Ann Thomson - interview, Artist Profile Magazine Issue 35, June 2016
Ann Thomson has been an important force in Australian art since she graduated from The National Art School over five decades ago. We visit the painter and sculptor in her Waverley studio to speak about her practice, upcoming projects and how both her work and the Sydney art scene have changed over the last 50 years.
You've just come back from an artists' expedition to Moonie Beach - are these trips important to your work?
I've always been a studio painter, but I really enjoy going out on painting trips with other artists and producing work in a different landscape. I find that a place I've scrutinised in this way will come through in my studio paintings. I've always made works on paper that I think of as "input" for more major works. They go into my memory bank and their influence can come through at any time.
Are any of your works about a specific place?
No. To paint a specific subject is just not my way of working. I have to be more open. It's like opening another door that is to do with trust, it's to do with memory, and having the knowledge that when you start painting the creative process begins. Too much thinking about it gets in the way.
So you don't plan any of your works out?
I just start. I might begin about five things at once and sometimes they're no good and then I just keep going until "aha! Something's coming through!" It's a very hard thing for me to explain in words. I have three big paintings on the go at the moment. For example, I've been working on one of these paintings for some time, I had abandoned it, but I've pulled it out and I'm working on it again.
Do you ever finish a work in one sitting?
Sometimes. Very rarely. People ask "how long does it take you to paint something like that?" and I look very thoughtful and I say "umm, fifty years." Maybe sixty!
Do you paint every day? I try to. Yesterday I had a very busy day working on my invitations and I thought, I've got to paint! So I didn't get to bed until quite late.
That's the beauty of having a studio at home.
I have a great studio, which I've had since the 80s; before that I was tramping from place to place, renting a studio. That had its advantages too. What I love is to go to France and hire a studio there. I don't go painting outside. When in Reims, where the landscape is dotted with beautiful vineyards, did I paint that? No, I just spent every day in the fantastic big studio that I had, and the work that came out was very different from my work here. I like that mingling of Europe and Australia. What I like when I'm painting is being in a state of not quite knowing - it's putting aside an answer in order to find another answer.
I suppose you can dedicate yourself totally to your work in France?
Yes, I can work without any outside interruptions. I like to go into an empty place and fill it up. By the time I left this big space after three months, I had filled it up with works on paper and I hope to do that again this year. Going to Hong Kong was quite a different thing, I had never planned to go to the East and that has opened up another field of vision and thought.
Recently a monograph of your work was released. Did you help to choose the works that would be included in this?
Yes, it was a great thing to be able to put works together in a book where they can be seen together as a body of work. It's a bit like having a survey show or retrospective. It's nice to see some of the works that had travelled out of my reach, to New York, France, Germany, Spain.
Did you see changes in your work over time?
Oh heavens yes! But it's always me. That's what I think is interesting. To have some kernel of myself that I start with and that's what develops and changes and grows in so many different ways. When I was at art school in the '50s and '60s American Expressionism was happening, and we were very close to this - abstraction and making a picture was much more relevant to my way of thinking than to copy nature.
But the landscape is important to your work now?
As I developed both have found their way into my work. There's that often-repeated quote from The Bulletin magazine, "Are you an abstract or a figurative artist?" and she answered "yes". That's me!
What were your early works like?
I grew up in Brisbane and I was always making things under the house. Cutting up magazines for collages, making clay objects and constructing musical instruments out of disparate things. I remember Mum calling me for lunch and I'd say "I can't, I'm too busy." And it's still a bit like that!
So art school was an obvious move?
Well, that's what I wanted to do. But I had to fight to get there. It certainly wasn't my parents' idea. They discussed it with their friends and none of them thought much of the idea! But I made my way to Sydney, and I got in to the East Sydney Tech. My father was very helpful in that he allowed me to have an account for my paints at Dymocks. So I started off with good quality Windsor and Newton paints. This made a difference to the way I learnt to paint.
And did art school live up to your expectations?
It was great! It was a wonderful time to be there. I graduated from East Sydney Tech in 1962 and there were a lot of very interesting people there. Peter Powditch, Colin Lanceley, Madeleine Halliday and Martin Sharp studied at the same time as me and there were teachers like Robert Klippel, John Passmore and Godfrey Miller. Before that I had learnt from Jon Molvig in Brisbane. The conversations were wonderful in those days. Sometimes Robert Hughes would turn up and regale us. It was really a great education for an artist. I'm so totally against art schools being put under the auspices of universities. Because it's a different kind of education - for an artist it's about skill and training, and like music and theatre it does not come from an academic base. A lot of very good artists now wouldn't have responded at all to university education. I have a great loyalty to the National Art School. It's a disturbing thing that we still have to defend it.
You have a show coming up at the National Art School that reflects this time.
What they're going to do is have a survey of my work and also include works by my peers at the time. It was an interesting time. I think there are times when art flourishes, something happens, something grows out of that.
And then you became a teacher. How did you find that?
I taught at SCEGGS first, because women weren't required at art schools in those days. Except that we had a wonderful drawing teacher, Dorothy Dundas, who was the wife of the head of the art school, and she just taught me so much about drawing and how to see everything in three dimensions. And that has stood me in good stead. Then I went into making sculpture as well as painting. It was just a process of making, of bringing collage into another dimension, and then that in turn found its way into my painting. I'm very interested in process and development.
Were women welcomed as students?
Yes, there were lots of women students, and good students! But a lot of wonderful women artists just didn't make it through. I know how hard it was to have a family and push on as a woman artist without much support. But I finally did teach at all the art schools, first at The Brisbane Art School, then East Sydney Tech, Sydney College of the Arts, the College of Fine Arts, Newcastle and the Flying Art School, so I did quite a lot of teaching.
You enjoyed it?
I loved it. I felt great enthusiasm for the students and what they were doing. I think it's important to encourage rather than criticise and I had great students. Like Joe Furlonger, Fiona MacDonald, Mark Bayley and Noel McKenna and others all at one time in Brisbane. Something good was going on then.
Where did you start exhibiting?
Well I thought of something interesting the other day - I sold my first painting at the Clune Gallery, which was at the Yellow House.
Where you just showed with Defiance Gallery - a full circle!
Yes! Then I was very fortunate to show at Watters Gallery. I was one of the first to show in their little gallery on Liverpool Street. Then I had children and I didn't show for another eight years.
Did you still paint then?
Well, when I could. But I was thinking about it all the time. When you have children and are working and doing all the things that go with that, there's simply no time left. So you had to make time. That was often in the middle of the night. At one stage, after putting the children to bed, I would have a short sleep, and then paint until I dropped. Another time, someone lent me a house they were renovating and I'd go there at five in the morning and be back in time to make breakfast. Otherwise it's in your mind all the time. After this break, when I was able to get back to it, it came out like an arrow out of a bow. It's like harbouring something that has to come out, and that says a lot about being an artist - it's in there.
In preparing your retrospective, Terence Maloon described your recent works as "conspicuously stronger, wilder and freer". Have you noticed this change in your own works?
Yes I would say that. Terence is amazing at finding the right words for things. I find now I'm given a freedom. For me it's an intelligent way to work really. It allows that other thing to come through. The creativity. You can't have that if you're thinking at the same time. So I put my mind into neutral when I paint, and when I'm painting I'm painting!
Ann Thomson is a Brisbane born, Sydney based painter and sculptor known for her vibrant, expressive compositions. Often described as abstract, the artist rejects this label as her works are drawn from visual memories of places and things; ''I might abstract something but I don't just paint shapes.''
Since graduating from the National Art School in 1962 she has had balanced art teaching with countless solo and group exhibitions throughout Australia and overseas. Thomson has won a number of prizes, including the 1998 Wynne Prize, 2005 Kedumba Drawing Prize and the 2002 Geelong Contemporary Art Prize, and her work is included in many important collections such as Art Gallery of New South Wales, Newcastle Regional Art Gallery, Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid and Villa Haiss Museum, Germany.