THIS year promises to be a breakthrough year for Junortoun-based artist Robert Milton, as he helps shine a spotlight in Sydney on the courage of wounded warriors, of which he is one.
Sharon Kemp reports.
Mr Milton’s meticulous work as a military artist led to his appointment as the official artist of the Sydney Invictus Games with the opportunity to have thousands of people look at his sketches.
The art work itself is ahead of him this year, and he will travel to training camps in coming months to sketch war veteran athletes around Australia preparing for the games in late October.
But 2018 promises to be a standout for Mr Milton for more personal reasons.
A veteran himself, with an extraordinary 23-year career including as a Scots Guard, sniper, master sniper and instructor, Mr Milton was in November surgically fitted with a spinal chord stimulator and he will continue his recovery this year.
As he rehabilitates, Mr Milton will complete the refurbishment of a 1927-built tramcar, now parked in his backyard, that once served as a restaurant in Melbourne and Bendigo from the 1980s, before being decommissioned and ending up at Bendigo’s gas works site.
It was there last year that Mr Milton and his wife Alison noticed the tram as they walked around Lake Weeroona.
“It is history and I already had a connection through working in the transport sector,” Mr Milton said.
“I thought it would be an amazing space but it is one of those thoughts you have, followed by, ‘I will never be able to buy it’,” he said.
Mrs Milton also saw the potential and so the family negotiated to buy it, not an easy task but helped by the conviction of Mr Milton’s idea for its use. With the help of local contractor Andy Beggs and despite its very poor condition, the tram has been returned to its original state.
Mr Milton has tested the light and has found it ideal for artwork.
The internal fit out will become Mr Milton’s work space after the tram is finished this year.
Interest in his art has been growing since Mr Milton committed to his new career last year.
Art has the benefit of allowing Mr Milton to work around caring for his school-aged children and attending doctor’s appointments related to his recovery, according to his wife, Alison.
His art style is distinctive for its hyper-detail, and the tools of his art are minimal.
Both are products of the battlefield and his job as a sniper.
Mr Milton occasionally uses oils and watercolours, but is best known for his portraits in pencil, typically of soldiers poised in the field, in active duty.
“I want to capture them doing their work, I want to portray what it is they have been trained to do,” he said.
Mr Milton already had training in art before he enlisted as a Scots Guard in the British Army in 1985, but he didn’t complete the diploma in art studies he started at the Glasgow School of Art.
Instead, within two years of service, he was picked to train as a sniper and after graduating began what were to become 11 tours of duty, including in Northern Ireland and Iraq, almost two decades of active service and another four in two stints instructing at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
It was while Mr Milton was in Northern Ireland that he honed the skill of sketching in detail the target’s surrounds and estimated ranges.
His drawings were taken back to the special forces organisations for whom he worked, and formed the information on which decisions of engagement were made.
“My sketches were their eyes on the ground,” Mr Milton said.
“Detail to me is beyond important, which I have impressed on every sniper I have ever trained because although our primary work is shooting, our secondary work and making up about 80 per cent of it, is intelligence, and every detail counts.”
Important also was the specialisation of his military work which has included operations for MI5, the Special Air Services and Navy Seals, which has become a theme of his work life.
When he was headhunted by the Australian Defence Force to instruct future snipers and supervise their leaders, he and his wife Alison, whom he had met in the British Army, and their two young children, moved to Victoria.
But an accident here that compounded a spinal injury incurred years earlier in Iraq eventually ended his military career and in 2010 Mr Milton started a series of jobs in civilian life including as a forensic photographer and incident investigator with the Department of Transport, Public Transport Victoria and V/Line, and a counter-terrorism adviser to the Victorian government.
When his back injury prevented that work, the Miltons decided to put down roots in Bendigo and concentrate on a career in the art world.
“It is certainly not mainstream, but luckily I have that skill and I have always developed it and because of my injury I have landed in it,” Mr Milton said.
Given his previous work in special operations, his artistic talent and his desire to support fellow war veterans, Mr Milton was commissioned last year to produce artwork for an exhibition at the Western Australian Museum celebrating 50 years of the Special Air Service Regiment.
He has also produced work that has raised money for the care of veterans who as a result of their service are suffering physical and psychological trauma and he is completing a commission from Thales, whose has a defence manufacturing arm in Bendigo is 75 years old this year.
Mr Milton has also been consulted about adding art to the adaptive sports program that aids the rehabilition of veterans.
He said art as rehabilitation had worked for him but Mrs Milton believes her husband still has to learn to live with his body.
Mrs Milton said it took her and a consulting surgeon three months to convince Mr Milton to give up the work he was doing because his body was close to breaking down entirely.
“I am so in awe of Robert and his ability to change from working in sixth gear to another lifestyle,” Mrs Milton said.
“He is doing it for me and our children.”
Mr Milton said his plans for his artwork did not include becoming rich and famous, but he would like to be self sufficient and give back to fellow veterans.
“This is my time to give back, this is important to me, and I have the ability to do that,” he said.
What he has missed from being in the army was the value of the work, and the camaraderie, and this is something he hopes to find again in the art world and, again, among the people with whom he served.