‘PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION’ (2003)
Ladies and gentlemen –
Why do Australians want to paint? I am no expert in this riddle, but here goes… Professional painters wish to paint because they wish to find order where previously there was disorder or chaos. They wish to paint because they have an overwhelming desire to create. They wish to paint because they hope to pin down or capture something of beauty. They wish to paint because the emotional and the aesthetic rewards of painting are so powerful. And some paint just to escape. I suppose some paint because it is fashionable in their circle of friends to paint.
I am talking now, of course, about professional painters, or serious amateurs. At first sight their works might not have much in common with the six murals or panels here tonight. But all these professional motives of painting can be equally shared, maybe in a humbler way but sometimes in just as powerful a way, by the seven hundred and fifty artists whose collective work is before you tonight. Seven hundred and fifty painters, they almost form a small army.
Julie Gross McAdam decided that the act of painting, especially of collective painting, could provide rewards and satisfactions to the tens of thousands of people who live in communities for the old, and she set about devising her scheme. She wished to foster art, art for its own sake, but also art as a recreation, art as a therapy and, of course, art as a source of emotional satisfaction.
She hoped that the preliminary design of each painting would encourage the individual painters, before they picked up a brush, to draw on memories from their own long life, and she hoped that it would be an activity in which everyone could join, even those who were blind, even those who were confined to their bed. A typical aged care place, at least in the city, consists of people, most of whom, I guess, are strangers until the day they arrive. To knit them together is a worthwhile and important task.
Julie, for a long time, was a designer and illustrator of books in London and New York and Melbourne – you were with the Macmillan Company of Australia when I first met you. Her most recent illustrated book was published in 1999, a children’s book called “The Devil’s Trousers”. (In this age of sexual liberation I thought the devil would be the last person to wear trousers.)
She possesses enthusiasm, creativity and a willingness to pass on to others some of the pleasure she herself has received from painting and from drawing and so she solely prepared and lodged her unusual scheme.
She was midwife of her first collective painting at the Anglican aged care house - I think you call it a “facility”, but it’s not a word I like – known as St Paul’s Court, in Frankston Victoria, in 2001. She called it “Windows on the World” – you can see St Paul’s prominently displayed in the middle or third panel. There was a lot of preliminary discussion, a culling of ideas and memories, before the painting roughly took shape. On the tenth week of that 16-week program the actual painting began. The St Paul’s project began with that formidable obstacle – the empty canvas. The exhibition program says the canvas was roughly 3 metres by 1.75 metres, but for those people here who still believe in real measurements, it’s about 10 feet by 6 feet.
How to begin a painting? After all this discussion, all this harnessing and co-ordination of views. The very first painter of the St Paul’s painting, obviously someone with talent, painted four seahorses, one in each corner, you can see them there in the corners – they are small and, I suppose, quite inedible.
The final work of art was created over four months by ninety-five people, including residents, staff and friends, many of them, maybe most, had never really painted before. Some painted in bed, some painted in wheelchairs. Nearly everyone had a go. The finished painting consists of five panels, of which the first one shows the sea and a steep shoreline of the Frankston landmark at Oliver’s Hill.
In 2002 and 2003 the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust – Melbourne owes a lot to its foundations – gave generously to fund similar projects at three Anglican aged care centres, Broughton Hall, Colton Close and Dowell Court. The vivid results are looking down on you all. Also on the table is an unfinished mural from Longbeach Place in Chelsea down the bayside.
The artistic work of some seven hundred and fifty people is represented here tonight. Some, maybe many, of the painters, are already dead. Indeed, on the painting over there you can see hearts with the names of the people who died before the painting was completed, but they can all proudly say, “Here I have left my mark”.
We hope that the idea will spread far and wide and bring pleasure and satisfaction and nostalgia and a sense of creation to thousands and thousands of other people in our land.
‘PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION’
Speech by Professor Geoffrey Blainey AC opening the
MAC.ART exhibition at the Collins Street Gallery
Collins Street, Melbourne, October, 2003