations always laced with deep mirth, hilarity and self-mocking, would find ways to discuss one discipline through the ‘language’ of another. But no words were ever enough to articulate the experiences and the perceptions of the particular medium we worked within. The material of the discipline was the means through which stories were created, where “knowledge” resided.

My father, a visual artist, had the capacity to connect to a creative flow seemingly at will.

I was aware of the inordinate amount of labour he committed to the development of skills and perception, but that alone did not allow him this capacity. It was a configuration of, an ongoing feedback between acquired skill, this propensity for work and a developed intuitive faculty, coming together for the purpose of realisation of something. I trusted, despite my ego, that if I fed a question into this brew of ingredients that by and large something of deep meaning would be returned, even if unpalatable to me.

David was of this ilk.

But my relation with him, that of mentor, best friend, joker, creative ally, upstart soul brother and more, allowed me to intertwine with this capacity of his in a more active way.

In working side by side, I felt the manner in which contexts and scenarios were negotiated, experienced just how he moved from this to that and indeed what constituted this and that for him.

“It” was a certain quality of flowing creative movement, that seemed effortless because he was surrendering to “it” first, rather than making “it”.

I remember a conversation where I questioned him on his capacity in this regard and he attributed a drawing instructor from his art school experience at East Sydney Tech (whose name escapes me now) as being crucial to alerting him and guiding him with this notion of which I am talking around.

“It” grew with awareness, supportive decision making and constant application, whenever possible. So “it” did not magically appear out of nowhere but rather found the right conditions to flourish within David Tolley.

I could always trust David’s perspective and actions as being creatively optimised and potent and that the manner of implementation of any concept would always be subservient to how a performance, a sounding, a painting might unfold. His attunement, connective sense, intuitive wisdom was his hallmark for me, even in his debilitated frailty towards the end of his life, his manipulations of commercial music software programs were astounding in their organic-ness and sense of responsiveness from such user-friendly but (I would think) stiffly limited algorithms.

He knew how to invite the invisible force.

He was a rare artist and human and is irreplaceable for me. I miss him dearly, still.


* I was recently alerted to this little gem; a 1979 interview of Tolley and Dara by the ABC.

Worth a gander. Thanks to Tim Browning.

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