Interview with KATHRYN BRIMBLECOMBE-FOX
the ephemera interviews
In this series of interviews artists directly involved in ARIs and artist-run culture 1980- 2000 speak about the social context for their art making and provide insights into the ephemera they produced or collaborated on during this period. Artist ephemera includes artworks, photocopies, photographs, videos, films, audio, mail art, posters, exhibition invites, flyers, buttons and badges, exhibition catalogues, didactics, room sheets, artist publications, analogue to digital resources and artist files.
Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox, a visual artist, was born in Dalby. She attended the University of Queensland graduating with a B.A [Art History] 1980 and subsequently worked in curatorial capacities at the National Gallery of Australia 1981, and until 1995 at various S. E Queensland regional galleries. Kathryn’s current paintings, inspired by cosmology, the scientific study of the universe, re-imagine landscape, attempting to untether it from Earth-bound horizons to embrace an expansive universal environment that affords multiple perspectives of humanity and Earth. Kathryn plays with perspective, code/text, age-old symbols and landscape elements to provoke questions about the future.
Kathryn lived in Goondiwindi 1982-2000, moving to Brisbane in 2000. Whilst active in the local Goondiwindi arts scene she was keen to exhibit her work in Brisbane; not easy to do for practical and other reasons. Distance and pre-internet communication made it difficult to transport paintings, negotiate exhibition spaces and maintain profile momentum. The label ‘regional artist’ was also problematic as it seemed to imply pre-judgements about choice of genre and subject matter. However, the arrival of MOCA provided Kathryn with an opportunity to exhibit her work in Brisbane, firstly in 1989 at its ‘Young Artist Gallery’, followed in 1992 at its ‘Loading Bay’. In 1996 Franz Ehmann and Tracey Smith offered her a show at Whitebox, the precursor to Soapbox Gallery, where she subsequently exhibited in four solo and group shows from 1997 to 2000, followed by a few exhibitions in the early 2000s. In the 90s Kathryn also exhibited at McWhirter’s Artspace, in 1991 with her brother Wilfred Brimblecombe and in 1993 as a solo exhibition.
In Goondiwindi Kathryn was involved with a local artists’ collective ‘Jump Up Arts’ [Kath Leonard, Heather Price, Lesley Hawker, Jenny Jackson, Patricia Garner]. In 1994, with Arts Queensland funding, and local monetary and in-kind support, Lyndall Milani worked with the collective to create a major installation called An Unbroken Existence, subsequently shown in Goondiwindi and at Brisbane’s IMA. During the installation process a photographic component was included in Knowing the Sensorium curated by Beth Jackson and exhibited at the IMA. In 1995 ‘Jump Up Arts’ exhibited In Response at Metro Arts. This exhibition provided each artist with an opportunity to produce work that responded to the installation experience.
Since moving to Brisbane Kathryn has continued exhibiting in alternative spaces locally and in Melbourne. She has also exhibited overseas [Dubai, London, Abu Dhabi, Seoul]. She started her BLOG in 2006, regularly posting once a week. In 2014 she was invited to have her BLOG archived in perpetuity on PANDORA, Australia’s national archive for online sites of significance and ongoing research value. Kathryn is currently an M. Phil [research] student at the University of Queensland. Her research proposes an intersection between disparate areas ie: hands-on traditional painting practices and existential risk posed by emerging technologies. She is not using her own work for the thesis, but the interest in existential risk is a result of her art practice.
1 November 2015
Tell me about the global setting/climate from your point of view when you made the transition from art school to the wider world, artist-runs, exhibitions and beginning a career in painting.
I graduated from UQ in 1980 with a double major in Art History and immediately started as a curatorial assistant at the National Gallery of Australia. I did not attend art college, although painting was a passion. In fact, art college was never suggested even though I excelled in Art at school and had been attending holiday painting programs at the McGregor Summer School in Toowoomba. I had also been participating, since age 12, in the Flying Art School classes when Mervyn Moriarty et al visited Dalby, where I grew up. I married in 1982 and left the National Gallery to live in Goondiwindi where my then-husband had a business. So, during the 80s when I was in my 20s, I was not immersed in the centralized city art scene, although I was aware of ARIs in Brisbane. I often visited them and other more mainstream galleries, on visits to the city. I did feel a sense of isolation though, which sometimes frustrated me.
With regards to the global setting/climate in the late 70s early 80s, when I left university, I recall international anxiety about the terrorist group Baader Meinhof. International tensions were playing out in other ways, that looking back, were heralding the downside of globalization and the underbelly of how technology could be misused. In 1986 the Hindawi affair sent jitters around the world. A pregnant Irish woman was detained by El Al security at Heathrow airport. She was going to catch an El Al flight to Tel Aviv but was caught carrying explosives and a timing device, placed in her luggage without her knowledge by her then-fiance, Jordanian man Nezar Hindawi. He was subsequently caught, convicted and sentenced to 45 years jail. The scary thing was that she had already passed through Heathrow security before El Al security found the devices. A few months later my then-husband and I flew to Tel Aviv from London on El Al. I can vouch for the thoroughness of El Al security.
The experience of being in Israel ignited an interest in peace and conflict studies, which was intensified when I exhibited in the UAE a few times in the mid 2000s.
Tell me about your education and your influences in some detail?
I always identified as being an artist, due to responses I received about my paintings from early childhood onwards. However, Art at primary school in the 60s was almost non-existent and at secondary school in the 70s it was often considered the easy option for non-academic students or troublemakers. Fortunately, my Mother and grandmother painted, read widely and had interests in cultural activities. Thus, I received support and encouragement from my family. I had a wonderful Art teacher at the Dalby High School who was very encouraging but also held high expectations which I enjoyed meeting. However, when I moved to boarding school for grades 11 and 12, I was disappointed with the Art class, although I loved being at boarding school. I was an academic high achiever, so the University of Queensland was where I headed, without consideration of other options. At age 16 I had written to 4-5 directors of State galleries asking them what I should study in order to be a director of an institutional gallery. Two answered and both said a B.A with Art History-so that’s what I did.
With regards to my painting practice while I was an university…it did not happen. Art critic, Gertrude Langer, who had awarded me a number of prizes in various art awards during the 60s and 70s, had told my Mother that this might happen. Once I left university and the National Gallery, to live in Goondiwindi, I returned to my love of painting, but it was not easy. It took a few years for me to feel that I had re-discovered spontaneity and a sense of my own style.
I am now very grateful for my academic Art History background. As I got older I realized how I could best assimilate it into my work.
Fortunately I had a studio in Goondiwindi, so it was relatively easy to just keep working as paint, space and so on was easily accessible. This was particularly important when I had small children during the 90s, for many many reasons. One studio was an old church I moved onto our property. When we moved to another house I bought an old shearers’ quarters that I also moved into the new garden.
Drug culture, and mind altering has a long history in arts and culture, tell me about your experience of drug culture, from the romantic perception of youth and how this has played out for you, what you witnessed along the way, how it impacted on your art career, in your direct lived experience?
Whilst I have witnessed various episodes and outcomes of drug and alcohol use/abuse from the late 70s onwards, they were not part of my personal experiences.
Photography gained momentum in the 1980s, a new legitimacy, a language explored by women artists and many artists interested in its potential for theatricality, play, parody and a shared impulse away from its social realism and street documentary and recording art origins, tell me about this shift from your point of view?
My father, whilst a farmer, is also a keen amateur radio HAM enthusiast. Thus, our house was full of gadgets and gizmos. Dad made our first TV on the dining room table in the early 60s, we always had communication devices in our vehicles, we heard international news long before it hit the mainstream media, we had computers long before others and so on. And, all of this was well before the internet. I made my first crystal transistor radio at age 12, hooked it up to Dad’s purpose built aerial system to get better reception. Dad also loved photography and film. Thus, we had numerous still and film/movie cameras/projectors, which I used and owned when I was given Dad’s superseded varieties.
My brother Wilfred Brimblecombe also loves photography and as a teenager he had a fully set-up dark room in one of the farm’s outbuildings. I used to watch him in the dark room, but found the process too laborious. In 1991 Wilfred and I held a joint exhibition at McWhirter’s Artspace. He exhibited his manipulated photographs and I exhibited paintings. Wilfred works in IT [supercomputing and Big Data being two areas of interest] and he maintains his interest in photography. His BLOG is http://wilfredbrimblecombe.com/
It is against this background that I decided my preferred medium was paint. Yes, a very conscious decision. I never felt an affinity with the photographic medium, although I appreciate that others creatively use it. When I worked at the National Gallery, the then director James Mollison encouraged staff to take print-making classes at the ANU Art College. In fact, I think the gallery organized the series of classes for staff. I did both the lithography and etching classes, each over a number of weeks. Whilst enjoying the classes, the processes frustrated me. Again, it confirmed my focus on painting. I had a similar reaction after participating in An Unbroken Existence, a major group installation project exhibited in Goondiwindi and at the IMA in Brisbane. This project involved various activities using technology, construction, photography, assemblage and so on. Again, a very worthwhile experience, but it re-enforced my focus on painting.
Popular culture, art, music, fashion, media, events, clubs, technology, travel for pleasure also gained added momentum in its impact on arts and culture, why s how so from your point of view, was this part of the global shift away from the myopia of the Queensland Police State and cultural backwater shared feeling of the day?
A few curious stories that reflect upon ‘backwater’ status:
- In 1979 I shared a house in Petrie Tce with two other university students, both really bright girls. One of these girls over the 78/79 Christmas holidays became a Punk. This was a period when Punk culture was popular. My Punk housemate was once featured, as an example of a typical Punk, on the front page of a Brisbane newspaper. Whilst I was not a Punk I was drawn to Punk culture, fashion and music. I think the Punk era in Brisbane of the late 70s – early 80s caused a massive shift in people’s perspective, especially in contrast to the conservatism of the Joh era. Although it did not grow out of the same social circumstances of Europe, it more than ruffled the feathers of mainstream society, because many Australian Punks, certainly the ones I met in Brisbane, were from mostly middle class and educated backgrounds. Thus, the ruffling de-stabled perspectives from within the establishment.
- In 1980 I shared a house in Taringa with three friends from the country, three of us were uni students. During the long power strike caused by Joh’s intractable stance, we had a fire. Here we were…a group of 4 young people coping without power. Back home on our respective farms generators would have provided alternative power, but, not in the city. We used candles. One night a candle was left in a bedroom that was unoccupied for only a few minutes. A curtain blew the candle over and fire engulfed the room. Fortunately we were able to control the fire until the fire brigade arrived. The house was saved. I remember a number of fires occurring around Brisbane during that strike. It made me think about social responsibility, practical preparedness, outcomes of political stalemates, reliance on things we take for granted.
- I lived in country Queensland during the 80s and 90s, in Goondiwindi. I remember Joh coming to town. Although, I did not attend any official function I remember seeing him outside a venue leaning up against a wall, alone. It was a strange sight because politicians, especially senior ones, are normally surrounded by minders, hangers-on and people wanting to express their views or heckle.
- One situation in Goondiwindi is worth noting though. Long before I arrived in town , there had been a push to build a cultural centre with art gallery facilities, tiered theatre, recital rooms and so on. During the 80s the cultural centre seemed possible. I was active in supporting the new centre, meeting architects to discuss the gallery space, attending meetings etc. By the late 80s, 1988 bicentennial funding, other grants and funding from the town council were in place. The stumbling block was the Waggamba Shire Council which represented people in the surrounding areas of Goondiwindi. Despite the shire councilors voting affirmatively six times to build the centre, it went to a seventh vote that was lost. This was a result of vehement lobbying by people who were opposed to the centre. The outcome was that a cultural centre, as planned, was not built. The compromise was a community centre that did not have gallery facilities, nor a tiered theatre, but rather a medium sized functions/meeting room and a massive multi-purpose hall that could also be used for indoor sport. Subsequently a stage was added to one end of the hall.
The opposition to the initial cultural centre plans was quite fierce and heated. I heard of at least one fist fight! I remember one woman saying to me “Why do I need a cultural centre in Goondiwindi when I can go to Sydney for my culture.” Meetings were held and those in the negative, with political connections, managed to get Joh on board for support. Once this happened the fight was lost.
For me, I was devastated that a fully equipped cultural centre was not built. I believed that it would have provided Goondiwindi people with a venue that could house and show the types of cultural experiences that city people enjoyed and took for granted. Whilst the Queensland Arts Council and local performance/music/art groups held shows and events, not having a top class facility meant, like in many country towns, that Goondiwindi missed out on opportunities. As an artist with ambitions, and someone with curatorial experience, not having a high standard gallery to exhibit touring and local exhibitions was a great loss. As a young mother, in the 90s, I was sorry my children, their friends and other country kids missed out too. Hence, my many trips to Brisbane to take my children to events, galleries etc. As an aside, Goondiwindi, is now finalizing a purpose-built gallery, 25 years after it could have been possible.
1980’s Qld/Brisbane Social History: By way of a detailed personal snapshot, the social /educative milieu you experienced during the late 1970s and early to mid 1980s as a young artist/creative living, working, collaborating in Brisbane, what sort of world was this Queensland for you?
Because I lived outside Brisbane I could only observe from a distance. I joined the Artworkers Alliance not long after it started, thinking it would help forge connections. It did to an extent.
The Bjelke Peterson Regime, “The Police State” Qld’s unique 1980’s political backdrop how did it directly or indirectly impact upon you?
Yes I think I have covered that.
Tell me a bit about the artist collaborations you directly participated in, either directly or indirectly?
A Goondiwindi collective ‘Jump Up Arts’ [Kath Leonard, Heather Price, Lesley Hawker, Jenny Jackson, Patricia Garner] succeeded in getting a $20,000 Arts Queensland grant for a major installation project. In 1994, with the added assistance of local monetary and in-kind support, Lyndall Milani worked with the collective to create a major installation called An Unbroken Existence. The installation encompassed the entire interior of a hanger-like building on the Goondiwindi show grounds. It was shown in Goondiwindi and reconstituted at Brisbane’s IMA. Jump Up Arts worked closely with Nick Tsoutas, the then-director of the IMA. I was heavily pregnant during the installation creation, thus although I participated in creative decisions, technical issues etc I concentrated on the PR, marketing liaising with Arts Qld, Nick Tsoutas and others.
During the installation process a photographic component was included in Knowing the Sensorium curated by Beth Jackson and exhibited at the IMA.
The project met with both local support and criticism. The latter was due to the amount of money supplied for an ephemeral artwork. Given the enduring drought that Goondiwindi was experiencing we could all understand some of the criticism.
In 1995 ‘Jump Up Arts’ exhibited In Response at Metro Arts, Brisbane. This exhibition provided each artist with an opportunity to produce work that responded to the installation experience. I made a series of collages that combined photographs, photocopies with words/quotes.
Some detail about your family’s own immigration story?
Both of my parents ancestors chose to come to Australia around the 1860s. My mother’s family settled around Echuca and had paddle steamers on the Murray. My father’s family arrived from Devon/Cornwall and started on the land around Newcastle before becoming one of the first settlers of Brookfield, on the outskirts of Brisbane. They subsequently spread into other farming communities in the Lockyer Valley, Darling Downs, and further west.
Are there other members in your family who are artists or designers? Tell me a bit about them?
My maternal grandmother was an accountant, poet and painter. Her poems were first published in Perth newspapers when she was 16. She wrote poetry, painted and drew well into her 80s. She encouraged my painting, for example, taking me [from age 12] with her to Flying Art classes in Dalby. My grandmother and mother published a book of poems called ‘Out There’ in 1986. One of my drawings is on the front cover.
My mother, Elsie Brimblecome, is a painter and a poet, plus a writer. She had a B.A when she married in 1959, and subsequently completed a B. Ed and a Research Masters in Education, from the University of Queensland, both by external studies due to living on the farm. Elsie, now in her late 70s, still paints and writes poetry, which occasionally gets published. She exhibits her paintings, inspired by poetry, in Maleny where she now lives. She has also held two shows at the Brisbane Square Library. The most recent was 2015.
My brother Wilfred Brimblecombe, whilst he works in IT, has a life-long interest in photography. As a teenager he had a fully equipped dark room in one of the farm’s outbuildings. He and I exhibited together in 1991 at McWhirter’s Artspace. His photography BLOG is http://wilfredbrimblecombe.com/
My other brother Douglas Brimblecombe has worked for decades in the entertainment world as a lighting designer and senior roadie. He also plays many musical instruments. He did a lighting diploma [now a degree] at QUT. His first post-graduation job was at QPAC, and his first international gig was with skaters Torvill and Dean, then the Moscow Circus and subsequently many other huge and small touring shows and events around the world. He lived overseas for many years. He returned to Brisbane about 8 yrs ago and his most recent entertainment industry job was Head of Lighting at QPAC. He is also a judge for lighting awards and is currently Chair of the Anywhere Festival [previously the Anywhere Theatre festival]. In recent years he has completed a Masters in Physics [Lighting] at QUT and has been doing some guest lecturing. He recently made a career shift.
He is now General Manager of Heart of Australia http://www.heartofaustralia.com/ an enterprise where a large purpose built truck transports sophisticated cardiac and respiratory diagnostic equipment to country towns for people to access diagnostic treatment locally, rather than travelling to the city. The specialist doctors either travel with the truck or fly to meet it in western and remote Queensland. Currently the truck makes two regular tours over a period of a few weeks. You can read about Douglas here http://www.heartofaustralia.com/about/management-team/
Is there one particularly vivid memory or event from your childhood when you knew you wanted to become a professional artist, designer or media producer?
I never thought I was not an artist. I sold my first painting at age 14 at the local adult art show in Dalby. I held my first exhibition whilst still at school, age 17, in Toowoomba. I was offered the show because I had won the senior section of a state-wide art award where the prize was to meet Queen Elizabeth II at Government House. It was a prize to celebrate her 25 years on the throne.
But, when did I think consciously about being a professional artist? It has been an evolving process. Apart from being the creator/artist there are other aspects that I believe contribute to professionalism. My curatorial experience has helped me organize all aspects of my own exhibitions both in Australia and overseas. My Art History background also informs my work, in more ways than one.
As an un-represented artist, like other artists in the same position, I am not only an artist/painter – I am CFO, CEO, PR and Marketing Manager, WEB controller, Event Manager, Caterer, Designer, Packer and Freighter, Public Speaker, Cleaner, Installer, and general admin officer.
And your direct experience of Higher Education at QCA, DDIA or a similar tertiary institution, what happened and how did this make you feel?
As mentioned above I did not go to art college. Rather, I did a B.A with a double major in Art History, at the University of Queensland. In my third and final year I was the youngest by 3 years. Art History attracted many mature age students who had other degrees and had travelled extensively. Thus, many had seen the art we were learning about. It was stiff competition.
Whilst at uni I went to early IMA events, when it was in Market St, in the city. I remember Hilary Boscott’s installation of a shed, a hay shed I think. I also remember going to see a performance by a man who sat at a table and periodically burped. I think beer was also involved. I cannot remember who the artist was. There are a few possibilities, however I don’t want to make a mistake by naming the wrong person.
I remember being taken by an older art collector friend who was studying Art History with me at UQ, to openings at Ray Hughes gallery. They were fun. I also remember a Glen Fiddich sponsored event at the UQ Art Museum, when it was in the Forgan-Smith Tower. That was fun too.
As a first year student I joined the Friends of the Qld Art Gallery. The gallery was still in a building in Ann St. I remember going to my first function and arriving to be almost swamped, because I was young…the youngest by many years. Justice McCrossan was the President and was always very nice to me.
Tell me about your most vivid memories of significant self-directed learning and education during the 1980-1990 years?
I travelled overseas 3-4 times in that period. These were my first big trips overseas, except for a trip on my own to PNG to visit family, in 1972. Travelling to Europe, Asia, the US and Israel opened my eyes to the scale of art I had learnt about from books. Work that I had imagined as being huge was actually small and vice versa. Witnessing how other countries valued art and their culture was also inspiring. I remember thinking it would be great if the same kind of interest and value existed in Australia. However, I also thought Australian artists compared favourably with their counterparts elsewhere. Travel was a great learning experience.
In the 80s I completed two writing courses by correspondence from a place called the Australian School of Journalism, based in Sydney. I completed a journalism course and a children’s book writing course. The journalism course was terrific.
Tell me about your own experiences of that unmistakable QLD sense of place and your sense of belonging – or indeed not belonging – at the time living and working as an artist in Brisbane/ Queensland during this decade?
As previously mentioned I lived in Goondiwindi during this period. Thus, as an artist living in the regions I was tagged with the term ‘Regional Artist’. It did not sit comfortably with me, because during the 90s it seemed to imply pre-judgements about choices of subject-matter etc. An example: a re-interpreted tree-of-life symbol was automatically a gum tree! This kind of comment was given reasonably often, particularly by city-based people.
I did not feel I belonged to any particular scene during this period.
Where did you hang out? Where did you eat? What did you eat? Where did you dance? Sounds, smells, tastes?
Dining out in Goondiwindi during this period was not the same as dining out in Brisbane! No dancing….but I did teach aerobics for 14 years from around 1986 – 2000. Sounds, smells and tastes were all rural ones, as we lived on acreage just out of Goondiwindi. Pumps, livestock, big road-train trucks breaking, occasional gun shots, the sound of snakes slithering along mulch in gardens close to the house, silence.
Tell me in some detail about any mentors you had at the time?
When I moved to Goondiwindi in 1982 there was a woman who sought me out. Jenepher Wilson was her name. As a young woman she had won a scholarship to attend art college in Sydney. She was taught by Justin O’Brien and many of her class mates became successful and well known. She had married and moved to a property between Moree and Goondiwindi with her husband who was a farmer. The Wilsons became very successful farmers and used their gains to develop a marvelous art collection that included Olsens, Crookes, Shepherdson and many others. Once they semi-retired into Goondiwindi they became active in local arts and cultural events and organisations. Jenepher took a great interest in my work and understood where my passion came from. She died recently [she was in her early 80s] and I wrote a blog post about her.
I am very grateful for Franz Ehmann’s willingness to exhibit my work, initially at Whitebox Gallery and subsequently at Soapbox.
Tell me in some detail about your most vivid and early exhibition/arts event, exhibition experiences? Why was this event so important to you, what legacy has it produced for you?
1977 aged 16 when I was offered a small exhibition in Toowoomba. I was still at school.
1989 First solo exhibition in Brisbane at MOCA’s ‘Young Artists’ Gallery’
1996 Exhibition at Whitebox Gallery. I have always been very grateful for Franz Ehmann’s support at Whitebox and subsequently at Soapbox.
2002 Solo exhibition I managed myself in London.
2005 Solo exhibition at the Abu Dhabi Cultural Centre. The conversations I had on a daily basis with people from all over the Mid East region, Northern Africa and Eastern Europe had a profound influence on me and changed how I approached the world and my art. The exhibition had a number of paintings with my interpretation of the tree-of-life. Visitors from the region immediately understood the symbol. Conversations, whilst triggered by the paintings, ended up being about discoveries of similarity. I call these types of conversations agenda-less but not directionless. I have written about the experience http://kathrynbrimblecombeart.blogspot.com.au/2012/10/agenda-less-but-not-directionless.html
Thank you for your time Kathryn, your considered and vivid recollecting and for your thoughtfulness I am truly grateful for this interview.
My full CV with exhibitions, publications etc etc can be viewed here http://www.visualartist.info/kathrynbrimblecombe-fox/cv