|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: November 13, 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.
You have been very much labelled with women artists, often grouped with them or talked about by art writers as part of women's art. What do you think of that?
Well I have an answer for that and I gave it once to Meanjin, when I didn't realise I had been asked to write a piece as a woman artist. Because I have no truck with it. I think that with art you offer up yourself, and being a woman fits very neatly, if you think about it, into the category of what you are. So it takes care of itself. You know, because you're a woman you do this thing this way. But I never, I never hold with women who set themselves aside, as half the population, as women artists. You're either an artist or you're not, seems to me. Doesn't enter into it.
And you don't like being called a feminist.
No, I'm not a feminist. I know my rights, you know. And I suppose - but I - well I haven't particularly found a need to stand up for my rights. I've just gone on being what I am, and it's sort of come naturally if you don't think about it, it is what you are. It's a fact.
But what do you think feminism is? What's your - what are you rejecting when you say I'm not a feminist?
I'm rejecting the idea of two sexes. I'm rejecting the idea that...
You don't think women should have the vote, for example?
Oh yes I do. I think they can do anything they want...
But I think art, for instance, has neither age nor sex. I remember saying this once with an interview with the director of the New South Wales Gallery. And he was saying "How does it feel to be included in a Biennale or whatever it was? It's mostly for younger people". And I could see his trend. And I said "I think art has neither age nor sex. And what you pay is the thing on the wall and everything else is irrelevant". And I really think that. And so all this women's business. I suppose if I had, you know, as some women are repressed and they don't get this and they can't go to university because they're women, that would be different. But I haven't met it. And I know I'm a person as much as anybody else is a person. So you've got the same - you're born with it, you see, I think.
So what you're saying is that you haven't felt any discrimination against you because you're a woman.
I haven't. I've had people who've tried to be like that. And I remember being asked when I was of course older than everybody else, to give talks you see and there was a panel of people. And you'd see all these rather truculent students sitting there. No grandmother was going to tell them anything, you know. You know, it's inbuilt in them. And I thought I'll take that look off their faces, you see. I remember thinking it very, very distinctly. And in the end I could put forward - I was - that day I felt that I got all my ideas out. And you sort of hammered them with the facts, you see. And they get very respectful. Everybody takes a stance, I think, and especially the young take a stance, and especially the young don't like being talked to by a woman, and they certainly don't like being talked to by an older woman. So the facts defeat them...
Some people's definition of feminism would be exactly what you've just described. Saying a woman is no less than a man. And for some people when you say I'm not a feminist, it seems as if you're saying I think men are better than women.
Oh no I don't. Oh no I don't. I definitely don't think men are better than women. But I think everybody is conditioned by what's happened to them and what they are. And if they're black or Jewish or whatever, you know, well it comes out regardless. Whatever you do, if you're honest it's going to come out and it's going to colour what you are now. And I think it's what you are now you offer up to hang on people's walls. It's a sum total of your experience, I think. And I'm not a political animal you see. I think if you're a political animal, you're art will be political. If you are naturally that sort of animal. And if you're not - and I'm definitely not, and I'm ignorant to boot - it doesn't come into it. Art's an absolute, by itself. And it's hard to get there.
You're fond of talking about your ignorance, Rosalie. You always say... you don't know anything. And yet it seems to me that you then go on to talk in a way that reveals that you in fact know quite a deal. Could we just talk a little bit about, in relation say to art, rather than the broader world - you have in fact really learned a great deal about the state of art in the world, haven't you? Even though you haven't let it influence your own work too much. Where did you actually start learning that? At what stage did you start seeing other art? It goes back quite some time, doesn't it, to before you were actually doing it yourself, that you began to have a look at what artists were doing.
Well I think that - I feel, I always do feel that I was slightly misplaced. Because I didn't think the same as other people think. And I don't think. So in the end you're left with what you've got. The remnants of your education. And remnants they certainly are. And your place in the world, and the people you meet. And you work out for what is true for you. True, you see. And so once you do that - and anybody can do it, and anybody who has enough solitude to do it in can do it - well you stick with it, because that for me is what is true and it works.
You did though get some - you did have discussions with - there was a friend of your husband's, wasn't there, who started, who was an artist in Sydney.
Oh yes, yes.
...and you started getting to look at some of the art that was beginning to happen, way back...
I kept feeling with that particular friend, I was really, really on the wrong side of the tracks with him. And also I had this - I hate to say a New Zealand stamp which he picked up on. "You were a funny little thing when I first met you". That sort of stuff. Very superior. And really, really chauvinistic. And I thought, well for me this is the truth. And what he says isn't always the truth. Though he put me down considerably. And I think you start finding out what's true for you in the end. If you get enough abrasiveness in your life, you see, and I had plenty of that in one way or another. And so you start thinking, well I'll hold by this. And that is true. And what he thinks isn't. It might be right for him. So I think you do.
And with James Mollison you actually had quite a lot of time when you used to go and talk to him and look at art...
Well I used to admire - I used to admire his vision, and I admired what he brought to Australian art, which was a sense of great adventure. It was absolutely marvellous. He lived by it. And this was an education to me. And when people - for instance I remember him saying that Whisson was a man to buy. And I'd never heard of Whisson of course, but he had some shows. And I used to look at them hard, and think well if he's getting such a kick out of it, I'm going to see if I can't get a kick out of it too, you see. But I wasn't going to pretend I did, if I didn't. And so I used to watch them and watch them and watch them. And in the end I think I did haul myself up so that I could see the point. And so that's education too, and it's sharpening your eye away from the pleasant pastoral look, or whatever. And I think you take home things like old bones and you chew over them you see, and then you have to come with an opinion you can live with yourself. And I think I did most of my thinking that way. And most of the things, when people say to me, and I give talks on art, they're mostly things that you've nutted out for yourself. You've, you've sort of chewed them like an old bone I suppose. And it mattered to me, it did matter to get it right.
Michael Taylor, when you started conversations with him, he was an art teacher.
And an artist.
And an artist. But he was also an art teacher.
Yes, he was.
Was there an element of your learning from him as well?
Oh yes, a lot. Because he was the first, the first practising artist with whom I had real conversations. We used to talk for hours and hours. And he used to come down from Bredbo, and I used to put aside what I was doing, make lunch, clear up lunch too. And he used to - and it was a real treat for me to be, have serious talks about what I was learning about art.
What did you talk about, for example?
I'm just trying to remember. I'm trying to remember, but I remember his wife used to insist upon coming too. And she used to sit silent and we used to talk and talk. And he said, "Look, I can talk to you, you're just like Romanie" - his wife - "I could paint, and you could stand at my shoulder, I wouldn't mind". And he was a very private person. And this went on for about three years or something. And then I sort of climbed a bit and he was saying an artist has to be - what does he say? An artist has to be free, free. And I think he thought that I was influencing him too much or something. He was kind of touchy. And so that stopped. But by that time I'd had real art talks with him. And he used to assess my work for me a lot, sometimes.
So you'd talk really about what you were seeing, what you were...
Yes, what you were seeing and what was art and what wasn't. I suppose. I don't know what we talked about when you come to think of it. But it was all in that sort of field, and I really felt enriched by the fact that I had someone who understood about what you were seeing and translated it into art and what not. And also the fact that he could see that what I was doing appealed to him as an artist, you see. And that was a big step up.
Now you've said two things about how your art is regarded. You said, on the one hand, that you really don't care what other people think of it. But, on the other hand, it was very important to you to leave pieces lying around to get James Mollison's opinion of them.
Oh yes, because you had standards, you see, and you had goals, and you had people you admired. And don't forget I came in very raw. And when people first had shows in Canberra, there was one artist, one gallery, way over on the north side, and we used to put on our best arty clothes and go over, and it was marvellous. And you used to have advertisements in the paper like 'And the artist will be there, the artist.' Well that was touching glory for me. And I remember the time really when Pro Hart came to town. Pro Hart! And everybody rushed over, and he was supposed to be quite a voice in those days. Canberra was very backward. We had just the one gallery. And that was it. And so everything that - real artists and real people and people who knew about art were magic to you, you know, unattainable. To be an artist of course was absolutely beyond one's dreams ever.
So how did you decide that you were one? Can you remember the moment when it sort of - the penny dropped that you weren't just, you know, somebody with a hobby?
... A dilettante, I think. That's what Carl used to call me, this friend of Ben's. Well, I suppose you start getting a bit better. And then as the quality of the people who admire what you do - you don't care about people who say you are artistic because you do a Christmas tree better than somebody else, that doesn't appeal to you. But a real person who sees good, quote unquote, things, to think that what you're doing is worthwhile, is very impressive. Especially when you don't - you haven't been a remarkable success at anything, you see, if you see my meaning. You might have had sort of talents but you never were a success at anything. And also my husband, with his telescope up north and everything, just didn't have time or interest. And as other university wives have said, men like you to have an interest, but as long as you put it away when they come home, you see. And that's very true. A lot of academic men were like that. And the women joined the art school and were part time artists. But they put it away, you see.
And did you put it away?
No, I certainly didn't put it away. This was my chance and there it came. And Ben, I remember saying to me, I've never seen obsession like it. This is when I first started and I was doing it all over the house. And he'd been obsessed, lawfully, legally, legitimately, with his mathematics, his science, all his life, you see. And he didn't - he couldn't understand my passion for it. I mean you couldn't. It suddenly - well it's all right if you bring up the children and you make the cake and - after a fashion - and have people to dinner. Then you're being a real woman.
Do you think that's why you came to it really properly so late, that - in your life, that you were in your fifties really before you got a real go on? Do you think that that was because you were trying very, very hard to conform to a different pattern of life that had been, as it were, imposed on you by circumstance?
Well I do. I think it was - it was the only pattern was legitimate, out of New Zealand and into this. And I don't think you could have been anything else. You were deeply entrenched in the fact. I mean I wasn't one of those women who sort of got a university degree and went school teaching and juggled two lives. I couldn't possibly have done that with Stromlo and everything. And so I couldn't. I was looking for somewhere to happen. I remember feeling that I was out of step with everybody. And I really was out of step. Because I really did think differently and I came from somewhere different. And so you were looking for somewhere to happen. And suddenly this door opened to you, there were legitimate people who spent their lives doing this and art was a whole world. And I remember thinking oh how much better than the scientific world. Because with the scientific world, you see, you had no knowledge. And everybody talked shop, everybody. And scientists and astronomers talk astronomy, all the time. And so you - unless you're satisfied with housekeeping. You see what did you do? Took up drink. A lot of people did, I think.
But you took up art.
I took up art.
And it was really only after the children had grown up that you felt free to do that...
Yell yes it was. Well yes, I didn't have the time. I used to do flowers and things, and you know. But I didn't have, I didn't have legitimacy on my side. Because none of my family had ever done anything that was artistic really, except the aunt perhaps. And I really think that some of my mother's sisters, who were very good dressmakers and very bad tempered, and they could have been artists if only they had known that you take what's there and you do it. I think they could. But it wasn't fashionable you see.
Do you regret those fifty odd years?
Well I have regretted them out loud to people. Oh, why didn't I have 30 good years under my belt, you see, for doing it. And they - some people have said to me quite comfortingly, well your art probably wasn't legitimate 'til the time that you did it, when John Armstrong was doing things at Frank Watters and places. And so your sort of art wouldn't be legitimate. And the thing that I've always found is that you - all your life you're computerising, whether you know it or not, you're forming yourself. You're building yourself up on your former selves. Everything that's happened to you, everybody you've met, every circumstance, makes you as you stand today, you see. And so I think I did a lot of my thinking. What I liked. I knew better what I liked than most people who start off at 20, because they sort through it, you see. And Jim also said to me once that - I said "It doesn't get easier Jim" after I'd had about three shows. And he laughed, cruelly again, and said "Ha, just imagine what it's like for 20 year olds. They go down to the concrete, up they come again, have another show, down they go to the concrete. And you get tired of it after a while." And I suppose I was lucky in the way that I hit people where they weren't expecting it. I came in differently. I was doing my own thing. And there weren't a lot of other people in the same field. And it's great to be different in your field. See, there are many people painting nowadays, and they're obviously compared with other people who paint. A lot of them have been through the art schools and they're compared that way. Well you can't really compare me, because I'm making it up. And after all, people are always looking for something new. And I remember a woman who had a son who used to get Carrera marble and do things, and they pushed him, they were diplomats, and they pushed him to prominence. They tried to, but it was no go. And she came in here and she looked at my stuff. She said, "But no skill" you see. And people all put it to that. They don't - they don't give marks for the message behind it, or the feeling or whatever. It's how skilful you are, you see, doesn't really enter into it, because you're strict with a thought and unfeeling with the form. And I think you are. And you just do it any way you can.
So this woman was astonished that you'd been so successful...
Oh she was - yes and she was trying to push her son. And she was - I remember when I got to go to Venice, she said "How do you get to do that?" I said "Well actually, you have to get chosen". And she thought he could put in for it. That's what she thought at the beginning. She didn't later.
What do you think has been the main advantage of coming to it late, for you?
Well, I think you form yourself. Because art only grows in the soil it's planted in, so to speak, mixing a metaphor. And so you know a bit what you want. You've taken on another country with fresh eyes - and freshness is something, you see, you don't see things as they are. You see them, you get me. And so I think that is an advantage. And I think actually being a kept woman, which I've often said to art schools - they don't like this. You say, "Oh well, I'm a kept woman. I do what I like". And other people are doing it to keep the boys in long pants or what not. Well you see I've never, I've always been fed, and I've always been clothed. So I was free to do what I liked. And that's a great strength, because other people have to paint six more pictures that are blue, or something, because the school fees are due or something. They have to, you see, and I'm not compromised in any way. Nice clear vision.
So you don't do it at all for money?
I don't. No, I don't.
But you have made some money from it.
I've made a lot of money from it and now you..
... How does that strike you? What does it feel like?
Very peculiar, because when we were first married, I think we got married on a hundred pounds. And you know, you saved up months to get $20, or twenty pounds it was in those days, for something. And so when your children are little, you have nothing, absolutely nothing. And now I get paid, and I don't actually - I hate to say this - I don't need anything. I've got a house, a husband, and a car. And I don't want to go overseas again, I've been overseas. And so I have got money. I've got grandchildren who would like to count it up and inherit quickly. That sort of thing. But you see, you don't - it's one of the ironies of life - when you get it you don't need it. So. And at the moment I'm selling very well, and my prices get put up and put on by the gallery I deal with. And her prices are formed by what the market will bear, what Sydney is coping with at the moment, and who the buyers are, and the fact that if she sells things for too little the gallery owner down the road will buy them up and sell them at a profit, you see. So she's caught. The market forms itself. And when nobody wants anything, well of course you're back in pin money. So it's all very false. And I remember Bruce Pollard in Melbourne when I used to show at Pinacothica, he used to say "A work of art is worth what you can get for it". Well it is. It's like an auction. If somebody will bid higher, they get it, you see. And then of course the bottom can drop out of the market very quickly.
Now you're a very successful artist at the moment, and as you say, earning well. But would you like to be trying to keep a family as an artist?
Oh, I couldn't have done it. I couldn't have been single-minded enough. You see, it takes a lot of your emotion as well as - it takes a lot of your strength and a lot of your being to be an artist. And you've got to have a lot of solitude and you can't be interrupted. And you can't be sort of selfless. I mean good works and all that, well I've done my stint of that. And you can't afford to do it. So whether earning money for things, I don't, I don't think I could. I think probably that the wind was tempered to the shorn lamb if you ask me, that I could cope with what happened at the time. But that comes from, I think, taking from what falls on your doorstep and is meant for you, I think, I think.
So you feel some sympathy for people who discover their art and develop their obsession when they actually do have obligations to raise a family...
Well I do think, but then I also think that nobody gets any sympathy. Because it's not easy, it never was meant to be easy. And if it means enough to you, you sort of push it through. And I don't - you know Bette Davis once said - the actress - "Old age isn't for sissies". Well, I'll tell you, I'm here to tell you that art isn't for sissies, either. It's hard yakka. It's hard grind. And it's a very isolated, isolating sort of way to live. You know, you give up a lot for art.
It is interesting that you talk about how you struggled to have enough energy to be a housewife and mother, because of the demands of it, and yet here you are in your eighties, finding this enormous amount of strength and energy to work on your art. Where do you think that comes from?
I think it really comes from need and desire. And it was such a thing as adrenalin and what not. And I think that you can pull out strength for things that seem important to you, and other things don't seem important to you. And there's such a thing too as exhaustion from tedium. Though I must say with small children I did find it was all absorbing, and it was a hard life. I mean you just got a vacuum cleaner later on and that sort of stuff, you know.
What are you working on at the moment?
What I've found, what I've got. And mostly I'm in search of - not really searching - but timber is very hard to get now, because the whole world has gone plastic. And it's also gone, even the timber men, timber firms, sell formboard instead of real, honest wood, made of something, you know. I don't like it. I really like - I really like honest material, like organic stuff, wood - when I want backgrounds. But I find that as one thing disappears from possibility, another thing seems to arrive. And it's the same old thing, you just use your eyes and you see things on the back of a truck and you think, ah, I wonder if they've got a firm in Fyshwick or something. And you can get away from the dumps, which don't really provide me with very much, into the workman's world where they know about materials, and they know what's available. They're practical people. And I think art has got down to that for me... And I still see enough things that excite me.
You find different fields to search in.
Yes, I do. I do. And you're shut one way, you're blocked one way, so you go another way.
But you've still got the same desire that you had when you first started down this road, in mid life.
Well I suppose, I suppose you have. But in the beginning it's all new discovery. Well, after a while you see, axiomatically again, you get so you've seen that, done that, been that. So you personally are a greedy type person who wants visual refreshment, you see. And so if you're doing the same old boring thing though you know it'll sell and prices are up and goodness knows what, you're not going to do it. It takes too much energy and time.
Do you think that if you'd started when you were much younger, you would have run out by now. I mean do you think...
Well, that's what Jim would say, I think. I think you might. But you shouldn't you see. I always maintain that you shouldn't run out of inspiration, as it were, because if nature is your, what you watch, nature is always been different, replenishing itself in the same old thing, with the same old thing. And so you grow. But you've got to have the - you've got to have the will to do it, and the desire. I think mostly the desire.
You need physical strength to do some of what you do...
You need that too. You do your back if you're not careful. And you lift things from a wall that you shouldn't, and that sort of thing, so you stop doing that after a while.
But are you less productive now in your eighties than you used to be?
Doing something different I think. I think I'm doing stronger things and probably bigger things. And that's the trouble, you get older and you start wanting to do bigger things. And as people say, every artwork has its size. You don't just make a big thing for the sake of making a big thing, you make it because it feels big. It's going to be a big statement, you see. And sometimes it might be a small statement. But I find that I'm thinking bigger now than I used to. And I think that's probably a growth in a sort of a way. There was a Japanese man once who said about ikebana that when he was young he liked alpine flowers and things. Now he was old he liked bare grasses and stuff. Well you can see that sort of thing growing in you, that you like something harder, more definite, more timeless. I think you get more timeless. I think, you do.
Why do you think that is? Is it about leaving...
Old age, I think. I think it probably is. I think probably you've - you've sifted through the rest of the stuff that's available. And that's easy and you can do it, and of course that's obvious. But then you go for something tougher and harder. I think you do. And I think it's a natural progression.
Does it ever worry you, the thought that you might stop one day and not go on getting inspiration?
Oh, of course it does, of course. Well, I think the thing that you lose is heart. I think if you don't want to, you just don't want to do it any more. And I think that that would stop you. And I think probably if you get enough deprivation in your life and sort of saddened or something, whether you - I think you could fight it, but if sort of the whole colour goes out of life, well you wouldn't think it was worthwhile doing. Then what would you do? Lie down and die.
And yet, it was in some ways deprivation that got you started.
Yeah. That's true, that's true. It was a different sort of deprivation, and of course I rediscovered the world through the country, I suppose through the country dump a bit. But it's all been a means of expressing what one is, what one loves. I think it's one's - I think when I first started, I wrote a piece, somebody asked me to, and I wanted to prove how marvellous ordinary things were, just ordinary things that we all see. Because people don't. I mean people who are not artists, even, look at things and don't really see them. You know, they, they - what people - and children are taught these days is to use their eye as an instrument of recognition. Now you see a small child and you see these books, and they say orange, and there's a picture of an orange, high chair, picture of a high chair. Now what other - what children do, and when they're out in the garden for instance and they find a worm and they poke it with their little finger and what not, that's not recognition at all. It's how interesting and how lovely and how wriggly and how something it is. We lose all that because we name them. And of course children have to have things, names, to make them safe when they cross the road apart from anything else, and they've got to know that. But of all the senses I think the sense of vision is limited to practicalities more. Whereas look at the senses of the palate. Look how people go on and on about wines. It's all sensate stuff. It's not about the use or practicality or anything else. And music is the same.
So you're interested in capturing that absolutely basic direct experience that comes in through the eye and projecting it into an image that will recreate that direct experience.
Yes, and will stay with you, you see. You can look at it and revisit that emotion that you felt when you first saw the thing. And this is very valuable to me, to be able to - because I still when I go in the country, I find a great joy in the things I see. A swan on the water or whatever, you know, whatever, just very simple. And I think people are trained not to look at it. And of course, a lot of people don't need art. A lot of people, they get a new car and that's it, you know. They're not going to journey with the art of it.
If you were to lose your physical strength for doing the work, could you imagine sitting there directing someone else what to do?
No. No, I could not! I'm a hands on person. I really have to move my own hands and I suppose, I suppose in a way your sort of solitariness is - means that you in a way have a selfish eye. It's got to be for you. You've got to see it, you've got to harden your resolve. And you've got to recreate the world that you love and admire as best you can. But you're doing it I suppose for you. Well you're the judge anyway.
You say that the money doesn't matter to you. But does it give you a sort of little bit of pleasure just to know, as a measure, as it were, of your success, that your work is selling well? Do you take an interest in what it's selling for?
No, not particularly. I think, oh you can't do that. And, and I - Ben always says, "I've never heard you say a thing is charged - not sold for enough". It's always "Fancy that much" you see. And you rather blush sometimes. But if you get a gallery dealer who knows what the market will bear and knows her market, well then you're fairly safe I think. But I don't, I don't particularly look at the money. I would have once, by Jove, I would have. And gone out and bought something. But I don't particularly want anything. And this is great trouble to me, I don't particularly want it. And I don't think it's very good for the young to get unlimited resources. After all there are people who haven't got...
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