I‘ll let Joe Monteleone introduce himself to you, because he has his way: “My name is Joe. I’m deafblind,” he signs. “I was born deaf, and in my 30s I found out I had Usher syndrome, type one. You can google Usher syndrome and what that means. Everyone who has Usher has varying degrees of vision. I have tunnel vision during the day, but at night-time I’m fully blind. I can’t see at all.”
He stops – this is the end of a spiel he has clearly given more than once – and lets out a single, hearty laugh. “But I guess you’ve got a way you’ll want to write the story?” he signs.
I first saw Monteleone’s art in a cafe in Albert Park; seven bold linocuts of South Melbourne landmarks carved with blueprint precision, hanging on the walls. They were circular, I learned, because this is what he can see with his tunnel vision; Despite his blindness, they were so meticulously detailed, each carved over 70 to 80 hours, that I immediately wanted to speak to the artist capable of such careful work. It comes to be that I get to meet Monteleone several times – he loves any chance for a coffee – along with his regular interpreter, Marie, and his art therapist, Victoria.
Monteleone, 60, is retired; he left the public service in 2014 after a 32-year career, because his sight got too bad. He’s been an artist for only five years, having enrolled in a certificate of visual art 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 studio: a corner of his garage at his home in Lalor.
He paints his lino pieces black so he can see where he is carving more easily, then perches at an architect’s table. He wears a special pair of glasses with a light attached, which improves his vision a little, and a brace on his wrist, to keep it straight and prevent injury.
Monteleone received a grant from Port Phillip council to produce the South Melbourne works I had loved so much, and spent about 60 hours making each one. He has been working on another commission for the last seven months: the City of Melbourne gave 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 their guides.
At 2.4m by 1.8m, it is his biggest ever work; he estimates he spent between 30 to 70 hours on each of the 12 squares, more than 800 hours in total. The station’s famous clock took four hours alone: “I was so careful, but it had to be perfect.”
And it is. When we meet, he has just finished it: “When I showed Victoria, she was a bit teary,” he signs. It is the spitting image of the real thing. His Flinders Street Station will go on display in Federation Square, opposite the real station, in January.
“There are only going to be three editions sold,” he signs. “I’m not sure if the Guardian would like to purchase one, but I am just putting it out there!”
“Joe, you hustler,” Victoria laughs.
During Covid, he worked relentlessly on his Flinders Street linocut “as I’ve been isolated at home. It was very tiring – I did take breaks, but mainly because I am so fussy and I like to get things right.”
Twelve hours of intense focus on the small point he can see – does he ever get lonely during such consuming work? “No, it helps me relax. At home, there’s not much I can do and I get frustrated, so this really helps calm me down. I enjoy working with my hands – I am able to feel 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 a holiday to Europe, and on that trip he met my wife’s cousin, who was also on holiday, and they fell in love. They got to talking about how they both had deaf cousins, so when they got home they introduced us. We’ve been married for nearly 30 years.” They have two children in their twenties who are both hearing.
When he first began studying art, he found he didn’t love painting and drawing: “I can’t feel it, it is for the eyes. Linocutting 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 torch to have a look. A security guard came up and said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I can’t see properly because it’s so dark in here.’ He said, ‘You’re not allowed to use lights because it’s going to damage the artwork.’ I said, ‘But I can’t see it properly!’ And we got kicked out! They gave us a refund, 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 it?,’ my teacher asked.”
Monteleone started small. “I was terrible. It was really hard. But I was reminded, I’m there to study. I just had to master the movements. And over time, I started making bigger pieces and my confidence grew.”
One of his first linocuts, a tearful eye over a river, is an expression of his feelings about being deafblind. “Not to complain, but you are hearing,” he says to me. “You can drive. You can listen to the radio. You can talk to anybody – you can just meet someone and have a chat. You can watch TV. You can communicate with strangers. You can apply for any job and get paid. I can’t do that. I can’t hear the radio, so I’m behind on the news. I can’t drive. I can’t just go and have a chat with someone. When people talk to me, I tell them I’m deaf and they still try to talk to me. Sometimes they write on a piece of paper and I can’t see it properly. So I do face a lot of barriers. It’s quite frustrating.”
“English is also not my first language, Auslan is. Even though I have guides and support workers, it’s still limited – I might have four or five hours with them, and then after that, nothing. Today I had to catch 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 line of communication for him? Definitely. I feel people relate to it. They’re amazed by it, they ask me about my deafblindness. They had never thought of what my perspective was, what I was seeing.”
Monteleone has completed four certificates and will graduate from Tafe with a diploma in visual art soon: “I never thought that this was something that I could do.” Having fallen in love with art in his 50s, will he do it for the rest of his life? “Of course, yeah,” he signs, then lets out that great laugh again. “What else am I going to do?”
He tells me about a dream he had recently: he’s at his exhibition at Federation Square, and someone approaches him. They love his Flinders Street Station artwork, so much that they invite him to France to teach others how to make linocuts. “And then I woke up. I would really love to learn professionally and really develop my skills. It’s a dream, it’s my wish.”