Art School 1964-66
Hobart is a beautiful city tucked in under Mount Wellington and wrapped around the port and River Derwent. My mother made arrangements for me to board in North Hobart. Mrs Spencer, (mother of a friend of my aunts), was a widow and took in four young people. She was caring and an excellent cook, so we were all well looked-after. I had my own room.
Art School was more than I had hoped for. I was consumed living in another realm drawing and painting. Here I met Umberto Aureli, or Bert to his Australian friends. He was my teacher for first year lettering, a subject taken only that year.
The first week I went out with a different boy each day for lunch or dinner. My mother told me it sounded like the United Nations and that she wasn’t going to tell my father or else he’d bring me home. On the Wednesday, Christopher took me to a shop where they sold Vienna sausages in rolls with a choice of mustard. He suggested I go out with Bert, as he was part of their group. Chris was in a relationship with Priscilla, who had completed her art studies and was now teaching at Collegiate C of E Girls School.
The German, the American and the other boys (men!) were exciting, but I soon decided Chris was right. So from then on Bert and I became an item. I had my eighteenth birthday party at his parents’ house in Lenah Valley. Elfie cooked the most beautiful Black Forest cake. She cooked in the Austrian tradition for cakes and the Italian tradition for meals. Bert’s romantic Latin ways made me feel cherished, and I was treated like a princess. Kissing me in the street or anywhere else was perfectly normal for him. He also had a great gift for choosing appropriate presents (a talent his daughters later inherited).
Bert had come to Australia at the age of twenty-one. His parents had arrived a year earlier; the same year Bert won a scholarship to study medicine at the University of Bologna. He did first year medicine and then his parents encouraged him to migrate to Australia. Bert came, not realising the enormity of the change. As he’d learnt some English he started by picking out the words he understood in lectures. He soon realised that his ability and love of art out-shone his will to become a doctor. His father was furious, as every Italian father wants his son to be a doctor.
This caused a ruckus in the family. Bert attended the art school and continued belonging to the university ski club, where he also shone. Bert had a natural ability for graphic design and he excelled. His brother, Roberto, like me, was seven years younger than Bert, but still at school. It was Roberto who fulfilled his parents ‘dreams by completing a dentistry course at Sydney University, when his parents moved with him to Sydney.
The teachers at art school were professional artists. Jack Carrington Smith had just won the Archibald Prize with his portrait of Professor James McAuley. Miss Dorothy Stoner exhibited as a colourist and was a rather vague but charming painting and drawing teacher. Miss McCulloch was a rather intimidating character but full of amazing knowledge. One day she stormed into the drawing class after she’d discovered a student in the act of stealing drawing paper from the teachers’ store. ‘I’ve just discovered Chris Fooks rifling in my drawers!’ she exclaimed. Everyone burst into laughter at the colourful image she invoked. She was not amused.
Our main model was Mrs. Mead. She was a rather shy and reserved person but a very competent model; she had a rounded figure full of rhythm and was ideal to draw. In the cold weather, a little heater would be placed near her, and she’d slowly turn red in one patch until someone moved the heater before she actually started to cook. One day Tony Bowering brought some chocolate to class as well as a very similar-looking laxative. ‘Would you like some chocolates Mrs. Mead?’ who took the proffered laxative, thinking it was chocolate. Very embarrassed, she soon had to excuse herself to Mr. Smith, several times. Of course this amused us all, not having any thought for the sensitivities of Mrs. Mead.
Geoff Parr became head of the Graphic Design Department and was a very good friend to Bert, appreciating his abilities. They had worked at Cadbury’s Chocolate Factory together in the holidays. When I started art school, Bert began his first year teaching lettering and completed drawing, the last subject for his diploma.
I decided not to tell my parents in advance about an early weekend away. A group of six of us went to the West Coast to stay at Trial Harbour. The first night was at Lake St. Claire in the free bunks available there. Next day, we travelled on to Trial Harbour.
Umberto’s photo of Barbara knitting a tie.
Bert and I were in his green VW Beetle, which broke down. We stopped some locals to ask about a mechanic, and it was the first time I’d heard such broad Australian accents spoken. I found it difficult to understand, as did Bert. ‘How’s yous goin?’ ‘Whatch yus want?’ They turned out to be helpful and friendly.
We had tents, which was rather brave considering the westerly winds that tore in off the ocean. Chris and Priscilla, and Robyn and Tony, put up their tents. The West Coast of Tasmania is known for it’s ferocious winds, and walking along this turbulent coastline was invigorating with the waves crashing and the froth flying onto the rocks and into our hair and faces. Listening to the turbulence and the tent flapping, as we snuggled up together in our sleeping bags for the night, was like being tossed by the sea. The final night we stayed at the parents’ house of a fellow student, Wendy, as Bert and I had to wait for the postman to take us back to Hobart in the early hours of Monday morning whilst the car was left to be fixed in Queenstown. We survived the scariest trip with the postman, who drove around those mountainous bends at top speed.
Art school was absorbing. We worked five full days and four nights a week, entranced by drawing and painting. They had other subjects like perspective and cast drawing, history and design, and modelling in first year. Hobart was a vibrant place to live, after the North West Coast. There were exhibitions and concerts to attend. They also had a cinema at North Hobart that showed alternative films. Clive joined Bert and me for movies. We’d know if he considered it a bad movie, as he’d sleep through it. Clive and I went to hear Segovia play, and he gave thirteen encores! What a brilliant guitarist, so modest. In contrast we went to see Nina and Fredrik, folk singers of recorded popular music, who were very disappointing in person. Perhaps they had a bad day, as we did like their recorded music.
Clive was very dedicated to his engineering course and studied hard. He lived at Christ College up behind the university, and we would visit him there. Once he told us about his latest prank, writing to Oral Roberts, a radio evangelist. Clive wrote about his sick sister, asking for money. He received an answer, ‘Dear Brother Roberts,’ with no money enclosed.
At the end of the first year there was an Art School Ball, a big affair. We all went to the Royal Theatre Costumier to hire costumes. I remember finding a frock with a fully gathered spotted skirt and decided I’d go as Mary Poppins, though I had no idea who she was or what the story was about. It didn’t matter. The costumes and wigs made us look magnificent. Taking on a role made it all the more mysterious; make-up gave us masks. It was good to see the staff fully participating and dressed up too.
Bert won several prizes whilst in Hobart; one was to design the tax stamps for the Tasmanian Government, another was for a poster competition. He continued his interests in rock climbing and caveneering. There is even a rock face on Mt Wellington named after him.
In my first year of portrait painting, a model chose to buy my painting. I was delighted as she paid me ten pounds ($20) and that was enough to buy a paint case full of oil paint. My parents had to pay for me to attend art school, so I was thrilled to be able to do this on my own. It also appealed to me because John Hayward’s sister was the model. John was head of the Art Teacher’s course, and he didn’t like me; and he had to hand me the money. He later became head of the whole school.
I guess I should tell you why John didn’t like me. There was competition between the Fine Art students and the Art Teacher students. John Hayward arranged an exhibition with Rothmans, (a cigarette company), with a monetary prize for his students, who were bonded to the education department and on a small stipend.
I wrote a letter to the Mercury newspaper asking why the Fine Art students were excluded, especially since we were a small number and we had no subsidy. John blamed Willy, a German student, and so I had to own up. He had it in for me from then on and was responsible for me failing one subject at the end of my course so that I did not receive a diploma. I had completed the four- year course in three years, but for one subject. I found it hard to forgive him for this, though it taught me a valuable lesson – not to be outspoken with people who can affect your study prospects.
One holiday break I arrived home and told my mother that I had invited two students to call in before catching the Princess (ferry) that went to Melbourne. I thought I’d better warn her that they were lesbians. My mother told me later that she had to go and look up ‘Lesbian’ in the dictionary. She didn’t know that they existed. That shows how little I knew before attending Art School.
The previous Christmas holidays, the boys from art school had taken jobs: raspberry picking and another year at an army camp. After I met Bert he would come and stay with our family, as he worked at Edgels factory at Quoiba with Christopher, packing peas. Christopher has many stories of this time: putting sweets in with the peas, and a note wishing people on the other side of the world a ‘Happy Christmas.’
I worked in Uncle Bob’s newsagency. Most of my pay went on green Penguin paperbacks. The Maigret series was a favourite.
In Hobart our group met Uto Ughi, a young and handsome violinist. Because he was Italian, and Bert’s mother, Elfi, worked with Mr. Bini, the Italian consul, we were given the privilege of entertaining Uto. Bert and I took him to Tony Woods and Chris’s studio in the city, where Uto freaked out as he had a phobia of birds. This surprised me for someone so famous and world-travelled. We played tennis on the Wrest Point tennis courts. That night we all attended his concert and Tino, Bert’s dad, took me back stage to get Uto’s autograph.
Whilst in Hobart I met Edith Holmes, a painter, school friend and contemporary of my grandmothers. She was so totally different from my grandmother, having bright red hair. Edith was devoted to her painting. I found her inspiring. She made me question: did I want to be a painter or a mother? I didn’t think it was possible to be good at both, and I didn’t want to be a mediocre painter. A dilemma.
My life at art school was probably schizoid, divided between being a mad party-loving student and attending Quaker meetings. When I first went to the Meeting House, there was a discussion group before the meeting. I happened to be in Margaret Wilkinson’s group. I asked if Quakers believed in reincarnation. She told me that she believed in reincarnation, but that Quakers had no set doctrine. She then asked if I’d like to join a Sunday afternoon book-reading and discussion group at her home. These discussions could be quite animated and helped develop insights into divergent ways of thinking. I liked the Quakers because they were not judgmental like many other Christians I’d met. The Meeting House became a refuge where I could gather my thoughts; calm could be restored. Bert would come with me to meetings. It was wonderful when someone would ‘speak to my condition’, as they so often did. This means that the person is moved to speak about something that is particularly meaningful, helpful or poignant to another’s inner need or problem. It’s as if telepathy is happening within the Meeting House.
An example of a simple message given during this time: an elderly woman stood and described her contemplation of a strong weed growing up in a cement crack in a footpath. She likened it to the strength of a prayer.
Annie Learoyd, an art student friend, was an orphan and lived with an older cousin who was interested in séances. There was so much to discover. It became quite scary when a friend of Annie’s was so scared that she couldn’t sleep without a light on. The cousin practised automatic writing and was looking up information she received in trance at the library. They seemed convinced that they had contact with ‘the other side’. Annie was sometimes reckless, driving through red lights.I wondered if losing her parents meant that life was less precious to her. She’d stop the car and let me out when I said that I’d prefer to walk.
One of our favourite haunts was called the Bistro, below street level. We’d all go there to drink the house red. We had no money for food other than bread, and that wasn’t adequate to sop up the alcohol. The owner was said to be a sadist, leaving his wheelchair-bound wife at home when he joined us to go to parties, so he didn’t object to us taking up space and getting drunk in his Bistro.
As students we would arrive at any party not knowing whose house it was. The first time getting drunk was disgusting; waking up, having been sick in bed. At least I didn’t ever vomit in bed again. The next day I arrived at art school looking very pale; the hangover took some getting over. I still can’t look at cherry brandy. I did avoid parties that were known to be drug parties, as I didn’t want to get caught up in that scene.
I am sorry that I have none of my paintings of this time. Not even photographs.