PRO HART: Father of the Australian Outback Art

Pro Hart food and drink painting of Dragonfly on capret - Photo by Stainmaster

The massive output of work by Australian Naïve and Performance artist Kevin ‘Pro’ Hart was not always taken seriously.

He was born in Broken Hill, New South Wales on 30 May 1928. His early life was spent on the family sheep station “Larloona’, near Menindee, where he and his brother Bob were home-schooled by correspondence, overseen by their mother. From age seven, Pro was more prone to illustrating his assignments than writing them.

He received no formal art training, besides lessons by local artist Florence May Harding, where she taught at the Broken Hill Technical College.

Pro’s school career ended at 15 when he took on local menial work. He earned the nickname ‘Pro’ while employed at a cooldrink factory, where he revelled in detonating objects with gelignite. His co-workers labelled him ‘The Professor’, soon abbreviated to its current form.

Pro was also known as an inventor. He took himself seriously in this regard, stating in an interview with Derham Groves in 2003: “No I don’t tinker. I get an idea and I do it. … I started inventing things, building things, when I was a little kid, but I didn’t pull things to bits and tinker around like most people, I was ‘fair dinkum’.” Pro designed three prototype machine guns, at least one of which the armed forces showed an interest in. Pro also regarded his art as an invention with the various techniques he used.

South Mine, Broken Hill – Photo by Australian Art Auction Records

When he was 19, Pro was employed at the North Broken Hill Consolidated Mine. His relief from the stress of long stretches underground was expressed in his painting, which often included references to mining.

By 1958, Pro was earning enough from his art to concentrate on it full-time. Two years later, he married Raylee June Tonkin. They had five children, three boys and two girls; John, Kym, Marie, Julie and David. Pro’s art was not limited to painting; he owned and played the largest electric pipe organ in Australia and was also a sculptor in bronze, ceramics and steel welding. Broader interests included collecting vintage motor cars and motorcycles, pistol shooting and weightlifting. Through the latter, Pro met Arnold Schwarzenegger and Australian professional weightlifter and bodybuilder Paul Graham. Pro established a gym in his own name where he encouraged both men and women to train. It was his established routine to fit in his own training for an hour each day from 5pm for relaxation, and when he refused to be disturbed.

Art collector Hugh ‘Kym’ Bonython, then director of the Adelaide Art Gallery, discovered Pro in 1962 and produced his first solo exhibition at the Bonython Gallery.

Replenishing Water Supply, Captain Cook – Photo by Australian Art Sales Digest

Pro began one of his first series, ‘Eureka Stockade’, in 1963. A work bearing the name, painted in 1967 sold for A$12,000 in November 2003. Replenishing Water Supply, Captain Cook (1968) was part of another series that also began in the early ’60s. This work sold for A$18,500 in August 2008.

Pro was to become well-travelled, but his first trip to London in 1973 was for another solo exhibition at Qantas House. Prince Philip’s private secretary approached Pro to present some of his work at Buckingham Palace; the Prince and the Queen Mother subsequently bought pieces for their own collections.

He began his ‘Hong Kong’ series in 1975 and his piece of that name painted in 1975 sold for A$3,600 in July 2014. Aberdeen, Hong Kong sold for A$4,000 in April 2004 and Hong Kong Harbour sold for A$3,800 in September 2011.

The Adelaide Art Festival in 1976 saw Hart supervising the construction of a massive ice sculpture of a vase containing flowers and champagne bottles. Comprising between eight tons (according to Pro) and twenty tons (according to art dealer Jimmy Elder who organised the event), of ice blocks, the enormous structure was maintained for about two weeks, as it melted back into itself.

In 1976, he was awarded an MBE for his services to art in Australia.

Floral Study on Bible Cover – Photo by Australian Art Sales Digest

Pro was an ardent Christian and would paint covers of Gideon Bibles to give away. He built a custom-made easel on which he could mount 44 Bibles at a time – he painted thousands during his lifetime but stopped in 2006 when he became aware that these were being sold for profit. Each one was inscribed “This painting of Pro Hart’s will fade away … but the word of God is gonna endure forever.”

Art critics were generally uncomplimentary of Pro’s work. His extraordinary methods included ‘cannon’ and ‘balloon’ painting. In a demonstration of the former, he filled a hollow glass ball with paint which he loaded into two 1886 ships’ canons and fired them at a canvas until the paint was depleted. However, after the Broken Hill police confiscated the weapons because they were ‘unregistered firearms’, Pro gave up the idea.

Another of his controversial ideas was to fill lead pellets with paint which he took up in a hot air balloon and dropped these onto a board on the ground. In November 1979, it was reported in the Australian press that Pro was planning to paint Uluru (Ayers Rock). Literally. It turned out to be a publicity stunt for a TV documentary, with Pro being filmed tossing dollops of paint out of an aircraft that was dive-bombing the ground onto aerial photos of the rock.

He was immortalized as a performance artist when in 1988, he was commissioned by a carpet company to appear in a TV commercial to ‘paint’ a huge grasshopper onto a carpet using spaghetti. The trial run with various foodstuffs went down a treat with the client’s St. Bernard, who ate the medium overnight. The publicity from the campaign resulted in ongoing popularity for any of Pro’s art that referenced insects; Grasshopper in the Reeds sold for A$17,800 in May 2006.

Pro Hart Rolls Royce Silver Shadow Australian Outback Painting – Photo by Bentley Spotting

Pro painted on whatever surfaces came to hand, including beer cans, kitchenware, telephone cards, various cars but possibly most famously, a 1973 Silver Shadow Rolls Royce. He painted this in 1999 to reinforce his support of retaining the Monarchy as Head of State when there were political rumblings of Republicanism. Pro painted the history of Australia on the car, including Captain Cook’s landing and the outlaw Ned Kelly; he believed that this made many young people aware of their country’s history and even that it swayed the vote.

Pro’s honorary chauffeur Tony Reade thought the Rolls deserved what he called a ‘complementary costume’ and bought a jacket that he sent to Pro to paint. Pro obliged by painting it with ants and dragonflies and signing and dating it (1999).

Drowning by PRO HART – Photo by Etching House

Hart painted numerous works for his Waltzing Matilda series in the late ’70s. A number of etchings of the series, Waltzing Matilda (Billabong), Waltzing Matilda (Drowning Swagman), Waltzing Matilda (Up Jumped the Swagman) sold for A$600 each and Waltzing Matilda (Jumbuck) sold for A$700 in December 2006. His oil on board Swagman Grabs Sheep at Billabong (1977) and Parties Meet at the Waterhole (1978) fetched A$6,500 and A$8,000 respectively in July 2014.

In 1982, the Society International Artistique awarded Pro an Honorary Life Membership for outstanding artistic achievement; the award is given to one artist per continent.

In 1983, he was given what was known then as the Australia Day Award (now Citizen of the Year).

Study for the Malley Races – Photo by Australian Art Auction Records

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Pro held numerous exhibitions. The Malley Races was exhibited at the Australian High Commission in Hong Kong in 1975, as part of the Australian Bush Series. Pro’s Study for the Malley Races sold for A$11,000 in April 2016.

In 1994, Hart was appointed to The Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem (also known as The Order of St John), for which he was awarded the title of Honorary Life Governor in 1995.

In 2002, Pro began endorsing his work somewhat unusually – with his own DNA. He would have his cheeks swabbed, and the cells sent to a laboratory for processing. The placement area of the DNA on the artwork is undisclosed but a database of these details is maintained, along with the title, size and purchaser’s name. The work can be scanned for later identification. It is also possible for Hart’s DNA to be applied retrospectively to older works. Pro was one of the first artists in the world to use this method of ensuring that buyers were acquiring an authentic work.

Hart would often use his art to make political statements. In 2002, The House of Philips Fine Art in Sydney held an exhibition of Hart’s ‘masks’ series.

The Wedding at the Mulga (1978) – Photo by Find Lots Online | Lot 42

In July 2014, the final auction of Pro’s work was held in Melbourne. The family had released 173 of Hart’s pieces; every item was sold, realising a total of more than A$1.6 million. Aboriginal Land Rights sold for A$12,000 and B.i.c. Men for A$10,500. Menindee Races (1974) sold for A$26,000, The Wedding at the Mulga (1978) for A$22,000 and The Sheep Yards (1995) for A$20,000. These are a minute proportion of the estimated 70,000 works produced by Hart in his lifetime. Despite this, the major art galleries snubbed Pro as an artist. Pro himself said that “The art mafia doesn’t like me.” This didn’t stop his work from being collected internationally, including in the USA, Europe, Middle East and Hong Kong. Locally, his work is featured in collections including at the National Gallery of Australia, The State Gallery in Hobart, Tasmania, The University of New South Wales, The Art Gallery of New South Wales, and the Sydney Opera House.

The Open Steeple Chase, Banjo Patterson – Photo by Australian Art Sales Digest

The highest price realised for a Pro Hart work was for The Banjo Paterson Mural comprising five signed oil on board panels. It raised A$85,000 in May 2003. Other works from Banjo Paterson series sold for respectively, The Auction, in the Droving Days (From Banjo Paterson) (1990) A$4,100 in December 2012, Johnson’s Antidote,(Banjo Paterson Series) A$5,500 in June 2012, and The Open Steeple Chase, Banjo Paterson for A$8,500 in December 2017.

Pro’s eldest son, John, commissioned a book of his father’s life from artist and photographer Gavin Fry. Fry accepted the project, and ‘Pro Hart: Life and Legacy’ was released in time to augment the July 2014 auction.

Pro Hart was unable to paint during the last six months of his life as he had developed motor neuron disease some months earlier. He died at his home in Broken Hill on 28 March 2006. He was ascribed the first state funeral in New South Wales to be held west of the Blue Mountains, which was conducted on 4 April 2006. He is buried in Broken Hill Cemetery.

A sour note of Pro’s legacy was the split in the family between daughter Marie and her mother and siblings. Marie had claimed that other family members had taken millions of dollars out of Australia in the final months of Pro’s life. Despite a case being opened with the fraud squad, no evidence of any wrongdoing was found. The rift has seen the family and Marie no longer on speaking terms.

Judas Flying a Kite by Pro Hart – Photo by Australian Art Auction Records

Son, John, and his other sister, Julie, have overseen the refurbishment of Pro’s studio in Broken Hill, now moved to the Pro Hart Gallery. Pro constructed his studio in the 1970’s adjacent to the family home. Pro himself was a ‘bloke’, preferring to wear his paint-spattered clothes even in public. His studio reflected this mindset but John saw the necessity for a major overhaul. The studio was moved as it stood to the gallery, which also showcases Pro’s beloved organ and painted Rolls Royce, along with some of Pro’s favourite pieces. His Judas Flying a Kite (1962) was shown in his first exhibition but Pro bought it back at auction. It sold for A$22,000 in July 2014.

In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in July 2014, representative of auction house Leonard Joel, Sophie Ullin said of Hart’s work “Pro Hart’s work was significant in that he was the everyman artist. He appeals to such a broad cross-section of people from all walks of life.”

This sums up Pro Hart’s life and work. Generous to a fault, experimental and expressing his opinions in his work, he will live on as one of Australia’s most celebrated artists.