Bronwyn Oliver | A life in art

I first met Bronwyn Oliver when she was 10 years old. It was 1969. She was Bronwyn Gooda then and her family lived in northern NSW, in the cattle and wheat town of Inverell. I was in my first year of teaching art at the local high school and for good measure I ran a Saturday morning art class for younger children at the Inverell TAFE.

Nineteen Sixty Nine was also an “exciting time to be alive”. Being considered the local art expert, I was summoned to attend the bowling club (the real meeting point for the town) in mid-November, to explain to a considerable audience what a foreign artist named Christo was doing at Little Bay in Sydney, with one million square feet of fabric.

Earlier in the year, 20 July, Apollo 11 landed the first man on the Moon and the teachers from the arts side of Inverell High held an all-night party to coincide with the event. The décor included flashing lights, balloons and streamers, and the mood was equally celebratory and respectful of humankind’s greatest achievement.

On 1 November, I only just made it on time for the 9am start to my Saturday morning art class. Bronwyn, sitting in front of the locked door, enquired with a tone (as a 10-year-old) somewhere between reprimand and relief, “why are you late?”. She was always the first child to arrive, most eager to get started, reluctant to leave. They were a great bunch of kids, with Bronwyn I recall being the most dedicated to making art.

So it was with some surprise (to each of us) when we next met, nearly 10 years later. In 1977 I had returned to Australia from Europe and North America to start teaching at COFA, (then Alexander Mackie CAE, now UNSW Art & Design). Bronwyn had progressed through high school with great distinction, more than earning a place in the Bachelor of Art Education program at Mackie. She excelled in both the education and art components of her degree. We worked together again in the New Artforms courses. With fellow student and husband-to-be, Leslie Oliver, they became a formidable team. Running out of time for an ambitious joint exhibition to be held at Sydney University, access to the college woodwork shop was arranged so that they could work day and night to build the required plinths.

Bronwyn so impressed that she was chosen amongst a select group to participate in the Marina and Ulay week-long workshop titled Beyond the Tick Gate, in a rural setting on the North Coast of NSW. This environment should have been home territory, however Bronwyn resisted, not because of the landscape, but because of the people, and the expectation of “group think” and the free, but not so free, behaviour.

While others eagerly participated in the Marina and Ulay led activities, Bronwyn struggled not to be a loner. An expectation emerged that each person would deliver a significant piece of performance art. We were left waiting, till the last night, to see what Bronwyn was thinking, was feeling. Without audible words, her ‘Getting Through’ piece told the story of her week and perhaps, her life.

With the group gathered in a dark place, at a remote telephone booth on a road cutting though the Australian bush, we were given rope to tie the booth shut with Bronwyn inside. Although we could not decipher the number she was calling, it clearly was not answering. The handset was replaced, the heavy 20 cent coins clunked out the chute, were reinserted and the dialling began again, and again. It was getting very cold in the rural night air. Suddenly, one of our group, the youngest, a first-year student, Paul Terret, leapt to his feet and ran off down the road in the direction of the cottage we were camping in. Thereafter Bronwyn’s call appeared to be answered, the coins were swallowed up yet we could not hear the brief conversation that ensued. Momentarily, Paul’s running footfall could be heard coming back towards us. He arrived, having followed Bronwyn’s phoned instructions with the biggest knife he could find in the kitchen to cut through the rope, releasing Bronwyn finally to the company of her artistic colleagues and friends.

Although Bronwyn did not return to performance art, she went on to produce masterful sculptural works in fragile paper and gleaming bronze. Her artistic oeuvre is appropriately gaining the attention of leading writers and gallery directors, notably, Hannah Fink’s monograph to be published by Piper Press for the TarraWarra Museum of Art’s survey exhibition, The Sculpture of Bronwyn Oliver, curated by Julie Ewington. Along with her studio practice, she taught young boys how to make and love art for “19 very happy years as a teacher” at Cranbrook Preparatory School.

As a result of this distinguished career across practice and education Bronwyn was awarded the (COFA) Dean’s Award for Excellence in Art, Design and Education in 2006. In part the testamur read: “Bronwyn is widely recognised for the aesthetic sensibilities of her delicate, seductive, finely constructed, mythical and allusive sculptural forms. With a deep fascination for the tactile and the materiality of sculpture, her early preoccupations with paper and fibreglass have given way, in more recent years, to the use of copper wire, bronze and aluminium. The welding and fabrication processes harnessed in the use of these materials demand both a kind of fearlessness and calculated control.”

Leading up to the presentation of the award, I discussed with her the format of the evening: the dignitaries who would be present; the length of her reply speech; her choice of restaurant for the celebratory dinner afterwards, etc. Her speech was rivetingly insightful, made funny at times through the ironies she identified as being part and parcel of a successful career.

Her only consideration regarding restaurants was unreasonable and, in hindsight, worrying. She wanted to eat close to the college, thereby taking minimum time out from her studio! Bringing her partner of 22 years, food and wine expert Huon Hooke, into the discussion solved the problem. We ate well and in reasonable time, close by in Paddington.

Bronwyn’s childhood dream of a life immersed in the arts had come true. The originality and creativity of her works, the successful exhibitions, the scholarships, prizes and awards, the study and work undertaken internationally, each attest to this. At the time of her death in 2006, Bronwyn had arguably reached her stride.

In everyone’s life there are things to do – domestic and creative – that together achieve a balance of sorts. Artists deal with the complementarity and/or conflict of these domains in varied ways. For me, Bronwyn was exceptional in her attention to the creative side of her life. Her point of balance for as long as I knew her was further out than most could sustain, even for a moment. Hence the focus, the differentiation, the character and the greatness of her work.

The Sculpture of Bronwyn Oliver
19 November 2016 – 5 February 2017
TarraWarra Museum of Art,Vic

Courtesy the artist and TarraWarra Museum of Art, Vic.

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