Australian Biography

Rosalie Gascoigne - full interview transcript

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When you're making an image of a landscape with materials that you've found, do those materials have to come from the landscape that you're representing?

Oh no, no. It's a free-for-all. Any - anything that works, you know... [INTERRUPTION]

Rosalie, you scavenge and fossick around this area, around where you live, and that's the area that you represent in your images. Is it important that the materials come from the area that you're representing?

No, because often I use them a long time after I've found them, you know, months, years even. And the only criterion is that they're nice when they start. I like them. I like them. You don't, I like them, you see. And then you're, you're focussed on putting across a feeling, the way things make you feel or the way they feel. Not the way they look, because I've got very little control over that. So I never plan. I move my hands a lot, I think ah, got it. And then it matches a thought I've had.

And it just falls into place that way.

Well yes, it - well it has to look right. Once I see it look right, it might even fall across something that will go with it in a studio, or in a backyard or something. And you think, oh, oh, yeah, that. And that reminds me of something, you see, I think that's how I work.

And did you always represent something that has delighted you, rather than something that has disturbed you?

Yes, it's always - it's always pleasure, I think. Because I know the way a branch goes, I know the way a leaf falls. I know - I've looked a lot, I've used my eyes a lot.

You've never felt an impulse to represent things that connote pain or loneliness in the landscape.

I don't think so, not consciously. You know the other thing is there, you see. I always know it's there. And I'm very - to use the ikebana phrase, I'm very aware of nature. I know how it works.

You talk a lot about need. Do you think that out of your own life there's been a great need to show what is lovely and beautiful in the world?

Well I suppose that, but I think that - that you look upon - I have to think about that one. I suppose if you know things very well you get more affectionate towards them. And they're always there. And I suppose you do make an ideal world. I think that people do relieve themselves if they feel that their life isn't fulfilling enough or something, you know. I think you turn somewhere else. And you see, you have to remember, busy scientific worlds are not places for women in a lot of ways. It's funny a lot of the Americans marry scientific women. It's very true. Because then you've got a whole world, you accept that other people have different worlds. But this is my world and - and I feel at home in it.

Have you ever thought of working in any other area than landscape?

Inability would stop you from doing this.

But in representing your work you've moved more towards abstraction.

Yes, I have.

Now, there are a lot of other experiences - other experiences in life other than landscape. Has it ever occurred to you to move out of the landscape mode and into some other area of abstraction?

I would if I could. I would if I could. But you see you're - you're stuck with your limitations and what you can do. And this is what I can do, and nobody is going to tell me that I can't do it, you see. So I stick with it, and in face of any criticism, I stick with it.

Are you a very ordered person?

That is a laugh. No, I'm not. I'm very, very untidy. And I remember when I first started doing things, I thought at least this is something that doesn't have to be done again tomorrow. Doesn't have to be dusted, doesn't have to be washed. It's a fact, you see. And this always pleased me. When I put a thing up it was finished.

And it was very ordered.

Oh well, that's - that's where I had control, you see. You do have control with inanimate objects if you can work hard at them and get them to the point where they - you know how people say you sort of centre things? And I remember going to a party once where there was a very clever man who used to take a stick and stand it on the floor. And he'd stand it absolutely upright and you could dance all around it. And he got everybody practising with eggs. And you balanced them on the pointed end, you see. And they stayed, they set like rocks. And you'd join it onto gravity or something. And that's what I feel. When my work gets to that point where I - it's set, absolutely solid. And that - that for me, is right. So I go on 'til I do it that way, and I can mastermind it, you see.

And so this - the randomness of nature is there in your images, but under a sort of control.

Yeah, well that's true. That is true. And nature is so beautifully random. I remember liking to go out in the country and for once the trees weren't in rows - Canberra does that to you, because they plant them exactly the same distance apart, and they plant them straight. And when you go out with one leaning this way and one leaning, it's just heaven. And nature of course discards mightily when it doesn't like what it's done. It puts up another one. Or doesn't. Chance is nature's friend too, I think.

Do you discard a lot?

Oh yes, an awful lot. Because it's like the tip of an iceberg, in a studio you have a lot of mess. And out of chaos - Bacon, the artist said this - that art comes out of chaos. It's the thing that rises steadily out of the - he worked in what you could only call a rat's nest. And he used to move his address when his studio got too appalling. And it really was appalling, you know. But there was the order that became a work of art, or was a work of art. That's good. But you need a lot of stuff. I find I need a lot of stuff around, and I need a lot of stuff that reminds me of how good it is when nature does it.

So you have never had any desire to turn the chaos of a household into an ordered place?

No, because it doesn't stay. Come Monday, come Tuesday, you've still got a mess again. That's no good. And I'm not good at it. I'm not enthusiastic about it. I like it when other people do it. But when you have to do it yourself, uh-huh. Boredom.

You had a childhood in which you were - not much time or attention was given to you.

Well, yes. That's right.

You came to a country where you found it hard. And a community where you found it hard to find friends. You had a husband that was terribly busy with his own work, and you were overlooked. When attention and success came, you've told us that it was heady stuff.

Well it was - unbelievable, you see, because I wasn't used to being - well perhaps successful, but that was in my own mind probably. But there was something I could do, and something that stayed. And I was amazed that - that people whose opinion I valued could see what I was trying to do. And I was amazed that I should be so lucky as to get there, out of - with no skills. Really I didn't have them, I didn't. And knowing at school that I couldn't paint or draw. And knowing forever I couldn't paint and draw. Still can't. And yet there was something. And it's your nature. I think you've got to, as Picasso says, you've got to be born an artist. And I think you have. And I think that I spent a lot of time being sort of restless and out of step with everybody and restless, and not knowing what it was. And then I came to this thing I could do and it grew. And all you had to do was, as it were, hang loose, and just use your eye.

So by being absolutely true to what you felt was right, you were suddenly somebody.

I suppose I was. But of course, I didn't realise it. Because you have to work very hard. It doesn't come easily. And you work hard. But it was worth doing to me and it opened - it gave me what I call an expanding universe. I think it's a basic human fear to be boxed in. You know, this is all you get, box, you see. And when you're an artist you've got an expanding universe. Anything can happen as long as you've got strength to your elbow. And nature is a prototype. And so you, you become more aware. It's like going up a mountain, and you go up a little way and you can see a bit. Go up, and you see more. And the older you get and the more experience you have, and the higher up your mountain, so to speak, you get, the more you can see. And you know that you are human and finite. You're not going to see the lot anyway. Nature does, but you're not going to. And so you can always work towards it, you see. And life can renew itself and one day, something marvellous could happen, you see. And sometimes you do reach a peak when you think ah. Then you're quite amazed that you did it all. That sort of thing. It's a continuing adventure I think.

Is confidence an essential ingredient in being able to start climbing the mountain at all?

I don't know about - no, I don't think confidence, because you don't have any. I think need. I keep on saying need. You know there's something there, you don't know what it is, it's faceless. And you - well I hate the expression 'warts and all' - are going to be able to do it, you see, as long as you work hard enough.

Was there any danger when success arrived, and suddenly you were flavour of the month and exhibitions were opening all over the place, you know, and you were 'it'? Was there a danger that you would have - would success have ever spoiled Rosalie Gascoigne?

Well I don't know, because you always know there's something better, you see. You never think I'm 'it'. And are complacent about it. Because you know, you see things out there in the countryside that are better than anything you can produce. And it depends what your goals are I suppose. And what - what your platform is. I'm always saying that about your platform. If you're being frightfully egotistical and thinking I'm great and I can do this and this and this, and you turn into a factory really, and you make the things you can make. Well this is not good enough, you've got to go on. And so many people in the art world, I think, get to a sort of peak and they think - well I suppose, I suppose, I suppose vanity enters into it. But they do what they are able to do. And what you've got to do is to pull off something that isn't in the palm of your hand before you started, you see. And so - and the adventure is very large. And as I say about Edmund Hillary when he came down from Everest, and he said - and they said "How did you go?" He went up through the fog and came down to the base camp. And they said "How did you go?" and he said "We knocked the bastard off". And I often said this to people I've been talking to, and I say the difference with art is that you never knock the bastard off. There's always another bastard up there, you see. And this should lead people on and should keep people humble. I don't know why people get keen on themselves, because there's always more and there's always something better.

So you have remained, in a way, astonished...

Yes I'm astonished. I am astonished. That is - that is true. And yes, I would say that. I think, "Who me?", you know, with my poor equipment. I do think that. And I do think that there's always things better, better, can do it better than you. Even if it's nature.

You were in your fifties when this happened. How did it change your whole life? What effect did it have on your life?

Less housework, that's how it changed my life. I threw - I thought this is it, this is what I've been looking for. I need all the time I can get. And my housework was always fairly bad, very bad, spasmodic. And when you're an artist, whether you're 50 or not, time is very precious to you. You need all the time. It's what you'd rather do with your time, make art you see, or think about it, or grope around. And these other things like housework and meals are very temporary, you know. There's more tomorrow to be done.

Hod did your husband react to the success?

With dismay, I think, and - with men you have to sort of reveal yourself. And he was rather surprised that this meant so much to me. When I'd - I'd changed so much from what I was when I was a girl in New Zealand, you see. And I belonged to the prototype of housewife and mother, you know, how you do. And that's what men expected. And so when he saw this terrible change, and when he said "I've never seen obsession like it". Not pleased he wasn't. And it was all right for men to be obsessed, you see, and he'd been obsessed with his science all his life. All his life. In his youth from 16 onwards, you know. And he couldn't - it takes him time to come to terms with that's what he's actually got. Because you peel yourself like an onion to make visible what you really are. And I didn't know what I was. I just knew I was out of step and always looking.

But you had this overwhelming need to do it.

Well I did. I wanted to see something static in my life that stayed and I could - and only me, see I wasn't dependent on anybody else. Only I could do it. So I needed a lot of time to myself.

Did you need him to understand that?

Well you wish, you always wish that people will. And try as they might, they only half do it. And I always maintain that the more you do something, the further you get from the understanding of everybody else who doesn't do it. And I think you do, because the first things you do, well it's like home decoration. They think, "Oh well that's okay, see that's okay. I can stomach that". And then you get further and further and further and people think "What's she after? What is she doing? Oh, I don't like that. I like what she used to do". So you've to go the - you've got to go the journey and it gets, I think, lonelier. You're more isolated in it. Of course you're isolated in it, because your art is a whole world, and only you have put the time into it. So that. But then by that time you think people have got to put up with it, because that's what you're going to be and that's what you are.

Did it put a strain on your marriage?

Oh yes, of course it did. Of course it did. But of course he was away a lot and he commissioned the big telescope and he was absorbed in men's talk about astronomy, you see. And you can't follow, you can't. And I don't think he probably realised about the - the littleness of female life as it was. The long littleness, to quote somebody or other, that you do. And they can't realise how important it is to you. This identity and not being a sort of shadow behind the man all the time.

But you are still together after how many years of marriage? Fifty plus?

Fifty plus.

And so you've worked out a way of dealing with the fact that you've got this other life...

Look, look, you live the way you can. You don't work anything out. You live the way you can. And if there - if there's sort of an eruption of difference or something, well I suppose you work that out when it comes to it. But you know what you've got to be, and they know what they've got to be. And it depends on your - probably your nature. What people's nature is. And he's been a paper man, and a clean hands man for ever. And also an intellectual man. I feel a lot. I think I feel a lot more than he does. I think I do. As much as one knows anybody.

In relation to the other aspect of being an artist these days, there is the work, and then, as well as the work, there's the exhibitions and the promotion of the work.

That's rising to the occasion all the time. That is - that is what you notice.

Do you enjoy that?

Sometimes I do. Sometimes if I've had a lot of it, I think here I go saying the same old things again. And you see, you're journeying, you have to remember that it's - everything that happens is secondary to your art, you see. And so you suffer along for it anyway. And people expect you to jump through hoops. There's no doubt about it. And people in Canberra have always been - it's always been a sort of company town. And they always expect you to give your time, your effort, your talent, for nothing. Always. And this gets impossible. It just doesn't get room - there isn't room for philanthropy in a lot of ways.

So when you are talking about your art, and putting it out there -and you do a bit of teaching too, don't you?

No, no, not really. I give talks at art schools and things sometimes, I have done.

Is that because you recognise that people actually really want to understand and connect with it?

Well sometimes you feel like it. And it's hard to say no, really, if it's a reputable institution that asks you to do something. And sometimes you feel, well okay, you'll straighten these art students out. Because you feel that they don't know anything. And also I find that when I give public talks, like in Sydney or Melbourne, and there's a panel of people, well people get up in great sheafs of papers and are terribly obscure. And they talk about what they do, and the audience dozes off a bit. Sometimes it does doze off a bit. And when you get up and you have to talk in ordinary language, because none of those big words and none of that artspeak is available to you, well all the young students brighten up. It gives them strength to their elbow. And this is what students come to talks really for. They - it's their work they're interested in, they've got to be interested in their work. They don't really care so much on the convolutions of other people's work. It doesn't help them any. And so you find that - I have found I've got up and had a first sentence and then talked, and the students have come up after me. The older people know what they want to know, but the students don't, and I think it's the students that should be looked after, the people who are groping their way towards it. And I find it quite easy to talk, if you talk the facts. Because I don't really think that the - I'll probably be in deep water here - that the art schools teach them. They don't teach them the ABC, the ordinary things. And there's so many people. And Robert Klippel in Sydney agrees with me, that they all want to be famous. They all - this is what they think, they can be famous, they can buy a kaftan, they can go to the parties, they can be ever so trendy. And then they're an artist. They're not an artist. It's a private inward thing, and you get out what's already inside you. And I always say to students, look the most valuable thing is what started you off in the first place. That's the most valuable thing you've got. And whatever the teachers might like to teach about screen-printing or whatever - and they teach you everything you see, and you can do everything but none of it with heart. None of it with the real you, you see, in it. But you're clever at it. And that's not good enough. Because art is about individuals and their own product, which is already in them. Get it out. It's like education, leading out what's inside.

You talk about need a lot, as you've said. For you, over all those years, those lonely years, before you found your art, what do you think was the driving need that finally - or the thirst that was finally slaked when you got into your art?

I don't think the thirst was slaked. I think you remain the sort of animal you are. And you know that that's what gives you most joy, having the time and the - the time. You have the dedication to the thing, but you want to watch things, you want to look at things. You don't want to make the beds, you know, that sort of stuff.

So it was a need to do that activity... to get involved with that...

Yes, yes, yes... it was a - a more exciting world was available to you. A real world. That was reality to me. Some people don't need art at all, you see, but I need it.

The other thing that you'd lacked through those years and that, perhaps, you needed, was attention?

Well probably, probably. But all women need sort of - they need to know they're on the map. Otherwise they just disappear, you see. And I think women do need that. That they're somebody and they - they're important.

But now you've got the attention, do you feel altogether at ease with it?

If you're that sort of animal, you never feel at ease with absolutely anything. See you're difficult. I think if you're difficult to yourself and you're difficult to other people, but you've got this one thing that matters, and when all else fails, this matters, you see. And then you take that away, well nothing much matters I suppose.

So you describe yourself as a difficult woman.

Yes, I am.

In what sense are you difficult? How would you - if you were someone else, how would you find you difficult?

How would I find me difficult? I suppose that I don't agree with people a lot in some ways. And I'm conscious of having a private persona that I sort of understand because I'm stuck with it. But I can't expect other people to understand it. And I suppose you look for a sort of ideal which you don't get in this life. But I know I'm difficult, I'm difficult to me. Hard to live with.

You find you hard to live with?

I find, I find I'm hard to live with too. So - but you're stuck with it, you see. Because it's your nature.

So what do you find hardest about living with you?

Well, I don't like what other people like mostly. I don't want to do what other people want to do, mostly. I don't know. And I think that I'm wayward in that I jump a lot from one - one personality to another. I can be this and I can be that. My mother always used to say, I can argue black is white with the slightest... And she could, she could. Perhaps it's Irish, though she didn't have any Irish in her.

Poetry is something that you quote from, from time to time, and you talk about quite a lot. Is poetry important to you?

Yes it is, it is. Especially the old sort that you can really understand. Some of it is very difficult these days, I think. I like the images that poetry give. I like the sensations, I like to get the secondhand sensations from people who have felt things about mostly natural things. And sometimes other things. But I like everything that's a bit airborne, that is perhaps - I suppose you might say of the spirit, but I've never thought of it like that. But it makes things clear. And it's sort of - it's points of view that help you I suppose, to see things as they are.

Do you connect to any kind of religion?

No. I did have a very religious period in my life, but when anything troubles me, you see, I'm very lazy, I take it as abstract, you see. So I don't - I don't worry about spelling it out, and this is exactly as it was. Like the Old Testament and the New Testament, and what not. I take what I need from what I see, and I don't read things very carefully mostly. But I take what I need from it. From newspapers I do that. And from religion too. And I think from the fact that you've got to - you've got to cope with it, you see, some way or other. And it's lucky for people who have no doubts. I always think it would very nice to be born say a Roman Catholic and have it all laid out for you. And everything you believe, that's what you believe, you see. Well I don't, you see...

But you don't show a lot of doubts about nature and about the spirit of nature.

Well, no I don't.

Is there - to some extent are you a sort of Pantheist really?

Well you could say that. But I'm not entirely a Pantheist that I worship nature against other things. But nature is one of the eternal verities. It's there, it's there, it's there. It doesn't change at anybody's whim. And that's pretty good, you see. You can wipe us all away in no time at all. And the Brindabellas still stand, don't they? And we're not supposed, as human beings, I think, to know everything anyway. So keep calm, work towards some sort of, something you believe in. And the rest will fall into place, if it needs to fall into place.

And what is the most essential thing that you believe in now, Rosalie?

The most essential thing. Oh goodness me. Well there's good times and bad times of course. Sometimes you believe in something and sometimes it all goes away completely. I think that the necessity for getting out what's in you and that's about as much as a human being can do. And be the sort of animal you were created and do the best you can, within your limits, which you have to always accept. And you were - there's some use in being born the way you are, I think, really. And I think that one of the worst things you can do is not realise your potential. And a lot of people don't do that. And I feel there's still more I can find in art. It says things for me. And I suppose I'm always after a sort of honesty. Being honest about yourself. And that's hard enough, goodness knows. You're not what you thought you were. Every time you're not what you thought you were. So that's a job for you. You can do that.

You're probably one of the most energetic, vigorous and active 82 - 82? - year olds.

Not quite.

...not quite...that I've encountered. Do you think that is because there's this urgency in you to express these things?

I don't know. I think it's probably 17 years in the wilderness of course, keeps you fairly young, because there's nothing to do. Well, I mean you garden and you have lots of fresh air, and you live fairly solitary. Fairly solitary, but not all that much. And I think a lot of it's hereditary and I think that you're not all the energetic when you're collapsing on the sofa looking at awful TV, do you? Which I do. And also you can rise - your adrenalin can rise to the occasion you see. And I think - I'm interested in people, and when I can look into people and see them having a life, and how's it for you, you know, so to speak. You come alive. You have long bored periods. There's periods where you can't find anything. And there's nothing you want to do. You have plenty of things to do, but you don't want to do them, you see. You have that.

And the main thing that you want to do now is your art. That's really it.

Yes. But I do find if I go out in the studio in the morning - I've got what somebody told me was an alpha cycle, but I'm not great on psychology. And in the morning you get this rush and you can see things. And by the time you've had lunch, listened to your television serial, lain on the sofa a bit, you go out and everything goes black and white, all the technicolour goes, and you can't do anything, you really can't. Because to be creative takes a lot of energy, and it runs out like all energy does. And so in the afternoon you don't do much. But Somerset Maugham used to write. And he used to write busily all morning, and then he used to have three martinis or three somethings, and then he used to pray for the next day to come, because he couldn't do anything in the afternoon at all. And he just waited 'til the next day comes. I'm a bit like that. But it's born again in the morning you see. I suppose with your adrenalin rush.

And then the energy dies with the day.

Yes, it does. You go over the hill and down in the afternoon, always I find.

Do you fear death?


Why not?

It's inevitable, that's why not. Why bother, you see. And - you see you don't know the whole story, you don't know anything for sure. Nobody knows anything for sure. They all have theories and what not. And so what about confronting the inevitable and going along with it. I think most people, in the end they've got to do that, haven't they? If it's going to happen, it's going to happen whatever you do.

So you don't think about it.

Oh, I think about it. It's - yes, I do, I do think about it. But you get on with it while the sign is that you should get on with it. That's it.

And the sign's still strongly there.

Yeah, well I mean I got things I haven't done, that's for sure. And that makes a great deal of difference, you know. Got to just do this. And whether in the final moment of truth you realise it didn't matter whether you did it or not. But I think for here and now, and in the human condition, that's what you do.

You've talked about two great needs in life. And the first was motherhood.

Well I had to be a mother, yes that's true.

Why do you think that was, and was it fulfilling for you?

Well it was - I had children under rather difficult circumstances, with very little help and very little anything in the way of houses and - the house was big and cold and there were no, you know, even hot water and things weren't available. And so it was a hard slog. And I wasn't terribly good at it, because I wasn't ordered, you see. And that was necessary. I don't know. You change a lot and you grow and you discard influences that you've had. Everybody does that I think. Everybody - until you can emerge, I think, as a person in your own right, you were meant to be like that, you were made like that, get on with it. And I think that's what it comes to in the end. And everybody else you forget, has got a whole world of which they are the centre, a great big world. And everybody else stands in their bubble outside them, with their own world. You forget. Novelists try to show this thing I think. That you can have a very narrow view from your own point of view, but other people are living in different...

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