JOHN McNAMEE MEETS ONE OF THE LOVABLE DOYENNES OF THE CREATIVE WORLD
When renowned Sydney sculptor Eileen Slarke embarked on her latest project, she didn’t go for half-measures.
She decided to create a bronze representation of one of the world’s largest ever sculptures.
It was the controversial 1969 wrapping of Little Bay headland in 92,900 square metres of plastic by eccentric master Christo called Wrapped Coast-One Million Square Feet, Little Bay, Sydney, Australia.
Almost 2.5 kilometres of the 26-metre high headland was encased in the synthetic mesh and tied down with fibre ropes, for almost 10 weeks. Crowds flocked to the then remote coastal area on the old Prince Henry Hospital site near Malabar in their thousands.
Although it received mixed reactions from the public at the time, it has since been regarded as a major artistic triumph for Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude.
“Yes it will be a challenging project for me,” the tireless 73-year-old told Go55s.
“But do you realise that these days Christo is ranked in the top 500 artists of all time and that includes the greats like Picasso ,” Eileen says. “There are only three Australians in the list.”
Don’t get the idea that diminutive Eileen is going to start clambering around chiselling a sculptural representation of the massive Christo masterpiece out of a monstrous hunk of bronze metal.
She’s not going to perched hanging from the gantries, Michaelangelo style, or lying on her back on a windy rock ledge chipping away from a great height at her latest oeuvre lashed by five metre waves.
Don’t be silly, she tells me, the work will be a small scale model of the cliff wrapping based on the famous photograph of the event released to the world media at the time.
“What I’ll be doing is casting a small scale model of the wrapped cliff in plaster then I will look to cast it in bronze so it is the size of a plaque..it all depends on whether I can get financial backing of course,” Eileen says.
“I tried to enter the project in Sculptures By The Sea (on Sydney’s eastern beaches coastal walkway) but the idea was rejected so I’m going to have to go it alone.”
Eileen shouldn’t have any trouble getting backing..she’s an internationally known and respected sculptor and artist with her works hung in some of the world’s great galleries.
And she works from a small, cramped studio, which she shares with the gardening implements, household detritus and dirty laundry baskets, underneath she and husband Noel’s comfortable Maroubra home.
She was in the news earlier this year with the official unveiling of her latest sculptural work, The Impressionists’ Seat, in Dunningham Reserve, Coogee, in Sydney’s east.
Eileen was commissioned by Randwick Council to create the sculpture for the area’s centenary and she chose to portray three of Australia’s most famous artists who painted the beach during their careers—- Charles Conder (1868-1909), Tom Roberts (1856-1931) and Arthur Streeton (1868-1943).
Portraits of the Impressionists are carved out of the metal on the back of the long-legged bronze seat to enable people to look through from behind to get the same perspective of the coastal view depicted by the masters in their paintings.
Since it was installed in April this year, the painters’ seat has been readily adopted by the locals and tourists alike who all marvel at its compelling simplicity. Kids just want to clamber up and sit on it so it’s also a sort of retro-interactive art without the modern electronic bells and whistles!
It has already become a much-loved part of the Coogee landscape in the same way that the Bali bombing memorial on the nearby Dolphin Point headland has become a place of annual pilgrimage.
“It’s not REALLY a seat to be sitting on but I just want people to look at the almost life-size faces of the painters and then look through the seat to get the same glimpses of the beach they had,” Eileen says.
Alarmingly, in an ironic development typical of civic leaders, the local council has now decided to refurbish a nearby decrepit old toilet block and replace it with a modernistic amenities structure which could become an obtrusive eyesore. The project has aroused enormous protest which is supported by local Member of Parliament and family member by marriage, Paul Pearce.
“I like to bring culture into the community, that’s why all my latest works have this social basis..I like to bring cultural awareness in a provocative, teaching sort of way,” undaunted, Eileen explains.
“After all, I was an arts mistress for many years while I was learning my profession.”
Another one of Eileen’s works has now achieved iconic status and is also an integral part of the Coogee landscape, where Eileen swims most days of the year.
She was awarded a Federation Community Arts grant to commemorate A Century of Wylies Baths which stands on Coogee’s southern promontory and is arguably one of Sydney’s most famous ocean pools.
In 2001, as part of the project, Eileen’s dramatic almost life-size bronze sculpture of Mina Wylie was unveiled outside the baths.
Mina, daughter of Henry Wylie, a champion long distance and under water swimmer, and the man who built the baths in 1907, was one of Australia’s first women Olympians along with good friend Fanny Durack.
At the age of 21, Mina won silver at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912. Her Aussie pioneering spirit is reflected in Eileen’s majestic but homely depiction.
The three-sided statue sits alongside the rocky cliff path and stairs down to the majestic pool entrance and commands a stunning view over the baths and the surrounding coastline. It’s the sort of almost- lifelike statue you want to go up to and grab the bronze hand and say: “Look Mina, I didn’t know you, but hell, you must have been a great lady and after all these years, we’re all so proud of what you did for Australia!”
Eileen has a special attachment to Wylie’s Baths.. apart from winning a heritage award for the statue and book , A Century of Wylie’s Baths, she is the first and only female trustee of the pool and she also designed the pool logo.
“Of course it’s a very special place and I get alot of inspiration from the area,” Eileen says.
Throughout her long career in the arts, both as a teacher and illustrator, energetic Eileen has been forced to juggle her busy family and academic lives.
Although she left it as a 15 year old, Eileen has just been made a Distinguished Old Girl of the prestigious Sydney Girls High School as her alma mater’s only famous sculptor.
“Isn’t it exciting! What a great honour, especially for someone who didn’t even do the Leaving Certificate,” chortles Eileen.
Of course she went on to further studies becoming a graduate of the National Art School, and years later did a mature age honours degree at Sydney Uni and a diploma of education which started her on her long, illustrious teaching career.
It was not until she was in her late 40s that she began to concentrate on her own artistic pursuits and later, in the 1980s, she was invited to the Italian town of Ravenna, birthplace of Dante Alighieri, to show her vibrant depictions of the 34 vivid cantos of The Inferno by the 13th century literary master, known as The Father of the Italian Language.
This led to her Dante in Australia exhibition which was featured in old Parliament House, Canberra and the VAC in Melbourne.
“I was lucky at the time I was involved in this project because I was able to consult the famous Sydney Nolan about his Dante works and I was extremely grateful for his advice,” she said.
“I couldn’t claim him to be a mentor of mine but he gave me such invaluable hints on the Dante process,” she said.
So popular did Eileen’s Dante exhibition become even in his birthplace Ravenna, where all the poet’s heritage has been closely guarded for centuries by Franciscan monks, that she was invited to be Australia’s representative on the International Judging Panel at the Biennale Internazionale Dantesca di Ravenna in 1992, 94,96,98 and 2003.
During all her early life as she was learning Italian, teaching art at high schools and studying for her tertiary degrees she and Noel, a noted Australian biochemist, had four children, a boy and three girls.
How did she manage to earn a living, raise a family and still lay the groundwork for her brilliant artistic career?
“I guess it’s got something to do with the creative process..it never stops working..there’s always something going on in your brain and you have to get it out and express it.
“When I was at school I used to be accused of being a day dreamer..well I suppose that’s true…I’m always daydreaming but it’s because I’m always thinking of some other creative I want to get involved in,” Eileen says.
That explains why when Eileen is not looking after her three grandchildren, she’s busily envisaging her latest project of getting the maquette (or model) of Christo’s seminal Sydney work, into bronze form.
But why pick something so apparently daunting and seemingly out of the way and something which was so polarising to the community back then?
“I admire Christo very much…I feel this will be a great project ..Christo himself is helping me out and has sent me some details of his other works such as the Gates of Central Park New York.
“As well, Little Bay is now a thriving residential area and I’m hoping my work will be installed on the path leading down to the beach…
“That would be really bringing the art into the community, now wouldn’t it?”