top of the class!

Photo: Sr.M.Ursula with English & History teacher, Miss Costigan, 1960s

Ask a friend about their favourite schoolteacher and everyone has a story.  Mine was Sr. M Ursula, my art teacher at Santa Maria College. Way back then, I had no idea how enduring her instructional and observational lessons would be.  Sr. Ursula would take us on tram rides into Melbourne city, telling us to ‘look up’ at the local, historic architecture above shops and offices. That one expression, look up, was to become my refrain throughout future journeys, exploring what she taught my eyes to see.   One tram trip was to the National Gallery of Victoria, to see the American Abstract Expressionists.  What an eye-opener!  I had no idea that lines and shapes with bold colours could have such impact.

I was grateful too for my Catholic education which gave me an understanding of how biblical and art history are intrinsically enmeshed; the power and wealth of Catholicism, the Medici family’s might throughout The Renaissance. In the decades to follow, Sr. Ursula’s tuition travelled with me:  as I stood in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, remembering lessons in early perspective – Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano; seeing in real life Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus;  Michaelangelo’s David and the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel ceiling; of course, the Mona Lisa in the Louvre; in Barcelona and London, those confident lines of Picasso and Matisse; the waterlilies and haystacks of French Impressionists Monet and VanGogh; painting en plein air at the foot of Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire.  So many occasions exploring old and new art. But, the most memorable moments were the overwhelming emotions on the first sighting of Vatican City, and arriving in Venice. As the vaporetto moved slowly along The Grand Canal, my nose was pressed to the glass, mouth almost gaping at the Doges Palace, Bridge of Sighs, St Marks Square.  Sr. Ursula was close and I thanked her for everything she taught me.

Last week I visited NGV AUSTRALIA’S TOP ARTS 2021 exhibition, an annual opportunity to admire what VCE Art students are creating. Last year, they were further challenged with 2020’s lockdowns due to COVID-19.  I am in awe of their teachers and collective imaginations under such constraints. Works are diverse, using drawing, painting, sculpture, installation and multimedia. Not only is this Top Arts an excellent representation of schools’ curriculum, it offers an educational resource for younger students and budding artists.

With such a diversity of works, I can only give a representation here.
Sarah Hare, Ocean  (Presbyterian Ladies’ College)
I’m a ‘water baby’ and happily immersed in this artwork, all those blues, feeling underwater. Made from squares of acrylic on paper, hole-punched, threaded to one complete work.
Bronte Green, Streets of your town  (Santa Maria College)
Painted in gouache on paper, I was delighted to see an artwork from my old school, Santa Maria College. Bronte depicts my neighbourhood and many Melbourne suburban streets.
Lara Atkinson, Untitled (Clair de Lune) (Korowa Anglican Girls’ School)
Lara’s digital animation was one of my favourites.  I was drawn to the sound of Clair de Lune before realising it was the soundtrack to the changing images. Untitled is Lara’s life story, trying to both explain and understand what it is like for a person with autism. I also noted, that Untitled stood alone in a boxed gallery space, highlighting the importance to approach and step closer.
Charlotte Grimes, Lament from the series The ineffable, (Damascus College)
The shallows and an ironing board! Charlotte’s photographic content drew an immediate response from me.  She writes that she was “influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, expressing how our worlds have recently been turned inside out. It also shows that our 2020 existence has been defined by our home lives and new-found connection to the natural landscapes around us.” As someone who has, for decades, walked Port Phillip Bay each morning  – add the domestic chores – this could have been a visual representation of my life during 2020 lockdowns.  I noted Salvador Dali is an inspiration to Charlotte. At her age, not only was I also exploring photography, particularly the works of those fabulous Time/Life photojournalists, but I repeatedly borrowed Dali’s book ‘Diary of a Genius’ from the library.  Charlotte’s work (inkjet print on glass) spoke to both the young and much older me.
Angelina Innocent, Unsubscribed  (RMIT Urban School)
Angelina’s message is potent, moreso in the shadows cast by her suspended doll, grimly twisted and tortured, shackled.  Using felt, ribbon, chain and acrylic on canvas, you can sense Angelina’s intellect and experimentation evolving. Congratulations, Angelina, on your gender expression.
Photos: Sarah Hare – Ocean ; Bronte Green – Streets of your town; Lara Atkinson – Untitled(Clair de Lune); Tahlia Reisacher’s Elephantus Submerged is reflected in Charlotte Grimes – The ineffable; Angelina Innocent – Unsubscribed. 

PEOPLE’S CHOICE  The Top Arts exhibition invites a People’s Choice Award. I didn’t really have to make a choice, because Phoebe Thompson’s Coexistence (St Margaret’s School) charmed me. The seeming simplicity of combining an object of nature, placed within a ceramic block; each piece stood alone, while mingling with the surrounding works. It is evident that Phoebe has an innate observation and connection with the environment.  So beautiful and serene. Thank you, Phoebe.
Alice Jakobus, Nostalgia & the future (Sacré Cœur)
Generally, I don’t feel kindly to work as “an homage” to great artists, however I found the overt wink to John Brack’s “Collins St, 5pm, 1955” delightful and meaningful. (graphite pencil, paper stumps, watercolour paper).
Greta Linehan. 1 in 5 Australian women over the age of 15 are victims of sexual assault (St Aloysius College)
A compelling title! Greta has intelligently created a work that expresses her degree of discomfort with this reality. She writes, “I achieved this by drawing raw, chaotic portraits of my loved ones adjacent to real victims from the media (Jill Meagher, Eurydice Dixon). The use of multi-media embellishment visually represents the trauma and injustice of such a ruthless crime”.  (Post it notes, ballpoint pen, ink, thread, copic marker, pins, gouache, gauze, bandage, staples and double-sided tape on foamex board.)
Arie Sawyer, People are cocoon weavers, whether they know it or not  (Alice Miller School)
This work greets you on entering the Top Arts exhibition. Using wool, plastic, plant matter, electrical cord, synthetic hair, hoop iron, Alice’s “person” represents its title, depicting individual metamorphosis. With David Bowie as her inspiration, I am sure he would have been delighted with Alice’s cocoon weaver.
Sophie Yang, Imagine how much more you could be (Yarra Valley Grammar)
I was first attracted to the vibrancy of Sophie’s (inkjet print on paper) art, the overt use of complementary colours. But, reading her purpose concerned me – more likely, the maternal me. This strong graphic and palette is a representation of the demands Sophie places on herself, her striving and ultimately, as she writes, ‘burnout’.
Photos: Phoebe Thompson – Coexistence; Alice Jakobus –  Nostalgia & the future; Greta Linehan – 1 in 5 Australian women over the age of 15 are victims of sexual assault; Arie Sawyer – People are cocoon weavers, whether they know it or not; detail from Sophie Yang – Imagine how much more you could be.

She-Oak and Sunlight: Australian Impressionism
I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of drought and flooding rains.   (From My Country)

At school, we were taught Dorothea Mackellar’s “My Country”.  And, we learnt about the Australian Impressionists art movement. I recall practising the title of Arthur Streeton’s The purple noon’s transparent might, committing it to memory.

She-Oak and Sunlight is another major exhibition of more than 250 works, currently at NGV Australia. I love this period of art and its storytelling in depicting Dorothea Mackellar’s changing landscape. Featuring the best know Impressionists – Tom Roberts, Charles Condor, Frederick McCubbin, Arthur Streeton – along with other notable artists –  it is the colours and textures of Australia’s terrain that brings life and place to these works.

When painting en plein air, there’s so much enjoyment in sitting on the ground, midst the landscape, mixing the colours on my palette. In viewing the works of our Australian Impressionists, I wanted to “be there”, watching and learning, up close to their techniques in capturing our countryside, skies, gum trees and nature.
Photos: Tom Roberts’ narratives (detail).  A Break away!;  Bailed up; A Quiet day on Darebin, Creek;  Shearing the Rams.
Photos:  Textures and technique (detail).   Jane Sutherland – Obstruction, Box Hill; Arthur Streeton – The railway station, Redfern; Arthur Streeton – Sirius Cove; Tom Roberts’ bush brushstroke.

Over the thirsty paddocks,
Watch, after many days,

The filmy veil of greenness
That thickens as we gaze.  (From My Country)

Top Arts 2021 is on at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia until 11 July.
She-Oak and Sunlight is at the Ian Potter Centre; NGV Australia until 22 August.

Photo: Art tuition (at the Carterisville homestead).

© Photographs and text Pamela Reid/tPRo 2021