|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.
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.
Do you ever wish you could?
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...
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