Artist Peter Drew on list-making, creative transformation and criticism

Words by Madeleine Dore
&
Art by Amelia Goss with photography by  Jessica Clark


“I think there's an element or desire for transformation within most of us, all the time. Part of the reason anyone takes on a project is for the wonder..."
– Peter Drew

When artists commit themselves to incredible projects spanning vast distances and amounts of time, it’s often difficult for us to imagine what their day-to-day routines must look like.

 For Adelaide artist Peter Drew – creator of national poster campaigns including the infamous ‘Real Australians Say Welcome’ and ‘REAL AUSSIE’ projects – such grand ambitions and gigantic projects are realised through the humble to do list.  

Whether travelling across Australia for months to plaster thousands of posters, or back in his studio in Adelaide, each day begins with a list. 

“Every single day I write a list before I go to bed of what I want to do the next day. I have lots of lists – a list of the main tasks for that week and an overflow list for the following.”

Depending on where you fall on the to-do-list-devotee spectrum, this daily ritual may delight or cause a tightening of the chest. For Drew, it’s a mixture of both depending on the day.

“If I'm having a good day, I'm actually getting things done on the list. If too many other things are coming in and messing it up, then it just leads to an overall feeling of disappointment and stress.”

List-anxiety is a familiar feeling for many. However, despite the disappointment that can linger when you don’t quite accomplish what you set out to do, Drew suggests it’s better to endure the stress than write no list at all.

“I have this theory that when it comes to work load, you really don't know how much you can do until you try. I will just overload myself and then try to manage.”

If I’m having a good day, I’m actually getting things done on the list. If too many other things are coming in and messing it up, then it just leads to an overall feeling of disappointment and stress.

When hanging posters in various Australian cities, Drew sets himself a daily aim of hanging 50 posters.

“I don't know whether I will be able to do 50 a day, but if I try, some days I will. The days that I don't it, doesn't particularly matter too much.”

Drew’s enthusiasm for taking on an ambitious workload extends to the remaining months of the year, which he spends in Adelaide creating new work and making videos for clients.

“If there's something enticing about a client job, I will just say yes before I've even thought about how I can practically fit it in. Unless it looks completely impossible, I'll figure out a way to do it.”

This approach rings true for so many aspects of creation – how do we really know what we are capable of until we try?

A list is often more than a simple mark on a page – it can encapsulate purpose, growth, and a simultaneous breaking down of steps and moving towards a goal.

For Drew, enticement for an idea or project stems from the possibility of creative and personal transformation.

“I think there's an element or desire for transformation within most of us, all the time. Part of the reason anyone takes on a project is for the wonder – ‘I wonder if I can do that?’, that's the first question and then ‘I wonder who I'll become if I do that?”’

When the political commentary and message is stripped away from his art, what’s drives his creativity is this very sense of wonder, explains Drew.  

While we may be attracted to wondering who we will become when we embark on a project, we also have to be open to the unknown. 

“That's the funny thing about that transformation, you don't really notice it. It’s only when you look back and ask, ‘who was I?’ I don’t know, I feel a lot happier I think than I did a few years ago, just because I feel like I have more purpose.”

When we begin moving towards something with purpose or begin transforming ourselves and the minds of others – and stating a message as clearly as that of Drew’s posters – we also invite criticism. Luckily, according to Drew, this can also be harnessed in the creative process.

“I pay attention to what other people think a lot, it’s often more useful in a way than praise. While it's very nice to be able to enjoy what you do, that comment that really cuts to where you're vulnerable is always going to grab your attention more,” he says.  

“But I think there's a discipline in just cutting it off as well. It's just a very important tool to have. I basically just use it [criticism] to sharpen my own tools.”

Having trusted relationships is one of the best ways to sharpen your tools and help you to recognise what criticism to take on board, and what to disregard. Without criticism or challenge, it can be difficult to identify when we’re really onto something with an idea or project.

I pay attention to what other people think a lot, it’s often more useful in a way than praise. While it’s very nice to be able to enjoy what you do, that comment that really cuts to where you’re vulnerable is always going to grab your attention more.

“If it weren't for the honest and intuitive reactions I got from trusted friends, I might not have shot as strongly as I did,” explains Drew.

Having other people to consult can also help quiet the inner critic. “The most scrutiny of my ideas comes from myself, and just trying to think about it in every different angle.”

That’s why getting something outside of our own head and down on paper can be so powerful – it is often the beginning of accountability.

 The act of writing something down makes our ideas tangible. An idea becomes more than just a fleeting thought – it transforms into a commitment and forms a roadmap. 

Something may begin as a bullet point on a list, but it can build something bigger both for ourselves and the people around us – in Drew’s case, people around the country.  

The lesson? Make the list. 

Read Peter Drew's daily routine

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