Victorians - Portraits of Extraordinary People

An Exhibition of Paintings by Jenni Mitchell -

Queens Hall, Parliament House - May 2000

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 self.

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 community.

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 little better.

Jenni Mitchell Eltham February 2000

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