Tuesday, January 9, 2018

a student of art

A student of art
by Anna Couani 2017

My first memories of art are from my maternal grandmother Winifred Siedlecky née Radecki when our family lived in Blackheath in The Blue Mountains west of Sydney. She was the daughter of Polish Australian stained glass artist John Radecki (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Radecki) and had the idea that the artistic gene might be carried on down the generations. Apparently some of her nieces had been seen doing fashion drawings and there was Auntie Anne, John Radecki’s sister, who was a dressmaker of repute. Those facts were considered evidence of the artistic gene. It didn’t occur to me as a 5 year old that she might attribute that possibility to me. I see now that she might have hoped that to be the case. She mentioned abstract art to me sometime in the mid 50’s and showed me one way to create abstract art – by dividing a page into triangles and colouring them in different colours. At the time, I thought she was doing this as a form of child occupation, not realising that there was actually a thing called Abstract Art, although she did name it at the time. I didn’t realise that she might have meant to encourage an interest in art in me.

Winifred herself had a strong interest in what we’d call craft activities these days, as did most women at the time. She had a heart condition, couldn’t do a lot of walking, so was forced to lead a rather sedentary lifestyle. She busied herself making clothes, crocheting and embroidering. The spare bedroom in my grandparents’ house was my first experience of a thing like a studio, being Winifred’s sewing room. She had a treadle sewing machine at the north-facing window where the sunlight streamed in through the lace curtains she’d made, the curtains, not the lace. She was a member of The Country Women’s Association and participated in various events, created tiny painted marzipan fruit for cakes. I was intrigued by the way she was able to create blended colours on tiny apricots, insert cloves and tiny dents to make oranges.

My grandfather, Stefan, also a Polish migrant, was often out the back of the house in a big corrugated iron shed, lying in a pit under his various cars – taxis that he drove for a living. The shed was a workshop, dark and full of spare parts, tools, jacks, and grinding wheels. The only window in the place looked west over the valley and I remember looking out through the dusty glass as I played, grinding down nails on his grinding wheel.

One summer, Winifred was forced to spend months in bed at our house after being bucked off a horse on the tracks of the Blackheath railway crossing and breaking her leg. She had been dressed as The Lone Ranger on her horse called Silver as part of the local Rhododendron Festival procession. But whilst confined to bed, she embarked on massive craft projects – embroidered tablecloths, large doilies, crocheted double bed blankets. It was in this period that she first taught me to embroider and crochet. I became aware of patterns, transfers and self-drawn designs, that these things were possible.

Winifred moved to Sydney in the mid-50’s to care for her father who was frail aged. She and Stefan stayed in the Hurstville house that John lived in to look after him and they took over the running of John Ashwin & Co, the stained glass business that he’d been proprietor of since 1920. This was a kind of irony for Stefan because he was an atheist of strong convictions and enjoyed having disputes about religion. He had a good knowledge of The Bible and was able to quote from it extensively in order to contradict and criticise Christians if they made the mistake of trying to convince or convert him. I guess it was Winifred who did the liaison with all those church ministers, priests and other staff to organise the commission and installation of church windows. Stefan did the window installations.

After John Radecki’s death, my family, consisting of my parents and their 3 children, moved to Sydney and into the Hurstville house with my grandparents in 1957, preparing to leave Australia and go to London to further their studies in medical specialisation, which never came off. I spent a lot of time exploring John Radecki’s books and artworks. I found his watercolour sketches insipid but realise today that they may have been studies for windows he was commissioned for. There were various disembodied sketches of people that were probably studies for the barrel vaulted stained glass windows he made for The Commonwealth Bank in Sydney CBD. There were pencil drawings of body parts. He owned the massive tomes of Dante’s The Divine Comedy with engravings by Gustav Doré. I poured over those and read the text. My grandmother laid two of his boxes of watercolours in my hands and I still have them today.

*
In 2015 I met the stained glass artist Kevin Little and visited his workshop before he dismantled it. He had lots of John Radecki’s sketches in his possession.

*

Kevin dismantled his
stained glass workshop
and retired to the country

I had feelings of déjà vu
standing in that workshop
remembering

all about the glass
and the lead
the kilns in the back room
of great grandpa’s
factory
just like Kevin’s workshop

I can see myself as a child
at the workbench
and also see the lead 
in front of me
folding lead
around the glass pieces

going through the racks
of coloured glass
ruby glass
like flattened gemstones

surrounded by saints
with halo carapaces

*

During the school holidays while we were living at Hurstville, I went to work with Winifred in the stained glass factory in Chinatown. I was able to check out all the stages of stained glass manufacture – from the tiny preliminary sketches to the big cartoons, the glass cutting, the glass staining, the firing of the glass and then the assembly with lead. The workmen showed me the amazing array of different coloured glass and taught me how to do the lead lighting and soldering.

As well as that, Winifred took me on trips into the rest of the city that at the time was full of small specialty retail shops and suppliers, something we only experience in Third World cities these days. Winifred made her own hats and berets and so we went to a millinery supplier on the 3rd floor of the old Dymock’s building. Their shop took up the whole of one floor and consisted of thousands of counters full of small bins containing every kind of finding for hats – beads, ribbons, pins, buttons etc. To save money, Winifred collected interesting natural objects like gum nuts that she lacquered. She cut up pieces of different coloured felt in the shape of gum leaves. These were sewn onto a basic beret.

My paternal grandmother, Anna Couani (Harami), a Greek migrant, was also a craftsperson. She crocheted massive pieces with a needle – curtains, doilies, furniture covers. In the 50’s, when I visited her as a child, I saw the tallow wax candles she made but wasn’t fully aware of her other skills until later because that part of her life was mostly shared with her daughters, not with her sons. Her sons were all colour blind.

The life of the artisan. In my childhood experience, art and craft were part of the same continuum. I only became aware later when I studied art history at university that artists had been separated from their artisanal roots and that artisans were ranked lower.

My parents were two of the local general practitioners in Blackheath and Yorkshire migrants, the Frame family were our close friends. Betty Frame was our housekeeper and expert knitter. She, my mother and grandmother would embark on various community projects that involved making, sewing or cooking things. Like in village life. George Frame was an engineer who commuted to Garden Island in Sydney for work but had a strong interest in art and took up oil painting when he retired. At one time, becoming aware that I was interested in art, he gave me a small book to read that had a title something like Understanding Art. I looked at it without understanding much. And around the same time, I found a paperback in a bookshop that was a series on Modernist painters like Picasso et al. It had colour plates, and I was excited to see the liberation from realism.

*

as a youngster
I wished for art
in my life
wanted to be an artist
to know artists
to write poetry
to know poets
to be immersed

and so here we are
immersants

*

Our family moved to Surry Hills in the late 50’s and we lived in two floors of a terraced house above my parents’ general practice on the ground floor. I went to a selective girl’s high school and took Art as a subject in the 1st year. It was great to be in an art room where there was art equipment and books. But there were two problems – one was that it wasn’t a matriculation subject, meaning you couldn’t proceed to university if you did art at the final exam; the other was that the art teacher told me I was hopeless at art and shouldn’t take the subject in the future. This meant that I wouldn’t have the backing of my parents to study art and also that I may not have the artistic gene after all. So I chose a maths and science type of course, but performed better in English and French. I became more interested in playing music. I gained entry into Medicine at university but decided to study Architecture. It seemed closer to art. My parents were dismayed, having harboured fantasies about taking me into their medical practice and teaching me what they knew. But I hated the idea of general practice, hated the lives they lead.

In the summer holidays of 1964 at the end of high school, I went to a Eureka Youth League camp in Corrimal, run by the Communist Party. Alongside the visits to the steel factories in Wollongong, the lecturers from local union leaders, I met Anne Higham, who later became an architect. She had just finished 1st year architecture and had some course work with her that she showed me inside her tent. It was seeing the work from Anne’s design class that suggested an alternative tertiary path to Medicine and the next year, I was studying architecture at the University of Sydney.

We had an interesting group of teachers who had studied in the US and exposed us to the latest architectural styles and the post-modern architecture of Venturi and Buckminster-Fuller. There was an acknowledgement that architecture had a relation to design and we were given 2-D design exercises but as well there were real artists teaching us – the abstract painter Emmanuel Raft taught on our design classes; Lloyd Rees and Roland Wakelin taught a subject called Art that mostly consisted of telling us to draw things although they sometimes demonstrated drawing with shading. At the same time we studied traditional European architecture, were shown a million slides of every famous building by Ron Myers.

In 1st year Architecture, I made friends with three women: Alexi Ferster who went on to become an architect in the US and the UK, with Veronica Sumegi who became the book publisher of Brandl and Schlesinger and Anne Kery who became an architect in The Blue Mountains. We spent time visiting art galleries and viewing lots of (mostly European) movies that are now considered classics.

Artisan-like - it was at this time that I started painting and making art objects in the same way we’d sewn things, embroidered and knitted things in the family. 

*

reminiscing about making your own paint
haunting art shops that were old and dingy
not like the art supply shops these days
with their racks and racks of expensive paint

finding old brown paper sacks
of pigment, mixing it with oil
it sure worked
survived for years unblemished
but looked bad
the way I did it

there was Rowe Street with the Notanda art gallery
that sold art prints
Pitt Street with The Pocket Bookshop
and Beat Poets in paperback
not much to find out
because there wasn’t much to find

*

I dropped out of architecture in 4th year in 1968 at the age of 19 and then studied painting at The John Ogburn Studio at The Rocks for 5 years. Immersed in the world of oil paint, discovering colour mixing and glazing. It was discovery-learning because John Ogburn’s style of teaching was hands-off. Several fellow students I knew were also at these classes. Ogburn was a Catholic convert and believed that art and religion were synonymous and a number of my fellow students accepted these ideas and became converts as well. There was a strange déjà vu feeling, harking back to John Radecki, the Catholicism, the art; but I found that religious connection antithetical to my own interests and the master-pupil relationships stifling.

However, I met the artist Karen Donaldson at the Ogburn classes. She was in a relationship with Jim Thorburn who ran The Pocket Bookshop and was working as an art teacher in a Catholic girls school on the North Shore. My partner and I were both working in architectural offices in the city at that time and I was about to lose my job because the project I was working on came to an end. Coincidentally, Karen was leaving her art teaching job and I was able to step into her position, completely unqualified.

I worked at the girls’ school for 2 years and, as the only art teacher on site, and only working 3 days a week, I had to teach myself a whole range of skills to function as a teacher and also set up a new art room, new for the school and new for me. I made my own silk screens, learnt about printmaking, enamelling, basic wire jewellery, ceramics - hand building and wheel throwing, copper repousse and generally built up a small art department from scratch. Karen had put me onto Brother Mac, the art teacher at St Pious X, a Catholic boys’ school, and he allowed me to fire my student pottery in his kiln. His art room was amazing. It was a ramshackle timber demountable in the school grounds. And Brother Mac himself gave me the low-down on art teaching and schools.

At the time, we lived in a flat in Glebe with a kitchen in a closed-in veranda with a northerly aspect and a view of the harbour. I spent my days off in the kitchen learning the skills I needed in my art classes. Then I found an old garage in Glebe and set it up as a painting studio.

I decided I should get accreditation as an art teacher, so in 1974 I went back to study architecture, doing an extra year to convert to the new 3-year degree, BSc (Architecture) and it was made possible by the fact that tertiary education was free at the time and I could get a scholarship with a living allowance. One subject was called Art History and taught by Lloyd Rees, another subject I chose was Fine Arts 1, being taught at the Arts Faculty. That year was the first year I really learnt how to study.

An artist friend Neil Moore moved in to our block of flats and was also a tutor in Fine Arts. Neil was a hyper-realist painter. The writer, Ken Bolton was another tutor in Fine Arts and ran the tutes that I attended. He was pushing Minimalism. The three of us occupied flats in the same building for some years and Ken and I produced the small literary magazine, Magic Sam. At the time, I produced graphics for our own magazine and for other small presses as well. At the time, although it didn’t seem to greatly affect the other painters I knew, there was an idea around that painting was dead and it affected me. I didn’t quite know which way to turn and turned away from painting towards experimental writing.

The whispering quiet of the
valleys from the cliff tops
transcendent, individuating
rupture in disguise

the sublime thing
I could have gone that way
with feminist representations
some did
that’s where I was wanting to go
drawing female figures falling into chasms
so much like
classic Romantic images
it was men who dissuaded me
but 10 years later
similar images were
visible
in the art galleries
Vivienne Shark LeWitt etc
but then with the
imprimatur
of some art world bureaucrat

incommensurability
that was the problem
between them and us

From Sky, in Small Wonders

*

In 1977, I completed a Dip Ed (Art) so I could work in government schools. In that year, I became co-editor of the student newspaper of Sydney Teachers’ College and learned (from Steve Raper, the other editor) how to lay out a newspaper. After the Dip Ed, I worked casually as an art teacher and got a permanent position with the D of E in 1981. My first posting was in western Sydney and I taught Visual Arts in that region for 23 years. 20 of those years were spent in 3 Intensive English Centres, mostly teaching non-elective art to newly-arrived migrants. In that setting, I taught basic skills in drawing, painting and printmaking. The students were often changing classes, so I had all my classes working on the same themes and media at any one time. We had huge inclusive exhibitions every term, 4 times a year, where every student was represented. Some of my students were highly skilled traditional artists - realist painters, jewellers, wood sculptors etc.

*
I made small drawings using pencil and aquarelle. Some like an abstract Reg Mombassa, some hyper-real. Learnt the Chinese method of watercolour painting. Wrapped up in teaching art to people who didn’t want to be artists. I took a holiday from history.

thinking
Communism, Utopia
group projects
where every offering
is valued
and adds
another element to the lexicon

From Sky, in Small Wonders

*

The experience of having an art room was fantastic. Not only were you immersed in art every day with the students but also you could use the equipment sometimes after hours. When I moved from art teaching to ESL teaching, teaching in mainstream high schools, the absence of an art room left a great hole in my life. At the same time, my own studio fell into neglect, used only as storage and was eventually resumed by the owner.

My main reason for moving out of art teaching was that I was experiencing physical problems because of the over-use of my hands and also the toxicity of turps. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the use of alternatives for the clean-up of oil-based inks and paints.

imagine a varnish
consuming your waking hours
and even sometimes
insisting itself in a dream
the acrylic the gloss the matt
the turps-based the oil
and what goes with what
acrylic over oil
oil over acrylic
then there’s shellac
that magic
but toxic
according to some not others
and so we come to muse
on our own mortality
and the toxicity of chemicals in art
giving up art to sit before a computer
which poses its own hazards
slowing the metabolism
pooling the blood

*

In the mid-80’s, I heard about an artist collective gallery called the Kelly Street Kolektiv, close to where I lived. I got to meet some of the people there and got to know sculptor Hilik Mirankar who subsequently became my husband. The Kolektiv group was non-discriminatory and accepted everyone who called themselves an artist. Any and every type of art practice was there and the group also had innovative ways of showing art. All kinds of boundaries became porous in that space. It was at KSK that I reconnected with artist Suzanne Bellamy who was part of a group show there and I’ve been in contact with her now for about 30 years. She has been able to function as a full time artist for decades, living in a country area with her own studio. It’s been inspirational seeing her set up and the way her art has developed over the years, being able to dialogue with her about art practice and feminism.

For years my own visual art practice was minimal, but not Minimalist. Then in 2012, I came into contact with artist Carol Archer through her partner, the poet Kit Kelen. Carol was a working on collaborative art projects with other artists and also with her students at a university in Hong Kong. She suggested I join a collaborative postcard project she had initiated and this triggered a new beginning for me back into the visual arts as a practitioner.

I stopped teaching in 2014 and Hilik and I were able to get an old building in Glebe that had been an antiquarian bookshop. It was a 2-storey shop and had a large shed behind it. We were both keen to get studio space so Hilik took over the shed and I established a studio on the 2nd floor above the shopfront. We weren’t sure what to do about the shopfront because it didn’t seem suitable for studios, so we got the idea of turning it into an art gallery where any artist in any medium could run their own shows. The Shop Gallery has been running now for 3 years. Seeing a variety of work and meeting artists from many different backgrounds who work in a variety of mediums has been a fantastic education for me, made up for the art education I never really had. And having a good studio space has enabled me to get back into visual art more seriously. When it came to setting up the studio, I realised that what I really wanted was a flexible art room like the rooms I used to teach in, not just a studio with one or two types of possible activities. A workshop.

Being a student of art. Floating along the continuum between art and craft and writing.

****
Some of the poems and parts of poems in this piece were previously published as part of a poetry initiative set up by Kit Kelen, called Project 366, 2015 to the present
Other poem fragments come from Small Wonders, 2012 Flying Islands Press


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