Australian Biography: Rosalie Gascoigne
Rosalie Gascoigne's (1917–1999) hauntingly evocative visual depictions of the Australian landscape propelled her into the spotlight of international fame.
Yet until she was well into her fifties she was completely unknown as an artist.
This interview touches on her reaction to the heady acclaim that greeted her work when it finally came to the art world's attention.
Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Can I take you right back mentally, to your childhood in New Zealand, and we have a very small child. What do you remember seeing around you?
Michaelmas Daisies. Michaelmas Daisies, flowers. I remember - and a see-saw with my older sister. That's about what I remember most I think.
And what was the setting of the house you grew up in? Where was it?
It was in Auckland, and it had a garden. It had what we called a puka tree, with big leaves. And we had a see-saw out the back. And I remember going up and up through the Michaelmas Daisies, about two feet I suppose. That's about it.
Looking back from this point in your life, do you think that you actually probably were seeing things intensely then too? Do you have strong visual memories?
Oh, I think so. I really think I did. Natural things I think I saw. Flowers.
Well I was the middle of three. And I had a busy mother. She had three children in four years or something, something like that. Five years, perhaps. And I think I had a lot of nature. I think I did. Being the middle one is a bit - I had a younger brother, and an older sister who was very much cleverer than I was. You know, she was a scholastic person. And I was the one in the middle.
Was being a scholastic person valued in the household?
Oh, yes it was. Very much so.
Oh, they liked brains in my family. You know, they really did. And I had a very clever grandfather. And I think this was going full circle, you know, and here was another one coming along.
What about your mother? What was her background?
Well, she was the daughter of a clever man. And she was scholastic, too. She ended up being a secondary school teacher. And I was sort of amiable and easy to manage, you know.
And your older sister, what was she like?
Well, she was much more a heavyweight than I was, if you see what I mean. And she was trusted at an early age to do things. Like go to the grocer across the road where you weren't allowed to cross and things like that. And at four she used to say to the man, "I'm not allowed to cross that road. Will you go over to the other shop and get me some something?" And he did. She was very authoritative my sister, even at four or five.
Yes, she was. Yes.
So you had a sense when you were a child that your sister was really the one in charge?
Oh, indeed, indeed, indeed I did. I was a bit silly, you see. I suppose I was more like my father, who had Irish blood in him. And they were - both of them, my brother and my sister - were both more Scottish, British, I think.
And that was valued more by your mother?
Well no, I don't know that it was valued more. But, but, there was no doubt about the scholastic prowess of my sister. She was old for her age, and she was good at it, and she was responsible. And she wasn't sensitive like I was, or all of those things.
Looking back now, with your mature eyes - you know, you've raised children yourself now, and had an opportunity to look at children. Looking at you with your own eyes, rather than say your mother's eyes, what would you describe in that child that you were at that time?
Goodness, that's a very hard question. I suppose I think I was the easy one. I went to sleep and I ate the right food and I did all these things, and my sister hadn't particularly done that when she was the eldest. And I always thought that I'd get on all right. I mean you didn't have to take me too seriously, I think. I would think that probably.
Goodness. I don't know whether I was terribly happy. We had a broken home at about, when I was about five, I think. And this was uneasy, because we lived in a household of a lot of women. My brother was the only male. And my grandmother and an aunt. And people had high standards for you. You had good table manners and you spoke correctly, and you - and you were seen and not heard a lot, because people didn't have time for you, you see, really. And probably it was different for me than it was from the other two, you see. So I think I was the odd man out anyway.
How was that, when you say you were the odd person out?
I was different.
And yet you were a compliant child. You did what was expected of you.
Well no, I found things to amuse me. I used to find - I remember saying once that nobody would talk to me, because they all read books and things all the time. And I remember my mother saying, it's a pity your grandfather isn't alive. He would have talked to you. And they'd put their head back in their books, you see. So you were always on your own a little bit. My sister - I was good at games and my sister didn't want to play hopscotch after school and that sort of thing, you know. And so you were on your own, a lot.
What about friends, other children?
Oh, yes, I had friends. I was the most gregarious one of the three. I think it was the Scotchness in them or something.
So what did you do with yourself when you were left to your own devices, and there was no one to play with? What did you do?
I looked at flowers and leaves. And I showed off to impress my elder sister mightily. Because I could do everything physical better than she could. And I don't think it was very interesting. And I was always surprised when I went to other people's houses, that you got on very well with the adults, where adults were a different world as far as we were concerned, as children. And, my father being absent, I got on well with the men of the family. And I was always rather surprised that they seemed to like me. I didn't know why they liked me but they seemed to.
What happened when you went to school? Did you find yourself compared with your clever older sister?
I suppose I was. And I went to kindergarten, the local kindergarten, very early, like four. And then I went to primary school, which was a horrible shock, when I was seven, you see. And of course I hadn't learnt the things that the other children had learnt. And my sister, of course, swam through it, being frightfully, frightfully clever.
And you found it a bit difficult?
Well I found it difficult knowing the things that they knew, like writing with a pen instead of a pencil, and all that sort of stuff. Because I'd never learnt it.
But you learned quickly, didn't you?
Oh, I suppose I did. I remember looking at a child's - when I was seven, I was in Standard 1, which was the local age when you were in Standard 1. And the teacher said 'Write a composition about an apple.' I thought, what? what? Because I don't know what a composition is. And so I looked at hers, and she said 'An apple is round, an apple is red.' So I thought, oh that's all right. So I could write that. And then she put her hand over hers, because she could see I was watching. And then I remember I wrote on it 'Some apples are brown, and they are called Russet apples.' I remember writing that, because we had Russet apples growing in the garden. And I thought hers was frightfully boring anyway. And so you sort of lived on your wits. I think I'd spent a lot of time living on my wits. And nobody explained to me the ordinary things of life. I didn't really know - my sister knew everything. I didn't know them, you know. But it was...
What did you find you were good at, at school?
What was I good at? I was good at English. And I was - well this is primary school, I suppose - I had enough wits to live on them at primary school. I was terrified of authority. And I was good at games. That's about it.
What happened in the family to make your parents split up? What was the story of that?
Oh, have you got to know? I suppose you've got to know. Well my father - I suppose my mother had higher standards, and my father took to drink, which was bad. And though he was a trained engineer, and clever enough, but he wasted the family fortune. And in the end they had to split up. But he came back when I was about 14, I think. So that was it. And my mother went secondary school teaching. Because she had to, you see, to bring up three children on it.
So he went away between - how old were you when he left?
I was about six, seven...
Did he leave, or did your mother leave him?
Oh well, she had to leave him. And...
Well I do. I said to my sister a few years ago - and I remember Uncle George coming and picking us out of our beds, and taking us down to grandmother's house, which was two blocks away. She said "That wasn't, that wasn't Uncle George. He was terrified of your father," she said. "That was the taxi driver. Don't you remember?" And I said I didn't. But she was just that year older and cleverer than me of course. And she remembered who it was. And we were moved. There was a nasty altercation, which I needn't go into, and he left the house again, drunk I think he was. And mother got us in a taxi and took us down to grandmother, and we never left. We stayed there. And he went away. He had a business which had to be declared bankrupt. He drank it all. He was making a lot of money. And then he went, he went down to Thames I think, got a job down there. And when my grandmother died, he came back. But he used to come back in intervals in between.
And when you were 14, he came back permanently?
He came back, and mother let him stay, and he stayed... My grandmother and my aunt were both dead by then.
Were you able then, at 14, to have a relationship with him? Did you relate...
Well, you tried to, but you didn't, you know, in a sort of a way. I, I think - he was - my sister went away to agricultural college when she was about - when she finished secondary school, at the Massey. And she was the first woman graduate there, and she did really well. And I stayed home and went to - eventually to university there. And my father didn't give up his ways. And so we had royal battles, you know, as you would.
So from that point of view, what was on offer in the household?
Nothing. University, university. And mother being away teaching all the time, you see. And you used to go down to the butcher and get meat, you see. A pound and a half of gravy beef. I still remember it. Every night. No wonder I've got no palate now. And you know - but everybody was low in New Zealand at that time. It was very bad times. And you were lucky that you could go on having an education and going to university, because other people didn't, they worked in factories and things. You know, things were very low, and you had these processions of men coming around to the door with hats on - all New Zealand men wore hats - and cut the lawn. They were exhausted. So you were told to give them as much bread and butter and tea as they could drink. And cut the lawn, give them two bob. And that was about what you did, for years. So life was pretty, pretty grim really. And there were people who didn't have things.
So you actually were at university during the Depression, or was it at high school during the Depression?
Wait a moment. Oh, I was at high school during the Depression.
And it was bad. When the decree came that everybody wore a different school hat, because the incoming headmistress didn't think the hats were suitable, I had an old style school hat, and mother determinedly made me wear it, you see. And so you were out of - but people didn't worry because nobody had anything then. You know, and you'd see things in shop windows and you knew you wouldn't get them.
So you were really part of the sort of genteel poor, in the sense that your mother had standards, but no money.
Yes. She had standards, and she had been rich, and my uncles went away to the war, and another uncle in law managed the estate and lost the lot more or less. And so she had come down in status really. But she always liked to keep up appearances. Like the drawing room, you know, and that sort of stuff. And what the common people did and you didn't do it, you see.
Now, when you left primary school, what was decided about where you would go for...?
I went to the school my mother taught at, which was a bad thing, too.
Well you don't want - you don't want to be identified with a staff member. And of course, anything you did got relegated back to the staff room. And you had an older sister who was different, so it wasn't really good. You felt you were overlooked all the time. But then, who was better? You see, not many people were better off. And then you go through the school, and you get a bursary and you go to university, you see. And that was sort of the pattern.
And it was essential for you to get a bursary.
Well it wasn't, but it was a help.
And with your older sister being seen as being so clever, did it worry you that you wouldn't do well enough?
I was good at sport. No. And I always knew she was better. And she was better. She was sensible. She was adult.
In contrast to you who were...?
Well I don't know, I was sensitive and I shouldn't have been. And I was full of bravado I think, as a child. Showing my siblings that I could do things. I always took the physical risks and things. But then I was bigger. I was the biggest one of the family which is strange. Both my mother and father were short.
And you were spending a lot of time going around looking at things, even when you were at high school?
Yes, I suppose I was. I think that I always noticed the shadows on the wall of the classroom and things like that, and say to... [inaudible]... She'd be amazed. She said when she pointed that sort of thing out to other people they thought she was very queer. And so I did. And I was always good company for other children, you know. I used to get asked away on holidays and things. And both my brother and sister were fairly solitary, I think.
What about your art? What was happening with that? Were you - did you do any sort of artwork?
Absolutely zilch. None. None. Art wasn't really - well if I say allowable I suppose it's a hard word. But if you could paint and if you can draw, okay, well you were artistic you see. And I used to arrange flowers. And I used to, oh make things. I always wanted to make something. And none of the family did, except the aunt.
What sort of things did you make?
Oh, what sort of - oh dear. I would - I just used to wander round saying I want to make something. And there didn't seem to be anything to make. And really, you need someone to do it with when you're a child, I think. You know, that thing people say about messing around with boats. So children are brought up knowing. They know things. But if you didn't - and this aunt used to paint the flowerpots and the hydrangeas. She painted them green and she used to let me paint sometimes. And that sort of thing that they did. My sister was always rather too serious minded for that. But I was glad of anybody and she let me make a little flower garden and what not.
In those days though, there were a lot of domestic arts that women were asked to practise, like sewing and all of that.
My family didn't do them.
No, no. My mother didn't, she was busy. And she was doing secondary school teaching, and she was very much one for books and things. She used to be a very good tennis player too. She was a very successful woman really. I think I was caught in between, and I think that people didn't have time for children, really. I can't remember much being read to or any of that sort of stuff. A bit, when we went on holidays.
You said you had started arranging flowers then, while you were still quite young.
Yeah, I did.
Did you ever do anything with that? Did that...?
Oh, I did a bit. I did - I remember winning a prize at school, and you had to decorate a table like this. And my aunt said, "Why don't you do it in buttercups and brass?" she said. And I thought, "A bit ordinary, bit ordinary". Being a frightful little snob. And so anyway, I asked the teacher at school, did she think that'd be too common, I thought. And no, she thought that would be lovely. That was okay, I was armed then. And I went along and I won the prize, the first prize you see. And this impressed the family a little, a little bit, I think. And then later, when I came to Canberra, and they started up an ikebana class here, and the man came up from Sydney. And he wouldn't have it, he wouldn't run the class and come up unless he got 20 pupils. And I was roped in to be one of them. And I turned out to be - it was the first time I realised I was good at anything. And I was rather better, and when I was chosen to show in Sydney, I was rather better there too, you see. And this was the first inkling that I had that I could do anything. I could always write a bit, you know, and that sort of thing. But nothing solidified. And with this, I learnt ikebana for seven years I think. And it helped me with my art. It helped me with form and things, which you start looking at. I think the English school of art, especially people who are brought up in the English tradition, Constance Spry and all that, colour, colour. It was always colour. But with ikebana you can't win unless you get good form. So I started looking sculpturally at things.
Back there in your childhood, when you did a piece that won the prize, what were the characteristics of that piece looking back? What did you do just instinctively there that made it win?
Made it yellow and bright, I think. We were aged about 12 or 11 or something. But that's what it was. It wasn't... it wasn't earth-shaking. But one aunt of mine came in, she went "Oh, it was obvious that one was the one to choose." It had yellow ribbon and brass, and goodness knows what.
Was this important to your confidence at the time?
Well, it was I think. I think it was a sort of a boost. Actually that's one thing I never had any of, is self confidence. I never had it. And even now my husband says to me, "I won't believe it", you see. People - men, men, never believe things unless it's in their own history. If it was yours, and he said, "Well you ought to feel confident with things you've achieved since". But you don't. You just know you're not any good at anything. I suppose deep in your bone marrow, I think - which after all is what forms you. And as the Jesuits said, I believe, "Give me a boy 'til he is seven and I will form - give you the man", you see. And I don't think I had it. I towed along, as you would. What else was there?
So the profound message of your childhood was that you weren't quite up to scratch.
Yes, oh quite, quite. And I had to disguise things.
But there was a glimmer, because you did win a prize for flower arranging.
Yeah, but it was only a bit of a glimmer.
Looking back now, do you think that if your older sister hadn't been so intellectually gifted, it would have been recognised more clearly that you yourself were pretty bright?
No, no, oh no. I don't think so. I don't think so at all. I think if I had probably different parents, and different surroundings, I might have been. Because other people's parents used to take to me, you see, and I used to wonder why they did. Because I knew - well it comes from being sort of sensitive as well I suppose. And the fact that it was a very busy household. And the fact was that my mother had arrived on my grandmother, who had lost a son in the war, and, you know, and she had the unmarried daughter who looked after her. And there's mother with three children arriving. It was pretty tough. We were lucky we had somewhere to go, because we didn't.
And so, also your mother was at that stage, the soul breadwinner, was she?
Well, well there was money in the family. I mean they had money before the uncle lost a lot of it. But there was enough. But there wasn't enough to bring up five, four extra people, you see. Well I suppose, you could have - my grandmother lived quite well. And I remember mother saying "I've got to go back and teach. Don't tell Douglas or he'll cry." He was the littlest one.
How did you decide what you were going to do when you left school?
I only knew I was going to get married, that was all. And I had to have children, I knew I had to have children. I always have had that.
I just needed them. You do what you need. It was unthinkable for me not to have children.
And so what you did at university, what was the purpose of going to university then?
Earn a living, dear. I became a secondary school teacher. I forgot everything I ever knew, because I have got a very bad memory and have had since I was 16. And I could teach anything, just anything I can teach it. I'm a very good teacher. Don't know the subject, it's very difficult... I didn't feel terribly much a success there, and I wasn't either.
So at university, what did you study? How did you decide what to do?
I didn't decide what to do, I did what I did at the Epsom Girls' Grammar School, which was a good secondary school for girls. And I did English, French, Latin and Maths. And - none of which I know much about now. English, French, Latin, Maths and Greek. Greek. And I got my B. A. and that was it, and then I went teaching.
And you went teaching. And that was - were there any options to that canvas... ?
Absolutely none. Absolutely none. I had to earn my living, and that was the only thing I...
The other thing women did - I felt the only other thing open to women at that stage - was nursing or something...
... Couldn't stand that. No. Nursing or - yes, that's right. And you didn't freelance. And you certainly didn't take up a meagre talent that wasn't specific, and dignified by exams. You can do it because you got the qualifications, you see. I had a B. A., I could teach. Couldn't though. So there you are.
So how long did your teaching career last?
Oh, only about three years, two years or something.
When I knew the subject I did, yes. I was good with children, but I don't know. And I - oh, I don't know. I wasn't very good. And I taught - they gave you subjects to teach because they couldn't get teachers. And I could teach the Latin and the English and things, but when it came to History and Geography, I was hopeless. Just hopeless.
But you had studied it at university... ?
I hadn't studied History and Geography... You had to do the things you hadn't studied, you see.
And even the things I studied, I got absent-minded about, I think. Except English I didn't. And Latin I didn't.
Your heart wasn't really in it.
Well it was. I don't know where else it was if it wasn't in that. You did it from a state of necessity I think. You had to earn your living. And you got paid for it.
When you were at university, and you - I mean the academic side wasn't really drawing you in, were there any other things going on at the university that interested you?
Boys, men! Of course. What else? Yes. A lot of failed relationships, I think I must have had. And I played tennis. And you were with a lot of people. You don't realise at the time of course you're with a lot of people. But you've still got your inhibitions with you I think.
What sort of things were you doing with other people at that time? What - were there activities around the university that you were involved with?
Oh a bit. A bit. I don't know. University probably is different - well it is different these days. But we, mainly we enjoyed ourselves. We didn't take too much of the lectures you had to go to. And you took notes and did enough to pass the exams. And then you went to Field Clubs and things.
Field Clubs were things that the graduates of the science faculties used to go to, the zoology people, and they'd say, this is greywacke, that rock you see. You didn't care whether it was greywacke or not, you were having a nice time, and you walked for miles, and you had meals in huts and things. It was nice. And we - a friend of mine and I were about the only two non-scientific - I think one of the boys asked us along for light relief. As though the scientific women were pretty earnest, you know. And we used to go along and have a nice time.
Was the attraction there the boys, or was it also nature?
Oh no, it was the boys. And it was a nice way of life. I liked this. But I didn't want to know the name of everything. They all wanted to know the scientific name of everything. I didn't want that. But it was a sort of way of life in the back to nature, and the old hut and that sort of stuff that I liked.
You've talked since you've started to work as an artist, about an emotional connection that you have with the landscape. And with the landscape that you work with. Back there when you were out on field trips, or when you were walking around in New Zealand, did that landscape resonate with you in that emotional way, in the way that the Monaro and this area around Canberra has done later?
Well the Monaro was very different, because I had to make a friend in a strange country, you see. And I had to discard the New Zealand landscape, which I was passionately fond of. And make friends with this one. Which takes some years if you're not a tree, not a something, no harbour, no Rangitoto, no nothing. All the things that were built into you had disappeared you see. And you've - somebody had a book once on Stromlo, she was an American woman - and they had titles of - and you could place yourself in a category. And I remember the director's wife signed her name under the category that said 'I know my rights'. She did too. And I thought what on earth am I going to. So I looked through, and I came to 'But then there's always nature.' And I thought that's for me, you see. And I was quite old by then. By that time I'd had three young children, and the mechanics of living take up a lot of time, you know, if you're not a born housewife, as goodness knows I wasn't, and you've got a fuel stove and a Dux heater, a small heater - nothing, nothing, you see in a very cold house. And you're not really good at housework and you've got all these little people, well it takes the best of your time and the best of your energy. And the husbands, of course, all went up to the observatory, and they had a life up there that was forbidden to women on the mountain, who were mainly housewives. And this awful copper, and this up the hill to put the clothes on the line. And you have a lot of clothes when you've got three young children. So I spent a lot of time doing the mechanics of work.
Again, I suppose I'm asking in retrospect, was the beginning of that kind of very special emotional connection with nature, there when you were still in New Zealand, or did it come later?
I didn't need it as much in New Zealand, because I had friends, you see, and when you're in a scientific community you don't have friends of your own choosing. See, if you're a university person, you naturally can choose your friends, you see. You don't know this one, you don't know that one... and you're very free. But when you're plunged down into a place where people are from different countries, different standards of education, different everything, and you've got to try very hard, and you've got the men going up to the observatory, where they have morning tea - luxuries like that. And they know people, and they walk along corridors and they say good morning to them. There's nothing in the house, you see, absolutely nothing except a small baby who cries, you know, you know what babies do. And so you look round desperately, I think, and I think I was fairly desperate for something that I could associate with. And well, nature was my friend. In fact that's what...
It came to that... And you looked hard for that.
Whereas back there as an undergraduate you had a lot of friends, and nature was the context in which you enjoyed their company.
Yes, that's right. But you came to rely on it. And so I built a big garden in the end, and I did that. And I used to walk in the paddocks a lot.
So while you were an undergraduate, and you were seeing lots of boys, was there one in particular that emerged eventually?
Oh, there were several, yes. I'm not going to go into that... It was a long time ago.
I was actually asking you about meeting your husband.
No, no, no. He went to the same school as I did. The Remuera Primary School.
Oh right. So how did you meet Ben Gascoigne?
Well, over the bridge table mostly, because we played bridge and I knew a family who knew him. And he was once, he once came in to make up a fourth because we didn't have a fourth, you see. And so that was how it - so we've had the same sort of conditioning, except that he's intellectual.
And was recognised as such by his family.
Had to be, had to be. In those days, if you didn't get a scholarship you dropped your education and went into a factory or something. So that was it. And he got a lot of scholarships. He was always clever at it.
So how was it that Ben was the one, out of the various boys that you went out with, that emerged as the one that you eventually married?
Life, dear, I suppose. Life.
But was there something about him that particularly appealed to you?
He was clever. And of course, I wasn't I suppose. I don't know. It's really, it's too formless and shapeless and I'm not going to go into it anyway. That's for sure.
But I suppose really, how did it happen? Like could you...
Custom, custom dear.
Tell me the sort of story of meeting Ben and how...
He went to university when I did. He was a good oarsman, he was up for a Rhodes Scholarship. Didn't get it because of his stammer. And went to Bristol for two years as a - because he got - he was up for the Science scholarship, and he put in Maths as his subject. And his old headmaster said, "But Maths is an Arts subject". And all his work, all his years, just went. Because he'd put in for a Science scholarship, because he's a Science graduate, and not an Arts. Why would he put an arts thing in? And he missed it, and all those years of living on two bob and what not, went. He went to Bristol and he did optics, which turned out to be a very good thing for him. And he got into astronomy because of it. So that was good. But it was a very cruel thing. And this day and age you'd fight it out in the law courts, you know. But he was up for everything. He just got so many scholarships when it came to the capping. And they used to put comments on the graduates. "What, again?" they'd say, "Gascoigne"...
In summing up your whole childhood, that whole sort of period in New Zealand, what would you say were the main things that were inculcated in you as a child?
Well, I suppose, you wanted to do things right, to be acceptable. I would put it that way. And you had to do things properly. Well my sister could do them properly, but I couldn't really, really. And nobody - well I suppose too that we were brought up to look at adults as the enemy, you know. And I don't think we were often gently taken aside and told how to do things, really. This is going to sound very peculiar... We were just supposed to know how to do it.
Were you encouraged at all? Were you praised when you did good work?
No, certainly not.
So how did things work? Could you describe it in terms of getting on with things? How - were you criticised?
I don't, I don't, I don't think - you were criticised if you did anything wrong. You didn't - in a household such as ours there was work to be done, and my grandmother's health wasn't the greatest. And my mother was busy. And so you don't get a sense of anybody having much time for you really. And you went away and you played by yourself. And when adults came, you didn't raise your voice. And I remember once, I was about 14 I think, and we were at a beach cottage, and my mother knew some woman who had a child about our age. And they came and they sat in our cottage. And the girl raised her voice and had opinions. And we silently raised an eyebrow, thinking what boldness. How dare she have an opinion. And afterwards our mother said "I wish you children could come out and say things in adult company." We didn't ever do it. We were always covered up with another more suitable adult remark. And it was a sort of an eye-opener to me, because you wouldn't dare to talk to, or have an opinion.
Well, you just knew to be quiet. And you were quiet, you see, so you didn't say anything. And I used to be surprised when school friends when I was about 14 and they used to look at their hostesses in the eye and make a remark. I was always looking in the far corner, and the hostess was over there. I wouldn't dare to speak to her as if she were an equal or wanted to hear what I would say. Nothing.
So you didn't feel free to be yourself.
Well I suppose it was a restricted English background probably. And you had your peers amongst children, of course, and you were always a bit bold with them because you were a bit suppressed at home. Although I don't suppose you were really actively suppressed, but people were busy you see, and they didn't have the time. And...
From that early childhood, that very strict and ordered childhood that you've got, did you bring anything that you think has stood you in good stead? Was there anything valuable that you got out of that?
Well I suppose you get, in a way, after decades to sort of know yourself. And I think you realise that you sort of hope. And you certainly know your failings. You certainly know them. Where you don't measure up or whatever. I think you live the way you can, you know. You amass all your pros and you put aside all your cons, or try to rise above them. But I think that's about it.
What made you decide - now getting back to the sort of narrative, getting back to the narrative of that period - you'd met Ben, and Ben had gone off to England. What made you decide to get married?
Well, avenues of escape of course, narrowed. You might say that. And I knew I was always meant to get married, and that was my thing. I felt that, various people had gone off to war, various people had been killed, and it was possible, you see. And he had a good job in Australia, away from NZ - which wasn't a good idea, because I found it very hard to leave. Just that.
What year did you get married?
Oh dear, she asks me - '43 I think, '43. Because we had a child in the first year.
Why, why - did Ben go to the war?
No, no, he couldn't. Well, stammering as he did. His stammer was much worse than it was. He was in England and he came back.
How did he get back from England?
On a ship.
That was a bit difficult, wasn't it?
Well, it was difficult, it was wartime. Yes.
But he managed to get back to New Zealand.
He got back to New Zealand.
And what did married life mean for you? What did you have to do?
It meant a lot of hard work, and I wasn't very good at. It meant a lot of solitude. It meant leaving behind everything I'd known in New Zealand. It meant reassessing yourself, I think, probably. And - well, does one have to spell everything out?
Well I mean just describing - if you could just tell us for story purposes... [INTERRUPTION]
You have to remember that in wartime nobody is shooting at you, and so you can't complain about anything really, you can't. And there were other people a lot worse off. And when the Japanese were going to invade Australia, there was great panic of how they'd all take to the mountains, and Sir Richard Woolley, who was the director, was going to take to the mountains. What he was going to do with his wife I do not know. But...
So when you married Ben, where did you go to live?
Here, Stromlo. Came straight from Auckland to Stromlo.
And what was happening at Mount Stromlo?
Oh, the optics were happening. They were making optics. And a lot of the Canberra women were tying scarves round their heads and going up in the bus and making optics. You see, they loved to do that. Move their family out of domestic homes and into boarding houses and things. And did that. The war effort, you see. And we had a very big dry garden. The heat was - I remember the first summer - I was married in January, and the first summer, walking outside the kitchen door, and the sun hit you like a hammer. It was just amazing. It was a very hot summer. And this I got very - that was a shock, because Auckland isn't like that. And then I had a baby ten months after I was married. So I was struck with morning sickness.
So what happened when you married Ben, where did you go to live?
On the - in the same house that we - there was that big open cold 'built on the south side of the hill' house that we had, designed by someone who sat in London and thought Australia is a sunny place. It was cold. And the air hung purple like that, purple in the passages. And to get a handkerchief, to go down to the bedroom and get a handkerchief was more than you could bear. Stayed in the kitchen by the fuel fire. It was very, very cold. In winter. It was hot in summer of course.
Well, he was doing optics for the war effort, you know. They turned Stromlo over into - it was a solar observatory, and they turned it over to making weapons for the - and optics - for the war, you see.
Right. But by this stage, he had moved into astronomy?
Oh yes, he wouldn't have got a job at the observatory if he hadn't been, you see. But they suddenly turned it over to munitions, and they made range-finders and things.
And did all - did other astronomers stay there... doing that work?
Oh yes, they did. They did. We had Cla Allen, we had Richard Woolley and all those people. And they were all contributing to the war effort. So they worked late hours, you know, six o'clock at night and things always. And people were very keen in Canberra.
And you arrived there in winter?
No, no, no, summer.
And what was it like when you arrived?
Well, it was hot. I mean the first, the first impression I got of the place was the colour, the colour. Because you had - the roofs of the houses were orange. And the pine trees were very, that pine green. And the colour. I couldn't get over the colour. And of course the skies were pretty clear. And I remember - but your first impressions fade very quickly. That's what you see first. I remember somebody asking me, and I was stunned with this colourful place, but it dries off, and the blue devil was out in the paddocks, that weed, that prickly weed. And we had never seen that in New Zealand of course.
Oh yes, huge sky. Lot of air.
And so, what did you think of the place visually when you were there?
That's what I thought. I thought, at first go I thought, well everything was different from New Zealand. The birds, the sparrows were the same. And the big birds, like the currawongs and the magpies, were toppling the bushes, like the fowls of the air, you know. And we didn't have those big birds in NZ, we had thrushes and blackbirds and stuff. But not big birds that sat on the bushes and the bushes squashed, you know... And parrots. Parrots.
So from the beginning, did you see what was attractive about the landscape? I mean were you attracted...
Well, it was new, you see. And I'd never been out of New Zealand before. And it was a very different place. And very isolated. There was a bachelor establishment which really saved my life, because I was sort of used to being in university sort of circles and things. And the housewives, the entrenched people, were mostly assorted. And there was a sort of - they say there's no such thing as a democratic - is that the word I want? - society. Because there were ranks, there were groundsmen you see, and they weren't in with the white-collar workers. It was just the established thing, you see. And you in a place like that made friends with everybody that was compatible, or what not. So you didn't really play the rules. I suppose right from the beginning I didn't play the rules.
So you came there, and where were you expected to fit? What was expected of you?
I wasn't expected to fit at all. I was a wife. The astronomy went on, you see. Nobody expected anything of you, except I think to be sort of docile. And the astronomy came first. And you had dinners, and you asked visiting astronomers or what not. They never knew who you were the next day, you know. But you served the establishment really, and it was expected of you. And I suppose that's what you did.
What about the other wives there?
Well there was, there was one New Zealand woman who welcomed my arrival with open arms. She needed female company. And she'd been brought up on a farm in New Zealand. And she had two small children when I was there, and I had a baby fairly quickly, and she was infinitely useful to me. Because I knew nothing, nothing at all. And - but one of her favourite expressions was 'I know I'm tactless but...' And you waited for it. And you got it, you certainly got it. Screamingly tactless. Yes, but anyway.
So you had your first baby quite quickly...
Without your mother or anybody there. Could you tell me about that? About the arrival of motherhood and how you coped in that isolation.
I can tell you about that all right. I had him in the Canberra Community Hospital and he had pyloric stenosis, which just means you vomit. And so I had a hideous doctor and a hideous matron. And it took me three days to have the baby. And immediately I sat up in my hospital bed, "You've got to take this baby to Sydney, he's got something wrong with it". And this was healthy stuff. And you got the Canberra train, and had to go down by train. And I was in this awful hospital. It was really very traumatic. And in the end they operated, because they had to. And he survived it, you see. So that was okay. But it certainly - I grew older in those years I can tell you.
How old were you when he was born?
I was 25 when I was married. So - and I didn't know anybody you see. We didn't know anybody who came. And it was fairly tough. But then other people were having it tough too.
And in those days the men didn't really participate all that much in that kind of thing.
No, definitely not. Having babies is a natural thing, you see, very natural. You just have it. You don't have morning sickness, because you're very, very well, you know, in the seventh month or something, you're walking around very jubilant. And if they've known people who were seven months pregnant, that's how you should be right from the start. Sick, I was as sick as a dog. But still you don't - everybody's got to find their way.
And so there was quite - quite a hard time for you then...
It was hard, it was hard.
... With that baby...yes... not being well.
No, oh well no, not having friends. This was hard. This was really hard. And except for that tactless woman over the road, she was marvellous to me really. And it was a help.
What were the other wives like?
Well, there was an English woman who was brought up English. And was a housebody. And there was a woman over the fence who came out for a year or so, who said, "You are an educated woman. You read books." Cut me out. And you know, it was very assorted, very assorted women. There weren't really a pair of people at all. And you used to find that, you know, everybody got lonely, and everybody was missing their families and everything else. So on one day you'd feel confessional and you'd tell this chum everything. Oh, dear. Well two weeks later you weren't great friends at all, something had happened. And she'd be passing it on to the neighbours. Just different. So in the end you got that sort of pattern that all small communities get. And I remember when I was leaving Stromlo - we'd been there 17 years, and somebody said "Will you write a script for the ABC, telling people what it's like to live in a small scientific community?" Ha! And so I said yes, but I'll tell it the way it was, and don't play it in Canberra. So I let forth, telling everything, everything. And in the end the ABC hadn't got scripts for Singapore I think it was - the army wives were up there - and so they said "Do you mind if we send your script up?" Well I said go ahead. And one of the army wives wrote back, and she said "It could have been any one of us." And every small community, with the best will in the world, I think gets that way. The children fall out with the tricycles. It's an isolated place. You've got no one to talk to. And so then the mothers fall out, of course, because their horrible child has done something to your dear little thing. And then the men fall out, you see. And the feuds always develop, they always develop. And I'm sure that the scientific communities are just the same as the army communities. It's what the colonel's wife says, you know, that counts. But I was grateful for this woman who - she must have been having a hard time in Singapore I think - she wrote back.
Did some women find it just too hard to...
Yes, they did. They did. There were two women who left. One of them was going to have a nervous breakdown and the husband got her out of it. And the other one really did go a bit peculiar. And I think you had to be sort of fairly strong to survive. And I was cursed with the fact that I was different. I didn't fit in. I always was slightly out of step, because I thought differently and I said things differently. And I think with the woman next door, well the fact that I had had an education was bad news. I read books too, that was the end of me.
What about the men, did you have much to do with the other men, apart from your husband?
Well you might want to. Being university trained you were used to men. But it looked as if you were a man-eater, you see. You wanted - I used to think just for an intelligent conversation, just for something that wasn't about sweeping the clinkers out of the stove, what washing powder you used - that sort of stuff went on all the time. And if you tried - the men were more emancipated than the women, by virtue of circumstance, and they were more interesting to talk to, because they talked about things and happenings. But you didn't do that too often. It was a bad mistake.
Because the other women would think you were after their husbands?
Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes. Oh, yes.
So when there was say a dinner where the men and the women were together...
Very rarely. Yes.
In those circumstances, it was that old thing of the women up one end...
It was that old thing, if you raised your voice and said what you really thought, you see - and university people do say what they really think. But no, it wasn't like that.
Well, you found something to survive with, I think. You know, I remember making a large patchwork quilt. It used to be my company at night when the children were in bed and Ben used to go up the observatory to do his work, I used to spread these coloured patches around the floor and put them together. And beg what scraps of material I could from anybody, because you couldn't even buy it, you see, in those days. And one woman - I will never forget her - she said - I said "Could I have a piece of that dress you're making?" and two weeks later, she said "Well, when I've finished wearing the dress you can have it." She wouldn't give it to me.
She didn't want to be in your quilt.
No, she didn't, no. It was like that. And everything I did was, you know, I expected the only answer was yes. Yes.
What else did you do to pass the time?
Ah, the washing. The clothes-line up on the windy hill. Stoking the fire, you know. Meals. All that sort of stuff. I didn't do anything really. There wasn't time. There was exhaustion at the end of the day. And there wasn't much offering really. And the only meeting place on the mountain was up at the observatory you see. And when the mail came in you could walk up and get the mail. And that was your big time of social contact.
Yeah, I did. When, you see the baby was little, well I certainly, when I was tied to the house I didn't, but when the children got bigger, I used to walk out in the paddocks. And I always think if a snake bites me nobody will know where I am. And they wouldn't either. Used to walk - there was the Murrumbidgee flowing way down there, way back. And you'd be back in time for the school bus or whatever.
Oh yes, I did.
What was it about the walks...
I liked finding things. I liked driftwood. I liked seeing places, new places. Streams and things.
And apart from the quilt, were there other things that you started doing that gave some sort of expression to your desire to make things?
I made a quilt. It did take 17 years. I did a quilt, and then when I roamed the mountain I used to find a lot of big dried Australian branches, you see. Different from New Zealand. And I started making dried arrangements. And I used to bring things in and put them on the mantelpiece. Not that there was much on the mantelpiece, because people didn't have any money to buy anything you see. So I used to put them there, people used to say "Get her. Look at that dirty thing she's got on the mantelpiece." That was me, you see. But I didn't want these things up on David Jones's escalator, and I certainly didn't want to polish my floor. Which a lot of them did want to do, did it. They were good housewives, you see.
And were you a good housewife?
No, I was a very bad housewife. And I hated it. You did it one week and then you had to do it the next week. Well, what was the use of that? None at all. I did try it. I tried the washing on Monday and the ironing on Tuesday bit. Two weeks and I was absolutely exhausted. All my time was mortgaged up. So Tuesday's no good, I can't go out, I can't do anything. I've got to do the ironing, you see. Well that lasted for about two weeks. And they kept their houses, some of them, very neat. And we had one ex-nurse, she was a noble woman, very noble. Told you too. And she used to say, "You know, that woman, she's got no idea. You see her washing hanging on the line, and there's her pyjama pants down there. Then there's a lot of tea towels. Then there's the pyjama coat". And I thought, I never knew people bothered about things like that. You put the darn things out to get dry and bring them in again. But you know, those were the sort of standards. And in the end, you get sort of cramped, because you really want them to like you. You want someone to like you, goodness knows. And so you find yourself sort of hiding or things, and conforming things. And if they should catch you with your dishes undone and your - well, it was bad.
Oh, often, often, often! Every time you opened the door, there was some woman there looking.
Yeah, I did. Oh, I did. Well I had plenty to be ashamed of, too. I didn't do it.
What about motherhood, did you enjoy it?
Well I had it, I had to have it, you see. This is, I really needed to have children, so I had them. I got very tired though, I really was very tired. And the house was a really a backbreaker, you know, it really was. You could never get finished, and I used to be so tired in the afternoon, I used to have to have a sleep. And bat down the wretched child, who wouldn't go to sleep. You know. And you used to, like many other mothers did in New Zealand, I believe, you'd sort of get out of bed in the morning and you'd pat the bed and think it's 12 hours before I can get back here again. You know, short of sleep, everybody was though. Except my tactless woman, who had five boys with no trouble at all it seemed to me. And was a good housekeeper.
But in relation to your children, you yourself had had a childhood in which you felt that to some extent you were neglected. You were...
Oh yes, I was.
What happened then when you had your own children?
Well, you see, you welcome your children. They are your company. You get them off the school bus and you expect them to chatter away. Of course, they don't want to see mother at all, mostly, when they get a bit older, about what happened at school today and what not. But they did come to be your company. They really were. You looked for them. And so we were a very close-knit family, really.
So you were much closer to your children than your mother had been to you?
Oh yes, I was, I was.
Do you think this was part of your need? Do you think that there was a little bit - when you say you needed to have children, what do you mean by that?
Oh, well, to satisfy me and to - I don't know what it was. But I knew that marriage without children would be hopeless for me, just hopeless. I suppose you need love, or something like that. And children's love is very undemanding.
I was wondering whether, perhaps unconsciously of course, that because you yourself had not really had that connection that you might have wanted as a child, that you wanted children to do it properly...
Well maybe you did. It probably was mixed up in everything. But I knew - I remember my mother looking at me doubtfully and thinking you better not have any more, it takes too much out of you. And it did take a lot out of me, and I worried, and sort of what not. But I certainly needed them, and I certainly - I had two boys and a girl you see - and I certainly wanted that girl.
And so your children in fact gave you a lot of pleasure.
Oh yes, they did, they did. Oh, it would be unthinkable not to have children, especially in a place like that, where all your focus was on - well, I suppose I wanted love, you know, that sort of closeness and things. And I think being a New Zealander made me an outsider. I think per se it does. We're different people you know. We were - well especially in those times, and you wanted your own people around you. But then I found that, well could I cope you see with a lot of other people's lives? Because I wasn't one of those people who were going to sink yourself for the sake of your children. You see. I think my daughter was shocked because she read in some interview I had the other day 'So having children wasn't enough for you, was it?' And I said no, it wasn't. It wasn't enough. You know, I had to have them but it wasn't enough.
There was another kind of love growing at this time though, wasn't there? And that was the love of that landscape.
Oh yes, that's - that's for sure. That was my, my - what will I say? - the thing I clung to. I really did. If I didn't have that I didn't have much, I thought at the time.
And so you had started the collecting part of things. You were bringing things home.
Oh yes, I was.
How did the part of it that was the selection - in a way the mastery of that landscape, the bringing together of the elements in it, how was that beginning to grow? Were you doing anything with what you brought home? Were you beginning to arrange?
Oh I certainly arranged it. I mean I didn't bring it home unless - unless it was something that was beautiful or irresistible or strange to me. And a discovery that I had to look hard because I remember thinking, as I pushed prams along the mountain, that I know every sort of stone and every sort of grass on this mountain. You can't bring me a piece of grass I wouldn't know what it was. And I used to look very keenly for differences. Pine trees, pushing prams, pine trees, you see. One of them's got to be different. One of them. And my afternoons used to be taken up with pushing a pram and one in the hand, and the neighbour's child with me. We'd walk along to the Oddie, which was the telescope there, and there'd be a big mud puddle. Okay, everybody can throw three stones into the big mud puddle, and then we can go home and afternoon tea, which is biscuits with cheese and tomato on them. You had to make a life out of nothing, really. There was nothing much there. That was women's things.
Where did you do your shopping?
Oh when you went down to Canberra, which was once a week, in an old rattly bus. Then some - some would use - there was a grocer there called J. B. Young's used to deliver. You used to ring up on the neighbour's telephone, because you didn't have one, and give your order in. Then they'd deliver it.
You were there in a place where the business was to look at the stars, and yet you were looking at the land.
Yeah, well, I couldn't look at the stars, because I didn't have any knowledge. And besides that was his business. And you don't want the ABC of your husband's subject. Just learn that, all women. You don't want to speak the ABC of your husband's subject when he's up to the XYZ. How boring can you get? I mean prattling away. And half of them didn't know which was Venus anyway, you know. They liked their little bit of sky, and the other fella's piece was a bit of rubbish. Very parochial, astronomers. And they had so many, so many nights on the telescope you see. And which they'd automatically go up, and it's not much fun, as I've said before, living with an astronomer who's got four cloudy nights, and the other fella, who's got a program that's not worth a row of beans, he's got four brilliant ones, you see. Oh, bad news. And also, if they do get a night on the telescope and they work 'til two or three or whenever it gets light, then they sleep in the morning, and you've got to keep the children quiet. More or less quiet. So you have this sort of uneasy timetable. And of course, if the night is bright on their good nights, everything else stops. It's that. You see, always that.
So among the women on the mountain, you found it hard to find a really close friend.
Yes, I did.
What about your time - and the men were barred to you anyway, weren't they?
Yeah, well they were all at work, yes.
What about Ben, did he spend a lot of time with you, or was he busy with his stars?
No, he was an astronomer. Astronomer comes first. And don't forget that he was used to New Zealand women. And in my day New Zealand women, perhaps, were mostly good housewives, and pushed their husbands' career. And in Canberra, though you might think it's a democratic place, it's very upwardly mobile, if you get my drift. And you entertained the people. Not at Stromlo you didn't because you were too far away. But you entertained the people who were good for your husband's job. You climbed social ladders.
Well, I wasn't any good at it, was I? No, and I didn't. No. I wanted, I wanted to have friends, and you want people to like you, but those were the terms I think mostly. Unless you did good works. And joined the Red Cross, and joined the thing-o. It didn't satisfy me, you see.
So you were in a situation where you were pretty lonely.
Isolated. Oh, you were just plain isolated. I remember returning from New Zealand once and I used to go, when my parents were alive, and standing on the hillside and the air - I remember the air hanging from the heights of heaven down to the earth. Such a lot of air. And nothing was going to happen. I remember saying to myself, well nothing's going to happen and you might as well get used to it. And you did. And if a car came up that mountain, I bet every woman on the place was at the window trying to see who it was, who could be coming. It was very lonely. I mean there's no other word for it.
So how did you keep your sanity?
Just by doing jobs I had to. Always being behind with my jobs, my washing and my ironing and my housekeeping and my children and my things.
But again, you're in an environment in which you didn't really have the freedom just to do what you wanted to do, because there were those restrictions.
Didn't have time. You didn't have the time or the energy, you see. You just didn't. And I made a big garden in the end, you see, and I stayed home a lot. It was not much use going down to Canberra. And so I used to stay quite a lot up there. Used to garden a lot.
What kind of a garden did you make?
Big flower garden I had. We had a very big property. I think the men managed to keep horses in the backyard once. And it was very big. And I one day looked down the slope to the back gate, and there was one marigold growing. And the man before, who was Dr. Duffield, had tipped his rubbish down there - it was quite a long way from the house. And I thought, you can make a sloping garden there. And so I started moving things around, and I did in the end. And that was good.
So when you went for those walks, and you were looking at this landscape, when you'd gone on field walks before, you'd been irritated by people knowing the names of things.
I weren't irritated, just took no notice of them.
Did that change for you? Did you become interested in what things were, or just how they looked?
No. I interviewed them. I liked the look of them, their presence, you see. That's what I liked. And sometimes I knew names and sometimes I didn't. But they were foreign to me.
And with this seeing, with this intense looking that you were doing, was that - in the natural environment did you feel emotion there? Were you feeling things about it?
... I liked them. I liked them I think. A sort of warmth I suppose with a recognition. And I suppose your familiars, you see. They do get to be your familiars when there's nothing much else. And nobody's there to tell me, you see, my attitude, my ability to name them, anything. See I was free of all the other things.
So when you say that they were your familiars, your friends...
... was there a sense in which the landscape took on a personality for you, or personalities?
Well I just don't suppose I thought of it like that, but I think it did. It went so that - I remember in Melbourne I had an interview and the man who was doing the show, it was at the National Gallery of Victoria, and he wanted to take a picture of this paddock or something. I said "That's not my sort of grass". And I didn't know that sort of grass. You know in your bone marrow. So he drove me ruthlessly all around Melbourne trying to find the right sort of paddock. And in the end we found something that would do. But a foreign grass or paddock to me is a foreign paddock. And I suppose part of it was leaving New Zealand. And maybe I've got a penchant for things that are familiar to me, because I've known them for a long time. But I think it was the same on Stromlo. And I remember when I, when we had to leave, or when we did decide we'd buy a house in Canberra, I felt quite wistful about leaving the paddocks I knew and what not. It was always the place I know. I don't take to another place very quickly. That's why I'm not very good at travelling, because I think that when you travel to England or Portugal, wherever we've been, you don't find a place that not only do you know it, but it knows you, you see. You don't belong. And in a month or so you're gone. It's never heard of you, not going to see you again. That sounds fanciful, but it's true with me. It always took me time to come to terms with a place. And when we used to go away for beach holidays, I used to look at all the houses offering, you know, from the boat and think, oh I hope we're not in that one over there. And now I think of it, it never became a sort of home or a place where I was willing to stay 'til my mother had been in it and opened the windows and cleaned the cupboards. Funny, isn't it? I don't know whether that's lack of security or what it is, but it was never a place for me. But after two weeks or so, I was. And every path I walked along, I knew and things.
In the middle of your time up there on Stromlo, if someone had suddenly said to you - Ben had come home and said "I've got a job back in New Zealand, would you go back to New Zealand?"...
Living death. Well it would have been a living death to me.
... because Australia is a very different country from New Zealand. And I came out of a sheltered environment, you see. And I wasn't allowed to be what I was. There were no, there was no possibility of being an artist of any sort in - see I wasn't an artist 'til I was over 50. And you know, a proper, selling artist or something. And I would have felt it was a lack, you couldn't grow. It was painful to leave, but it wasn't a place you could grow, I could grow.
So for you New Zealand was equated with restriction, with limitation...
Yes. And standards. Standards. And people telling you what you could do and what you couldn't do. And I think gradually you tend to be the sort of person that you do what you like, see. Nobody's got to tell you, put the seal of approval on it. But it takes a long time.
Is this associated, this kind of personal freedom, associated in your mind with the Australian landscape...
Yes, it is. It's the width. It's the width and the rock under your feet and the high sky. And you're on your own a bit, you see. So you've got to - it's like I always say that an artist is like someone in the desert - metaphorical desert - and there's nothing there unless you put it there yourself. See it's all inside you, what you can put. And that's what art is. You're there in the desert, you can't draw, you can't paint, you can't do anything. You take the lot of you. Whatever you can't do, and all you're governed by is by what you want. You see, you've got to know what you want.
So during this period that you're on Stromlo...
... you were bringing back things that you'd liked, that represented something of this, from the landscape that you were getting to know.
It was just something to have on the mantelpiece. I needed things to look at, you see. And it wasn't much, you see nobody had any money. You didn't get to the shops anyway. And I needed things to look at, I really did. So if I put an old kerosene tin lid on because I thought it was a lovely orange or something, and put it there, well that was something for me to look at. See, it's sort of need of the pleasures of the eye. I needed it badly. And if you don't have a lot of money to spend - or you don't have any money to spend, let's face it. And so you put up something to look at. It's very simple. You're down on your uppers to do it. But it's a very simple thing. So okay, what do you like? Nobody's going to tell you. So it's not a case of mother likes blue, so I like blue. Don't do that. What do I really like? Sort yourself out a bit, I think.
Were you doing any arrangements of these that you showed other people?
I didn't ever show anybody. People came in to look. But they didn't understand mostly, the people that were there, why you liked something or why you didn't like something. And it takes decades to get yourself independent of other people's preferences. Especially if you're vulnerable like that. And I think I was plenty vulnerable. And it took you some time to sort out. And that's all you've got, you see. In the end, if you go for other people's appreciation, it passes and you change anyway. So you have to go for your own, whatever you like. And that's what makes you different in the end, because everybody is born different. They conform very quickly, to - for self-defence I think. I think they do.
What about the flower arrangements that you were doing?
Well I used to do that because I liked flowers and it was something that you did. I liked that, and I used to, after I walked the mountains a bit, I used to bring in a lot of stuff, and mostly dried stuff that lasted, you see. And then Canberra was a starved place in those days, and I used to get invited to give demonstrations of dried flower arrangements. And I used to go down to the Red Cross. They never thought of paying you or anything. You did all this work, and you loaded the car up. Thank you, thank you, thank you. And then you - so I did a lot of that. I was quite well known for dried arrangements, but native stuff, in Canberra. But I was all the time looking for something that was endless. I remember with 'People I Have Said' that what Hillary said when he climbed Everest, and he went from the base camp and he did the last stretch, and he came down, and they said "How did you go?" And he said, "We knocked the bastard off". And you say this to art audiences, and I say but in art you never knock the bastard off, you never, ever. It's like a bottomless pit. Because there's always more - and nature is better than you and way ahead. So I think that's what I was searching for, something that you could empty everything you'd got into. And you were never good enough.
And the only thing to hand for you to do during those years that you were a housewife, was the flower arrangement, and you did something with that.
Oh yes, I did something with that. But then I used to do - what's that?... [INTERRUPTION]
So did this flower arranging, or this start with doing things, develop further at any stage?
Well I sort of did it, because it was a thing to do. The other thing I used to do - I forgot - was lots of good works. I used to be terribly good on good works. And when the bachelors - they were all rattling round in the big bachelor quarters on the top of the hill. They had no womenfolk. A lot of them were homeless from Europe and what not, and they used to come wandering down the hill, and you'd be doing the garden. And you know they wanted a cup of tea and a bit of conversation, so you'd say "Come on, we'll make a cup of tea". I used to do, I used to do an awful lot of that, you know, because it seemed to be the, the place where you did something that was needed, if you see what I mean. You were really sort of needed to do it. And it was about one of the things you could do. That's the terrible fate if you get to doing good works with your life, I think.
Oh I did, I needed to do it, but it wasn't fulfilling like art is to me.
So you were looking for something, and then what was the next phase in the development of your eye, in the development of...
I just think I did - I think I went on doing that forever, and we moved down to Deakin. And Martin by this time was grown, he's our eldest boy, and he started buying art, because he was a bachelor and he had money, you see. And I used to think what on earth are you buying that stuff for, you know, Central Street and clever things, and it looked like rubbish to me a lot of them. And he bought a lot of that, and he was one that started encouraging me after ikebana...
Now that's the bit that I was really wanting you to tell me about. So I'll the question again, because I want you to tell me about the ikebana. So did you ever have any sort of formal training in these arrangements that you were doing?
No, the only formal training I ever had was the Sogetsu School of Ikebana. And we had the master who came from Sydney, and he had to have a quorum of 20 or he wouldn't play. And you resigned for this. It was very Japanese and he was a master at it, Tokyo. And I found surprisingly enough - I really was surprised - it was one thing I was good at. And when I looked round at what the other people were doing, it wasn't as good. How do I say that modestly, I don't know. And then I went to Sydney, and they weren't terribly clever either I didn't think. But it was a very subservient to Japan school. And you paid dues, you paid money, and it all went back to Tokyo. And the master was everything. And he would even take your ideas and put them in his books, which he did about mine once, without giving me any credit. And I felt this was very bad, because as Ben said, in scientific fields, if you did that, you were up for plagiarism or goodness knows what not. And by this time he was selling very ornate Japanese flower containers - very expensive. And he only gave the beginners, beginners ones, but you got very clever ones. And I used to find - by this time I was looking at shape, which you did in Japanese work, and I used to gather farm iron and balance it up on the benches. It was terrible. There were awful crashes going, making all the nice ladies shudder. And so I used to do a lot of these with iron things. And there once came a time when he was doing a book on camellias, he wrote a lot of books, and he came past my bench and he said "Can I borrow that?" And it was a thing I'd made with two somethings and a bit of wire. He thought it would go nicely with his camellias you see. So I waited 'til the glossy book came out, big thick glossy book like that, and he had given credit to the Japanese - the Sydney ladies who'd lent him camellias from their gardens and things. Very glowing and thankful. Came to my book, he described it as if it was his own vase, and apparently everything goes back to the school. So you don't get any credit, except if you're a nice rich Sydney lady that lends her camellias. I was furious. And I remember saying to - I remember saying, him saying "Oh well, the book's out". I said "Yes, I know, I've got a copy". And he said "Oh, I was going to give you one". So for once I got very bold. I said "You still could". I was furious with him. And so he wordlessly gave me a copy. And that was real plagiarism. And I was the only one doing it. And he was taking me on board as an Australian person who belonged to the school, so he annexed it. And it was awful. I thought it was a terrible thing to do.
Did you ever confront him directly about the plagiarism?
No. Never, never did. He knew. He knew what he was doing. And I could still use him for something. But I did find at the end, he had a table here and they all had tables there. And I used to do my own work, and I had a table there just back of his. And people used to watch mine instead of watching his. And it made him real mad. Fancy - it would of course. And of course I was still using farm iron and big things, very big things. And he never moved away really from what they did in Tokyo. And he even at one stage, which really killed me, after seven years or something, that he imported some dried stuff that people could buy at his classes - it had come from Tokyo. And he said that awareness of nature is how you can best translate ikebana. And I thought, well by Jove, I've got awareness of nature, I've always had it, without him. And also, my awareness of nature is what's here. How can you be aware of a dried thing that grows in Tokyo? This is very wrong to me. And I decided there was much more in the Australian countryside that I wanted to say, and so I stopped. And his wife said, "Oh, but he gets a lot from you". And I said "Yes, but I don't get a lot from him". But in the end - he's dead now - he saw a show that I was in in the New South Wales Gallery. And he was different. Well, he told me that you see, if I branched out of ikebana I'd never get any further than I'd got with ikebana, but I did of course. And he had to face it. He came to see this Sydney show and he came to the talk I gave, and everything else.
What did you actually get out of ikebana?
I got a lot, I did get a lot. I got a lot of - it made possible things that I didn't particularly know were possible. And that you could make art. Or ikebana doesn't need a flower in it, you know, it can be like sculpture really. And also it taught you, it taught you form, and it taught you shape. Whereas the Constance Spry type of ikebana doesn't. It teaches you colour. And you can't win without form in ikebana, and all ikebana is not good. There are some terrible travesties put out in the name of Sogetsu ikebana. I saw a lot down in the New South Wales Gallery when I had my survey show. They were just terrible. And the women - preening - oh dear, I've got to be careful what I say, hadn't I - but preening themselves with their cleverness. It wasn't, it was contorting nature, it wasn't really - the truth wasn't in it. So I was glad. And also it gave me the whole free open world. I could do what I liked. And that was great. And I soon gave up farm iron. And I took that on as containers because it had the shape in it, you see. There's some marvellous shapes you get. But the balancing is very difficult. And there's a lot of crashes going on.
And this was the first sort of formal training of any kind you'd had.
Yes, I'd had my school teaching course, but that was different. No, I had this first. And I think it was the first time I realised I was any good at anything, you know, without being particularly taught. I was ahead of him before he said it, you know. So it made sense to me then. And I think you, you grow, you get more knowing as time goes on. If that's what you're interested in and you've got a passion and a need for it, you go on and do it.
So in a way it was the vehicle for the recognition that the little sister could actually do something.
I suppose it was. I think she always knew I could do something. And I think afterwards she was fairly repressed. But in later life I was rather surprised to hear her say, "Oh I always felt I could do no right, and you always could do right." But I didn't ever think that. Because she was clever, and the family hope certainly rested on her.
And this was a moment - so perhaps also from ikebana, at a personal level, you got a real breakthrough of confidence.
I suppose I did. Well I knew I could do that. And I knew most of them couldn't actually. Even the embassy down here couldn't do it very well. The Japanese ladies straight from Japan, they couldn't do it. And when the Crown Prince came here and there was a great kerfuffle with Japan and their Royal Family of course, I was asked to do the large arrangement in the Lakeside, which was new and had a purple carpet. And they wanted a big thing you see. And I was the only one. So the embassy rang me up and asked me if I'd do it.
So you left ikebana behind. What was the next step of your journey?
Well I started - I started making things that would last. I got a bit sick of the fact that ikebana things if they lasted for four days this was absolutely marvellous, you see, and that was like eternity. It wasn't good enough for me. Nor was it good enough for the Sogetsu headmaster who went back to Japan and made great sculptures bought by the French, particularly. And he was playing for permanence too. But it inculcated in you the need for shape, form, and also the fact that you've got to be right. We had that in New Zealand anyway because we got it right. But the Japanese get it right in their big exhibitions. They're like the Roman Catholic church. They have a lot of underlings that are fed the sort of ordinary faith. And then as you get more intellectual, apparently, you are trusted with other things. And so there's a lot of - it's like a big pyramid, the Japanese ikebana pyramid. That the big base of the mere practitioners push up the top people, and there are just a very few people at the top. But they are providing money all the time. So the schools are very rich. And you pay for every certificate you get. See? Didn't seem right, or Australian to me.
And so you actually had sort of come in at the pinnacle.
Well you'd started practising at the pinnacle without really climbing the mountain.
Oh no, no, you still had to learn, but it came naturally, and I could see how other people just couldn't do it. And I couldn't make out why they couldn't do it, because it seemed obvious that a branch went this way, and that sort of stuff. And after years of doing it, I got good at it, but it wasn't satisfying to me to do that, it wasn't saying half the things I wanted said. And this country is not Japan, it's not you see. And I always maintain that it has a spirit of its own, and it's an elegant spirit. Not this ramshackle thing that people always present as Australian. But there is something very elegant about this country, as I always said. Always used to say, the - Athens, sure it's got its acropolis. We've got those elegant hay barns. Marvellous spaces, marvellous. And we ought to be exposing it. But people come and they discover Australia. In two weeks they paint Ayers Rock, like it's never been painted before, and it's not in people's bone - it's not in their bone marrow of the people who do it. I think you've got to understand it down to the bone, the place where you live. And I feel like Colin McCahon, who said, when people tried to get him to come to Australia, and come to America, and he said "Look, I haven't finished with this country yet," meaning New Zealand. There was still more, and there's still more here. And I think the place has been barely scratched yet. I really do feel that about Australia, and its art, and it's heavily leaning towards America and Europe, whereas it should be staying home and thinking a bit, I reckon.
So you had this impulse at the end of this period of ikebana, to do things that were more permanent and more reflective, directly...
Of the country.
... of the country you were in.
Well it was slow, but it produced at first iron work, and I thought what will I do when the farm iron disappears from this country. Because the land was being taken over by the ACT, you know big sections of farming land. And people used to leave dumps of farm iron around. And it had form, you see, and shape. And that's where I could get it. And so that's what I used. And I used to think what'll I do when the you know nice gardens are growing where the iron used to be. But I don't need it now, you see. Everything, something always seems to turn up, something new. And it has to be something for me that is the language of the country where I live. And I feel that I don't need what happens in Darwin particularly, that's for them. And I'm an east coast type person, and I look very hard at what's here. And sometimes, when I was in Adelaide a few months ago, somebody took me on a drive around the peninsula, and you saw marvellous sights that were really Australian. Green, bare hills against - anyhow it was beautiful. And so that I can relate to. But I don't think I can relate to desert, because I don't know about it. I really never lived in it, real sandy type desert. And Darwin was frightfully hot and I came out in a prickly rash, and I'm not very keen on that. And also I think it's a place for men, Darwin, it's not a place for women somehow.
So you looked to the area around Canberra...
At my feet, absolutely at my feet.
For inspiration. Both in relation to what you were going to try to represent, as well as the materials. How does that relate, the materials...
Oh, I didn't go much for what I was trying to represent. I used to go out, which I liked doing, and I'd take anything that was beautiful - to me, only me - beautiful, or even it was interesting you see. So I'd gather that home - this is the result of course. And you don't think of what you're going to do with it, unless you're trying to get more of some sort of material that's been discarded. That's one thing. But when you're just going out with an open mind, thinking gee, that's nice, you take it in, you see. And then some time, five years later, you might make something of it. Two years later you might, or a month later you might. But you don't care, you see, that's not the point. And half your oeuvre is the going out and the seeing things. And I sometimes think that - especially when I used to drive out a lot - that you go out to confirm yourself in that it's beautiful or interesting. And I think - I see Fred Williams' hillsides like that, with trees. Marvellous, just marvellous to me. And it really gives me a blow in the solar plexus. You know, that sort of - and that's how I judge whether anything is any good just for me. I'm only bothering about me you see. And the same way as I go through an art gallery, and I still maintain that all art isn't for everybody. And though the collectors, the - what on earth are those people that go around telling you what you're looking at?
Curators tell you it's marvellous and it costs a lot. You don't give a blind... [INTERRUPTION]
So you said that you were thinking what will I do when all the farm iron's gone.
What did you do? What was the next thing that turned up for you?
I used my eyes. That's, that's about the best tool you've got, just your naked eye. I often say to people, look, come and look at my show and bring your naked eye. And you don't want anybody's knowledgeableness and fitting you into pigeon-holes. Just look. If it's there for you, it's there for you. If it's not, it's not. So I think I found other things. It was sort of slow because I still had children at university and secondary school and things, and I was sort of slow. But I did - I was doing solider things, you see, that would last. And I think I had one of my first breaks when I was doing things anyway. And Jim Mollison used to come, he was a friend of Martin's, and he used to come and he used to look. But if I was in the room he wouldn't look at all you see. And I used to see him sometimes... [INTERRUPTION]
So when you ran out, or when you finished with the farm iron, and had done what you could with it, what was the next thing that you took up?
Well I took up anything that moved in Canberra. I remember the day I saw a truck moving along with its Schweppes boxes and things. I thought oh. And I was getting things from Bungendore dump and goodness knows what, and I had a thing in the first show of four great boxes, called 'A Vertical Hold' or something. And then I suddenly found, how stupid to go round the dumps, because there's a factory just over the railway bridge in Queanbeyan, and so I got in there - this was before '82 or something - and they had a whole pile they were going to throw out, you see. And so by this time I had been invited to go to Venice as a representative. And this blew me rather, because I hadn't really had any experience at all. And anyhow he let me in to unpick his pile, and when I came back I thought well, Andy Warhol has been done for using those soup cans, and this is a brand name and I better be careful. And so I went in - with posters. They had made a poster with Peter Booth on the back and me on the front. And I said, "Oh I thought, you've been so kind with your" - silver tongue - "with your discount pile, maybe you'd like one of these." And so the manager came out and the whole office came. "Oh, well we'd like ten of those. We'd like them for all the branch offices. And would you like a free, a free case of soda water?" They were selling for ten dollars each. I don't know... [inaudible] Anyway he wouldn't give it to me until I produced them. So I produced them, and he took them and he gave me the soda water, which was nice of him. And then he said "Feel free with our pile." And there was a great pile out there in the yard, but the yards-man hated women who unpicked his pile. He just hated them. And he did everything he could to fend me off. But in the end, I got a lot of those coloured wood things. And they started to move into plastic, which is the real danger now. All the wood is disappearing from the environment. People are on plastic and formwood and goodness knows what not. And so they've - almost antiques now. There are very few in Canberra. I think there are a few in Queensland somebody told me.
Yes, well I happened on those too at a dump.
Can't stand it.
I don't like it. It's, it's a dead material. I found the road signs at Collector where they were putting the new road through to Goulburn. And I got some for my grandchildren in Tasmania, because you were giving them Christmas presents, and three weeks after they were a pile of rubbish, and they'd cost you seventy dollars or whatever it was. So I got a big sack and filled it with road signs, and vests and things. It was the best present they'd ever had. You know, you couldn't get to the compost bin because there was a fellow, "Stop. Stop". And they played with them with all the nighbourhood children. And then I had them out here in the yard. And the rain came down on them. And they came up a glory. They looked absolutely marvellous when the light's right. And I could have roofed the house now with the things I've made with plastic - no not plastic - masonite, with retro-reflective on it. But now you see, they're always a jump ahead, they're putting them on aluminium which I don't use. So it's very hard to get a wooden one now, which I can saw with my saw. And they've all got aluminium which is - I'm not interested in metal really. And so anything you want with wood is what you take. And - because wood is a sound, sweet material, you know, it's real somehow. And that was just there, you see, it just happened that I happened upon it. And if I hadn't liked it for the children, I think it's pretty fearsome stuff actually. And I find the roadmen will give it to me, or would give it to me, when it was very bent and battered. And it's been very useful. And as I say, Sydney would buy any amount I made. They really like it in their rooms.
How did you get into boxes in the first place?
Oh, to make things stand up. They all fell over you see. I've got no mechanics. That's another thing I haven't got. No drawing, no painting and not too good with a hammer. So you can't make things stand up and stay. My mechanics are very bad. And I was doing things and they were falling all over the place. And in the end I found a lot of discarded apiary, and there were these boxes in it.
Bee boxes, yes. And I had some other boxes too. So I arranged things happily in there, because I could fix them and they could stay, you see. But I was never into boxes the way say Cornell - people mentioned Cornell to me - and you know.
You didn't know about Cornell.
I didn't know about him. Didn't know about him. Didn't know about anything. And he was coming from a very different platform you see. His platform was quite different from mine. Mine was stability problems and it was really making little ikebanas in boxes, you know, the positions and things. And when I ran out of boxes - and I don't think I can make a box now really.
Why did you move from Stromlo to Canberra?
Oh, mostly because of the children, the after school cut off, you know, when they can't do things other children can do. Seventeen years is enough to - in a lonely place. And so we moved. We moved to a university house.
Yeah, in Deakin. Very badly designed.
Yes, we lived there for - I forget how many years - seven, ten, something. And then the land was going cheaper out in Pearce. You know, we had a slump. So we, of course, being not terribly saving people, thought, ah, this is our chance. We can just afford a block of land out there, you see. And we built for less than the university wanted. It was ridiculous. They chose the best positions, but they built terrible houses. Or ours was terrible. No room in it.
And that would have been a problem for you, not having room.
Well it was. I think, I think on Stromlo we had a very big bony house. And the Deakin one was more polite. It had a very small dining room. They'd cut it down you see. You can't have what you want unless you build it yourself. And though they choose the best position, they don't put a good house on it.
And by this time you were acquiring quite a lot of stuff, too, that needed to be accommodated.
I wasn't acquiring quite so much. I acquired a lot of farm iron, but that was out in the garden. But when I wanted to do something, there was nowhere to do it in the house. There was one sitting room, lots of passageways. Two bathrooms. A lot of passage, you see, that meant that you - there was nowhere to settle in the house. So when we moved here, the architect was very sympathetic to what I did, and I kept saying "Don't shut me in. I don't want a big house." And all that sort of thing. I don't want a big house, because I can't do housework. And the children were leaving home then, you know. So we got what we've got.
Well I built the studio afterwards. Because I did it all over the kitchen table, all over the dining-room table, full of dents, you know. And farm iron does make big dents. I was into farm iron in those days. And it sort of took priority with me, because I knew I could, it was something I could do. So I did it. And so the house living came second.
Your husband, Ben, had moved from optics into astronomy. How did the move from Mount Stromlo fit in with his career? What did he do when he came down to Canberra?
Well, for a start, he didn't sort of move into optics from astronomy. He always was an astronomer. But optics was his sort of field at the time, and it was a necessary field. And he commissioned a big telescope up at Coonabarabran. So he was away a lot. He used to go up. They did another observatory at Coonabarabran, because the skies here are very cloudy. Somebody, incoming person, said to the director, "What beautiful cloudy skies you have in Canberra." Which is quite the wrong thing to say to an astronomer. So the men used to go up to Siding Spring. He was away an awful lot. He used to go away for ten days and then come back for two. And he was always - he was liked those men who climbed Everest, always watched the telescope. You know, when he came home he wasn't there really, he was watching the telescope, because it was a very big thing. It was the biggest telescope in the southern hemisphere at the time. And it's been very successful. So he was away an awful lot doing that.
Totally absorbed, oh absolutely totally. You've got to be, you see, if you in - one of the scientists. The first year in astronomy and that cuts you out from a lot of normal functions. And then if you're building a telescope that all the eyes of the world are on, and the British were in it too, you see. And it was very important. It was a very big career move for him.
So when he came home, he wasn't a lot of company for you.
No, he wasn't. No, no. But that goes with the job.
And so what was your response to that?
My response was more art. I'm doing this, don't talk to me. You know, you do it the way you must and can.
So if you can't beat them, join them.
No, don't join - don't try to join them. This is a big mistake. You never try to join them, because it's, as I say, it's - you might list the ABC, but you don't know the rest of it.
But you've got your own thing. Your own...
I got my own sort of heaven, as I always say. His was up there, mine was down here.
Now, we haven't talked yet about how your art came to be recognised. I mean you were doing - going back to when you started doing the pieces in iron and the more permanent pieces after your training in ikebana - how did it come that other people began to see the real possibilities in your work?
Oh, it's a question in Canberra especially, of knowing the right people, I think. And everything with me was sort of chance, chance. I always say if I didn't have chance as a friend, I wouldn't have a friend at all. And so it was a chance, people I knew like Jim Mollison, who put me on my mettle to impress him with. But things could be as visually interesting as things made by people who were trained, you see. And I've always thought well that's more interesting. I used to look at the cranes around Canberra. Beautiful cranes. I thought that's better than the things in the sculpture garden. That's better to look at, I'd rather look at that. And I would too. And so it's your own assessment. And just hanging loose I think, and just doing it because you've got to do it.
I know we started talking about it yesterday, but we didn't complete talking about it, so I'm going to ask you to elaborate again from the beginning about how Jim Mollison came to see your work. So I'll ask you a question about that... How did you get to know Jim Mollison?
Well, he was in the Canberra scene, and my son met him at a sculpture centre here that Lester O'Brien was running. And eventually he came to the house. And I suppose he was a bit - he was an interesting person himself. And I was deeply impressed of course.
What was he doing at the time? What was he working...
Well he was working in the Department of the Interior, I think. He was getting together the - a national art collection. But the Gallery wasn't built then, you see. And Martin always encouraged me in what I was doing, both with the ikebana and the other things. And he thought I was sort of unusual. Jim wasn't so sure. And he was very cruel, he could be very cruel. And he discarded a lot of stuff, but after a while he came to be convinced that I was something different. And he put me in the Philip Morris Collection, which was for young, aspiring artists. And I was anything but young at the time. And this - I remember getting the telephone call. He wanted four boxes, he said four boxes for the Philip Morris. And I remember lying on the carpet. I was so impressed with this fact that the things had been bought by such as Jim Mollison.
It did, it did. Well I was very surprised. I never considered myself an artist. I did what I did because I had to do it. Because I wanted to do it, because I wanted something to look at.
And he got to know your art just from coming to your house.
Oh yes. Yes, he did. And we became friends. He used to come in and have dinner and things.
He used to see a lot of it. He used to ignore a lot of it. But he would look at it and he wouldn't let me see him looking at it, you know, that sort of thing. That was when I was coming up. And when I was crossing from ikebana to more permanent things, he used to - he said to me once, "You're really very good with your bits of twig." No praise from James. But you know, it grew. And then, and then I knew Michael Taylor, who was an artist who lived at Bredbo, and he used to talk to me a lot. He didn't talk to many people, he taught at the art school. And it was the first real artist I'd had to talk to. And your things matched, you see. You find that you are that sort of animal. I suppose that's what you do find.
And so you began to get this idea of yourself that you could in fact be an artist and be seen to be doing work that was quite seriously regarded by people?
Well, yes I could. But I found that I could be, frankly, not one of them, because I didn't know the rules, I hadn't read the book and I wasn't going to read the book anyway. And so my art was going to be different. Of course, it was different, because I'd made it up myself. You see, it's no sweat, if you see what I mean. You make it up yourself and it satisfies you, and that's all you're after really. Because you know you haven't got a hope of satisfying 'the art world' you see.
But then you found that you could satisfy them and attract their eye. And the first thing that you did was with the exhibition when Jim selected your stuff. But then not long after that you...
No, he didn't select my stuff. Michael Taylor did.
For a gallery. Wait on, it was Macquarie Galleries. Anna Simons ran it in Canberra.
Right. But you had the Philip Morris exhibition.
Oh no, that was after that.
Right. So, so, when was the first time, could you tell us cleanly. I'll ask you a question again. When was the first time that your art was shown publicly?
In Macquarie Galleries in Canberra. And that was because they pushed me. And I was rapidly going over the hill, you know. I mean if I didn't do it now, I wouldn't sort of establish it. And there's nothing like having a show to establish your work. So people were asking me in Canberra, withdrawing the hems of their garments rather, "What exactly is it that you do?" you see. And so I thought I'll show them what I do. And so I just shovelled it into the Macquarie Galleries. And Keith Looby was in town at the time. And he and Anna Simons, who ran the gallery, came out to just see what was happening, you see. And Keith Looby said okay to Anna, and I went in, you see. It wasn't long after that, that they had what they called the Artists' Choice show in Sydney, and that was Annie Lewis. She ran the gallery, Gallery A in Sydney. And it was a case of getting established artists to pick somebody whom they thought was neglected, you see. And Michael Taylor was teaching at the art school then. And to my extreme surprise he said to me, "Look, I don't want to choose anybody at the art school. I want you to go in". Heavens, you know. And then he kept getting very bossy, and he said "Well as artists' choice, I'm going to choose that one, that one, that one and that one." I was amazed at the choice, you see. So I went down to Sydney and I went into Gallery A, and Sydney was foreign territory to me. I only knew Mount Stromlo, and I'd come from Auckland, and that's behind base, I'll tell you. And so I went in and I put my little group of things down that he'd chosen. And there were all these very large young men putting up things they'd been taught in Sydney schools. And you could tell who their teachers were mostly, because they did similar work. Big things, leaping boys, great big 12 foot long paintings. I put my little things down and crept out into Sydney you know. And that very night I got a ring to say I'd stolen the show. And Daniel Thomas wrote the crit, and he said, very tactfully, "Rosalie Gascoigne turns out not be a young student, but the mother of grown children", which they could all do some arithmetic, you see. And Gallery A immediately offered me a one man show, you see. And this was very heady stuff for somebody living on Stromlo, I'll tell you. So you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you know. You think well I've got the offer, I've got to be up to it. So I did it. And I had a successful show in Gallery A after that, and a lot of the regional galleries, and even the Gallery here bought things. And so I was sort of launched. And immediately after that, Robert Lindsay, of Melbourne, offered me a survey show. Me! Victoria! A show! Well. I died the death, but I pulled myself up again by my bootstraps and went in. And of course I looked different. You see, the first person was John Davis, and then there was me, and I think Robert Rooney was in and various other people. And Robert Lindsay curated it. And then very soon after that - this was breathless times - they said "You're going to Venice". Venice, me? From the sticks. Knowing nothing. And so I went to Venice, you see. And then after that I...
You were in fact the first woman artist that had...
Yes I think I was.
... ever been selected for the Venice Biennale, to be an Australian representative.
That's right, I was, I was. We fell on bad times there because they were fighting Italian politics all over us. Six weeks we were in Venice waiting to get the show up.
No, I did not. It was terrible. The Italians were against us. They were fighting because somebody had cut down some olive trees. If anybody cuts down an olive tree in Venice, there's a ban on the site. And there was a terrible ban. And the Italians were playing politics, which I naively didn't realise. And they kept on not building us a place to put our stuff. The place they'd promised us was not available because the man had died. And that wiped out everything in the Italian political scene. Oh well, no he's dead now, you see. So you're going way down the river. So we went down by the canal, and there was our site. And it was just a slab of concrete. And the Poles or somebody had got their show up and were laughing their heads off. They said "You're a decent country, why don't you build a decent pavilion for yourself?" We hadn't got anywhere, so we sat around. Oh, it was terrible. It was really terrible. I never want to go back to Venice again.
What did you think of Venice itself?
Oh, well that was okay, but it's secondary to your art which has come out of the bush. It's your big opportunity, and you're kicking your heels all the time. And you're seeing other people's art, and you haven't got your art up, so you don't meet people. And so - and the fact that the Italians were playing us for suckers, really. I remember saying to the Australian girls who were supposed to be commissioners there, that okay we'd go up to Kassel where Documenta was, and it was wonderful that they coincided, and if the Italians hadn't built that hut and filled up those holes in the ceiling and what not we were going to leave, you see. And this was strong stuff, but it was my independent opinion. So when we got back, they said "Oh well, we could put a piece of tin over this and we could..." We're out. We're out. And so I felt the dignity of the nation was at stake really. And so we started packing. And people whom I knew who were ambassadors in Austria, the Campbells, came down, though the Australian embassy in Rome was supposed to be looking after us. They didn't have much interest, they didn't really. And interference from other diplomatic sources went down very poorly with them of course. And in the end they fixed up another place for us. Six weeks. I saw my show up for two days I think. You know it was, you know it was - to a stranger it's tops to be asked to go to Venice, you know, it was very, very exciting for me. Because it was downhill all the way 'til we got it up. And Peter Booth, very cleverly, who was my co-exhibitor, stayed in Melbourne and got paid $3,000. I got paid $5,000 and I had to fit in my six weeks living in Venice and my fare and everything. It doesn't cover it. You know, it's very expensive in Venice. That was all right. Battled through, got there. And it's good on your CV, you know. It's always good. And, but that was right at the beginning of my career, you see, I hadn't had much before that.
And you have said often that you do your art for yourself... to please yourself. What does it mean though to an emerging artist, particularly, to have that kind of recognition? What did it mean to you? What did it give you?
Well it gave me determination, more bootstraps, you know, that you're not going to fail. Because if you fail you're very public in your failure you see. And especially when you're older it's - and for your own - I always say when I put up a show, is it self-respecting? And if I find it's self-respecting, and I respect it, then I'm satisfied. Because you can't take care of anything else. What other people think. But I'm very strict on what I think myself. And that sort of stands you in good stead. It's back to you all the time. And I have been fortunate I think in choosing a different field, you see. If you're - it's axiomatic - if you're self-made, you're using your own eyes, well you're not going to be trendy, are you? And anyhow you couldn't be if you tried. See, so I do what I can with what I've got.
Now, let's start talking a little bit about your art. One of the things that I'd really like you to do for us, is to take us through some of the phases, because one of the interesting things about you was that there you were starting relatively late in life, recognised in your fifties, and yet you've continued to evolve, to find new ways of expressing yourself. And I wonder if you could just talk us through that line of development that has kept you refreshed into your eighties. That you started working with iron, and what was the next phase for you in your development after that?
Well, I think I still - however people like to pigeon-hole and make logical one's development, one uses one's naked eye, one takes what excites one, one gets more knowing, because you're not as naive as you were when you started. And you read publications of what other people are doing, and you think well, that's for them but it's not for me. And you go back every time to what excites you. Even if you feel, okay you'll - you get more knowing as I say - you'll venture onto real art world - in the end you come back to doing your own thing. You have to. Well the way I work you have to. And I find that people who keep on complaining about drying up - you know, a lot of people do that - it only pertains if you don't take aboard more cargo, you see. You've got to keep on taking on cargo. There's plenty of stuff around. And nature is endless, you see. And it's marvellous to have a friend like that, that is nature, because it's ever-growing, ever-changing, and it's always authentic. And that is my platform, what turns me on. So I'm not really in danger, as long as you've got the strength and the will and you want to do it. And you need it. And you do it. And so you don't - you don't suffer the rules that other people suffer. Like, as I say, the art school rules or that sort of thing. It's a different field.
Can we - can we talk a little bit now about your process. First of all, the fossicking. Can you describe what you're doing when you go out there looking for your materials?
Well what I get is a nice fine day, in a car you see, and there's plenty around in the countryside, especially for me with a New Zealand eye born. And I used to go out an awful lot and fossick. And it didn't matter if you found anything or not. But the countryside to me was so confirming and so beautiful, and so exciting and anything could happen, you see. It's marvellous, it's a wonderful freedom, that you drive around and you take the left-hand turns and the right-hand turn. And usually you try to get someone who'll go with you, you won't - it's very dangerous if you can't change a tyre of any of those things, way out in the hills you know. I've done a lot of that. And getting bogged is another thing - bad, bad news. And so you take somebody who doesn't - who realises it's a working excursion for you. You're using your eyes all the time, you're getting excited, you don't want to hear people's personal - it's not a social thing, you see. And you try to get someone who's interested in looking too, rather. And it wasn't 'til I'd driven around quite a lot looking at the countryside that I discovered the country dump. And there were a whole lot more things there - the Bungendore dump was absolutely splendid. They were throwing out - every old lady who died got thrown in the dump, more or less, and all her possessions, and all her old magazines and all her everything. So I got into things, rather. But usually weathered, battered, old things. And I found that I could make - put them in box formations, because boxes contained sort of the picture of what you were going to make, and it didn't fall over, you see. Because my mechanics were never very strong. And...
What was the biggest find you ever had? Can you remember a find that made you very excited?
Well I must say I was excited when they threw the side-show into the Bungendore dump. And I went over a hillock - it was a very untidy dump, full of hydatids apparently, but I didn't know anything about hydatids - and they'd thrown the whole side-show out. And I found these - some 300 dollies with arms. And a whole side-show and stuffed animals, and a great big boxing backdrop you know. And I showed them in my first show in Gallery A, and I had this great big boxing thing. I forget who it was. And all the men from the pub down the road - it was the first time I'd had a show and I had this thing in Gallery A, and the stairs went up and you could see it from the road, and it was sort of the backdrop - and all the men from the pub came up and they thought this was art. They really knew this was art, you see, because they could associate with the boxers. They knew who the boxers were, a lot of them.
This is the Jimmy Sharman troupe?
Yeah, Jimmy Sharman troupe. And they all came up. Oh, that was real art, you see. And it hit the Sydney people, I think, by surprise. Because it was accessible. Anybody could do it. You got to find the stuff, and anybody - and you've got to need it. And a lot of galleries bought, you know. I was amazed. It was the first time I'd been in Sydney bar the Artists' Choice which had four small things in. And it was nice to get the ordinary public involved, you know. They'd seen art for the first time, these men from the pub. It was lovely.
There's a lot of stuff, though, in the dump that you leave behind.
Oh yes, a lot.
So how do you decide what to take?
Look, it's very simple. You see, there's nothing very difficult about me. I like it, so I take it. See? You like it. That's nice. Oh, that's nice. Yes.
But do you use everything that you take?
No, no I don't.
So how do you decide what to use once you've got it home?
Well, you get it home, and you try to give it shelter, if it needs shelter from the elements. And then when the time comes, you walk among it, and you think that's nice, now I can do that with that and that with that. And put things together a bit, mostly dependent on what Wordsworth said "Emotion recollected in tranquility". You think of something that it reminds you of, or why you like it or whatever. And it is that Wordsworthian thing that past experiences get woven into the work. Things you've felt. Anything that's given you an emotional - if I say kick, that's not the right word - but that has... Yes, if you've had an emotion about anything, it'll get back into your work, because that's what it's about, it's about feeling, about how you feel. Not about how it looks, it's about how you feel about it. And then things fall against each other and you get strange juxtapositions. If you like the stuff in the first place. And I don't usually take anything I don't like. Very rarely in fact. And sometimes you find yourself in dumps, which I don't frequent very much, because they don't throw out the things I want. But - I've forgotten what I wanted to say...
Well one of the things that I've noticed, obviously that you use in your selection, is that things do seem to have to be a bit weathered and worn.
They always have to be weathered and worn.
I don't like them when they're new. As Rauschenberg said once, he never uses new stuff. And he said, "Oh it's been somewhere, it's done something". It's got life in it, you see. And what you're trying to get is vitality. It's the source of life you're trying to get in your things. This is what it's about, you see. And I'm never very good at going and buying anything. And I remember when I first started, John Armstrong was very much in vogue, and he was showing at Frank Watters, and he used to go to hardware shops and buy a whole lot of vices and things. And make very big things. They never appealed to me. Things like that don't appeal to me. I mean not that his work didn't. But for me they don't bring anything with them, and maybe I think probably one's New Zealand beginnings affect you a bit, in that - well everything, everything you've ever been affects you, that's what it comes to. And the shabby beach cottage was a thing that was very much in my experience, we used to have.
Yeah, and the old unpretentious look. And taking what's there look. I think that's why I've never strained about the exotic thing people will bring you from Darwin. It doesn't mean anything to me.
You're very interested in shape.
Yes, I am in shape, yes.
But you've also - there's, there's also a pattern to the colours that you go for, too.
Oh yes, there is. Well it's all - it's just anybody's ordinary likes and dislikes. Which everybody's got. You don't have to be clever about it. Just got it.
And so what sort of colour draws you?
Well, I like faded colours. I like colours that have been out in the sun and the wind. And I remember once, with a great big sack, going down the road towards the coast, and getting the old beer cans that people had thrown in the culverts. Marvellous colours. They were as good as the faded Italian colours, you know. The Piero della Francesca colours. Faded pink, faded blue, beautiful. And just because they were on a beer can people would despise it you see. I remember I made things out of beer cans at one stage. Just so people would look at the colour.
Were they aluminium beer cans?
Aluminium... You can sell them, yes, if that's what you mean.
Well no, I was thinking that you haven't been - you've used the galvanised iron...
Oh yes, that was later.
... but you were disappointed that some of the things that were being used on the roads now were on a metal base.
Oh yes, I definitely am.
And less attractive to you than...
Well everything is changing, you see. Everything is either going plastic, like the drink, drink boxes. See you can't get, mostly, wooden drink boxes now, which I've dismantled in their thousands. And you - things have all gone on to plastic, or on to metal, like the road signs. The road signs that used to be on masonite you could cut, and were beautifully weathered, are now on aluminium. So if a car hits them, they can bend them again, you see.
So once you've selected the material, and you've brought things home, and then you look at them to find what in fact resonates with you emotionally, what draws you, what's the next step?
Well maybe I get hit with an idea, or can see some quality in it that you can accentuate. But you see it's my own likes and my own dislikes that govern what I do. Whenever I've seen something, I must say I like weathered sides of buildings and things like that. I like the effect of weather on things. I like things that haven't been cared for very much, that are just there, they're just part of nature.
And you've also talked about how you bring an object in, or a piece, and you look at it for a long time before you do anything with it.
Depends. Sometimes I do it the next day, sometimes I don't do it for three months. Sometimes in four years I've tossed it out, because it's gone past it, or my tastes have gone past it. I just let it happen you see. This is the thing. I don't plan or plot. I really don't do that. And I think of late, I've done a lot more of the surfaces of things. I like the surfaces of things. I remember I was in Tasmania for a while visiting my son. And there was a most marvellous old yellow building. And the old colours are very much better than the new plastic Singaporean colours, you know, that we get. And this beautiful old yellow building that sold pianos or something. And a white plum tree blossom beside it. It was absolutely lyrical. And that beautiful yellow, you see. And those sorts of colours, if I could get pieces of them - but I can't really concoct a colour, I can't make a colour or mix a colour or do any of that, but I can see. That's what I think I can do. I think I can see, and I think I can arrange. And I think that's about the limit of my talents really. I feel it, you see. So it makes you different. Just per se you're different.
But you do stretch yourself, don't you? Like for example when you were trying to depict air.
Oh yes, you do, oh you do, you do. But I think that probably was a development. I think I wouldn't have tried to do air. But you start thinking about what it is that - and the people have shows and they say, be in it. You don't want to be in it, but you must be a joiner sometimes. And you think well what is it about - what really turns me on about going out. Well okay, it is the air, it is the beauty of the way the trees lean and what not. I just get it out in the country. I like dry grass. I'm very keen on that. And so you've got a lot of air, and we've got a lot of air in Canberra. And this is what they haven't got in Europe. And they haven't go far horizons either, because things are misty. And I remember trying to do something for a mixed show in Canberra, and they had unfortunately given me the best place in the whole complex. Very public it was, and I thought, gee, you know. And they were all - all the other people were trained, see. And for a long time in Canberra either you went to the art school or you were taught, or you were professional in some sense. And there was no room for the person who just made it up and saw with their own eyes. So I did this thing about standing on the top of the ridge above Gundaroo, which I'm terribly keen on. And you - it's the place I'd always take European visitors. Show them what Australia's like...
So what was it that made you try to capture something really difficult like air?
Well it was a project I was doing, I think. And I'd been rather bulldozed into competing, not competing, but joining a Canberra thing for, I think it was - it was installations anyway, and I was given pride of place in the Albert Hall [we have since been advised that this was actually at the ANU Drill Hall Gallery], which made me shudder, because I really hadn't got anything very concrete at the time. And so you go back to being honest with yourself, and when I'm honest, I think well, okay, what is it that I really like about this going out business. And what I like of course, is the sense of personal freedom, no phone, no nothing. Nobody can get you, you don't have to do your housework. You go, you see, it's a nice fine day and the country is there waiting for you, you see. And so I went on one of my favourite drives, my favourite routes, which is through Gundaroo, up over the hill, down to Collector, and sometimes - this bypasses the Federal Highway and Lake George and all that. And so I thought about this place, and I think it's the place that I always take visitors. That's what Australia's like, the distance, the height, the clarity, and the fact that there's nothing there, but everything is there. Everything is there that you could possibly need. And the sky towers above you. Lake George slides away to the right and a flight of white cockatoos goes over, and the place is splendidly ornamentated - ornamented - but it's not trying, it's not standing on its ear putting everything in, if you see what I mean. There's enough there. And the sense that I get of that place, I think when I think, is lots of air and freedom. And you've got to have the towering sky. And I think people who paint Australia and don't put in the towering sky, are missing out one of the real factors of Australia, the personal freedom of it and the big sky. And as I say, the grey fence posts, the cockatoos, the whiteness, the nothingness, the everythingness of it, you see.
And so I thought well, air's pretty hard to do, especially when you can't paint and you can't draw and you can't do anything. And - but you want the air, you see. And so - I was fairly desperate. I had to show up at the old - the Drill Hall and do my stuff, and amongst all these people who had been taught how to do it probably and what not. And so I got some big sheets of masonite, which were - I think 8 feet by 4 feet. And I wanted a lot of air, just a little bit is not enough. But a lot. So if you get three sheets of 12 feet by 4 feet and you put them up like that, like that and they go right up to the - presuming you've got a 12 foot ceiling, well you can do a tower of air and then you can read it into the rest of the gallery if you want, just because it's 8 feet long, it doesn't mean it stays 8 feet long. It takes up the whole gallery, you see. And I thought, well I'd better paint them white, sort of nothingness. And I had a, I have a cleaning lady which dignifies her, because she's really an artist and she comes because we talk and what not. And she said, "Oh, why don't you put it on with a rag?" because I was doing it on with a brush. I don't know anything you see. I don't know how to dip a brush in paint, or which brush to get. And so I got an old towel and went like this you see. And so with the brown masonite it comes out grey-white you see, with the brown reading through. And anything goes I found with a rag. And you wipe it over the 12 foot by 8, no 8 foot by 4, and you get strong youths to put it up, the wall you see. It's very hard to do the mechanics of it, because you can't, you can't reach high enough. And I remember when they were putting it up, I thought, my goodness, what a photograph there was there. There was a boy in a red pullover and somebody in a striped pullover and something and they were up ladders. It was a splendid photo. They don't see it you see. They don't see it. But anyhow.
So I got a piece 12 feet by 4 feet, and it went like that, you see. And then I had off-cuts of white wood I was using, that I'd just thrown on the floor and they suddenly turned into birds. Rather like Tucker's birds, screaming parrots, you know, raucous, raucous. And these things suddenly, on the floor, when I wasn't working on them, turned into this. So I had a long panel of that, and then I had some grey fence posts and some, four pieces of, or five pieces I think, of blue wood that I got from Revolve. Big packing case lids I think they were. You leaned them, you leaned the wood against them. And then you made some smaller airs, which are white wood, different shades of white and cream, and you fill the space you see. And I called it 'But Mostly Air'. Because it was mostly air. You couldn't have it without that volume of air. And when they came to put it up in Sydney, there was the, a girl who was doing the show, rather distraught, because the ceiling wasn't high enough for the 12 - I think it must have been 12 feet. And so, she had laid out a new piece of masonite which she had got the men to get from the timber work, and I had to paint it when I went down there. And the same method, with a rag and a thing. It came, it came. And so now I've got for a taller gallery, it now belongs to the South Australian Gallery, and they've got a 12 foot ceiling, so they can put it in. But if they can't there's a, there's an 11 foot one I think that will go in. But that was the first time I had been able to manufacture a feeling you see. So you progress in a sort of a way because you get more aware and more knowing. You just get more knowing. And still to me I can stand in the middle of that thing, especially if it's set up right, and it doesn't always - it's been set up in various places. And it is, it's been good in three of them. But one gallery did it very badly. I had to complain. They double banked them. It was hopeless. You know, it made a nonsense of the feeling that an installation is supposed to give you. You've got to be there, you see, and you stand in the middle of it and suddenly you're there, you see. And all the gaps in your memory fill up. But whether they would ever fill for people who haven't felt the same way about places, you see, this is always the snag. That it speaks to the people who know the place, or have felt the feel. I have critics in Melbourne who I think have never stood in a paddock in their lives. Would hate a paddock, couldn't bear it, would run screaming out it. And they like bookshops and things in Melbourne, you see. Well you can't speak to people like that because they don't need that emotion, you see. But you don't bother about them. You go for yourself and then people who feel the like way. So that's, that's a dividend. It pays for you.
It seems to me that a lot of the depiction of landscape is really rather like narrative of the landscape.
It is, it is.
And that yours is very much the poetry of the landscape.
Well it's the feel you see. As Bruce Pollard said to me once - as he walked around his empire, which he always liked to do when it was empty, you see, and feel the show - he said "Your work is about feeling, it's not about seeing." And I thought it was very apposite, because you can transmit the feel, but you can't - wait a moment - you can't - if you do a narrative thing, people - I suppose they can read it. It's more accessible. But that doesn't account for the way you feel about it, you see. And so you have echoes of emotions in it.
So you're after the essence of what it is...
Yes, I am, I am. The feel of it. If you translate, look for feel, you're about right. Because you see I can't do anything - I wouldn't for instance, and I have never seen anybody put cockatoos in as they are, as magnificent as they are, into a painting or a work of art at all. But if you've had the feeling of how magnificent they are, and you put the feel in, they get it, you see. So - and it is, it is poetry. It's one of the - I was very keen on the poets, the Keats's and the people that I learnt at school. And it gave me back, instead of the words, it gave me back always a picture, I always saw a picture. And if I didn't get a picture I didn't like that sort of poetry, you see. All very simple.
You also have never learnt to paint or draw.
No, I've tried though.
Oh yes, but I can't do it. I can't do anything that's like anything. For instance, if somebody said draw that dog, I couldn't draw that dog. I wouldn't know how to do its legs or anything.
Yes, oh often. You always wish what you haven't got. You always wish for it. And I think now when I see things now, I see Ken Whisson who was a very good drawer at school. And so all his relatives said, oh you've got to be an artist. And he said he spent years un-drawing things. Because if he made them like things they were limited I suppose. See, he does this sort of thing here, and I see his clouds and his sky and his wind and I can always tell the weather that's about when he paints, you see. And that to me is better, that's what I want, the feel of things.
But you did in fact take to paint for the installation 'Air'. Was that regarded as a bit of sell out?
That was an old rag. You see, it was an old rag, and it looked right. If - I'm very - my things are very labour concentrated, you know, I used a lot of energy making things. And I discard a frightful lot. And once it looks like a cloud, or looks like a bit of sky, that's for me. I don't care how I got there, you see. And somebody said, be fearful - no, wait a minute - strict with the thought and fearless of the form, you see. And you're very keen on your final result. And you don't care how you get there. And it's sure to be unprofessional, because other people know the short cuts and how do it. But if you're just strict with your thought, exactly what you think, and you've got to be able to read it back, you see, and be there.
So for you form very much follows content. You work out the content and then the form is sort of dictated by what it is that you're trying to express.
Well, form gets to be a bad word. I use it myself. And it's certainly in that quotation. But I think what it means is that you've got to be saying something, and you've got to be very strict to what you're saying. Don't just do something that looks good. But express the thing, and that's the form. You get there, as I say, any way you can. And with very limited skills and means. And with a lot of tossing out and things. And I found, for instance, that putting on the paint with a cloth was marvellous, because you got the light and the shade, and if you dip your old rag into the paint pot and you put it on the thing, well it goes heavier in some places and lighter in others. Because the very nature of the tools you're using, if you could call them tools you see. And you're strict with the final result. That's what you - and you don't particularly bother about how you get there. You really don't, because you haven't got very much choice when you come to think of it. And you see things on weathered wood and things that are exactly right, exactly. They know about the weather. They've experienced it.
How do you judge when you're work is right, when it's finished?
Just use my own eye. If it satisfies me it's right. And you see, I'm the only person I'm bothering about. I'm not bothering about you lot. It's got to be right for me. And I know what nature does. You see I really do know, because I've looked a lot, and it's mattered to me a lot.
What tools do you have in your studio? What do you use? You don't have brushes and you don't have...
Well, I have an old brush, yes, caked. And well I buy good tools, but I use them and they're pretty messy, and they're pretty disorganised. I take what's to hand, you see, I'm a very immediate sort of person.
But what are there in the tools, what do you use to physically...
I use a hammer.
... to physically put things together.
I use a hammer. I use screws. I've got an electric drill. I've got a band-saw which cuts things. I've got the usual cutting and nailing tools. I've got a - a New Zealand man told me I should have a nibbler to cut corrugated iron. So he showed me his nibbler, and he said "Are your hands strong enough to use it?" because nibblers are difficult. And so I got one that was suitable for my weight and age and can use that. But I don't look after my tools. There's this constant strife with my husband on this point. I pick it up and use it and put it down somewhere, you see. So everything is grist to my mill. It turns to my hand, and I use it, but I don't look after it.
You've also said that as well as not having been trained in the skills, you've - I quote - 'Not read the book' - by which I take it you mean that you haven't studied art, art history and so on. But you have in fact had contact with people who are very knowledgeable, who've taught you things, haven't you?
Oh, I have. But mainly it's chance, it's always chance. You see, Michael Taylor's wife was working at - Anna Simons - and that's how I got to know him. And he was just here, and Jim was a friend of Martin's. So I've never really striven towards a goal, because I don't know what the goals are anyway, you see, I really don't. And I need things to look at. This is my basic thing. I must have the pleasures of the eye. And books don't give it to me, as much as living things, you see.
And so when you began to find out what other people were doing...
... did that - it clearly didn't affect your work in terms of changing your direction, but did it inform it in any way? Did you begin to get a better sense of the context in which you were working?
I don't think I did really. I remember when I first started I thought I'd rather look at this than this clever thing that they've made according to the rules. I really would rather look at it. And nature would do it effortlessly. And I got more kicks, or more excitement, out of the natural thing than the manufactured thing. Usually - because the person usually got in the way anyway. See I don't want the person, I really don't. You've got your own person, and that's enough for anyone to deal with. So you don't want that, you want the product. And you want the thing that you would rather look at on the wall.
So when you read reviews that compared you with other artists, you often didn't know the work of the other artist until... Did you then go and have a look at it?
Well, if it came within my ken I did I suppose. But I used to find that the critics usually like to pigeon-hole you. Now this isn't the best critics, of course. But they like to - she's one of these and she's one of these, and she's opposed to this - I don't know what they're talking about. I really don't know what they're talking about. And I just - my aim is to get something up that I want to look at. And that's about it, you see. And I've got a rapport with nature, I always have had it. And I've got a rapport with some sorts of poetry. And you are, in the end, you're there and there's an empty space. So you are an artist. So you've got absolute jurisdiction over what you put in that empty space. Nobody is to tell you that is wrong. You should have this, you should have that. Absolute freedom, you see. That's wonderful I think. It's frightening but it's wonderful. And really, in the end, you translate yourself onto the wall or onto the thing, and you do. And when you look at art exhibitions - I remember looking at an art exhibition. There was a Léger beside a Picasso. And it was if there were two portraits of two disparate men. He's that sort of man and he's that sort of man. And it was absolutely unmistakable. So I think that in the end the artist dwindles as a person, and the art shines out. Because that's what they are, you see. And at best I think that is what you get.
As you began to move away from putting things in boxes, and you started arranging things, there's a lot of reference was made to the fact that you were using - in the critics - the fact that you were using the modernist grid, that things were being repeated. How did you come - what did that do for you, that arrangement on the grid?
Well, when you've got limited skills, you see, and you haven't got any of their clever ways of doing things, and you haven't been taught it, you do what is comfortable. And in the end, okay, I was putting things in grids. But I didn't really know what a grid was. And that's the way it worked, it worked for me, you see. And you do take on things from - I used to get Art & Australia a lot - ah, Art In America a lot. I find it doesn't serve the purpose to me now, and it's their art, not my art. But you do learn things a bit. But you've got to be very ruthless in your sorting out, what you've actually felt, what you know. And you get to feeling that your guess is as good as anybody else's to tell you the truth. After all, what have they got. They're only human beings after all. After all, aren't we all?
Does the grid give you an opportunity to repeat things? I mean I just think about how nature repeats, you know.
Oh, I don't do those deep thoughts. I start moving my hands with a sort of mindless way, in a sort of mindless way. And that looks right and that just gives me an inkling of this I've felt sometimes, and that sort of thing. And you can tell when you do sort of heartless things that are all mind working and no heart. You can tell, you see, because you don't - Jim Mollison always reckoned that an artist does ten really good things in his life. It's probably a Jim-ism. But it's true, not everything hits that spot, you see. And sometimes you can go along very barren for a while, and not find anything that hits it for you.
What hits the spot with you about galvanised iron?
Ah, it hits the spot for me, because I think it's indigenous to the country. It's a very honest material. It is - to me it's got that Australian elegance I talk about that is straight from Corinthian pillars and what not. It's very elegant. Not if you make particularly an elephant out of it, as my friend does. I don't want to make an elephant. I couldn't make an elephant anyway. But I don't want to, but I want to make it large in people's imagination. Let them see the other thing about corrugated iron. And I don't want to produce the dunny door, as people often have said. I'm not interested. And I hate 'woodsiness', if you understand the word. That sort of cute - you know, like those people who put jolly swagmen in gifty shops. I hate that sort of thing. For me, I hate it. And I think that galvanised iron without very much being done to it, like contorted into a cow or an elephant or whatever, has still got something. And I'm sort of striving after it. And I have placed two or three pieces in houses. One has been bought in Sydney that I called 'White Garden' because it was beautiful whitey grey tin, marvellous. And I had seen a cowshed out at Gundaroo, it'd been there since the year dot. And the woman had bought the hobby farm, and she said - I'd painted it once, a sort of battleship grey or something, and it had faded and it was standing in the ground. It was absolutely lyrical. And I found this whitish tin, so I made it into a biggish piece called 'White Garden'. And I thought that would look wonderful in a place that had good rugs, good chairs, not other things from the dump. Please don't put them with other things from the dump, because they'd look like things from the dump. But if this was put down in an elegant room, the sense of vitality it would have if it was just - didn't say anything much, it was the material that did it. And it did go to a very nice house, in Potts Point I think, in Sydney. And I was very pleased with that. And another thing that I was doing a 'Rose Red City', because there was a lot of the rose red tin around, and we had this rose red city half as old as time, you see. And the man who sold it unfortunately broke it up, it was meant to be an installation. And one of the pieces was bought by Kaldor's wife. And she's taken it to America, and I'm very pleased with this because it's putting corrugated iron into a class of its own. It is itself - it's elegant, it's Australian. And the vitality is just marvellous. That - and South Australia Gallery's bought one. I've got about five or six out. And the secret is to choose the right piece of tin and leave it alone. Do minimal things with it. Let it have its own personality. And it does you know, I think it's wonderful. Because you stick - you stick because there's so many things in nature out in the red centre, you know, blown over cities and towns and things, or for rusty stuff. But some of it is so good.
Where you do find the stuff when it's not in a dump? What other sorts of places do you go to?
Well I used to find it lying in the country, but people are making the countryside very neat now, it's very hard to find flotsam and jetsam. And I used to drive indefatigably, you know. And here a piece, there a piece. But for the amount of time I put into it, it wasn't all that much. But it collects over the years. And sometimes there's still a few dumps that aren't policed and sorted out, which is an anathema to me.
Do you go to old farmhouses and things?
Well I do, but they're not very keen on ACT number plates. If the fences are bad I will go in. If the fences are good, well I won't go in. Usually they're discarded places, tumbledown places.
What sort of people do you meet when you go around?
You meet nice men from the road, who are much better to talk to, I find, than social people, because they've got no defences up. They just tell you - they don't care, and they've got absolutely no defences, and you meet the real person. And I met one man who had a truck, and he said "Isn't it marvellous the things you find by the road". You're telling me, telling me anything. And yes, yes. "And an old tyre, that'll do for the ute back home. That'll do, I found that tyre.", he said, "People throw it out". And then he gets right to the end and he had false teeth that wobbled. I thought he was a lovely man. He really was a lovely man. And he said, "This, I found this for the farm dogs". A hare, a great big dead hare. He'd found them all, and his eyes were alight. And it was a lovely conversation, he was going to take it home for his farm dogs. They were going to eat it.
You found a soul mate on the side of the road.
I did, I did, he was an absolute soul mate. And I thought you had better conversations, and you really get into people. They don't, they don't put up - they don't be bothered - and anyhow women, you know, women. But when they see what you're tossing in the back of your car, they know they can talk. And they're quite pleased when they see women who do things. Mostly those men who work on the road and things. You know, they don't like society people, but that like people who are actually looking for something.
So when you were looking for your reflective material, you got to know road gangs then.
Oh yes, I did, I did. I remember absolutely fearlessly. Somebody said to me - I went out to Cooma, because a man in Collector had told me the names of various mates of his who worked in these off-stations, only because I'd given him a great raft of beer. I put it down, he just absolutely ignored it. He sat down at his desks and wrote names like this. So and so, ask for Joe so and so, so and so. So I went up to Cooma one day, and I went by myself. And I remember striking a marvellous time where there was hoar-frost. And you went over the hill and into Bredbo and the whole place was standing with hoar-frost. It was absolutely like a wonderland. And even the willows, like Druids, they were, all their, all their sagging branches were covered. And the paddocks looked through the hoar-frost, ancient gold. It was absolutely marvellous. I bought a meat pie in Bredbo and the man was very glum about the frost. He didn't like it a bit. And I was going up to Cooma. So I went up to Cooma, and I met the man who Joe sent me or whatever. And he found boards under his fences. So then I drove home and it was later in the day and there was a road gang having smokos or something. And so I got out of the car, and you approach road gangs of men, and they don't like it. They don't like women when they get together. And they won't speak. And then they make jokes and nudge each other. They do, you know, a lot. And so that's okay. And I said I've just been up to Cooma and Joe or whatever. Ah, I was authentic because Joe - I got in the back of the car and they all stood on tiptoe, they could see what was in the back of the car, you see, the road signs. I said "Have you got any?" And they stopped nudging each other and the foreman said, "Oh well, I got these". And I said, "You don't want that one with the hole in, do you?" Leading remark. No, he didn't want that one. And what really touched me was that he lifted it and put it in the boot of the car. Never in my scrounging days have I found men that are willing to lift things into your car. If you scrounge, you lug it yourself, you see. And he put them in, and I got a wonderful haul. And somebody said, "You were pretty brave, accosting those men by yourself". I never thought of anything. If you're sort of matter of fact, I don't think you're in any danger, really. And you ask them, and they settle down and talked about this queer lady whom they had identified by the fact that she had things in the boot of the car.
Have you ever met any really eccentric people on your travels?
Oh yes, yes I did. I broke down once with Rosemary Dobson, I was with. And the battery went flat, and we were on a riverbed back of Goulburn somewhere. And I had to start to walk, because we had no help, no nothing. And I saw some spiralling smoke in the undergrowth and I went towards it and this apparition appeared. And he had an orange towelling hat, and he had a ladies' frock. And he had gnarled, knobbly legs. And the crowning piece of it was that he had a sort of disconsolate W-shaped ladies knickers drooping down under his dress. And he stood there, and his daughter, it turned out, was with him. He was well over, he was 60 or something. And she had this hard look, out of Kylie Tennant, you know, "Want to make anything of it?" I didn't want to make anything of it. No, no, no, no. He could wear dresses as far as I was concerned. And I wanted a jumper lead, you see. He was rotten with jumper leads. He got very talkative and he said, "That's why I wear women's gear" or something. And he was absolutely marvellous. Rosemary Dobson, meanwhile, was quivering, because she thought we were going to have to stay the night. And he had an ablutions tent with an old sack hanging from it. Oh. And she wasn't up to transvestites. But anyway, a farmer came down from the hill. He had a hobby farm or something. He said, "Do you want to go to Goulburn?" And we didn't want to go to Goulburn, not one little bit. But it was a lift you see. Then we had to get a taxi there from Goulburn to Canberra which cost us the earth. But that was the one person I met - and when the NRMA from Braidwood went out to repossess the car, I said "Did you see the transvestite?" And the boys at the garage looked so disappointed. They hadn't seen him at all. I suppose the woman - they started the car and took it down to Braidwood. That was all right. That's the only time I've met a really queer - but most people are very nice when you take them as what they are. Don't criticise, don't do anything, so that's what they want to be and they are nice. And they're very helpful too.
One of the things that's very noticeable about your work is that it really does all seem to celebrate the great beauty of nature.
Well it does. I look at it. When I see it, as I've just seen it in a retrospective I had in Sydney, and I was rather amazed that this was my country showing itself. And I suppose it's what you look for. It's what you need I think, that you go for. I don't go much for the bleak burnt out places. And I remember being on a ship putting into Greece, and all that bare, wrung out country, kills you. It kills me to see oil and stuff spread over good living grass and things like that.
So the ugly and the negative is not something that you've ever been drawn to depict.
No, I'm not. No, I'm not strangely enough. No, I think it is pastoral delights or something, or something like that, something like that I think.
Why do you think that is? Because a lot of artists at some stage in their career, have a period where they - at least a period, some of them especially devote their lives to it - but a period at least in which they look at the negative.
Well I don't think, I think you look for what you want, I think you probably do. And that's unconscious. I think you do. I always feel a little bit hurt when I see industrial sites with all the grass and everything negated. And the soil soured, and people can't live off it. There's no living quality in it. I think that's what I like. I think it's what I like.
That's one of the things that's made the pigeon-holers a little bit puzzled, isn't it? That you in fact do take industrial materials and use them. But a lot of the other artists in the contemporary world who do that are in fact depicting urban squalor with it and so on.
They're very good on the grim. But I wonder if they - I've often wondered this - if they're grim like that all the time, is that their view of life, that it is like that. Or whether they're like those people who go to the cinema, and they shudder deliciously through a horror movie. You know how they do? And they come out eating sweets with happy smiles on their faces. This is not sincere, I don't think. And if they just wanted to dip their toes in the water of something so unlike life - maybe it is like their life - but I think that is a sort of fascination with that sort of thing, which I haven't got. I don't like to see the earth made less than the earth...
How important are specific places to your work?
Well familiar places. You sometimes dream. Now if I'm just standing on the edge of Captains Flat dump - I used to go up to Captains Flat, up the mine, and used to go there with a bucket. And I remember trudging across that mud plain, it was magic. And the iron work used to be like Giacometti's iron. It's all eaten away by the nasty acids and things they have in Captains Flat where the mine was. And I used to get buckets of that. Didn't use it, but I got buckets of it. And I used to dream, wouldn't it be nice if it were morning and I was up on the top of Captains Flat dump. Park the car there, hadn't gone over the edge - big mistake to go over the edge. And you know, was free as bird, collect a bucketful.
You've represented this area of Australia extremely well with, you know, the Monaro...
Well, that's true.
...the whole area around here. What about other areas of Australia?
Well you see they don't know me, other materials, other places in Australia. I've got to know the country and the country's got to know me, you see. And usually I've gone to places that were away from home, you see, and within driving distance. Because I never stayed the night, I always came back. Sometimes I used to go as much as 300 kilometres, you know, I used to go way out and back. And if I got mud bound or anything I was in deep, deep trouble. And especially as the night used to come down, back of the Brindabellas, and mud pools. And you had to get out of the car and sort of see how deep they were before you went through. Because if they were too deep, you were stuck. I was very adventuresome I was.
And so you had a sort of range, like an animal has, that you...
Yes, I did. I'd think I'd go this way or that way. But there are only a certain amount of main roads you can take, you see. And you could go out towards Cooma, but that meant you were battling the traffic all the way, and that's no good if you're looking, keep your eye on the road sort of stuff, you know. And then Collector.
So what would happen if you decided to go to a different area of Australia? Would you be able to represent that area?
I'd have to - if I lived there I would for a while. That's one of the things I think I said before. I'm not keen on travelling, because though the country is my thing, I've got to make friends with it first. It's got to be a familiar to me.
What about the country of your childhood in New Zealand. Does that come out in your work?
I suppose it does. I think people are the sum total of their experiences. No effort is made, but you just are the sum total of your experiences. And New Zealand is very different from Australia. And I had limited, perhaps, mobility in New Zealand. People didn't have cars in those days. And you took what was round you. And I didn't have the need, I think, perhaps when I was in New Zealand.
Are there any specific works that you've done that you would identify as being inspired by the New Zealand landscape rather than the landscape round here?
Well, I think I did one. And I suppose it mostly was inspired by the New Zealand landscape. And I remember my sister who was farming in the North Island, she died, and I had pieces - you've got to have the stuff to make it. It's no use having an idea without the stuff to make it. And I had some pieces of - what do you call that sort of form board. And they were like hills, you see. And she farmed in a place where you had to - well it was fertile ground but you had to work hard. And she was very strong-minded and she pitted herself against the landscape. And I had a piece of tin with the Lysaght lady's head on it. You know, it was the type of corrugated - no, it wasn't corrugated, it was just iron that they made, and they used to appear on the sides of barns and things. I saw her fighting the elements on this farm. I had the hills, you see, already made of formboard and so I made that. And I remember I showed it in a Biennal in South Australia. And something I said to Ron Radford, who's the director there, about why didn't you buy that one, you see. And he said too Colin McCahon. And I thought, well I looked at the same hills as Colin McCahon did, and I suppose to people it looks more New Zealand orientated. I think they mostly don't see the faded Lysaght lady, which is like all Lysaght ladies, bush fire come what's it. She was there on the side of the barn and she repelled it. Rather like Ned Kelly in the landscape here. And I did that one. But it was because I happened to have the thing, and I was thinking of course of my sister then, too. So that I think I did.
And if you were to go to other parts of Australia for a visit, that wouldn't be enough for you to be able to represent that landscape.
No, it wouldn't. Except fleetingly, I did have this son in Tasmania, and I went down and I had a show there, and I had a piece called 'Clean Country' because in Canberra the frosts are so severe that the country goes back to its shape. It goes back to - the grass gets bare and the fences get bare, and everything - because it's a very thin time of the year. And it's very beautiful. And I did this 'Clean Country' bit, which was the sort of sticks and wire netting and something, all grey. And the people in Tasmania said "What does she mean, clean country?" But it was very appropriate for here, but not for there. And I realised how regional I was. Because what speaks to you is what gets into your art. And it only speaks to you if you're familiar with it, I think.
Now you've taken this work internationally, and there's been international interest in it. What has been the place of travelling abroad in your life for you? What have you got out of it?
Well I suppose a feeling that you're sort of authentic. And you're speaking a sort of universal language. It's what I always call, I always say is the eternal verities. They're true for everybody, really they are. And I find that that's part of my platform. I stick to what I know is actually true for a lot of other people too.
So that there's this sense that the local, the regional, is in fact universal...
I think it is. And I think you can either go wider or you can go deeper. And really I've got all I need here, really. And it's sort of just a matter of going deeper. I can't - well I can't be sympathetic towards people who think they've got to go and paint in Canada or they've got to go and paint somewhere. The eternal verities are eternal verities I think, and they're in your own spot, if you want it.
When you were in Venice, what did you think of the visuals in Venice?
Well, they weren't my visuals, they were more ornamented. And they were terribly decaying, which I found coming from a fresh clean country, it wasn't my thinking. And I remember when we were having a terrible time getting a pavilion built - built actually while we sat and waited - there, that I sat on the side of a canal where they were building the hut. And they were excavating. And they were digging up the most beautiful old china chips of Italian sort of civilisation. And I used to sit on this balustrade and place them all along. And I remember some of the tourists came up, "Oh, that's quite valuable, that stuff, you know". And the workmen got so that they handed me things and tried to explain. I remember the man who tried to explain a pipe bowl. He kept saying "A peep, a peep". And I kept looking and looking. Ah, it was a pipe bowl. And an old coin or something that they'd - there was a lot of digging to be done down there. It would be fascinating. I would like to be an archaeologist in the sense that you would dig up things.
When you went to New York, how did that strike you?
Well I went to see the art and I went by myself. And I was only there for three weeks. They lost my luggage for a week, that was helpful. It rained a lot. They were very rude, Pan Am, very rude. And so I trudged around looking at what art I could see. And I came away with a conviction that the art was sponsored, and these people were going to be famous by edict. This was very bad news to me. I thought that's not very good, that's not very good. And I wasn't terribly impressed. I saw 'The Earth Room', by - who was it - de Maria I think. Anyway. And I thought that is decadent, a country that will keep a floor of earth. I forget how many stories up it was. It's all right out in the open with a pigeon sitting on its head, but to have an earth room and people go and look at it. And 'The Broken Kilometer' that was a mile of brass pipe encased in an upstairs room, and people slowly went up and saw this, it was a kilometre of brass pipe. And the only comment I heard - there was only one person in there when I was there - and he said, "Oh, this must have cost a lot". Not good enough, you see. And I thought well there's other art and it's truer to me, it's truer. And so it was very valuable in that sense.
So it gave you a lot more confidence in your own work to see...
Well yes, you stick to your guns.
But your work now, I mean you have people who come and buy your work and take it back to the U.S., don't you?
Yes, I do.
What sort of people? And what interests them?
Well I don't, you don't often meet the people who do. And I'm impressed when people like René Block, who did one of the Biennales of Sydney, invites you. I've got a show going on in Kassel, it's not the Kassel show, but the Documenta. And unfortunately I'm called - well not unfortunately - a New Zealander. And there are four New Zealanders in it. And he's going to have an Australian show, because he's trying to introduce the antipodean art to Europe. And as soon as they mentioned Colin McCahon, well I would cross the seas to go anywhere with Colin McCahon. I really think he's the greatest antipodean - he gives you the country that they would never know in the northern hemisphere. With Colin McCahon, me, Lyle, Lye whatever his name is, died in America, and a fellow Boyd who does prints. Not the Arthur lot, the other lot. And there are just four. And then he's going to do an Australian lot. And I said to Roslyn Oxley, where I show, "Oh, look, I'd rather be an Australian really, because I was never an artist in New Zealand. Could't have been and I didn't hit the scene here 'til I was in my fifties anyway". And she said "Oh, you might be in both, darling", she said. So I live in hopes. But it's very hard for them to get, you see, the New Zealand thing. And I am claimed by New Zealanders as a New Zealand artist.
That's becoming quite common now. People like Jane Campion...
Yes that's right, they are. Place of birth, place of birth. But it doesn't deal with the places that formed you. And it was certainly circumstances in Australia that formed me, and the taking on another country.
Why do you think it is that the Monaro plain and that whole area spoke to you in the way that it did? Is there some quality in it that you think resonates with your personality, with your character?
Well I like the grass, you see. I've always liked yellow grass. I really do. I see it on the roadside. I just love it. And... [coughing]... it was there...and David Campbell's poem about the Monaro rolling... [INTERRUPTION]
What do you think it was about this country around here that really, really spoke to you?
Well I think eventually it's a personal freedom and the air and the grass. And I suppose too, that living 17 years in an isolated spot, without you even trying, it works on you, you know, it influences you. Everything you do influences you, but I think that really does. And it sorted it out for me. And I think that you're - you're cushioned by your homeland and the people you knew and the people you went to school with and everything else. Well when you change countries, you're absolutely on your own, I think. And I think that makes a difference. And you look hard. I always looked anyway, but I look hard for friends in the environment, because I knew that was something that stayed with me always.
How important are titles to you? The titles of your work. It's interesting that they're often very much the clue to what to look for.
Yeah, but the titles, as I'm always telling people, come after I've finished it. I never work to a title. And so I finish a thing, so it becomes - it's not a proper nothing, it's something, you see, it's got a presence. And I'm the judge of whether it's got a presence or not. And so then it's got presence. So it's something. And you know it's something - well now what is it, you see, and what in your experience has spoken to you and produced this work. And then you try to think of a title that doesn't lead the observer, and narrow him, or narrow his concept of it. So you might see something but they, with true genuine experience might see something else. So you've got to make room for the viewer, you see. So you mustn't lead the witness. That's that they say in the law courts, don't they? Don't lead the witness. And so then I sit here and play games at night. What'll I call that? And they all get sick of me. They get so sick of looking at it. And then in the end, sometimes it tells me. I remember making a piece out of retro-reflective stuff. And I had it in the passage. It was two big, fairly big squares. And very square, and yellow reflective. And I went past it and it said 'Tiger, Tiger' like Blake's 'Tyger, Tyger, burning bright.' And it was the shape of the tiger's head. You know how square they are. And it whoosh like that, at you when the light got it. And so I called it 'Tiger, Tiger.' But it definitely told me what it was called. And I've had other things that I've kept around the house for a while. And suddenly all your doubts have fallen away, all your posturing has fallen away, and suddenly it tells you. It's very funny when it does that. But it takes - sometimes it takes a long time.
What kind of voice does it use?
Ah, I don't know. Just authoritatively. It tells me authoritatively that I am called 'Tiger, Tiger'. And once I made a thing that Daniel Thomas has bought. And I was taken with a hillside over here in Garran. And suddenly the wattle comes out - there's a wattle tree there, a wattle tree there. And it strikes like lightning. And I always think how the early settlers must have felt when they saw this strange shrub light up on the hillside, you see. And it was made of yellow and grey wood or something. And I called it 'Wattle Strike'. And I had a rather persistent woman I had met in Venice. She was American. She said - she wrote to me, she said "What a terrible name. Why don't you call it 'Wattle Surprise'?" Like something you eat for lunch, you know, one of those awful bars. I thought what a terrible idea. Because actually the wattle does strike, and in the most unexpected places you see it come up. And suddenly it's all there. Been to Lasseter's Reef and back again, with it's gold or something. So I do that.
And it really matters to you to get the name right.
It matters to me to get the name right. It adds to its personality or its presence for me. But then if I do it too narrowly, or too descriptively from my experience, then it shuts other people out. So you've got to be very careful you don't stop people seeing what they see. Because this is important, what other people have from their experience become, and are apt to see in your work.
Why did you call that piece that you took to the Venice Biennale, and that's behind you on the wall, 'Pink Window'?
Well, it's a window and it's pink, I'm afraid. I think that's probably why. And they're both accidental colours, you see, and they came together.
What does that piece represent for you? Speak narrowly if you wish.
[laughs] When I first made it, I remember I had it over there, where you could have a window in the wall, you see. And I used to think of these, these women who lived in the outback of Australia, which is should be rather a frightening concept, you know. The farm going bad on you, the animals dying. And the road winding away to somewhere marvellous. And the woman, left alone in her house, looking out and - to see if something was happening. Nothing. Absolutely nothing was happening. And there's a nothingness in the Australian landscape that is - I don't know, I haven't had the experience - but I don't know whether there's the same nothingness anywhere else. But there is. And the sort of hope that that might be a car or galloping hooves or something. And I could, I could - nothing happened on Stromlo a lot, you know. And people did sort of yearn for other places, familiar times, friends, all that.
How did your feathered work come about?
Well I found the feathers you see. You find the stuff. This is nice, you see. You walk round and you say this is nice, so you pick it up. If there's a lot of it, you take a lot of it. And then you leave everything else to chance. And I remember going down to Lake George, because I had been in the Bungendore dump with a New Zealand friend, and the smell was something awful to her. It didn't worry me too much. And let's have our lunch. Well let's get away from this frightful smelling place, you see. And so we took the other road, and there was suddenly a road saying Lake Road, no thoroughfare or something. We went down there and there was Lake George. That's how I discovered it. And that was the bird sanctuary end, the Bungendore end, not when you get onto the main highway. And the swans and all the other birds, the pelicans and everything were going up and down. It was like - I hadn't been to Venice then - it was like Venice, flotillas of birds. Marvellous. And the swans were all nesting, the black swans they were. And they were all nesting and they had feathers. They'd dropped their spare feathers. It was hot. And all entangled with the blonde rushes are these lovely feathers. Some of them were full of mud and scungy, but I took them too, because I didn't mind. I used to collect, you know, lots, handfuls of them. And after several trips to Lake George the house gets full of feathers - the family don't actually like the house full of feathers. They don't like you washing them, well you washed them in the laundry, but all the same. And so I thought well what else have I got a lot of that I like. And I had a lot of newspaper, because you'd get a lot of newspaper. And so I sat on that sofa there and started threaded them through like the old pin papers - that you used to buy pins in papers and they were threaded through like that. We got a double spread of newspaper, and threaded about four, and I thought well that's neat. They don't mind these feathers if they're neat. So I threw them down on the floor, and suddenly they sort of moved away from your hand, and you could see that there's a whole surface, a terrain almost, like a winter landscape, when the country's clean and goes back to its lines as the country does. And so I think I threaded about 3,000 in the end. There were a lot of feathers. And the newspaper red. And just on the floor. I remember putting it down in the gallery in Victoria and three very nervous women came by and said "Oh, what about that?" you see. And I said "Well, look here, if you've been at the North Pole or the South Pole, well look there it is," you see. "And if you've seen the winter landscape it's there. And this is the levels of the lake, and if you've been in the aeroplane for a long time and you look out at the clouds, it's all there, you see. It's all your experience come together. You can think what you like, you can move where you like as long as you've had the experience". They got very confident about that. Unlike some other woman who was a historian, who stumped past me to the members' room and said "Don't you think a lot of art is about occupational therapy these days?" And I was just standing there, so I said "Oh, I believe in this piece. Quite like it." "Who did it, do you know?" Well she asked for it, so I told her. She scuttled away into the members' room with a great scuttle. But you know, she was an example of a person with a tight mind. And she probably hadn't had the experience or couldn't do the shift or something. But to me it had a presence. And I had a lot of them. And then I went again, and it was summer, real summertime. There was no mud. And the feathers were lying, really like peonies, you know how fat and white peonies can be, and on the blonde grass. And they were just beautiful. And far too good to leave. You don't care what you're making outright, they're just too good not to have. So I got a lot of them, and...
Yeah, but black swans hold up their wings, white feathers. And those are the ones they drop. And only once I did something with black feathers and they were the - what are those birds that - shags I think. And suddenly with a clatter they'd dropped all their black feathers, and they were just beautiful, like the inside of a mushroom, you know, glossy, shiny black. And I did two chairs with them that were oat pastiche, Nick Waterlow said to me. But he took the 'Feathered Fence,' he was very keen on, he took it for a Biennale, it was just - it was the drowning fences of Lake George. You could see where the tide comes in and drowns the fences. The optimistic farmers put their cattle there and then the lake rises again and the fences go, drowned into the lake. And it's all about levels, you see. The levels of the lake are like that, and the levels of the country are like that, and the levels of the - and it's very pure. And that's where the 'Feathered Fence' came from. And even gallery guards say "I do like your cockies." So I politely say they are not cockies. Cockatoo feathers are shorter and they don't have this lilt in them along. And they've got yellow on them too. So I say that.
You have always loved parrots, though, haven't you?
Yes I have. Well they're not New Zealand of course. It was like being inside a zoo when I first came, couldn't believe these brightly coloured parrots for free, you know. Flying around in our balconies. We had a buried pyracantha hedge. And they were snip, snip, like dressmakers in it. Snip, snip, snip. And then they flew onto your balconies. Just amazing.
And Arnott's overcame the problem of painting them.
Well, yes, it came second. I saw the boxes in the supermarket, Arnott's biscuits. And they've all got parrots on them. And some of them had blue parrots, some red, some multicoloured and what not. And the girls used to give me lots of boxes and I used to cut them out. But that was right at the beginning. And that was just using your naked eye, you see. What was there, you took. I did that, I found the parrots, I found the Norco cows too. I did quite a lot of things with Norco cows.
And you cut out cricketers and put those in boxes.
Yeah, but that was newspaper cuttings. They were real. Real cricketers, you know. There's nothing like the real thing.
And - but you stopped doing that. You stopped using...
You get more sophisticated. Well you've done it, haven't you? And sometimes in dumps you see, you kick around things that once you would have taken. But you've got past it. And I remember once doing a thing with enamelware - jugs and sieves and goodness knows what not. And a Canberra critic wrote me up once and he said "Oh yeah, she used that enamelware that can be found in any Australian dump". Got news for him. It can't. It can't, it's very hard to find. And even if you offered children money to pull things out of the bramble bushes, they don't.
I did, I did that once. They need more money. I didn't realise the currency had gone up a bit.
But as time went by you got more confident about a more abstract, more essence driven approach to things, rather than representation.
Well you did. A part of it's necessity of course, because there isn't the availability of the stuff. And the country stuff is sort of six feet under. The bulldozers have got at it. And you can't - you haven't got the access. And sometimes you've said all you've got to say about - you see. I've done - I've got more enamelware out there that I've collected over the days, but I feel I've done enamelware, you know, I've said everything that needs to be said, or that I'm interested in, you see. You could get slack on it, and disinterested, or a bit bored, you know. Well I can make that. There's a work in there. I don't want to do it, why should I? Every work takes time. This is what people don't realise, that even to throw up something, you know you can do this with your hands tied behind your back. But you don't want to do it. Because it all takes time.
All the time you've got. Absolutely all the time you've got. And as long as your enthusiasm is up - I go every morning out into the studio to look at what I've done and things that I vainly think are going to be pretty good, turn into proper nothings and fall off the wall more or less. And other things you persist and persist and persist and they come good. But you never know what's going to come good. But you've got to keep your energy flow up, and you've got to keep your hands moving. If you sit around with still hands, and try to produce a show, hopeless. No heart in it anyway.
When do you work? What time of day?
As soon as I get up in the morning, I go out and see what I've done.
Well I do - if I've got something that a - has been glued and weighted down and I've had to leave it for the night or leave it for something, then I would go, probably in a dressing gown and unpick it. Or take the weights off it or something. And see what I've got. And then I'd come back and have breakfast and do dishes. One thing, I do the breakfast dishes. And then every day, as long as you - as long as you feel enthusiastic, I find that in my cycle I have - somebody told me it's an alpha cycle in the morning. I don't know whether it is or not. But you're keen and your eye is sharp. But after about one o'clock you go downhill. And it's no use. You should tidy up or do something then, if you can bear it. But everything, the technicolour goes out of everything. It goes black and white and you're done. And you can feel it. It's a sort of state of mind. You see you've got to have - in my neck of the woods, instead of being, as Van Gogh said, you go into the studio every day, like a peasant, and you ply your trade. You don't think you're going to produce a masterpiece, because a lot of people do things, today's the day I'm going to do something, you see. But you don't. You go and you ply your trade, and then everything maybe comes in synchronisation, and you're there, you've got it , you've done it. But those highs you don't get very often.
And when you have got that moment that it's all come together, and you know it's right...
That's very exciting, that's exciting.
You work very fast before the vision departs I suppose. Or, if you - you know, things that take days to do, you've got to keep your enthusiasm up for those days. And if the next day you're still ignited, you're still exciting, it's still exciting, that's the best time you ever get I think.
Do you ever have long periods where you don't have those moments?
Oh yes, you do. But everybody does.
You get very rude to everybody and very bad tempered and everything. And then you work through it, and suddenly the light comes. It's very like a natural process.
Is there anything you can do to turn on the light, or do you just have to wait?
No, not really I don't think. I don't think you can pretend. I think art is about honesty really. As I have said to everybody, most of the things in this life, especially in this age, are about money is the bottom line. Look at the wretched building in Sydney by the Opera House. Money you see. But art has got to be about honesty. And see artists should look after it. It's not the gallery owner who's got to keep a roof over their heads. And has to appreciate everybody's sort of art and things. It's the artist. You've got to be very ruthlessly honest about it. If it's not good enough for you, it's not good enough for anybody. You've got to be your own judge too.
Can we take that a bit further? The idea of honesty in art, I suppose a lot of artists think they're being honest with their materials.
Yes but you're a mass of self-deception. Everybody is.
How do you get through that, and what is it that you actually mean by honesty in art?
Well, if it's not so you don't do it. As - there was an American woman who said "People do things, but it's not so", she used to say. "It's not so". And I think she meant that the eternal verity wasn't in it. You see, it's not easy. I don't think - I think art - people make art hard. It's really a simple process, but it's very serious. It's deadly serious. And that's all you can sort of tie to. It's like being drowned. And there's a - one piece of driftwood you can hang on to. Honesty, you see. And otherwise you destroy yourself. And I think it's a hard business. And I think, and I think people, everybody, every artist needs solitude. You must have the desert, there must be only there, see. Not everybody else telling you.
Would you ever look at a piece that you've completed at some stage, and been reasonably happy with, and thought that's a dishonest piece?
No, if I'm happy with it, it's not dishonest, that's for sure, I would think. I have - I have done things that I've looked at, and think, gee I was going on off at a tangent there. Because it's not hard. You have to sort of fight - it's almost like Dante - you have to fight your inner self. Because you're vain and you're this and you're gullible and like everybody else. And some days you think you're pretty good and you're - and then you find out you're not. And so it's a constant battle of reasserting yourself in your honestest way, and not thinking about so and so will like this. This is a terrible trap for people.
So the honesty consists of your being conscious that this piece is what you feel is right, and isn't serving some other commercial or other purpose to fill up the exhibition because you've been offered it?
Yes... Oh, that's bad. Or doing four more works before September, as you hear people - I wonder how on earth they can. "I've got to do six more works" she said, "I'm having a show in September". I said "How do you know" - you know, "where are they coming from?" I mean if you're intelligent enough you can sort of do something. But it's too hard a job, I think, to make art, the best art you can...
You have been very much labelled with women artists, often grouped with them or talked about by art writers as part of women's art. What do you think of that?
Well I have an answer for that and I gave it once to Meanjin, when I didn't realise I had been asked to write a piece as a woman artist. Because I have no truck with it. I think that with art you offer up yourself, and being a woman fits very neatly, if you think about it, into the category of what you are. So it takes care of itself. You know, because you're a woman you do this thing this way. But I never, I never hold with women who set themselves aside, as half the population, as women artists. You're either an artist or you're not, seems to me. Doesn't enter into it.
And you don't like being called a feminist.
No, I'm not a feminist. I know my rights, you know. And I suppose - but I - well I haven't particularly found a need to stand up for my rights. I've just gone on being what I am, and it's sort of come naturally if you don't think about it, it is what you are. It's a fact.
But what do you think feminism is? What's your - what are you rejecting when you say I'm not a feminist?
I'm rejecting the idea of two sexes. I'm rejecting the idea that...
You don't think women should have the vote, for example?
Oh yes I do. I think they can do anything they want...
But I think art, for instance, has neither age nor sex. I remember saying this once with an interview with the director of the New South Wales Gallery. And he was saying "How does it feel to be included in a Biennale or whatever it was? It's mostly for younger people". And I could see his trend. And I said "I think art has neither age nor sex. And what you pay is the thing on the wall and everything else is irrelevant". And I really think that. And so all this women's business. I suppose if I had, you know, as some women are repressed and they don't get this and they can't go to university because they're women, that would be different. But I haven't met it. And I know I'm a person as much as anybody else is a person. So you've got the same - you're born with it, you see, I think.
So what you're saying is that you haven't felt any discrimination against you because you're a woman.
I haven't. I've had people who've tried to be like that. And I remember being asked when I was of course older than everybody else, to give talks you see and there was a panel of people. And you'd see all these rather truculent students sitting there. No grandmother was going to tell them anything, you know. You know, it's inbuilt in them. And I thought I'll take that look off their faces, you see. I remember thinking it very, very distinctly. And in the end I could put forward - I was - that day I felt that I got all my ideas out. And you sort of hammered them with the facts, you see. And they get very respectful. Everybody takes a stance, I think, and especially the young take a stance, and especially the young don't like being talked to by a woman, and they certainly don't like being talked to by an older woman. So the facts defeat them...
Some people's definition of feminism would be exactly what you've just described. Saying a woman is no less than a man. And for some people when you say I'm not a feminist, it seems as if you're saying I think men are better than women.
Oh no I don't. Oh no I don't. I definitely don't think men are better than women. But I think everybody is conditioned by what's happened to them and what they are. And if they're black or Jewish or whatever, you know, well it comes out regardless. Whatever you do, if you're honest it's going to come out and it's going to colour what you are now. And I think it's what you are now you offer up to hang on people's walls. It's a sum total of your experience, I think. And I'm not a political animal you see. I think if you're a political animal, you're art will be political. If you are naturally that sort of animal. And if you're not - and I'm definitely not, and I'm ignorant to boot - it doesn't come into it. Art's an absolute, by itself. And it's hard to get there.
You're fond of talking about your ignorance, Rosalie. You always say... you don't know anything. And yet it seems to me that you then go on to talk in a way that reveals that you in fact know quite a deal. Could we just talk a little bit about, in relation say to art, rather than the broader world - you have in fact really learned a great deal about the state of art in the world, haven't you? Even though you haven't let it influence your own work too much. Where did you actually start learning that? At what stage did you start seeing other art? It goes back quite some time, doesn't it, to before you were actually doing it yourself, that you began to have a look at what artists were doing.
Well I think that - I feel, I always do feel that I was slightly misplaced. Because I didn't think the same as other people think. And I don't think. So in the end you're left with what you've got. The remnants of your education. And remnants they certainly are. And your place in the world, and the people you meet. And you work out for what is true for you. True, you see. And so once you do that - and anybody can do it, and anybody who has enough solitude to do it in can do it - well you stick with it, because that for me is what is true and it works.
You did though get some - you did have discussions with - there was a friend of your husband's, wasn't there, who started, who was an artist in Sydney.
Oh yes, yes.
...and you started getting to look at some of the art that was beginning to happen, way back...
I kept feeling with that particular friend, I was really, really on the wrong side of the tracks with him. And also I had this - I hate to say a New Zealand stamp which he picked up on. "You were a funny little thing when I first met you". That sort of stuff. Very superior. And really, really chauvinistic. And I thought, well for me this is the truth. And what he says isn't always the truth. Though he put me down considerably. And I think you start finding out what's true for you in the end. If you get enough abrasiveness in your life, you see, and I had plenty of that in one way or another. And so you start thinking, well I'll hold by this. And that is true. And what he thinks isn't. It might be right for him. So I think you do.
And with James Mollison you actually had quite a lot of time when you used to go and talk to him and look at art...
Well I used to admire - I used to admire his vision, and I admired what he brought to Australian art, which was a sense of great adventure. It was absolutely marvellous. He lived by it. And this was an education to me. And when people - for instance I remember him saying that Whisson was a man to buy. And I'd never heard of Whisson of course, but he had some shows. And I used to look at them hard, and think well if he's getting such a kick out of it, I'm going to see if I can't get a kick out of it too, you see. But I wasn't going to pretend I did, if I didn't. And so I used to watch them and watch them and watch them. And in the end I think I did haul myself up so that I could see the point. And so that's education too, and it's sharpening your eye away from the pleasant pastoral look, or whatever. And I think you take home things like old bones and you chew over them you see, and then you have to come with an opinion you can live with yourself. And I think I did most of my thinking that way. And most of the things, when people say to me, and I give talks on art, they're mostly things that you've nutted out for yourself. You've, you've sort of chewed them like an old bone I suppose. And it mattered to me, it did matter to get it right.
Michael Taylor, when you started conversations with him, he was an art teacher.
And an artist.
And an artist. But he was also an art teacher.
Yes, he was.
Was there an element of your learning from him as well?
Oh yes, a lot. Because he was the first, the first practising artist with whom I had real conversations. We used to talk for hours and hours. And he used to come down from Bredbo, and I used to put aside what I was doing, make lunch, clear up lunch too. And he used to - and it was a real treat for me to be, have serious talks about what I was learning about art.
What did you talk about, for example?
I'm just trying to remember. I'm trying to remember, but I remember his wife used to insist upon coming too. And she used to sit silent and we used to talk and talk. And he said, "Look, I can talk to you, you're just like Romanie" - his wife - "I could paint, and you could stand at my shoulder, I wouldn't mind". And he was a very private person. And this went on for about three years or something. And then I sort of climbed a bit and he was saying an artist has to be - what does he say? An artist has to be free, free. And I think he thought that I was influencing him too much or something. He was kind of touchy. And so that stopped. But by that time I'd had real art talks with him. And he used to assess my work for me a lot, sometimes.
So you'd talk really about what you were seeing, what you were...
Yes, what you were seeing and what was art and what wasn't. I suppose. I don't know what we talked about when you come to think of it. But it was all in that sort of field, and I really felt enriched by the fact that I had someone who understood about what you were seeing and translated it into art and what not. And also the fact that he could see that what I was doing appealed to him as an artist, you see. And that was a big step up.
Now you've said two things about how your art is regarded. You said, on the one hand, that you really don't care what other people think of it. But, on the other hand, it was very important to you to leave pieces lying around to get James Mollison's opinion of them.
Oh yes, because you had standards, you see, and you had goals, and you had people you admired. And don't forget I came in very raw. And when people first had shows in Canberra, there was one artist, one gallery, way over on the north side, and we used to put on our best arty clothes and go over, and it was marvellous. And you used to have advertisements in the paper like 'And the artist will be there, the artist.' Well that was touching glory for me. And I remember the time really when Pro Hart came to town. Pro Hart! And everybody rushed over, and he was supposed to be quite a voice in those days. Canberra was very backward. We had just the one gallery. And that was it. And so everything that - real artists and real people and people who knew about art were magic to you, you know, unattainable. To be an artist of course was absolutely beyond one's dreams ever.
So how did you decide that you were one? Can you remember the moment when it sort of - the penny dropped that you weren't just, you know, somebody with a hobby?
... A dilettante, I think. That's what Carl used to call me, this friend of Ben's. Well, I suppose you start getting a bit better. And then as the quality of the people who admire what you do - you don't care about people who say you are artistic because you do a Christmas tree better than somebody else, that doesn't appeal to you. But a real person who sees good, quote unquote, things, to think that what you're doing is worthwhile, is very impressive. Especially when you don't - you haven't been a remarkable success at anything, you see, if you see my meaning. You might have had sort of talents but you never were a success at anything. And also my husband, with his telescope up north and everything, just didn't have time or interest. And as other university wives have said, men like you to have an interest, but as long as you put it away when they come home, you see. And that's very true. A lot of academic men were like that. And the women joined the art school and were part time artists. But they put it away, you see.
No, I certainly didn't put it away. This was my chance and there it came. And Ben, I remember saying to me, I've never seen obsession like it. This is when I first started and I was doing it all over the house. And he'd been obsessed, lawfully, legally, legitimately, with his mathematics, his science, all his life, you see. And he didn't - he couldn't understand my passion for it. I mean you couldn't. It suddenly - well it's all right if you bring up the children and you make the cake and - after a fashion - and have people to dinner. Then you're being a real woman.
Do you think that's why you came to it really properly so late, that - in your life, that you were in your fifties really before you got a real go on? Do you think that that was because you were trying very, very hard to conform to a different pattern of life that had been, as it were, imposed on you by circumstance?
Well I do. I think it was - it was the only pattern was legitimate, out of New Zealand and into this. And I don't think you could have been anything else. You were deeply entrenched in the fact. I mean I wasn't one of those women who sort of got a university degree and went school teaching and juggled two lives. I couldn't possibly have done that with Stromlo and everything. And so I couldn't. I was looking for somewhere to happen. I remember feeling that I was out of step with everybody. And I really was out of step. Because I really did think differently and I came from somewhere different. And so you were looking for somewhere to happen. And suddenly this door opened to you, there were legitimate people who spent their lives doing this and art was a whole world. And I remember thinking oh how much better than the scientific world. Because with the scientific world, you see, you had no knowledge. And everybody talked shop, everybody. And scientists and astronomers talk astronomy, all the time. And so you - unless you're satisfied with housekeeping. You see what did you do? Took up drink. A lot of people did, I think.
I took up art.
And it was really only after the children had grown up that you felt free to do that...
Yell yes it was. Well yes, I didn't have the time. I used to do flowers and things, and you know. But I didn't have, I didn't have legitimacy on my side. Because none of my family had ever done anything that was artistic really, except the aunt perhaps. And I really think that some of my mother's sisters, who were very good dressmakers and very bad tempered, and they could have been artists if only they had known that you take what's there and you do it. I think they could. But it wasn't fashionable you see.
Do you regret those fifty odd years?
Well I have regretted them out loud to people. Oh, why didn't I have 30 good years under my belt, you see, for doing it. And they - some people have said to me quite comfortingly, well your art probably wasn't legitimate 'til the time that you did it, when John Armstrong was doing things at Frank Watters and places. And so your sort of art wouldn't be legitimate. And the thing that I've always found is that you - all your life you're computerising, whether you know it or not, you're forming yourself. You're building yourself up on your former selves. Everything that's happened to you, everybody you've met, every circumstance, makes you as you stand today, you see. And so I think I did a lot of my thinking. What I liked. I knew better what I liked than most people who start off at 20, because they sort through it, you see. And Jim also said to me once that - I said "It doesn't get easier Jim" after I'd had about three shows. And he laughed, cruelly again, and said "Ha, just imagine what it's like for 20 year olds. They go down to the concrete, up they come again, have another show, down they go to the concrete. And you get tired of it after a while." And I suppose I was lucky in the way that I hit people where they weren't expecting it. I came in differently. I was doing my own thing. And there weren't a lot of other people in the same field. And it's great to be different in your field. See, there are many people painting nowadays, and they're obviously compared with other people who paint. A lot of them have been through the art schools and they're compared that way. Well you can't really compare me, because I'm making it up. And after all, people are always looking for something new. And I remember a woman who had a son who used to get Carrera marble and do things, and they pushed him, they were diplomats, and they pushed him to prominence. They tried to, but it was no go. And she came in here and she looked at my stuff. She said, "But no skill" you see. And people all put it to that. They don't - they don't give marks for the message behind it, or the feeling or whatever. It's how skilful you are, you see, doesn't really enter into it, because you're strict with a thought and unfeeling with the form. And I think you are. And you just do it any way you can.
So this woman was astonished that you'd been so successful...
Oh she was - yes and she was trying to push her son. And she was - I remember when I got to go to Venice, she said "How do you get to do that?" I said "Well actually, you have to get chosen". And she thought he could put in for it. That's what she thought at the beginning. She didn't later.
What do you think has been the main advantage of coming to it late, for you?
Well, I think you form yourself. Because art only grows in the soil it's planted in, so to speak, mixing a metaphor. And so you know a bit what you want. You've taken on another country with fresh eyes - and freshness is something, you see, you don't see things as they are. You see them, you get me. And so I think that is an advantage. And I think actually being a kept woman, which I've often said to art schools - they don't like this. You say, "Oh well, I'm a kept woman. I do what I like". And other people are doing it to keep the boys in long pants or what not. Well you see I've never, I've always been fed, and I've always been clothed. So I was free to do what I liked. And that's a great strength, because other people have to paint six more pictures that are blue, or something, because the school fees are due or something. They have to, you see, and I'm not compromised in any way. Nice clear vision.
So you don't do it at all for money?
I don't. No, I don't.
But you have made some money from it.
I've made a lot of money from it and now you..
... How does that strike you? What does it feel like?
Very peculiar, because when we were first married, I think we got married on a hundred pounds. And you know, you saved up months to get $20, or twenty pounds it was in those days, for something. And so when your children are little, you have nothing, absolutely nothing. And now I get paid, and I don't actually - I hate to say this - I don't need anything. I've got a house, a husband, and a car. And I don't want to go overseas again, I've been overseas. And so I have got money. I've got grandchildren who would like to count it up and inherit quickly. That sort of thing. But you see, you don't - it's one of the ironies of life - when you get it you don't need it. So. And at the moment I'm selling very well, and my prices get put up and put on by the gallery I deal with. And her prices are formed by what the market will bear, what Sydney is coping with at the moment, and who the buyers are, and the fact that if she sells things for too little the gallery owner down the road will buy them up and sell them at a profit, you see. So she's caught. The market forms itself. And when nobody wants anything, well of course you're back in pin money. So it's all very false. And I remember Bruce Pollard in Melbourne when I used to show at Pinacothica, he used to say "A work of art is worth what you can get for it". Well it is. It's like an auction. If somebody will bid higher, they get it, you see. And then of course the bottom can drop out of the market very quickly.
Now you're a very successful artist at the moment, and as you say, earning well. But would you like to be trying to keep a family as an artist?
Oh, I couldn't have done it. I couldn't have been single-minded enough. You see, it takes a lot of your emotion as well as - it takes a lot of your strength and a lot of your being to be an artist. And you've got to have a lot of solitude and you can't be interrupted. And you can't be sort of selfless. I mean good works and all that, well I've done my stint of that. And you can't afford to do it. So whether earning money for things, I don't, I don't think I could. I think probably that the wind was tempered to the shorn lamb if you ask me, that I could cope with what happened at the time. But that comes from, I think, taking from what falls on your doorstep and is meant for you, I think, I think.
So you feel some sympathy for people who discover their art and develop their obsession when they actually do have obligations to raise a family...
Well I do think, but then I also think that nobody gets any sympathy. Because it's not easy, it never was meant to be easy. And if it means enough to you, you sort of push it through. And I don't - you know Bette Davis once said - the actress - "Old age isn't for sissies". Well, I'll tell you, I'm here to tell you that art isn't for sissies, either. It's hard yakka. It's hard grind. And it's a very isolated, isolating sort of way to live. You know, you give up a lot for art.
It is interesting that you talk about how you struggled to have enough energy to be a housewife and mother, because of the demands of it, and yet here you are in your eighties, finding this enormous amount of strength and energy to work on your art. Where do you think that comes from?
I think it really comes from need and desire. And it was such a thing as adrenalin and what not. And I think that you can pull out strength for things that seem important to you, and other things don't seem important to you. And there's such a thing too as exhaustion from tedium. Though I must say with small children I did find it was all absorbing, and it was a hard life. I mean you just got a vacuum cleaner later on and that sort of stuff, you know.
What are you working on at the moment?
What I've found, what I've got. And mostly I'm in search of - not really searching - but timber is very hard to get now, because the whole world has gone plastic. And it's also gone, even the timber men, timber firms, sell formboard instead of real, honest wood, made of something, you know. I don't like it. I really like - I really like honest material, like organic stuff, wood - when I want backgrounds. But I find that as one thing disappears from possibility, another thing seems to arrive. And it's the same old thing, you just use your eyes and you see things on the back of a truck and you think, ah, I wonder if they've got a firm in Fyshwick or something. And you can get away from the dumps, which don't really provide me with very much, into the workman's world where they know about materials, and they know what's available. They're practical people. And I think art has got down to that for me... And I still see enough things that excite me.
You find different fields to search in.
Yes, I do. I do. And you're shut one way, you're blocked one way, so you go another way.
But you've still got the same desire that you had when you first started down this road, in mid life.
Well I suppose, I suppose you have. But in the beginning it's all new discovery. Well, after a while you see, axiomatically again, you get so you've seen that, done that, been that. So you personally are a greedy type person who wants visual refreshment, you see. And so if you're doing the same old boring thing though you know it'll sell and prices are up and goodness knows what, you're not going to do it. It takes too much energy and time.
Do you think that if you'd started when you were much younger, you would have run out by now. I mean do you think...
Well, that's what Jim would say, I think. I think you might. But you shouldn't you see. I always maintain that you shouldn't run out of inspiration, as it were, because if nature is your, what you watch, nature is always been different, replenishing itself in the same old thing, with the same old thing. And so you grow. But you've got to have the - you've got to have the will to do it, and the desire. I think mostly the desire.
You need physical strength to do some of what you do...
You need that too. You do your back if you're not careful. And you lift things from a wall that you shouldn't, and that sort of thing, so you stop doing that after a while.
But are you less productive now in your eighties than you used to be?
Doing something different I think. I think I'm doing stronger things and probably bigger things. And that's the trouble, you get older and you start wanting to do bigger things. And as people say, every artwork has its size. You don't just make a big thing for the sake of making a big thing, you make it because it feels big. It's going to be a big statement, you see. And sometimes it might be a small statement. But I find that I'm thinking bigger now than I used to. And I think that's probably a growth in a sort of a way. There was a Japanese man once who said about ikebana that when he was young he liked alpine flowers and things. Now he was old he liked bare grasses and stuff. Well you can see that sort of thing growing in you, that you like something harder, more definite, more timeless. I think you get more timeless. I think, you do.
Why do you think that is? Is it about leaving...
Old age, I think. I think it probably is. I think probably you've - you've sifted through the rest of the stuff that's available. And that's easy and you can do it, and of course that's obvious. But then you go for something tougher and harder. I think you do. And I think it's a natural progression.
Does it ever worry you, the thought that you might stop one day and not go on getting inspiration?
Oh, of course it does, of course. Well, I think the thing that you lose is heart. I think if you don't want to, you just don't want to do it any more. And I think that that would stop you. And I think probably if you get enough deprivation in your life and sort of saddened or something, whether you - I think you could fight it, but if sort of the whole colour goes out of life, well you wouldn't think it was worthwhile doing. Then what would you do? Lie down and die.
And yet, it was in some ways deprivation that got you started.
Yeah. That's true, that's true. It was a different sort of deprivation, and of course I rediscovered the world through the country, I suppose through the country dump a bit. But it's all been a means of expressing what one is, what one loves. I think it's one's - I think when I first started, I wrote a piece, somebody asked me to, and I wanted to prove how marvellous ordinary things were, just ordinary things that we all see. Because people don't. I mean people who are not artists, even, look at things and don't really see them. You know, they, they - what people - and children are taught these days is to use their eye as an instrument of recognition. Now you see a small child and you see these books, and they say orange, and there's a picture of an orange, high chair, picture of a high chair. Now what other - what children do, and when they're out in the garden for instance and they find a worm and they poke it with their little finger and what not, that's not recognition at all. It's how interesting and how lovely and how wriggly and how something it is. We lose all that because we name them. And of course children have to have things, names, to make them safe when they cross the road apart from anything else, and they've got to know that. But of all the senses I think the sense of vision is limited to practicalities more. Whereas look at the senses of the palate. Look how people go on and on about wines. It's all sensate stuff. It's not about the use or practicality or anything else. And music is the same.
So you're interested in capturing that absolutely basic direct experience that comes in through the eye and projecting it into an image that will recreate that direct experience.
Yes, and will stay with you, you see. You can look at it and revisit that emotion that you felt when you first saw the thing. And this is very valuable to me, to be able to - because I still when I go in the country, I find a great joy in the things I see. A swan on the water or whatever, you know, whatever, just very simple. And I think people are trained not to look at it. And of course, a lot of people don't need art. A lot of people, they get a new car and that's it, you know. They're not going to journey with the art of it.
If you were to lose your physical strength for doing the work, could you imagine sitting there directing someone else what to do?
No. No, I could not! I'm a hands on person. I really have to move my own hands and I suppose, I suppose in a way your sort of solitariness is - means that you in a way have a selfish eye. It's got to be for you. You've got to see it, you've got to harden your resolve. And you've got to recreate the world that you love and admire as best you can. But you're doing it I suppose for you. Well you're the judge anyway.
You say that the money doesn't matter to you. But does it give you a sort of little bit of pleasure just to know, as a measure, as it were, of your success, that your work is selling well? Do you take an interest in what it's selling for?
No, not particularly. I think, oh you can't do that. And, and I - Ben always says, "I've never heard you say a thing is charged - not sold for enough". It's always "Fancy that much" you see. And you rather blush sometimes. But if you get a gallery dealer who knows what the market will bear and knows her market, well then you're fairly safe I think. But I don't, I don't particularly look at the money. I would have once, by Jove, I would have. And gone out and bought something. But I don't particularly want anything. And this is great trouble to me, I don't particularly want it. And I don't think it's very good for the young to get unlimited resources. After all there are people who haven't got...
When you're making an image of a landscape with materials that you've found, do those materials have to come from the landscape that you're representing?
Oh no, no. It's a free-for-all. Any - anything that works, you know... [INTERRUPTION]
Rosalie, you scavenge and fossick around this area, around where you live, and that's the area that you represent in your images. Is it important that the materials come from the area that you're representing?
No, because often I use them a long time after I've found them, you know, months, years even. And the only criterion is that they're nice when they start. I like them. I like them. You don't, I like them, you see. And then you're, you're focussed on putting across a feeling, the way things make you feel or the way they feel. Not the way they look, because I've got very little control over that. So I never plan. I move my hands a lot, I think ah, got it. And then it matches a thought I've had.
And it just falls into place that way.
Well yes, it - well it has to look right. Once I see it look right, it might even fall across something that will go with it in a studio, or in a backyard or something. And you think, oh, oh, yeah, that. And that reminds me of something, you see, I think that's how I work.
And did you always represent something that has delighted you, rather than something that has disturbed you?
Yes, it's always - it's always pleasure, I think. Because I know the way a branch goes, I know the way a leaf falls. I know - I've looked a lot, I've used my eyes a lot.
You've never felt an impulse to represent things that connote pain or loneliness in the landscape.
I don't think so, not consciously. You know the other thing is there, you see. I always know it's there. And I'm very - to use the ikebana phrase, I'm very aware of nature. I know how it works.
You talk a lot about need. Do you think that out of your own life there's been a great need to show what is lovely and beautiful in the world?
Well I suppose that, but I think that - that you look upon - I have to think about that one. I suppose if you know things very well you get more affectionate towards them. And they're always there. And I suppose you do make an ideal world. I think that people do relieve themselves if they feel that their life isn't fulfilling enough or something, you know. I think you turn somewhere else. And you see, you have to remember, busy scientific worlds are not places for women in a lot of ways. It's funny a lot of the Americans marry scientific women. It's very true. Because then you've got a whole world, you accept that other people have different worlds. But this is my world and - and I feel at home in it.
Have you ever thought of working in any other area than landscape?
Inability would stop you from doing this.
But in representing your work you've moved more towards abstraction.
Yes, I have.
Now, there are a lot of other experiences - other experiences in life other than landscape. Has it ever occurred to you to move out of the landscape mode and into some other area of abstraction?
I would if I could. I would if I could. But you see you're - you're stuck with your limitations and what you can do. And this is what I can do, and nobody is going to tell me that I can't do it, you see. So I stick with it, and in face of any criticism, I stick with it.
Are you a very ordered person?
That is a laugh. No, I'm not. I'm very, very untidy. And I remember when I first started doing things, I thought at least this is something that doesn't have to be done again tomorrow. Doesn't have to be dusted, doesn't have to be washed. It's a fact, you see. And this always pleased me. When I put a thing up it was finished.
Oh well, that's - that's where I had control, you see. You do have control with inanimate objects if you can work hard at them and get them to the point where they - you know how people say you sort of centre things? And I remember going to a party once where there was a very clever man who used to take a stick and stand it on the floor. And he'd stand it absolutely upright and you could dance all around it. And he got everybody practising with eggs. And you balanced them on the pointed end, you see. And they stayed, they set like rocks. And you'd join it onto gravity or something. And that's what I feel. When my work gets to that point where I - it's set, absolutely solid. And that - that for me, is right. So I go on 'til I do it that way, and I can mastermind it, you see.
And so this - the randomness of nature is there in your images, but under a sort of control.
Yeah, well that's true. That is true. And nature is so beautifully random. I remember liking to go out in the country and for once the trees weren't in rows - Canberra does that to you, because they plant them exactly the same distance apart, and they plant them straight. And when you go out with one leaning this way and one leaning, it's just heaven. And nature of course discards mightily when it doesn't like what it's done. It puts up another one. Or doesn't. Chance is nature's friend too, I think.
Oh yes, an awful lot. Because it's like the tip of an iceberg, in a studio you have a lot of mess. And out of chaos - Bacon, the artist said this - that art comes out of chaos. It's the thing that rises steadily out of the - he worked in what you could only call a rat's nest. And he used to move his address when his studio got too appalling. And it really was appalling, you know. But there was the order that became a work of art, or was a work of art. That's good. But you need a lot of stuff. I find I need a lot of stuff around, and I need a lot of stuff that reminds me of how good it is when nature does it.
So you have never had any desire to turn the chaos of a household into an ordered place?
No, because it doesn't stay. Come Monday, come Tuesday, you've still got a mess again. That's no good. And I'm not good at it. I'm not enthusiastic about it. I like it when other people do it. But when you have to do it yourself, uh-huh. Boredom.
You had a childhood in which you were - not much time or attention was given to you.
Well, yes. That's right.
You came to a country where you found it hard. And a community where you found it hard to find friends. You had a husband that was terribly busy with his own work, and you were overlooked. When attention and success came, you've told us that it was heady stuff.
Well it was - unbelievable, you see, because I wasn't used to being - well perhaps successful, but that was in my own mind probably. But there was something I could do, and something that stayed. And I was amazed that - that people whose opinion I valued could see what I was trying to do. And I was amazed that I should be so lucky as to get there, out of - with no skills. Really I didn't have them, I didn't. And knowing at school that I couldn't paint or draw. And knowing forever I couldn't paint and draw. Still can't. And yet there was something. And it's your nature. I think you've got to, as Picasso says, you've got to be born an artist. And I think you have. And I think that I spent a lot of time being sort of restless and out of step with everybody and restless, and not knowing what it was. And then I came to this thing I could do and it grew. And all you had to do was, as it were, hang loose, and just use your eye.
So by being absolutely true to what you felt was right, you were suddenly somebody.
I suppose I was. But of course, I didn't realise it. Because you have to work very hard. It doesn't come easily. And you work hard. But it was worth doing to me and it opened - it gave me what I call an expanding universe. I think it's a basic human fear to be boxed in. You know, this is all you get, box, you see. And when you're an artist you've got an expanding universe. Anything can happen as long as you've got strength to your elbow. And nature is a prototype. And so you, you become more aware. It's like going up a mountain, and you go up a little way and you can see a bit. Go up, and you see more. And the older you get and the more experience you have, and the higher up your mountain, so to speak, you get, the more you can see. And you know that you are human and finite. You're not going to see the lot anyway. Nature does, but you're not going to. And so you can always work towards it, you see. And life can renew itself and one day, something marvellous could happen, you see. And sometimes you do reach a peak when you think ah. Then you're quite amazed that you did it all. That sort of thing. It's a continuing adventure I think.
Is confidence an essential ingredient in being able to start climbing the mountain at all?
I don't know about - no, I don't think confidence, because you don't have any. I think need. I keep on saying need. You know there's something there, you don't know what it is, it's faceless. And you - well I hate the expression 'warts and all' - are going to be able to do it, you see, as long as you work hard enough.
Was there any danger when success arrived, and suddenly you were flavour of the month and exhibitions were opening all over the place, you know, and you were 'it'? Was there a danger that you would have - would success have ever spoiled Rosalie Gascoigne?
Well I don't know, because you always know there's something better, you see. You never think I'm 'it'. And are complacent about it. Because you know, you see things out there in the countryside that are better than anything you can produce. And it depends what your goals are I suppose. And what - what your platform is. I'm always saying that about your platform. If you're being frightfully egotistical and thinking I'm great and I can do this and this and this, and you turn into a factory really, and you make the things you can make. Well this is not good enough, you've got to go on. And so many people in the art world, I think, get to a sort of peak and they think - well I suppose, I suppose, I suppose vanity enters into it. But they do what they are able to do. And what you've got to do is to pull off something that isn't in the palm of your hand before you started, you see. And so - and the adventure is very large. And as I say about Edmund Hillary when he came down from Everest, and he said - and they said "How did you go?" He went up through the fog and came down to the base camp. And they said "How did you go?" and he said "We knocked the bastard off". And I often said this to people I've been talking to, and I say the difference with art is that you never knock the bastard off. There's always another bastard up there, you see. And this should lead people on and should keep people humble. I don't know why people get keen on themselves, because there's always more and there's always something better.
So you have remained, in a way, astonished...
Yes I'm astonished. I am astonished. That is - that is true. And yes, I would say that. I think, "Who me?", you know, with my poor equipment. I do think that. And I do think that there's always things better, better, can do it better than you. Even if it's nature.
You were in your fifties when this happened. How did it change your whole life? What effect did it have on your life?
Less housework, that's how it changed my life. I threw - I thought this is it, this is what I've been looking for. I need all the time I can get. And my housework was always fairly bad, very bad, spasmodic. And when you're an artist, whether you're 50 or not, time is very precious to you. You need all the time. It's what you'd rather do with your time, make art you see, or think about it, or grope around. And these other things like housework and meals are very temporary, you know. There's more tomorrow to be done.
Hod did your husband react to the success?
With dismay, I think, and - with men you have to sort of reveal yourself. And he was rather surprised that this meant so much to me. When I'd - I'd changed so much from what I was when I was a girl in New Zealand, you see. And I belonged to the prototype of housewife and mother, you know, how you do. And that's what men expected. And so when he saw this terrible change, and when he said "I've never seen obsession like it". Not pleased he wasn't. And it was all right for men to be obsessed, you see, and he'd been obsessed with his science all his life. All his life. In his youth from 16 onwards, you know. And he couldn't - it takes him time to come to terms with that's what he's actually got. Because you peel yourself like an onion to make visible what you really are. And I didn't know what I was. I just knew I was out of step and always looking.
But you had this overwhelming need to do it.
Well I did. I wanted to see something static in my life that stayed and I could - and only me, see I wasn't dependent on anybody else. Only I could do it. So I needed a lot of time to myself.
Did you need him to understand that?
Well you wish, you always wish that people will. And try as they might, they only half do it. And I always maintain that the more you do something, the further you get from the understanding of everybody else who doesn't do it. And I think you do, because the first things you do, well it's like home decoration. They think, "Oh well that's okay, see that's okay. I can stomach that". And then you get further and further and further and people think "What's she after? What is she doing? Oh, I don't like that. I like what she used to do". So you've to go the - you've got to go the journey and it gets, I think, lonelier. You're more isolated in it. Of course you're isolated in it, because your art is a whole world, and only you have put the time into it. So that. But then by that time you think people have got to put up with it, because that's what you're going to be and that's what you are.
Did it put a strain on your marriage?
Oh yes, of course it did. Of course it did. But of course he was away a lot and he commissioned the big telescope and he was absorbed in men's talk about astronomy, you see. And you can't follow, you can't. And I don't think he probably realised about the - the littleness of female life as it was. The long littleness, to quote somebody or other, that you do. And they can't realise how important it is to you. This identity and not being a sort of shadow behind the man all the time.
But you are still together after how many years of marriage? Fifty plus?
And so you've worked out a way of dealing with the fact that you've got this other life...
Look, look, you live the way you can. You don't work anything out. You live the way you can. And if there - if there's sort of an eruption of difference or something, well I suppose you work that out when it comes to it. But you know what you've got to be, and they know what they've got to be. And it depends on your - probably your nature. What people's nature is. And he's been a paper man, and a clean hands man for ever. And also an intellectual man. I feel a lot. I think I feel a lot more than he does. I think I do. As much as one knows anybody.
In relation to the other aspect of being an artist these days, there is the work, and then, as well as the work, there's the exhibitions and the promotion of the work.
That's rising to the occasion all the time. That is - that is what you notice.
Sometimes I do. Sometimes if I've had a lot of it, I think here I go saying the same old things again. And you see, you're journeying, you have to remember that it's - everything that happens is secondary to your art, you see. And so you suffer along for it anyway. And people expect you to jump through hoops. There's no doubt about it. And people in Canberra have always been - it's always been a sort of company town. And they always expect you to give your time, your effort, your talent, for nothing. Always. And this gets impossible. It just doesn't get room - there isn't room for philanthropy in a lot of ways.
So when you are talking about your art, and putting it out there -and you do a bit of teaching too, don't you?
No, no, not really. I give talks at art schools and things sometimes, I have done.
Is that because you recognise that people actually really want to understand and connect with it?
Well sometimes you feel like it. And it's hard to say no, really, if it's a reputable institution that asks you to do something. And sometimes you feel, well okay, you'll straighten these art students out. Because you feel that they don't know anything. And also I find that when I give public talks, like in Sydney or Melbourne, and there's a panel of people, well people get up in great sheafs of papers and are terribly obscure. And they talk about what they do, and the audience dozes off a bit. Sometimes it does doze off a bit. And when you get up and you have to talk in ordinary language, because none of those big words and none of that artspeak is available to you, well all the young students brighten up. It gives them strength to their elbow. And this is what students come to talks really for. They - it's their work they're interested in, they've got to be interested in their work. They don't really care so much on the convolutions of other people's work. It doesn't help them any. And so you find that - I have found I've got up and had a first sentence and then talked, and the students have come up after me. The older people know what they want to know, but the students don't, and I think it's the students that should be looked after, the people who are groping their way towards it. And I find it quite easy to talk, if you talk the facts. Because I don't really think that the - I'll probably be in deep water here - that the art schools teach them. They don't teach them the ABC, the ordinary things. And there's so many people. And Robert Klippel in Sydney agrees with me, that they all want to be famous. They all - this is what they think, they can be famous, they can buy a kaftan, they can go to the parties, they can be ever so trendy. And then they're an artist. They're not an artist. It's a private inward thing, and you get out what's already inside you. And I always say to students, look the most valuable thing is what started you off in the first place. That's the most valuable thing you've got. And whatever the teachers might like to teach about screen-printing or whatever - and they teach you everything you see, and you can do everything but none of it with heart. None of it with the real you, you see, in it. But you're clever at it. And that's not good enough. Because art is about individuals and their own product, which is already in them. Get it out. It's like education, leading out what's inside.
You talk about need a lot, as you've said. For you, over all those years, those lonely years, before you found your art, what do you think was the driving need that finally - or the thirst that was finally slaked when you got into your art?
I don't think the thirst was slaked. I think you remain the sort of animal you are. And you know that that's what gives you most joy, having the time and the - the time. You have the dedication to the thing, but you want to watch things, you want to look at things. You don't want to make the beds, you know, that sort of stuff.
So it was a need to do that activity... to get involved with that...
Yes, yes, yes... it was a - a more exciting world was available to you. A real world. That was reality to me. Some people don't need art at all, you see, but I need it.
The other thing that you'd lacked through those years and that, perhaps, you needed, was attention?
Well probably, probably. But all women need sort of - they need to know they're on the map. Otherwise they just disappear, you see. And I think women do need that. That they're somebody and they - they're important.
But now you've got the attention, do you feel altogether at ease with it?
If you're that sort of animal, you never feel at ease with absolutely anything. See you're difficult. I think if you're difficult to yourself and you're difficult to other people, but you've got this one thing that matters, and when all else fails, this matters, you see. And then you take that away, well nothing much matters I suppose.
So you describe yourself as a difficult woman.
Yes, I am.
In what sense are you difficult? How would you - if you were someone else, how would you find you difficult?
How would I find me difficult? I suppose that I don't agree with people a lot in some ways. And I'm conscious of having a private persona that I sort of understand because I'm stuck with it. But I can't expect other people to understand it. And I suppose you look for a sort of ideal which you don't get in this life. But I know I'm difficult, I'm difficult to me. Hard to live with.
You find you hard to live with?
I find, I find I'm hard to live with too. So - but you're stuck with it, you see. Because it's your nature.
So what do you find hardest about living with you?
Well, I don't like what other people like mostly. I don't want to do what other people want to do, mostly. I don't know. And I think that I'm wayward in that I jump a lot from one - one personality to another. I can be this and I can be that. My mother always used to say, I can argue black is white with the slightest... And she could, she could. Perhaps it's Irish, though she didn't have any Irish in her.
Poetry is something that you quote from, from time to time, and you talk about quite a lot. Is poetry important to you?
Yes it is, it is. Especially the old sort that you can really understand. Some of it is very difficult these days, I think. I like the images that poetry give. I like the sensations, I like to get the secondhand sensations from people who have felt things about mostly natural things. And sometimes other things. But I like everything that's a bit airborne, that is perhaps - I suppose you might say of the spirit, but I've never thought of it like that. But it makes things clear. And it's sort of - it's points of view that help you I suppose, to see things as they are.
Do you connect to any kind of religion?
No. I did have a very religious period in my life, but when anything troubles me, you see, I'm very lazy, I take it as abstract, you see. So I don't - I don't worry about spelling it out, and this is exactly as it was. Like the Old Testament and the New Testament, and what not. I take what I need from what I see, and I don't read things very carefully mostly. But I take what I need from it. From newspapers I do that. And from religion too. And I think from the fact that you've got to - you've got to cope with it, you see, some way or other. And it's lucky for people who have no doubts. I always think it would very nice to be born say a Roman Catholic and have it all laid out for you. And everything you believe, that's what you believe, you see. Well I don't, you see...
But you don't show a lot of doubts about nature and about the spirit of nature.
Well, no I don't.
Is there - to some extent are you a sort of Pantheist really?
Well you could say that. But I'm not entirely a Pantheist that I worship nature against other things. But nature is one of the eternal verities. It's there, it's there, it's there. It doesn't change at anybody's whim. And that's pretty good, you see. You can wipe us all away in no time at all. And the Brindabellas still stand, don't they? And we're not supposed, as human beings, I think, to know everything anyway. So keep calm, work towards some sort of, something you believe in. And the rest will fall into place, if it needs to fall into place.
And what is the most essential thing that you believe in now, Rosalie?
The most essential thing. Oh goodness me. Well there's good times and bad times of course. Sometimes you believe in something and sometimes it all goes away completely. I think that the necessity for getting out what's in you and that's about as much as a human being can do. And be the sort of animal you were created and do the best you can, within your limits, which you have to always accept. And you were - there's some use in being born the way you are, I think, really. And I think that one of the worst things you can do is not realise your potential. And a lot of people don't do that. And I feel there's still more I can find in art. It says things for me. And I suppose I'm always after a sort of honesty. Being honest about yourself. And that's hard enough, goodness knows. You're not what you thought you were. Every time you're not what you thought you were. So that's a job for you. You can do that.
You're probably one of the most energetic, vigorous and active 82 - 82? - year olds.
...not quite...that I've encountered. Do you think that is because there's this urgency in you to express these things?
I don't know. I think it's probably 17 years in the wilderness of course, keeps you fairly young, because there's nothing to do. Well, I mean you garden and you have lots of fresh air, and you live fairly solitary. Fairly solitary, but not all that much. And I think a lot of it's hereditary and I think that you're not all the energetic when you're collapsing on the sofa looking at awful TV, do you? Which I do. And also you can rise - your adrenalin can rise to the occasion you see. And I think - I'm interested in people, and when I can look into people and see them having a life, and how's it for you, you know, so to speak. You come alive. You have long bored periods. There's periods where you can't find anything. And there's nothing you want to do. You have plenty of things to do, but you don't want to do them, you see. You have that.
And the main thing that you want to do now is your art. That's really it.
Yes. But I do find if I go out in the studio in the morning - I've got what somebody told me was an alpha cycle, but I'm not great on psychology. And in the morning you get this rush and you can see things. And by the time you've had lunch, listened to your television serial, lain on the sofa a bit, you go out and everything goes black and white, all the technicolour goes, and you can't do anything, you really can't. Because to be creative takes a lot of energy, and it runs out like all energy does. And so in the afternoon you don't do much. But Somerset Maugham used to write. And he used to write busily all morning, and then he used to have three martinis or three somethings, and then he used to pray for the next day to come, because he couldn't do anything in the afternoon at all. And he just waited 'til the next day comes. I'm a bit like that. But it's born again in the morning you see. I suppose with your adrenalin rush.
And then the energy dies with the day.
Yes, it does. You go over the hill and down in the afternoon, always I find.
It's inevitable, that's why not. Why bother, you see. And - you see you don't know the whole story, you don't know anything for sure. Nobody knows anything for sure. They all have theories and what not. And so what about confronting the inevitable and going along with it. I think most people, in the end they've got to do that, haven't they? If it's going to happen, it's going to happen whatever you do.
Oh, I think about it. It's - yes, I do, I do think about it. But you get on with it while the sign is that you should get on with it. That's it.
And the sign's still strongly there.
Yeah, well I mean I got things I haven't done, that's for sure. And that makes a great deal of difference, you know. Got to just do this. And whether in the final moment of truth you realise it didn't matter whether you did it or not. But I think for here and now, and in the human condition, that's what you do.
You've talked about two great needs in life. And the first was motherhood.
Well I had to be a mother, yes that's true.
Why do you think that was, and was it fulfilling for you?
Well it was - I had children under rather difficult circumstances, with very little help and very little anything in the way of houses and - the house was big and cold and there were no, you know, even hot water and things weren't available. And so it was a hard slog. And I wasn't terribly good at it, because I wasn't ordered, you see. And that was necessary. I don't know. You change a lot and you grow and you discard influences that you've had. Everybody does that I think. Everybody - until you can emerge, I think, as a person in your own right, you were meant to be like that, you were made like that, get on with it. And I think that's what it comes to in the end. And everybody else you forget, has got a whole world of which they are the centre, a great big world. And everybody else stands in their bubble outside them, with their own world. You forget. Novelists try to show this thing I think. That you can have a very narrow view from your own point of view, but other people are living in different...
What made you work with bones?
They were there, you see, and also they were interesting shapes. And I had a lot of academic wives whom I knew going to art school. Well, it wasn't art school, it was a sort of a hobby group in a way, but they were more serious than that. And they were doing these shapes. And I thought for goodness sake, look at the shapes nature does, they're absolutely wonderful. Why make these ersatz things that are nothing, really nothing? Why not take a bone shape and of course, in the paddocks where you walked there were dead cows and things. They didn't have to bury them. And of course one year there were the dogs, the domestic dogs got at the sheep and there were a lot of sheep bones around. And so I made two bone things. One was a very tall thing called 'Last Stand'. It was about ten feet high and it was cow bones threaded on rods, so they all stood up like giant weeds in the landscape. And a beautiful grey-white bones go if they're not put in formaldehyde or whatever they are. And that worked. And I also did a sort of - what did I call it? - 'Espirit de'... Now wait a minute. It wasn't 'Joie de Vivre', it was 'Joie de Mourire'?... I threaded them on big pieces of wire, you see. So they - and I had big pieces of broken pipe and - I'm losing my thread. Anyway, they started from a height and they were threaded on wire, and they went across the lawn and they danced everywhere. Sheep bones these were mostly. And it was fairly low to the ground except that the wire framework of the, of the - or the iron that I found, old cross bars and things, and the wires came out and went down. And it was actually rather beautiful. I did it on the back lawn and I think the neighbour thought they were going to jump the fence and come over. He wasn't all that pleased. Suburbia doesn't really like art experiments. And they were really quite nice. But they were there in the landscape. They were part of the landscape, you see, and so legitimately I was drawn towards them.
And you even made something joyous out of bones...
Oh yes... They were really beautiful. Especially if you got the same ones all together, all the vertebrae and all the thingos. But of course my mechanics were always bad, and it was a nuisance when you wanted to cut the lawn. So you dismantled it and you put it up again. And in the end the bones, being out in the weather, will rot a bit. And they won't thread because there's not a real hole. And so I dismantled them. I should have shown them really. Daniel Thomas looked at them once and said "Have you ever shown those?" And I said, nuh, nuh. But they were there, and they were lovely. And I've still got a lot of the cattle bones.
You're very much influenced by the materials that are available at hand. At the moment you're working still a lot with wood. What are some of the other things that you might be moving into and inspiring you?
Well the thing I'm doing, trying to work out at the moment, is why I find corrugated iron so elegant in the landscape. This is a very hard thing to do. And you've got to simplify it and you've got to find the right piece of iron. There's plenty of corrugated iron around, still, though it's all going straight into steel or whatever it is. And I find the natural corrugated iron, of which a lot of Australia was built from, is very elegant. And very Australian. And I'm always quoting okay, Athens has got its Parthenon, we've got our hay barns, we've got our - we've got to make the elegance of this country visible. Not the old junk heaps, because everybody tosses things out in Australia, on the farms anyway. But there is a real inbuilt elegance at best. It's not all the scrawny Dad and Dave stuff. So I'm working on that. But it's fairly hard. And you've got to find the right piece. And they've got to be discarding the right piece. And this is another thing. People don't discard.
You've done some work with cables too, haven't you?... Cables.
What are cables?
Oh no, those are - they're made of wood and that's why I've collected them. And they're also painted. And they are the big cables that flex and electricians' iron are wound on, those things, those big mushrooms. Like big cotton reels, they are. And they come in various sizes. The small ones are too thin, tinny. You've got to use strong material I think to get your message across. And the very thick ones are too heavy mostly unless you slice them in half, which you can do, with a lot of labour. And sometimes - what I'm using now is red cable drums or cable cotton reels or whatever they are. It's a good colour. And there's a lot of it. That's the [inaudible] and it's real material, it's not plastic or any of those things. And wood is a good material. To me it's good, it's real. So it's very much a question in my neck of the woods of using what's available. Because you see, if you haven't got the stuff you can't make anything. And it usually triggers a memory, or an association, or a love or whatever. And you think, that's good, I'll just reshape it and - but you don't know what you're doing.
Some of these materials are very heavy. And as you get older it's probably going to be harder for you to lift them and handle them and so on.
What are you going to do then?
Well I'm going to take it as it comes. I am going to - of course something forces you on to do it whether you can lift it or not, you do that. It doesn't do your back any good. And you just take it what comes. You see, as I say, if chance wasn't my friend, I didn't have one. So I chance on this and I chance on that. I don't plot and plan, because I can't do it.
So you'll work something out. Would you have someone to help you?
Well if I actually needed it. Sometimes I get the boys to - see these are all hung at wrong angles and things, and I wait 'til somebody who's not Ben, who's got a bad back and a football knee, it doesn't help. And it's not much point in making it worse. So I wait 'til there's somebody. Occasionally I've asked a workman who's very grumpy about it. They don't like doing anything that isn't in their paid job. Will you move that inside for me, or something. Where I can see it. And the boy who helps me, he's an artist himself, and he loves coming and helping and he works at the gallery. And he puts aluminium strip on the back of my things to make them - because I use a lot of warped timber. It's always been warped by the sun and the wind and things - and he comes and puts strip on, sometimes tidies me when I'm in a mess. And he's very, very nice about it. And he likes to - I think he likes to do it, because he's a sculptor himself. And, you know, I get by. You - I'm used to making do with what I've got. I'm not used to rushing out and sending off to Darwin for six pieces of something I know is up there. I just humbly take what's available. And it's turned out to be a strength to me. Because at least it's real, it's not dragged in. It is real. And there's more truth in it. [INTERRUPTION]
Rosalie, once you've made a work, and you've declared it finished - it's right, it satisfies you. Do you ever later pull it apart?
Well I have had things that I think, oh, could have been better or something. And if I've got it back from galleries - usually when I've had shows I've sold it, you see, and I don't get it back. But if I do and if it lies around a lot, I sometimes do. What I find I do with things is I work 'til they've got whey they call a presence, what I call a presence. They are something, they're not nothing. Just a broad division, you see. Not a proper nothing, that's something. Whatever it is, I don't care what it is, it's something. Like if you had all the animals parading and you saw the giraffe. That's something all right. And I have a friend who says, "You know there are people in this world that if you showed them a giraffe, they'd say what's it for. What's it mean?" you see. Well it is, you see. And when things get to the point where they've got a presence and they just are, then to your mind they've peopled your world, they're something. And you don't deny them. Solzhenitsyn says that if things have arrived, I think, from truthful thinking and dedication, that nobody down the centuries can ever refute them. And it's very true, you know. If you've, if you've got truth on your side, they don't have to be nameable things.
But you have from time to time decided to declare something that was something, a nothing by pulling it apart.
Oh yeah, but you're full of human foibles the same as everybody else. And you can have your moments of imagining things, and vanity. And all those human bear pits to which we are all vulnerable. And you can look at the situation and you can work out there's a bear pit there and I'm not going down that in there. And you see other people doing it, because everybody's struggling. Everybody. Nobody's got it all worked out really. And you look at all those - I'm not going to do that, no, no, no. There's three behind you, and you go down with the best of them, you see, because life is like that. And so some things reach a pinnacle, unassailable, and some things don't. But you're like that too, you see. Otherwise you'd be not of this world I think.
Your father's failure in your mother's eyes, and his departure from your life through your crucial early years would, we understand, inevitably have had a big effect on you.
I suppose it did, but of course, you don't analyse when you're young. It would have been nice - I used to find families, my school friends' families that had fathers in them - that was awfully nice. And I found that you didn't exercise yourself in a masculine world a bit. I lived with five women. Five? Yes. And one younger brother. So you're naturally biased. Your form - there's something missing in your life I think. And I always thought it would be very nice to have a mother and father and be perhaps normal, or something. And I suppose it's a balance, you see. So we didn't have much to do with men. And I did find that when I visited friends I always got on with the fathers, you know, funny.
When your father came back, did that change things? Did you...
No, my sister went off when she left high school, to the agricultural college where she was intensely successful. And I was the one at home, and I had a younger brother. And my father's habits didn't change. And my mother was teaching... [INTERRUPTION]
Did you ever, with your father, did your relationship ever sort of get close? Did you ever get so you sort of understood him?
No, I think he was shy really. My sister told me he was shy. And I said "What! What?" Because I rather saw him in his other moods. And mother of course was one of the first graduates in Auckland. And he was - he used to talk about intellectual snobbery, you see. And he wasn't of the same scholastic standing as she was. And I think she was probably difficult too. And she'd had a father she adored who was terribly successful. And a family of women. And the men didn't do anything. They didn't clean their shoes, they didn't do anything. And I used to resent this very much when my brother was lord of the manor so to - he wasn't really. But she made him so he didn't do anything. And we girls had to do everything. And this was a rather sore point. She was very much - she had a saying that 'When a woman lets a man into her kitchen, she gives away half of her life'. He can have it I thought, he can have it. He can have three-quarters of my life. She really thought that men shouldn't do this. And this made women take everything and bear everything and the men were - lords, in a way, in a way. But it was a difficult relationship. And I think it drove him more to drink and what not. And there was sort of abrasive - it was an abrasive household. Nobody said nice things to anybody ever. You didn't do that. And the siblings sniped off each other of course, were good at it. And you sort of used to look at other people being amiable to each other, other families. Nothing like that in our house, nothing. We had a lot of fun. And you miss it, you see, if you're brought up abrasive, you need abrasion all your life. You really do need it. It makes you miserable. Irish, is it? I don't know what it is.
You were - you felt yourself to be seen as a bit of a failure...
Well I wasn't academically bright. I mean, as my sister was.
And your father was considered a bit of a failure.
Oh well, he was a failure because of his drink, but he wasn't - he was a very good engineer, and he was doted on by his own family. He was one of two boys and a lot of sisters. And he was doted on. And whether the combination was bad, or what it was, I don't know.
Did you feel that you were seen as being like your father?
Well I knew I was really. I had the Irish in me where the other two didn't. And they were worthy, you see and perhaps dour or something.
And you weren't, you were off to the side.
Yeah, I think I was really. I think the middle one - my brother was ill for a while and my mother nursed him a lot. He had rheumatic fever or something. And she always did a good job. People used to say to us, "Your mother's a wonderful woman". And we all knew she was wonderful. And I remember at one stage when I was bold and in my teenage years, I was saying "Oh you're so busy racing up the stairs to heaven that you don't care about any of us". And she was terribly good and worthy. But sparky too. And she went out and did her secondary school teaching, you see. And we three children rattled around a bit. And she expected a lot of us. She expected us. And I think the other two were more adult than I was in my thinking. And I needed telling things. And this is life, and that sort of thing.
Through the course of your life, what has your relationship with Daintry, your older sister, been?
Oh, I didn't realise when she died a few years ago, that she lost her husband tragically, drowned in the Auckland Harbour, and she was always a kingdom - she didn't cry. She never did anything. She was a very strong woman. And when he died somebody said "Are you going to stay on the farm?" and she said "Yes". "You'll be so lonely" they said. She said "I've been lonely all my life". And I was surprised at this, because she was - she was a real adult to me. I always felt I was a little ignorant type girl. And she was adult. And mother took her into her confidence and things. And I was really surprised to hear her say this, she bore everything, you see. She was very strong.
Did your family come to visit you in Stromlo?
Mother did. Mother actually missed me frightfully when I left home because I was her amusement, and you know, her companion. And I was teaching at one of the high schools. She was teaching at another. And it was a terrible wrench leaving her. Because I could vicariously suffer with what she was suffering. And she was - Dad was still there, and I think she would have missed my father if she - or she did miss him actually when he died. But it was never a sort of equal relationship. And he still - I mean, in the end, I suppose he didn't have drinking bouts or any of that sort of stuff. But she always had the upper hand. She was a stronger personality I think.
You've talked a lot about the tremendous importance of discovering, as you put it, what kind of animal you are. And in a sense the purpose of life has been discovering what that is and fulfilling it.
Yes, but I found that much later. That that's what you had to do.
What do you think prevented you from finding that out earlier?
Well I suppose you have silly ideas about what you are, you see. You don't know yourself, as I often have said when I've talked to people, that it took me five decades to find, to sort myself out and what I really was I think. And then I found that there was nothing else for me. When you have children, they go off and they do their own thing. They don't need a dependent parent. So you sort of live their - you're interested in their lives and things, but you can soon see that they're going off and they've got to seek their own fortunes. And so you get more and more isolated. And then you find out that this is something that you can do, you always could do it, you didn't know you could do it. You didn't live amongst people who did it. And it wasn't held in high esteem. And there were no natural obvious talents there. Except people used to say to me, "Oh you're so artistic" and that sort of thing, you know, when you'd make a patchwork quilt and you'd decorate a Christmas tree and you do something. And then you suddenly find that you've got a legitimate place. And there are people called artists who are lateral thinkers. And being a lateral thinker is not found very often in academic circles. You are a logical thinker and you think this way. And I was going off with the pixies all the time. I didn't see things the same way. But I didn't realise it was legitimate or something. And I could expand that. You see, you have a lot of dormant seeds in you, I think. And suddenly circumstances show you. You get a glimpse, you see. It's always chance. Something. Something I read, something. So you're sort of Joan of Arc. I like to think that. That I can stand in the paddock and a shaft of light comes down. And you've got a message, as it were, that grass is good or something, you know. And I think you have to sort of abandon yourself and take, accept the fact that you can't do this and you can't do that, and you can't do this and you can't... but you can do that. And so that gives you a bit of strength and hope and all those things. But then if you're born with a difficult nature what do you expect? See, it's not - other people have it so easy, you know. Mothers who supervise them, tell them. Tell them to change their underclothes, or tell them to - you know, I didn't have any of that.
Do you ever get very frustrated with the work you're doing?
Often. But every - every creative person gets very frustrated. It's not there. The vision's gone. It's turned into a proper nothing. It's fallen off the wall. You thought you had an idea but you haven't got an idea. It's gone. It's hard. It's a lot of hard work.
And you get cranky with yourself?
Oh, you get cranky anyway. Anything can make you cranky. You don't like what's happening. There's no red light or whatever colour light you should have to tell you you're doing good, then of course you get cranky. If you're a cranky person by nature. And you're always tied to what your nature is. You think you're all the same but you're not. You're all different.
There's this phrase, 'all passion spent' that's supposed to mean that you have a sort of great calm in your old age.
I'm not going to have that. I think that's very boring.
So you still feel as passionate about your work now as you did?
I'm still passionate. Yes, I am. And things matter to me. And I think that when the time comes, in the due course of time when you feel nothing matters, you've had it. You've absolutely had it. There's nothing else to do. What did the people say about 'Men who are bored with London are bored with life'. And I think you can be satiated with what you do, and if you get to that feeling of what does it matter, well I think you have to work on the assumption that everything matters a bit. You put in a positive. So when in doubt, you put in a positive and you don't put in a negative, which everybody is prone to do.
Do you think one of the reasons why you haven't wanted to work with the negative in the landscape, is because in fact you have had more pain and loneliness in your life than you're really quite fully prepared to admit? And you want in your work, in that other world you've gone into, to only embrace those things that are really lovely, delightful and positive.
I think there's something of that in it, and I think that though you might appear a strong character you're an awfully weak character really, and you know it. You just know it. And so I think, I think probably I'm scared of it. I think I probably am. And I love things being - I suppose I like harmonies in nature or something. I don't like roaring seascapes with dangerous rocks and dangerous waves and dangerous everything in them much.
So a large part of your private life has actually been struggling, chaotic, lonely, and your work is beautiful, spare, ordered and celebrates...
It's the ideal. It is, I think, it is the ideal, probably. And I think if you made a list of the things that you admired in nature it'd be grace, it would be acceptance, it'd be beauty. Truth, all those things, I think, probably. But you still - they say 'Give me a child 'til he is seven' - I've said that before and I'll say it again - 'Give me a child 'til he's seven' as the monks say or somebody says, 'and I will give you the man'. And you're formed when you're seven you see, probably. And you muddle through working it out. Same for everybody.
And because of the nature of your life you've needed those things, those beautiful things that you see in nature.
Yeah. And I remember in my - about 17 or, well you were late developers in those days, and when there were boys who - what am I going to say - singled you out for attention, this was a revelation to me that "Who? Me?", you know. And at university and I had a few things where I was special to people. And this made a lot of difference. It was a really revelation to me. And I suppose you - everybody acts on that period for a small time. This is a great deal of illusion I think sometimes. But it was a bolstering effect to me that in spite of this girl being prettier and this girl being this sort, somebody singled you out. And I think that was a sort of need I always had, that you wanted to be special for something... And I suppose you find it more in things or - well probably my art has been a thing for me that has made the illusions go away and the reality set in or something. Or something. Live the way you can. And I think you do. And especially if you're sort of not very straightforward to begin with. I've seen other straightforward people, and they get this look of resignation as life goes on. And they're sort of resigned to it. But of course, all the people I went to school with and university with are back in New Zealand. So I've never had those sort of close friendships here, in a way.