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Art Connects Us! Portrait of the Artist

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Teacher and artist – or is it artist and teacher? – Fiona Kennedy Altoft embarks on a new adventure with a decidedly DB perspective to guide her. Elizabeth Kerr reports

PHOTOS BY Baljit Gidwani – www.evoqueportraits.com

When Discovery College Head of Visual Arts, art teacher and artist Fiona Kennedy Altoft parks herself in front of her computer for yet another video chat, she’s the first to admit she’s of two minds about the phenomenon that has quickly jumped from the realm of sci-fi to daily life. She’ll cop to the fact that for the bulk of the past two years, her laundry has been heavy on shirts. Really, who’s needed fresh trousers every day?

Fiona is what you might expect of a working artist. Her blonde hair is offset by bright teal glasses and she’s sitting in her studio with canvases scattered in the background. A laptop tour reveals more of them, some being packed up for the move back to Australia this coming summer. The conversation jumps around, from creating art in the digital age and what exactly NFT art is (the jury’s still out on full comprehension of that one), to how quickly we’ve all adapted to life online.

“You get into habits fast,” Fiona says with a chuckle. “I was always saying I didn’t want to go online but then I found that teaching remotely has its advantages. I would look at the clock and say, ‘Oh, I’ve got a 40-minute gap, I’ll just have a lie down.’ You can’t do that at school.”

Fiona is a small-town girl, so to speak, and it shows in her gregarious nature and genuine affection for a good jabber. After growing up in Roma, a little town of just under 7,000, she went to secondary school in Toowoomba and then university roughly 500 kilometres away in Brisbane to study art at Queensland University of Technology. The BA in visual arts was followed by a degree in education, because Fiona was convinced teaching was in her future somehow.

She was right. She got married to Grant Altoft, also a teacher (also at DC in the Individuals & Societies department) and moved to Gold Coast at 24, where she taught and headed up a few art departments, most prominently at Marymount College Burleigh. “I got lucky with work and wound up as head of several departments at a few schools. [Marymount] was good to teachers. I wanted time to do my art and asked for a year off and they gave it to me,” she recalls.

That year off, 2007, was partially successful: Fiona achieved quite a bit but didn’t like it as much as she thought she would. “Art is lonely work, schools are very social,” she says with a laugh. “At home trying to paint by myself all day was isolating. After a few months I was ready to talk to someone, ready to be back in the classroom.”

Needless to say, Fiona bristles at the notion of “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”

“You hear that kind of snobbery all the time,” she scoffs. “‘Oh, you’re not an artist, you’re an art teacher.’ It’s why I make my teachers exhibit. The students love it. I think some don’t even realise it’s possible to be a working artist-teacher. I find it exhilarating that they trust me, and that I have certain skills.” That belief slots nicely beside supporting students in their decisions, providing a safe space (her art room) for them to resolve issues and assuring them, at 12 years-old, that there’s plenty of time to blossom into the next Dalí.


Fiona was 40, when she decided to ditch Gold Coast for DB, proving you’re never too old to switch lanes. After winning Queensland’s Alan Drury Excellence in Teaching Award, she and Grant – now with children Isabella and Harper, 10 and eight at the time – decided a change of pace was in order.

“At that stage it was do something drastic or we’ll retire here,” says Fiona. “Gold Coast was great: good school, nice students, great staff; it’s got a beach. There’s no reason to leave other than boredom. I took time off here and there to have kids, to travel, to work on my art. There was 17 years of that.”
The Drury prize meant the family could afford to test the waters without fear of not being able to feed the kids. “That was it. We both wanted to teach overseas so we thought let’s do it.” Plans were helped along by an invitation to be artist in residence and teacher at DC, so nine years ago the Altofts made the move to Discovery Bay, where everyone found a liveable balance between small town and big city.

Aside from the obvious appeal of jettisoning a sometimes 90-minute commute to work – “We got here and we were so excited to be able to walk to work” – DB ticked boxes for the Altofts from the get-go. “The kids were little and the community was a blessing,” Fiona says. “You soon know everyone in the plaza, and everyone in the pub. It’s very small town, and some people like that. Some don’t. We love it.”

Over the years, Fiona has carved out an artistic legacy that has seen her work land in collections in Hong Kong, the UK, Canada, Italy, Thailand and at home in Australia. She’s won awards and exhibited around the world. And her painting, largely acrylics, took a turn after the culture shock she claims she experienced upon arrival in Hong Kong. (When asked about her childhood, she says simply, “I grew up very white.”)

Surrounded by people from 80 different nationalities on any given day and what everyone in Hong Kong knows as ‘third-culture kids,’ Fiona found herself exploring issues of race, sexuality and gender through her art. Similarly, she found herself drawn to contemporary artists that explore the same themes: Deborah Roberts, Jordan Casteel, Ben Quilty.
Fiona’s portraits, vibrantly coloured collages with bold brush strokes, mix and match her subjects to create new identities and so reinforce the fundamental universality of humanity.

Like many artists in the 21st century, Fiona is leaning into the digital domain; check out her website, www.fionakennedyaltoft.com, or find her on Instagram. “Things like Instagram make for a whole new world, and it’s much smaller… There’s always going to be the hold-outs but in the last few years, art has become more about sharing and support,” she says, pointing to personal favourite Deborah Roberts, and how she’s exploited platforms like Instagram to be generous with her time and wisdom, as well as cut out the elite gallery element that demands large chunks of a n artist’s income.

All that being said, you can catch Fiona’s work in person this month. Though a spot at the Affordable Art Fair evaporated when the event wound up with less space than it needed, Fiona is showing at Hong Kong Arts Collective’s Square Prints Gen Two, launching May 7 at Musubi Hiro in Central (some sale proceeds are going to Impact Hong Kong).

Come summer, the Altofts are heading back to Roma to decompress and think about their next move, possibly to Europe. “We travelled like maniacs when we got here, and in Europe you can hop on a flight for £20 and be in Amsterdam for the weekend just like that. You don’t get anywhere for that in Australia, and it’s so far from everything.” But art isn’t going anywhere, and Fiona is going to continue exploring the ideas she woke up to in Hong Kong.

“I remember my sister taking her husband from El Salvador back to the tiny town we lived in and not getting the support she thought she would,” finishes Fiona when asked about the story she’d like her art to tell. “Things are very fluid right now, so I’d like to send a message of acceptance.”

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