|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: November 12, 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.
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.
To a university house?
Yeah, in Deakin. Very badly designed.
But you settled in there.
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.
And a studio.
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.
And totally absorbed.
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 sort of knocked you out.
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.
And he used to see the art.
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.
Did you enjoy that?
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?
What did you think of...
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.
Why is that?
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.
The weathered look.
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...
[end of tape]