‘It had to be perfect’: Deafblind artist making meticulously detailed sculptures from Melbourne

ILet Joe Monteleone introduce himself to you, because he has his own way: “My name is Joe. I am deaf-blind,” he signs. “I was born deaf and in my thirties found out I had Usher syndrome, type one. You can Usher Syndrome and what that means. Everyone with Usher has varying degrees of vision. I have tunnel vision during the day, but at night I am completely blind. I can’t see at all.

He stops – it’s the end of a spiel he’s clearly given more than once – and lets out a single hearty laugh. “But I guess you have a way of writing history?” he signs.

I saw for the first time Monteleone art in an Albert Park cafe; seven bold linocuts of South Melbourne landmarks sculpted with plane precision, hung on the walls. They were circular, I learned, because that’s what he can see with his tunnel vision; despite his blindness, they were so painstakingly detailed, each sculpted over 70-80 hours, that I immediately wanted to talk to the artist capable of such meticulous work. I happen to meet Monteleone several times – he loves any chance for a coffee – with his usual interpreter, Marie, and his art therapist, Victoria.

Monteleone, 60, is retired; he left the civil service in 2014 after a 32-year career because his eyesight had become too bad. He’s only been an artist for five years, after signing up for a visual arts certificate for ‘something to do – it was good for my mental health because I was at home not doing much “. He now works 12 hours a day in his humble workshop: a corner of his garage at his home in Lalor.

To relieve eye strain, Monteleone paints his lino pieces black.
To relieve eye strain, Monteleone paints his lino pieces black. Photography: Alana Holmberg/Oculi

He paints his pieces of linoleum black to make it easier to see where he is carving, then perches at an architect’s table. He wears a special pair of goggles with a light attached, which improves his vision a little, and a splint on his wrist, to keep him upright and prevent injury.

Monteleone received a grant from Port Phillip Council to produce the South melbourne works that I had loved so much and I spent about 60 hours making them. He has been working on another commission for seven months: the City of Melbourne awarded him a grant to produce a linocut of an iconic Melbourne landmark. He chose Flinders Street Station because the steps are a regular meeting point for deafblind people, with each other and with their guides.

Measuring 2.4m by 1.8m, it is his largest work ever; he estimates he spent between 30 and 70 hours on each of the 12 squares, or more than 800 hours in total. The station’s famous clock lasted four hours on its own: “I was so careful, but it had to be perfect.

For his work on Flinders Street Station, Monteleone spent between 30 and 70 hours on each of the 12 places.
For his work on Flinders Street Station, Monteleone spent between 30 and 70 hours on each of the 12 places. Photography: Alana Holmberg/Oculi

And it’s. When we meet, he has just finished it: “When I showed Victoria, she had a little tears in her eyes”, he signs. This is the spitting image of reality. Its Flinders Street station will be on display in Federation Square, opposite the real station, in January.

“There will only be three editions sold,” he signs. “I don’t know if the Guardian would like to buy one, but I’m just putting it over there!”

“Joe, you hustler,” Victoria laughed.

During Covid he worked tirelessly on his Flinders Street linocut “as I was isolated at home. It was very tiring – I took breaks, but mostly because I’m very picky and like to do things right.

Joe Monteleone in his home studio in Lalor, Melbourne.
“I never thought it was something I could do”: Joe Monteleone in his home studio in Lalor, Melbourne. Photography: Alana Holmberg/Oculi

Twelve hours of intense concentration on the tiny dot he can see – does he ever feel lonely during such hard work? “No, it helps me relax. At home I can’t do much and I’m frustrated, so it really helps calm me down. I like to work with my hands – I can tell if I’ve made a mistake.

Monteleone was born in Sydney but moved to Melbourne in 1990 with his wife, Maria, who is also deaf. “Don’t think I’m old-fashioned, but it was an arranged marriage because we’re both Italian,” he signs. “My cousin went on vacation to Europe, and on that trip he met my wife’s cousin, who was also on vacation, and they fell in love. They started talking about how they both had deaf cousins, so when they got home they introduced us. We have been married for almost 30 years. They have two children in their twenties who both hear.

When he started his art studies, he realized that he didn’t like painting or drawing: “I don’t feel it, it’s for the eyes. Linocut is more tactile. One of his guides took him to the National Gallery of Victoria, to show him some linocuts by MC Escher. “I just fell in love. I thought it was absolutely amazing. The lighting wasn’t great in the gallery so I used my phone’s torch to take a look. A security guard came and said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I can’t see well because it’s so dark here.’ He said, “You’re not allowed to use lights because that will damage the artwork.” I said, ‘But I can’t see it properly!’ And we got fired!They refunded us, but my guide felt really bad about the situation.

“But the art was beautiful. The following week, I asked my teacher about linocuts. ‘Do you want to try?’, asked my teacher.

Monteleone started small. “I was terrible. It was really hard. But I was reminded that I’m here to study. I just had to master the moves. And over time I started doing bigger tracks and my confidence grew up.

Joe's favorite work is the print with three figures walking down a steep slope (top center).  It is inspired by his experience walking the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea in 2019.
Joe’s favorite work is the print with three figures walking down a steep slope (top center). It is inspired by his experience walking the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea in 2019. Photography: Alana Holmberg/Oculi

One of his earliest linocuts, a watery eye over a river, expresses his feelings about deafblindness. “Not to complain, but you hear,” he told me. “You can drive. You can listen to the radio. You can talk to anyone – you can just meet someone and chat. You can watch TV. You can communicate with strangers. You can apply for anyone what a job and get paid. I can’t do this. I can’t hear the radio, so I’m behind on the news. I can’t drive. I can’t just go and chat with someone. When the people talk to me i tell them i’m deaf and they always try to talk to me sometimes they write on a piece of paper and i can’t see it properly so i face a lot of obstacles it’s quite frustrating.

“English isn’t my first language either, Auslan is. Even though I have guides and tour leaders, it’s still limited – I can have four or five hours with them, and after that , nothing more. Today I had to take the train here by myself. It can be lonely. Sometimes it’s not safe. I can be quite emotional about it.

Has art opened up a new channel of communication for him? “Absolutely. I feel like people relate to it. They marvel at it, they ask me about my deafblindness. They had never thought about my perspective, what I was seeing.

Monteleone has completed four certificates and will soon be graduating in visual arts from Tafe: “I never thought it was something I could do.” Falling in love with art in his fifties, will he do so for the rest of his life? “Sure, yeah,” he signs, then lets out that big laugh again. “What else am I going to do?”

He tells me about a dream he had recently: he’s at his exhibit in Federation Square, and someone walks up to him. They adore his Flinders Street Station artwork, so much so that they invite him to France to teach others how to make linocuts. “And then I woke up. I would really like to learn professionally and really develop my skills. It’s a dream, it’s my wish.

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