|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).
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How important are specific places to your work?
Well familiar places. You sometimes dream. Now if I'm just standing on the edge of Captains Flat dump - I used to go up to Captains Flat, up the mine, and used to go there with a bucket. And I remember trudging across that mud plain, it was magic. And the iron work used to be like Giacometti's iron. It's all eaten away by the nasty acids and things they have in Captains Flat where the mine was. And I used to get buckets of that. Didn't use it, but I got buckets of it. And I used to dream, wouldn't it be nice if it were morning and I was up on the top of Captains Flat dump. Park the car there, hadn't gone over the edge - big mistake to go over the edge. And you know, was free as bird, collect a bucketful.
You've represented this area of Australia extremely well with, you know, the Monaro...
Well, that's true.
...the whole area around here. What about other areas of Australia?
Well you see they don't know me, other materials, other places in Australia. I've got to know the country and the country's got to know me, you see. And usually I've gone to places that were away from home, you see, and within driving distance. Because I never stayed the night, I always came back. Sometimes I used to go as much as 300 kilometres, you know, I used to go way out and back. And if I got mud bound or anything I was in deep, deep trouble. And especially as the night used to come down, back of the Brindabellas, and mud pools. And you had to get out of the car and sort of see how deep they were before you went through. Because if they were too deep, you were stuck. I was very adventuresome I was.
And so you had a sort of range, like an animal has, that you...
Yes, I did. I'd think I'd go this way or that way. But there are only a certain amount of main roads you can take, you see. And you could go out towards Cooma, but that meant you were battling the traffic all the way, and that's no good if you're looking, keep your eye on the road sort of stuff, you know. And then Collector.
So what would happen if you decided to go to a different area of Australia? Would you be able to represent that area?
I'd have to - if I lived there I would for a while. That's one of the things I think I said before. I'm not keen on travelling, because though the country is my thing, I've got to make friends with it first. It's got to be a familiar to me.
What about the country of your childhood in New Zealand. Does that come out in your work?
I suppose it does. I think people are the sum total of their experiences. No effort is made, but you just are the sum total of your experiences. And New Zealand is very different from Australia. And I had limited, perhaps, mobility in New Zealand. People didn't have cars in those days. And you took what was round you. And I didn't have the need, I think, perhaps when I was in New Zealand.
Are there any specific works that you've done that you would identify as being inspired by the New Zealand landscape rather than the landscape round here?
Well, I think I did one. And I suppose it mostly was inspired by the New Zealand landscape. And I remember my sister who was farming in the North Island, she died, and I had pieces - you've got to have the stuff to make it. It's no use having an idea without the stuff to make it. And I had some pieces of - what do you call that sort of form board. And they were like hills, you see. And she farmed in a place where you had to - well it was fertile ground but you had to work hard. And she was very strong-minded and she pitted herself against the landscape. And I had a piece of tin with the Lysaght lady's head on it. You know, it was the type of corrugated - no, it wasn't corrugated, it was just iron that they made, and they used to appear on the sides of barns and things. I saw her fighting the elements on this farm. I had the hills, you see, already made of formboard and so I made that. And I remember I showed it in a Biennal in South Australia. And something I said to Ron Radford, who's the director there, about why didn't you buy that one, you see. And he said too Colin McCahon. And I thought, well I looked at the same hills as Colin McCahon did, and I suppose to people it looks more New Zealand orientated. I think they mostly don't see the faded Lysaght lady, which is like all Lysaght ladies, bush fire come what's it. She was there on the side of the barn and she repelled it. Rather like Ned Kelly in the landscape here. And I did that one. But it was because I happened to have the thing, and I was thinking of course of my sister then, too. So that I think I did.
And if you were to go to other parts of Australia for a visit, that wouldn't be enough for you to be able to represent that landscape.
No, it wouldn't. Except fleetingly, I did have this son in Tasmania, and I went down and I had a show there, and I had a piece called 'Clean Country' because in Canberra the frosts are so severe that the country goes back to its shape. It goes back to - the grass gets bare and the fences get bare, and everything - because it's a very thin time of the year. And it's very beautiful. And I did this 'Clean Country' bit, which was the sort of sticks and wire netting and something, all grey. And the people in Tasmania said "What does she mean, clean country?" But it was very appropriate for here, but not for there. And I realised how regional I was. Because what speaks to you is what gets into your art. And it only speaks to you if you're familiar with it, I think.
Now you've taken this work internationally, and there's been international interest in it. What has been the place of travelling abroad in your life for you? What have you got out of it?
Well I suppose a feeling that you're sort of authentic. And you're speaking a sort of universal language. It's what I always call, I always say is the eternal verities. They're true for everybody, really they are. And I find that that's part of my platform. I stick to what I know is actually true for a lot of other people too.
So that there's this sense that the local, the regional, is in fact universal...
I think it is. And I think you can either go wider or you can go deeper. And really I've got all I need here, really. And it's sort of just a matter of going deeper. I can't - well I can't be sympathetic towards people who think they've got to go and paint in Canada or they've got to go and paint somewhere. The eternal verities are eternal verities I think, and they're in your own spot, if you want it.
When you were in Venice, what did you think of the visuals in Venice?
Well, they weren't my visuals, they were more ornamented. And they were terribly decaying, which I found coming from a fresh clean country, it wasn't my thinking. And I remember when we were having a terrible time getting a pavilion built - built actually while we sat and waited - there, that I sat on the side of a canal where they were building the hut. And they were excavating. And they were digging up the most beautiful old china chips of Italian sort of civilisation. And I used to sit on this balustrade and place them all along. And I remember some of the tourists came up, "Oh, that's quite valuable, that stuff, you know". And the workmen got so that they handed me things and tried to explain. I remember the man who tried to explain a pipe bowl. He kept saying "A peep, a peep". And I kept looking and looking. Ah, it was a pipe bowl. And an old coin or something that they'd - there was a lot of digging to be done down there. It would be fascinating. I would like to be an archaeologist in the sense that you would dig up things.
When you went to New York, how did that strike you?
Well I went to see the art and I went by myself. And I was only there for three weeks. They lost my luggage for a week, that was helpful. It rained a lot. They were very rude, Pan Am, very rude. And so I trudged around looking at what art I could see. And I came away with a conviction that the art was sponsored, and these people were going to be famous by edict. This was very bad news to me. I thought that's not very good, that's not very good. And I wasn't terribly impressed. I saw 'The Earth Room', by - who was it - de Maria I think. Anyway. And I thought that is decadent, a country that will keep a floor of earth. I forget how many stories up it was. It's all right out in the open with a pigeon sitting on its head, but to have an earth room and people go and look at it. And 'The Broken Kilometer' that was a mile of brass pipe encased in an upstairs room, and people slowly went up and saw this, it was a kilometre of brass pipe. And the only comment I heard - there was only one person in there when I was there - and he said, "Oh, this must have cost a lot". Not good enough, you see. And I thought well there's other art and it's truer to me, it's truer. And so it was very valuable in that sense.
So it gave you a lot more confidence in your own work to see...
Well yes, you stick to your guns.
But your work now, I mean you have people who come and buy your work and take it back to the U.S., don't you?
Yes, I do.
What sort of people? And what interests them?
Well I don't, you don't often meet the people who do. And I'm impressed when people like René Block, who did one of the Biennales of Sydney, invites you. I've got a show going on in Kassel, it's not the Kassel show, but the Documenta. And unfortunately I'm called - well not unfortunately - a New Zealander. And there are four New Zealanders in it. And he's going to have an Australian show, because he's trying to introduce the antipodean art to Europe. And as soon as they mentioned Colin McCahon, well I would cross the seas to go anywhere with Colin McCahon. I really think he's the greatest antipodean - he gives you the country that they would never know in the northern hemisphere. With Colin McCahon, me, Lyle, Lye whatever his name is, died in America, and a fellow Boyd who does prints. Not the Arthur lot, the other lot. And there are just four. And then he's going to do an Australian lot. And I said to Roslyn Oxley, where I show, "Oh, look, I'd rather be an Australian really, because I was never an artist in New Zealand. Could't have been and I didn't hit the scene here 'til I was in my fifties anyway". And she said "Oh, you might be in both, darling", she said. So I live in hopes. But it's very hard for them to get, you see, the New Zealand thing. And I am claimed by New Zealanders as a New Zealand artist.
That's becoming quite common now. People like Jane Campion...
Yes that's right, they are. Place of birth, place of birth. But it doesn't deal with the places that formed you. And it was certainly circumstances in Australia that formed me, and the taking on another country.
Why do you think it is that the Monaro plain and that whole area spoke to you in the way that it did? Is there some quality in it that you think resonates with your personality, with your character?
Well I like the grass, you see. I've always liked yellow grass. I really do. I see it on the roadside. I just love it. And... [coughing]... it was there...and David Campbell's poem about the Monaro rolling... [INTERRUPTION]
What do you think it was about this country around here that really, really spoke to you?
Well I think eventually it's a personal freedom and the air and the grass. And I suppose too, that living 17 years in an isolated spot, without you even trying, it works on you, you know, it influences you. Everything you do influences you, but I think that really does. And it sorted it out for me. And I think that you're - you're cushioned by your homeland and the people you knew and the people you went to school with and everything else. Well when you change countries, you're absolutely on your own, I think. And I think that makes a difference. And you look hard. I always looked anyway, but I look hard for friends in the environment, because I knew that was something that stayed with me always.
How important are titles to you? The titles of your work. It's interesting that they're often very much the clue to what to look for.
Yeah, but the titles, as I'm always telling people, come after I've finished it. I never work to a title. And so I finish a thing, so it becomes - it's not a proper nothing, it's something, you see, it's got a presence. And I'm the judge of whether it's got a presence or not. And so then it's got presence. So it's something. And you know it's something - well now what is it, you see, and what in your experience has spoken to you and produced this work. And then you try to think of a title that doesn't lead the observer, and narrow him, or narrow his concept of it. So you might see something but they, with true genuine experience might see something else. So you've got to make room for the viewer, you see. So you mustn't lead the witness. That's that they say in the law courts, don't they? Don't lead the witness. And so then I sit here and play games at night. What'll I call that? And they all get sick of me. They get so sick of looking at it. And then in the end, sometimes it tells me. I remember making a piece out of retro-reflective stuff. And I had it in the passage. It was two big, fairly big squares. And very square, and yellow reflective. And I went past it and it said 'Tiger, Tiger' like Blake's 'Tyger, Tyger, burning bright.' And it was the shape of the tiger's head. You know how square they are. And it whoosh like that, at you when the light got it. And so I called it 'Tiger, Tiger.' But it definitely told me what it was called. And I've had other things that I've kept around the house for a while. And suddenly all your doubts have fallen away, all your posturing has fallen away, and suddenly it tells you. It's very funny when it does that. But it takes - sometimes it takes a long time.
What kind of voice does it use?
Ah, I don't know. Just authoritatively. It tells me authoritatively that I am called 'Tiger, Tiger'. And once I made a thing that Daniel Thomas has bought. And I was taken with a hillside over here in Garran. And suddenly the wattle comes out - there's a wattle tree there, a wattle tree there. And it strikes like lightning. And I always think how the early settlers must have felt when they saw this strange shrub light up on the hillside, you see. And it was made of yellow and grey wood or something. And I called it 'Wattle Strike'. And I had a rather persistent woman I had met in Venice. She was American. She said - she wrote to me, she said "What a terrible name. Why don't you call it 'Wattle Surprise'?" Like something you eat for lunch, you know, one of those awful bars. I thought what a terrible idea. Because actually the wattle does strike, and in the most unexpected places you see it come up. And suddenly it's all there. Been to Lasseter's Reef and back again, with it's gold or something. So I do that.
And it really matters to you to get the name right.
It matters to me to get the name right. It adds to its personality or its presence for me. But then if I do it too narrowly, or too descriptively from my experience, then it shuts other people out. So you've got to be very careful you don't stop people seeing what they see. Because this is important, what other people have from their experience become, and are apt to see in your work.
Why did you call that piece that you took to the Venice Biennale, and that's behind you on the wall, 'Pink Window'?
Well, it's a window and it's pink, I'm afraid. I think that's probably why. And they're both accidental colours, you see, and they came together.
What does that piece represent for you? Speak narrowly if you wish.
[laughs] When I first made it, I remember I had it over there, where you could have a window in the wall, you see. And I used to think of these, these women who lived in the outback of Australia, which is should be rather a frightening concept, you know. The farm going bad on you, the animals dying. And the road winding away to somewhere marvellous. And the woman, left alone in her house, looking out and - to see if something was happening. Nothing. Absolutely nothing was happening. And there's a nothingness in the Australian landscape that is - I don't know, I haven't had the experience - but I don't know whether there's the same nothingness anywhere else. But there is. And the sort of hope that that might be a car or galloping hooves or something. And I could, I could - nothing happened on Stromlo a lot, you know. And people did sort of yearn for other places, familiar times, friends, all that.
How did your feathered work come about?
Well I found the feathers you see. You find the stuff. This is nice, you see. You walk round and you say this is nice, so you pick it up. If there's a lot of it, you take a lot of it. And then you leave everything else to chance. And I remember going down to Lake George, because I had been in the Bungendore dump with a New Zealand friend, and the smell was something awful to her. It didn't worry me too much. And let's have our lunch. Well let's get away from this frightful smelling place, you see. And so we took the other road, and there was suddenly a road saying Lake Road, no thoroughfare or something. We went down there and there was Lake George. That's how I discovered it. And that was the bird sanctuary end, the Bungendore end, not when you get onto the main highway. And the swans and all the other birds, the pelicans and everything were going up and down. It was like - I hadn't been to Venice then - it was like Venice, flotillas of birds. Marvellous. And the swans were all nesting, the black swans they were. And they were all nesting and they had feathers. They'd dropped their spare feathers. It was hot. And all entangled with the blonde rushes are these lovely feathers. Some of them were full of mud and scungy, but I took them too, because I didn't mind. I used to collect, you know, lots, handfuls of them. And after several trips to Lake George the house gets full of feathers - the family don't actually like the house full of feathers. They don't like you washing them, well you washed them in the laundry, but all the same. And so I thought well what else have I got a lot of that I like. And I had a lot of newspaper, because you'd get a lot of newspaper. And so I sat on that sofa there and started threaded them through like the old pin papers - that you used to buy pins in papers and they were threaded through like that. We got a double spread of newspaper, and threaded about four, and I thought well that's neat. They don't mind these feathers if they're neat. So I threw them down on the floor, and suddenly they sort of moved away from your hand, and you could see that there's a whole surface, a terrain almost, like a winter landscape, when the country's clean and goes back to its lines as the country does. And so I think I threaded about 3,000 in the end. There were a lot of feathers. And the newspaper red. And just on the floor. I remember putting it down in the gallery in Victoria and three very nervous women came by and said "Oh, what about that?" you see. And I said "Well, look here, if you've been at the North Pole or the South Pole, well look there it is," you see. "And if you've seen the winter landscape it's there. And this is the levels of the lake, and if you've been in the aeroplane for a long time and you look out at the clouds, it's all there, you see. It's all your experience come together. You can think what you like, you can move where you like as long as you've had the experience". They got very confident about that. Unlike some other woman who was a historian, who stumped past me to the members' room and said "Don't you think a lot of art is about occupational therapy these days?" And I was just standing there, so I said "Oh, I believe in this piece. Quite like it." "Who did it, do you know?" Well she asked for it, so I told her. She scuttled away into the members' room with a great scuttle. But you know, she was an example of a person with a tight mind. And she probably hadn't had the experience or couldn't do the shift or something. But to me it had a presence. And I had a lot of them. And then I went again, and it was summer, real summertime. There was no mud. And the feathers were lying, really like peonies, you know how fat and white peonies can be, and on the blonde grass. And they were just beautiful. And far too good to leave. You don't care what you're making outright, they're just too good not to have. So I got a lot of them, and...
Yeah, but black swans hold up their wings, white feathers. And those are the ones they drop. And only once I did something with black feathers and they were the - what are those birds that - shags I think. And suddenly with a clatter they'd dropped all their black feathers, and they were just beautiful, like the inside of a mushroom, you know, glossy, shiny black. And I did two chairs with them that were oat pastiche, Nick Waterlow said to me. But he took the 'Feathered Fence,' he was very keen on, he took it for a Biennale, it was just - it was the drowning fences of Lake George. You could see where the tide comes in and drowns the fences. The optimistic farmers put their cattle there and then the lake rises again and the fences go, drowned into the lake. And it's all about levels, you see. The levels of the lake are like that, and the levels of the country are like that, and the levels of the - and it's very pure. And that's where the 'Feathered Fence' came from. And even gallery guards say "I do like your cockies." So I politely say they are not cockies. Cockatoo feathers are shorter and they don't have this lilt in them along. And they've got yellow on them too. So I say that.
You have always loved parrots, though, haven't you?
Yes I have. Well they're not New Zealand of course. It was like being inside a zoo when I first came, couldn't believe these brightly coloured parrots for free, you know. Flying around in our balconies. We had a buried pyracantha hedge. And they were snip, snip, like dressmakers in it. Snip, snip, snip. And then they flew onto your balconies. Just amazing.
And Arnott's overcame the problem of painting them.
Well, yes, it came second. I saw the boxes in the supermarket, Arnott's biscuits. And they've all got parrots on them. And some of them had blue parrots, some red, some multicoloured and what not. And the girls used to give me lots of boxes and I used to cut them out. But that was right at the beginning. And that was just using your naked eye, you see. What was there, you took. I did that, I found the parrots, I found the Norco cows too. I did quite a lot of things with Norco cows.
And you cut out cricketers and put those in boxes.
Yeah, but that was newspaper cuttings. They were real. Real cricketers, you know. There's nothing like the real thing.
And - but you stopped doing that. You stopped using...
You get more sophisticated. Well you've done it, haven't you? And sometimes in dumps you see, you kick around things that once you would have taken. But you've got past it. And I remember once doing a thing with enamelware - jugs and sieves and goodness knows what not. And a Canberra critic wrote me up once and he said "Oh yeah, she used that enamelware that can be found in any Australian dump". Got news for him. It can't. It can't, it's very hard to find. And even if you offered children money to pull things out of the bramble bushes, they don't.
You've done that?
I did, I did that once. They need more money. I didn't realise the currency had gone up a bit.
But as time went by you got more confident about a more abstract, more essence driven approach to things, rather than representation.
Well you did. A part of it's necessity of course, because there isn't the availability of the stuff. And the country stuff is sort of six feet under. The bulldozers have got at it. And you can't - you haven't got the access. And sometimes you've said all you've got to say about - you see. I've done - I've got more enamelware out there that I've collected over the days, but I feel I've done enamelware, you know, I've said everything that needs to be said, or that I'm interested in, you see. You could get slack on it, and disinterested, or a bit bored, you know. Well I can make that. There's a work in there. I don't want to do it, why should I? Every work takes time. This is what people don't realise, that even to throw up something, you know you can do this with your hands tied behind your back. But you don't want to do it. Because it all takes time.
How much time?
All the time you've got. Absolutely all the time you've got. And as long as your enthusiasm is up - I go every morning out into the studio to look at what I've done and things that I vainly think are going to be pretty good, turn into proper nothings and fall off the wall more or less. And other things you persist and persist and persist and they come good. But you never know what's going to come good. But you've got to keep your energy flow up, and you've got to keep your hands moving. If you sit around with still hands, and try to produce a show, hopeless. No heart in it anyway.
When do you work? What time of day?
As soon as I get up in the morning, I go out and see what I've done.
Well I do - if I've got something that a - has been glued and weighted down and I've had to leave it for the night or leave it for something, then I would go, probably in a dressing gown and unpick it. Or take the weights off it or something. And see what I've got. And then I'd come back and have breakfast and do dishes. One thing, I do the breakfast dishes. And then every day, as long as you - as long as you feel enthusiastic, I find that in my cycle I have - somebody told me it's an alpha cycle in the morning. I don't know whether it is or not. But you're keen and your eye is sharp. But after about one o'clock you go downhill. And it's no use. You should tidy up or do something then, if you can bear it. But everything, the technicolour goes out of everything. It goes black and white and you're done. And you can feel it. It's a sort of state of mind. You see you've got to have - in my neck of the woods, instead of being, as Van Gogh said, you go into the studio every day, like a peasant, and you ply your trade. You don't think you're going to produce a masterpiece, because a lot of people do things, today's the day I'm going to do something, you see. But you don't. You go and you ply your trade, and then everything maybe comes in synchronisation, and you're there, you've got it , you've done it. But those highs you don't get very often.
And when you have got that moment that it's all come together, and you know it's right...
That's very exciting, that's exciting.
What do you do?
You work very fast before the vision departs I suppose. Or, if you - you know, things that take days to do, you've got to keep your enthusiasm up for those days. And if the next day you're still ignited, you're still exciting, it's still exciting, that's the best time you ever get I think.
Do you ever have long periods where you don't have those moments?
Oh yes, you do. But everybody does.
How do you keep going then?
You get very rude to everybody and very bad tempered and everything. And then you work through it, and suddenly the light comes. It's very like a natural process.
Is there anything you can do to turn on the light, or do you just have to wait?
No, not really I don't think. I don't think you can pretend. I think art is about honesty really. As I have said to everybody, most of the things in this life, especially in this age, are about money is the bottom line. Look at the wretched building in Sydney by the Opera House. Money you see. But art has got to be about honesty. And see artists should look after it. It's not the gallery owner who's got to keep a roof over their heads. And has to appreciate everybody's sort of art and things. It's the artist. You've got to be very ruthlessly honest about it. If it's not good enough for you, it's not good enough for anybody. You've got to be your own judge too.
Can we take that a bit further? The idea of honesty in art, I suppose a lot of artists think they're being honest with their materials.
Yes but you're a mass of self-deception. Everybody is.
How do you get through that, and what is it that you actually mean by honesty in art?
Well, if it's not so you don't do it. As - there was an American woman who said "People do things, but it's not so", she used to say. "It's not so". And I think she meant that the eternal verity wasn't in it. You see, it's not easy. I don't think - I think art - people make art hard. It's really a simple process, but it's very serious. It's deadly serious. And that's all you can sort of tie to. It's like being drowned. And there's a - one piece of driftwood you can hang on to. Honesty, you see. And otherwise you destroy yourself. And I think it's a hard business. And I think, and I think people, everybody, every artist needs solitude. You must have the desert, there must be only there, see. Not everybody else telling you.
Would you ever look at a piece that you've completed at some stage, and been reasonably happy with, and thought that's a dishonest piece?
No, if I'm happy with it, it's not dishonest, that's for sure, I would think. I have - I have done things that I've looked at, and think, gee I was going on off at a tangent there. Because it's not hard. You have to sort of fight - it's almost like Dante - you have to fight your inner self. Because you're vain and you're this and you're gullible and like everybody else. And some days you think you're pretty good and you're - and then you find out you're not. And so it's a constant battle of reasserting yourself in your honestest way, and not thinking about so and so will like this. This is a terrible trap for people.
So the honesty consists of your being conscious that this piece is what you feel is right, and isn't serving some other commercial or other purpose to fill up the exhibition because you've been offered it?
Yes... Oh, that's bad. Or doing four more works before September, as you hear people - I wonder how on earth they can. "I've got to do six more works" she said, "I'm having a show in September". I said "How do you know" - you know, "where are they coming from?" I mean if you're intelligent enough you can sort of do something. But it's too hard a job, I think, to make art, the best art you can...
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