|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.
What made you work with bones?
They were there, you see, and also they were interesting shapes. And I had a lot of academic wives whom I knew going to art school. Well, it wasn't art school, it was a sort of a hobby group in a way, but they were more serious than that. And they were doing these shapes. And I thought for goodness sake, look at the shapes nature does, they're absolutely wonderful. Why make these ersatz things that are nothing, really nothing? Why not take a bone shape and of course, in the paddocks where you walked there were dead cows and things. They didn't have to bury them. And of course one year there were the dogs, the domestic dogs got at the sheep and there were a lot of sheep bones around. And so I made two bone things. One was a very tall thing called 'Last Stand'. It was about ten feet high and it was cow bones threaded on rods, so they all stood up like giant weeds in the landscape. And a beautiful grey-white bones go if they're not put in formaldehyde or whatever they are. And that worked. And I also did a sort of - what did I call it? - 'Espirit de'... Now wait a minute. It wasn't 'Joie de Vivre', it was 'Joie de Mourire'?... I threaded them on big pieces of wire, you see. So they - and I had big pieces of broken pipe and - I'm losing my thread. Anyway, they started from a height and they were threaded on wire, and they went across the lawn and they danced everywhere. Sheep bones these were mostly. And it was fairly low to the ground except that the wire framework of the, of the - or the iron that I found, old cross bars and things, and the wires came out and went down. And it was actually rather beautiful. I did it on the back lawn and I think the neighbour thought they were going to jump the fence and come over. He wasn't all that pleased. Suburbia doesn't really like art experiments. And they were really quite nice. But they were there in the landscape. They were part of the landscape, you see, and so legitimately I was drawn towards them.
And you even made something joyous out of bones...
Oh yes... They were really beautiful. Especially if you got the same ones all together, all the vertebrae and all the thingos. But of course my mechanics were always bad, and it was a nuisance when you wanted to cut the lawn. So you dismantled it and you put it up again. And in the end the bones, being out in the weather, will rot a bit. And they won't thread because there's not a real hole. And so I dismantled them. I should have shown them really. Daniel Thomas looked at them once and said "Have you ever shown those?" And I said, nuh, nuh. But they were there, and they were lovely. And I've still got a lot of the cattle bones.
You're very much influenced by the materials that are available at hand. At the moment you're working still a lot with wood. What are some of the other things that you might be moving into and inspiring you?
Well the thing I'm doing, trying to work out at the moment, is why I find corrugated iron so elegant in the landscape. This is a very hard thing to do. And you've got to simplify it and you've got to find the right piece of iron. There's plenty of corrugated iron around, still, though it's all going straight into steel or whatever it is. And I find the natural corrugated iron, of which a lot of Australia was built from, is very elegant. And very Australian. And I'm always quoting okay, Athens has got its Parthenon, we've got our hay barns, we've got our - we've got to make the elegance of this country visible. Not the old junk heaps, because everybody tosses things out in Australia, on the farms anyway. But there is a real inbuilt elegance at best. It's not all the scrawny Dad and Dave stuff. So I'm working on that. But it's fairly hard. And you've got to find the right piece. And they've got to be discarding the right piece. And this is another thing. People don't discard.
You've done some work with cables too, haven't you?... Cables.
What are cables?
Oh, I thought that...
Oh no, those are - they're made of wood and that's why I've collected them. And they're also painted. And they are the big cables that flex and electricians' iron are wound on, those things, those big mushrooms. Like big cotton reels, they are. And they come in various sizes. The small ones are too thin, tinny. You've got to use strong material I think to get your message across. And the very thick ones are too heavy mostly unless you slice them in half, which you can do, with a lot of labour. And sometimes - what I'm using now is red cable drums or cable cotton reels or whatever they are. It's a good colour. And there's a lot of it. That's the [inaudible] and it's real material, it's not plastic or any of those things. And wood is a good material. To me it's good, it's real. So it's very much a question in my neck of the woods of using what's available. Because you see, if you haven't got the stuff you can't make anything. And it usually triggers a memory, or an association, or a love or whatever. And you think, that's good, I'll just reshape it and - but you don't know what you're doing.
Some of these materials are very heavy. And as you get older it's probably going to be harder for you to lift them and handle them and so on.
What are you going to do then?
Well I'm going to take it as it comes. I am going to - of course something forces you on to do it whether you can lift it or not, you do that. It doesn't do your back any good. And you just take it what comes. You see, as I say, if chance wasn't my friend, I didn't have one. So I chance on this and I chance on that. I don't plot and plan, because I can't do it.
So you'll work something out. Would you have someone to help you?
Well if I actually needed it. Sometimes I get the boys to - see these are all hung at wrong angles and things, and I wait 'til somebody who's not Ben, who's got a bad back and a football knee, it doesn't help. And it's not much point in making it worse. So I wait 'til there's somebody. Occasionally I've asked a workman who's very grumpy about it. They don't like doing anything that isn't in their paid job. Will you move that inside for me, or something. Where I can see it. And the boy who helps me, he's an artist himself, and he loves coming and helping and he works at the gallery. And he puts aluminium strip on the back of my things to make them - because I use a lot of warped timber. It's always been warped by the sun and the wind and things - and he comes and puts strip on, sometimes tidies me when I'm in a mess. And he's very, very nice about it. And he likes to - I think he likes to do it, because he's a sculptor himself. And, you know, I get by. You - I'm used to making do with what I've got. I'm not used to rushing out and sending off to Darwin for six pieces of something I know is up there. I just humbly take what's available. And it's turned out to be a strength to me. Because at least it's real, it's not dragged in. It is real. And there's more truth in it. [INTERRUPTION]
Rosalie, once you've made a work, and you've declared it finished - it's right, it satisfies you. Do you ever later pull it apart?
Well I have had things that I think, oh, could have been better or something. And if I've got it back from galleries - usually when I've had shows I've sold it, you see, and I don't get it back. But if I do and if it lies around a lot, I sometimes do. What I find I do with things is I work 'til they've got whey they call a presence, what I call a presence. They are something, they're not nothing. Just a broad division, you see. Not a proper nothing, that's something. Whatever it is, I don't care what it is, it's something. Like if you had all the animals parading and you saw the giraffe. That's something all right. And I have a friend who says, "You know there are people in this world that if you showed them a giraffe, they'd say what's it for. What's it mean?" you see. Well it is, you see. And when things get to the point where they've got a presence and they just are, then to your mind they've peopled your world, they're something. And you don't deny them. Solzhenitsyn says that if things have arrived, I think, from truthful thinking and dedication, that nobody down the centuries can ever refute them. And it's very true, you know. If you've, if you've got truth on your side, they don't have to be nameable things.
But you have from time to time decided to declare something that was something, a nothing by pulling it apart.
Oh yeah, but you're full of human foibles the same as everybody else. And you can have your moments of imagining things, and vanity. And all those human bear pits to which we are all vulnerable. And you can look at the situation and you can work out there's a bear pit there and I'm not going down that in there. And you see other people doing it, because everybody's struggling. Everybody. Nobody's got it all worked out really. And you look at all those - I'm not going to do that, no, no, no. There's three behind you, and you go down with the best of them, you see, because life is like that. And so some things reach a pinnacle, unassailable, and some things don't. But you're like that too, you see. Otherwise you'd be not of this world I think.
Your father's failure in your mother's eyes, and his departure from your life through your crucial early years would, we understand, inevitably have had a big effect on you.
I suppose it did, but of course, you don't analyse when you're young. It would have been nice - I used to find families, my school friends' families that had fathers in them - that was awfully nice. And I found that you didn't exercise yourself in a masculine world a bit. I lived with five women. Five? Yes. And one younger brother. So you're naturally biased. Your form - there's something missing in your life I think. And I always thought it would be very nice to have a mother and father and be perhaps normal, or something. And I suppose it's a balance, you see. So we didn't have much to do with men. And I did find that when I visited friends I always got on with the fathers, you know, funny.
When your father came back, did that change things? Did you...
No, my sister went off when she left high school, to the agricultural college where she was intensely successful. And I was the one at home, and I had a younger brother. And my father's habits didn't change. And my mother was teaching... [INTERRUPTION]
Did you ever, with your father, did your relationship ever sort of get close? Did you ever get so you sort of understood him?
No, I think he was shy really. My sister told me he was shy. And I said "What! What?" Because I rather saw him in his other moods. And mother of course was one of the first graduates in Auckland. And he was - he used to talk about intellectual snobbery, you see. And he wasn't of the same scholastic standing as she was. And I think she was probably difficult too. And she'd had a father she adored who was terribly successful. And a family of women. And the men didn't do anything. They didn't clean their shoes, they didn't do anything. And I used to resent this very much when my brother was lord of the manor so to - he wasn't really. But she made him so he didn't do anything. And we girls had to do everything. And this was a rather sore point. She was very much - she had a saying that 'When a woman lets a man into her kitchen, she gives away half of her life'. He can have it I thought, he can have it. He can have three-quarters of my life. She really thought that men shouldn't do this. And this made women take everything and bear everything and the men were - lords, in a way, in a way. But it was a difficult relationship. And I think it drove him more to drink and what not. And there was sort of abrasive - it was an abrasive household. Nobody said nice things to anybody ever. You didn't do that. And the siblings sniped off each other of course, were good at it. And you sort of used to look at other people being amiable to each other, other families. Nothing like that in our house, nothing. We had a lot of fun. And you miss it, you see, if you're brought up abrasive, you need abrasion all your life. You really do need it. It makes you miserable. Irish, is it? I don't know what it is.
You were - you felt yourself to be seen as a bit of a failure...
Well I wasn't academically bright. I mean, as my sister was.
And your father was considered a bit of a failure.
Oh well, he was a failure because of his drink, but he wasn't - he was a very good engineer, and he was doted on by his own family. He was one of two boys and a lot of sisters. And he was doted on. And whether the combination was bad, or what it was, I don't know.
Did you feel that you were seen as being like your father?
Well I knew I was really. I had the Irish in me where the other two didn't. And they were worthy, you see and perhaps dour or something.
And you weren't, you were off to the side.
Yeah, I think I was really. I think the middle one - my brother was ill for a while and my mother nursed him a lot. He had rheumatic fever or something. And she always did a good job. People used to say to us, "Your mother's a wonderful woman". And we all knew she was wonderful. And I remember at one stage when I was bold and in my teenage years, I was saying "Oh you're so busy racing up the stairs to heaven that you don't care about any of us". And she was terribly good and worthy. But sparky too. And she went out and did her secondary school teaching, you see. And we three children rattled around a bit. And she expected a lot of us. She expected us. And I think the other two were more adult than I was in my thinking. And I needed telling things. And this is life, and that sort of thing.
Through the course of your life, what has your relationship with Daintry, your older sister, been?
Oh, I didn't realise when she died a few years ago, that she lost her husband tragically, drowned in the Auckland Harbour, and she was always a kingdom - she didn't cry. She never did anything. She was a very strong woman. And when he died somebody said "Are you going to stay on the farm?" and she said "Yes". "You'll be so lonely" they said. She said "I've been lonely all my life". And I was surprised at this, because she was - she was a real adult to me. I always felt I was a little ignorant type girl. And she was adult. And mother took her into her confidence and things. And I was really surprised to hear her say this, she bore everything, you see. She was very strong.
Did your family come to visit you in Stromlo?
Mother did. Mother actually missed me frightfully when I left home because I was her amusement, and you know, her companion. And I was teaching at one of the high schools. She was teaching at another. And it was a terrible wrench leaving her. Because I could vicariously suffer with what she was suffering. And she was - Dad was still there, and I think she would have missed my father if she - or she did miss him actually when he died. But it was never a sort of equal relationship. And he still - I mean, in the end, I suppose he didn't have drinking bouts or any of that sort of stuff. But she always had the upper hand. She was a stronger personality I think.
You've talked a lot about the tremendous importance of discovering, as you put it, what kind of animal you are. And in a sense the purpose of life has been discovering what that is and fulfilling it.
Yes, but I found that much later. That that's what you had to do.
What do you think prevented you from finding that out earlier?
Well I suppose you have silly ideas about what you are, you see. You don't know yourself, as I often have said when I've talked to people, that it took me five decades to find, to sort myself out and what I really was I think. And then I found that there was nothing else for me. When you have children, they go off and they do their own thing. They don't need a dependent parent. So you sort of live their - you're interested in their lives and things, but you can soon see that they're going off and they've got to seek their own fortunes. And so you get more and more isolated. And then you find out that this is something that you can do, you always could do it, you didn't know you could do it. You didn't live amongst people who did it. And it wasn't held in high esteem. And there were no natural obvious talents there. Except people used to say to me, "Oh you're so artistic" and that sort of thing, you know, when you'd make a patchwork quilt and you'd decorate a Christmas tree and you do something. And then you suddenly find that you've got a legitimate place. And there are people called artists who are lateral thinkers. And being a lateral thinker is not found very often in academic circles. You are a logical thinker and you think this way. And I was going off with the pixies all the time. I didn't see things the same way. But I didn't realise it was legitimate or something. And I could expand that. You see, you have a lot of dormant seeds in you, I think. And suddenly circumstances show you. You get a glimpse, you see. It's always chance. Something. Something I read, something. So you're sort of Joan of Arc. I like to think that. That I can stand in the paddock and a shaft of light comes down. And you've got a message, as it were, that grass is good or something, you know. And I think you have to sort of abandon yourself and take, accept the fact that you can't do this and you can't do that, and you can't do this and you can't... but you can do that. And so that gives you a bit of strength and hope and all those things. But then if you're born with a difficult nature what do you expect? See, it's not - other people have it so easy, you know. Mothers who supervise them, tell them. Tell them to change their underclothes, or tell them to - you know, I didn't have any of that.
Do you ever get very frustrated with the work you're doing?
Often. But every - every creative person gets very frustrated. It's not there. The vision's gone. It's turned into a proper nothing. It's fallen off the wall. You thought you had an idea but you haven't got an idea. It's gone. It's hard. It's a lot of hard work.
And you get cranky with yourself?
Oh, you get cranky anyway. Anything can make you cranky. You don't like what's happening. There's no red light or whatever colour light you should have to tell you you're doing good, then of course you get cranky. If you're a cranky person by nature. And you're always tied to what your nature is. You think you're all the same but you're not. You're all different.
There's this phrase, 'all passion spent' that's supposed to mean that you have a sort of great calm in your old age.
I'm not going to have that. I think that's very boring.
So you still feel as passionate about your work now as you did?
I'm still passionate. Yes, I am. And things matter to me. And I think that when the time comes, in the due course of time when you feel nothing matters, you've had it. You've absolutely had it. There's nothing else to do. What did the people say about 'Men who are bored with London are bored with life'. And I think you can be satiated with what you do, and if you get to that feeling of what does it matter, well I think you have to work on the assumption that everything matters a bit. You put in a positive. So when in doubt, you put in a positive and you don't put in a negative, which everybody is prone to do.
Do you think one of the reasons why you haven't wanted to work with the negative in the landscape, is because in fact you have had more pain and loneliness in your life than you're really quite fully prepared to admit? And you want in your work, in that other world you've gone into, to only embrace those things that are really lovely, delightful and positive.
I think there's something of that in it, and I think that though you might appear a strong character you're an awfully weak character really, and you know it. You just know it. And so I think, I think probably I'm scared of it. I think I probably am. And I love things being - I suppose I like harmonies in nature or something. I don't like roaring seascapes with dangerous rocks and dangerous waves and dangerous everything in them much.
So a large part of your private life has actually been struggling, chaotic, lonely, and your work is beautiful, spare, ordered and celebrates...
It's the ideal. It is, I think, it is the ideal, probably. And I think if you made a list of the things that you admired in nature it'd be grace, it would be acceptance, it'd be beauty. Truth, all those things, I think, probably. But you still - they say 'Give me a child 'til he is seven' - I've said that before and I'll say it again - 'Give me a child 'til he's seven' as the monks say or somebody says, 'and I will give you the man'. And you're formed when you're seven you see, probably. And you muddle through working it out. Same for everybody.
And because of the nature of your life you've needed those things, those beautiful things that you see in nature.
Yeah. And I remember in my - about 17 or, well you were late developers in those days, and when there were boys who - what am I going to say - singled you out for attention, this was a revelation to me that "Who? Me?", you know. And at university and I had a few things where I was special to people. And this made a lot of difference. It was a really revelation to me. And I suppose you - everybody acts on that period for a small time. This is a great deal of illusion I think sometimes. But it was a bolstering effect to me that in spite of this girl being prettier and this girl being this sort, somebody singled you out. And I think that was a sort of need I always had, that you wanted to be special for something... And I suppose you find it more in things or - well probably my art has been a thing for me that has made the illusions go away and the reality set in or something. Or something. Live the way you can. And I think you do. And especially if you're sort of not very straightforward to begin with. I've seen other straightforward people, and they get this look of resignation as life goes on. And they're sort of resigned to it. But of course, all the people I went to school with and university with are back in New Zealand. So I've never had those sort of close friendships here, in a way.
[end of interview]