In 1982 I began painting the portraits of people I knew. they were then, mostly poets. Almost 20 years later I have
94 paintings of 80 or more poets in what has developed as an ongoing series.
More recently I've begun to extend my subject and started a new series of
portraits of those I consider people who have achieved excellence in their
field. Most of us, in whatever we do, can achieve excellence if we are
dedicated to the task. Some of us are more capable than others. A number of
my subjects have caused public controversy in reaching their aims . others have won great
admiration. Not all are public figures. It appears that whenever we take on a
role that is in the public eye- be it in politics, or the arts, or sports, we
cannot please everyone. Some of the people who have sat for me have created
much change in our community. They are both loved and despised, but their
influence cannot be denied. Many of the subjects have had a noticeable impact
on my community - Eltham, now part of the shire of Nillumbik.
Nillumbik, itself formed out of the last wave of
shire amalgamations in the early 1990s.
Robert Maclellan was then Minister for Planning and
Local Government, and a figure who will not be
forgotten in my home town for his part in the decision-making process of the
time, as will Robert Marshall who was the first Shire President of the New
Shire, and a councillor during the final term of the Shire of Eltham. Robert
Marshall was the Shire of Eltham's youngest councillor, elected at the age of
21. Between the two shires he has served as a councillor spanning a total of
25 years with four terms as Shire President. Robert will be remembered for
his passionate fight for and dedication to the Green Wedge.
Peter Brock, another local from the Nillumbik
community has risen to hero status in our broader community and is loved as
much for his prowess behind the wheel as his good works in our society,
working with less privileged people and serving as a source of a great
inspiration to all in rising above everyday conflicts and towards a higher
Then there are the people in my immediate life my mother, Grace Mitchell, who
has been not only a great encourager and support to me but to many residents of our local area. For a great number of years she
offered the most wonderful home made cakes and pies to people across
Melbourne, people who would travel out by train in the early days to eat her
wares during the 1950's through to the early 1970's. She was famous for her
cooking, wedding cakes, Christmas fare and pies. After retiring from the
pastry cooking in her 60's, she began a course in fine art at Phillip
Institute (RMIT) majoring in sculptor. Today, she can barely move in her home
for the works that surround her.
Mervyn Hannan, my partner, is a quiet
achiever and an inspiration to those whom he meets. He is loved for his
simplicity and lack of material concerns, and the way he calmly moves through
life creating sculpture. I have painted his mother, Sonia Skipper, renowned
for her work as a painter and sculptor. She was one of the original family of Montsalvat founders.
Her father, Mervyn Skipper, the writer, had been instrumental in financially
assisting the construction of much work there.
Sigmund Jorgensen, son of Justus Jorgensen, the founder and visionary of Montsalvat, also sat for me. Not only was he born and
raised at Montsalvat, but he is today one of the
directors on the board, the manger and a local councillor. He was the Labour
Party candidate in a recent State election - and was elected to represent the
council during the last round of elections. Four painters have sat for me:
John Borrack, Lesley Sinclair, Drew Gregory and the
Aboriginal artist Biggibilla. Lesley Sinclair, John
Borrack and Drew Gregory all live in this
Lesley Sinclair was my first teacher at Montsalvat
when I was 10 years of age, and she has figured in my life ever since. She
was a quiet influence on a great many people. She was loved for her strong
commitment to Montsalvat and keen eye as a teacher,
even through the years of her near blindness from cataracts. Sadly, she passed
away last year at the age of 95.
John Borrack will be remembered for his painting of
the Plenty Gorge and his watercolours of the Australian outback. We shared,
during the sittings, conversation about the great beauty that lies beyond the
cities of Australia.
Drew Gregory I found interesting to get to know: his inquiry into life beyond
the everyday, his total focus and dedication to his work, his generous spirit
his hard work and active sporting life impressed me. There is a light in his
eyes that shows an excitement to be alive that is almost childlike.
Biggibilla, again an unusual and complex character
who has great and diverse talent. it seems that
whatever interests him he can transform into excellence. whether
it be the martial arts, where he has reached the highest level, or his
painting in which great detail and finesse are evident. Years ago, I recall
showing him how to cut into lino to produce a
print. The next day he arrived for another lesson bearing the neatest print
work I had seen; with a simple Stanley
knife he had cut the finest lines.
Leslie Avril is a musician and singer also living
in the Eltham area. Her vibrant personality and choice of outfit brings a
contrast to the more formal costumes of some of the portraits. She has entertained
her followers throughout Australia
and Asia with her country music singing and
piano playing performances.
Gordon Ford I was pleased to be able to paint. His influence on the landscape
gardens of Eltham and the movement towards naturalisation across Australia was
significant. He had firstly worked with and been influenced by the renowned
landscape gardeners Edna Walling and Ellis (Rocky) Stones. Gordon worked
closely in this community with architect Alistair Knox, one of the fathers of
Eltham, and Peter Glass, both a painter and landscape architect. Much of the
Eltham Style owes its direction to the mudbrick
building of Alistair Knox and the landscaping of Gordon Ford. Gordon looked
to nature and the forms that rock formations took in their natural surroundings,
transposing this into the suburban garden and creating a landscape that
appeared as if it belonged there and was not man made.
I painted Barbara Blackman in her home in NSW. She spent many years with her
husband, the painter Charles Blackman in and outside Melbourne during the 1940's. She lives now
in a home she created on the South Coast of New South Wales. She is a writer
and wonderful supporter to many areas within the arts industry.
Shane Pugh is the son of the well-known Australian artist Clifton Pugh. An
artist in his own right, he is on the board that maintains the collection and
oversees the property his father left to be used for the advancement of
artists. An artist-in-residence program offers an environmental studio and
living space at Dunmoochin.
Politicians whom I painted who have a direct interest in the Nillumbik region include Sheryl Garbutt, André Harmeyer, Wayne Phillips and Jenny Macklin. Sheryl I had
known from the time when she worked in the office of Pauline Toner. She was
elected as the member after the sad death of Pauline - another politician who
had been greatly admired for her work locally on the preservation of land for
the Eltham Copper Butterfly. It is to Wayne Phillips whom I owe the idea for
this series. I had been in his office one day discussing a matter of local
concern. When I arrived home after the meeting, the line poets and poli's,
poets and poli's kept nagging me. I picked up the phone and rang him. as usual, our meeting had been somewhat heated, we didn't
often agree politically. Wayne,
I asked, would you like to sit for a portrait? He seemed quite taken aback
and replied hesitantly, Ah, I only do nudes. That's OK,
I have a screen, you can do what you like behind it, I only want
your head. He became the first of the other portraits.
Jean McLean has had a lot to do with the arts in the Eltham region over the
years. Her name was often mentioned in the artists' circles. She became well
known for her peace work during the Vietnam war and was instrumental in the
Save Our Sons campaign of that period. I enjoyed getting to know her better
during our time as painter and sitter. Lorraine Elliott was Secretary
to the Minister for the Arts when I began her portrait in her
office-overlooking South Melbourne behind
the National Gallery, prior to the State elections, when it was taken for
granted that the liberal government would be returned. To the surprise of
everyone, Labour was elected and Lorraine
had to vacate her office. The portrait was completed in my Eltham studio.
Both Sheryl Garbutt and André Harmeyer were shadow
ministers when I painted their portraits; since the election they have become
Ministers. Sheryl, Minister for Conservation and André, Minister for Police.
I had painted Bill McGrath during his term as Minister for Police and Deputy
Leader of the National Party. He retired from his many years in politics
prior to the last election. Bill had invited me to lunch in parliament house
one day, I felt slightly embarrassed when André came up to greet me with a
quizzical glint in his eye as if to say, 'Dining with my opposition?' Now,
André is the Minister for Police.
Jenny Macklin is the local Federal Member for Jaga Jaga, which takes in the Eltham area. She would have to
be one of the most admired politicians I have met; hearing praise for her
sincerity and hard work from all sides of politics. I was surprised at her
reticence in being the focus of a portrait during our sessions.
Richard Haese sat for me over summer. Unfortunately
for him the first sitting took place on one of those cold summery Melbourne days and he
wore a thick jumper. The subsequent sittings were not cold and for art's
sake, he suffered the wearing of the jumper. Richard's book Rebels &
Precursors has become the definitive text on the history of the artists
living in Melbourne
during a most creative and important period, the 1940's. He is Senior
Lecturer of Art History at LaTrobe University.
Jenny Graves, a scientist also working at LaTrobe University, is a Professor of Genetics.
Much of her work and time is spent in research and travelling
internationally. She is considered a world leader in her field and has been
widely published in scholarly journals.
I met Michael McGirr in the Blue
Mountains while on a writing fellowship at Varuna
Writers Centre. He is a Jesuit priest and a writer. His life is so different
to mine and we enjoyed sharing stories and experiences. Learning about the
enormous work commitment of a priest has been interesting, like the
politicians, one wonder where the energy and tenacity to do so much comes
from. Michael is the publisher of the Jesuits publications in Melbourne, being
responsible for the production of several monthly magazines, including the
well-known Eureka Street.
Morag Fraser works with Michael McGirr and is the
editor of Eureka Street
and well known for her excellent journalism and critical writing which appear
regularly in our newspapers and magazines. She too lives in Eltham, in an
Alistair Knox home with Gordon Ford landscaping.
Carmel Bird, another writer is an exceptional person when it comes to
dedication to one's craft. It is understandable to me why some of the
subjects of my portraits have achieved what they have when I see how focused
and hard working they are. Carmel
inspired me greatly with her tireless ability to say no to offers from all
sorts of people when it came to idle socialising, when there was work to be
done. She too was generous in her encouragement of my work and offered moral
support. Having herself experienced criticism from her peers in the past, as
many of my sitters have, to then pick up and press on even harder. gives courage to anyone who has something to say -
something that takes you out on a limb. She is yet another achiever in the
face of adversity.
I met Margaret Jennings in 1996 during a turbulent period in Eltham. The
Government appointed Commissioners had given permission to demolish the
former Shire of Eltham building and an application for a Shell/Hungry Jacks
development was before Council. A committee was formed by the community to
oppose both activities - I was the President and Margaret the Secretary.
Margaret became a Councillor for the Shire of Nillumbik
at the first elections. This year she became Mayor of Nillumbik.
Vin Heffernan has spent many years as a politician and a Minister in Ivanhoe
where he grew up. He has a long association with the district - his family
settling in the district in the 1860's. I first met him when he was appointed
a Commissioner for the Nillumbik Shire; after he had
left State Politics. We have had some interesting discussions throughout our
time together, particularly when the discussion returned to the outer ring
road for Melbourne.
All of these people are exceptional for the dedication and earnestness they
bring to their work and life. No matter what side of politics they are on or
whether I agree philosophically with them, I have respect for what they do. they have all in their own way given much to me during the
time I spent in their company getting to know them and their worlds a
Jenni Mitchell Eltham February 2000