|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: November 11, 1998
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
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.
You didn't enjoy it?
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.
What did that produce?
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.
You've used road reflector.
Yes, well I happened on those too at a dump.
Why not plastic?
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.
[end of tape]