Interview with Sheridan KENNEDY
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.
Visual Artist, Educator, Writer
Born in 1964 in Winton, western Queensland, Sheridan grew up on a sheep and cattle station 100 kms from the town. She moved to Brisbane in 1982 to attend the Queensland College of Art. She currently lives and works in Sydney.
Her jewellery playfully brings together both the utilitarian and the overtly ornamental, with a primary preoccupation being the re-invention of traditional jewellery into new hybrid forms. Exploring the art of ‘dressing-up’, her work delights in the extravagant gestures of costume, while the influences of structural engineering are evident in her preoccupation with kinetic devices and articulated mechanisms.
Much of the 1980s was spent as an art student and fledgling jewellery artist railing against the restrictive definitions of jewellers as craftspeople.
In 1985 she set up her first jewellery studio on the top floor of The Observatory Gallery in Little Roma Street. But by April 1986 that building had been demolished and she moved into the studios located in the John Mills Himself building at 40 Charlotte Street. Her first solo show Venificus, at John Mills National, an artist-run located on the street level of this building, opened with a performance in which she collaborated with artists Tim Gruchy and Marrianne Behm. During this time she was also a committee member of the fledgling Qld Artworkers Alliance, a professional association of artists which began operating in August 1986.
In 1986 Sheridan was the successful recipient of an Australia Council mentorship which enabled her to spend twelve months studying and working with Barbara Heath, after which time she traveled extensively in Europe.
These experiences led to her first fashion jewellery range, created in 1989, the elaborate, renaissance inspired “Full Regalia and Getup”. By the end of the 80s her practice had become much more fashion focused, and by the early 1990s her work also crossed over from the craft arena into visual arts, with participation in exhibitions at IMA, MCA in Sydney, and the EAF in Adelaide.
She moved to Sydney in 1992, continuing to exhibit and maintain a diverse practice ranging across fashion jewellery, lighting design and costume for film & video. It also included public art with her large interactive mechanical sculpture The Optogemel installed in the Brisbane Powerhouse foyer in 2001.
Sheridan has exhibited in the major cities and many regional galleries around Australia, while also participating in group shows in the UK, Tokyo, Shanghai and New York. Her artworks are in major collections such as the Powerhouse Museum, The National Gallery of Australia, and the Queensland Art Gallery.
In 2010 She completed a Phd at Sydney College of the Arts, which focused on exploring the collusion between jewellery and wearer – through diverse cultures and across millennia – which has produced those enduring human practices of magic and glamouring.
This is a theme threading through her work since that first show at John Mills National. The central hypothesis of her doctoral thesis is that when we challenge the Western understanding of consciousness as something belonging to individuals, we re-imagine and therefore re-value the social role of the object, and see our own material selves through fresh eyes.
She’s currently working on a non-academic book about the topic of “bodyfulness” which is a direct outcome of the phd research.
11 March 2016
1980’s Queensland/ Brisbane Social History: Sheridan, what sort of world was this Queensland for you?
I was a country girl thrown into the political milieu of Art College in 1982 (QCA), and by extension every type of deviancy available in Brisbane at the time! It was exciting, challenging and eye-opening to say the least – but I loved it. I shocked family and friends by going home that first Christmas with dyed jet black hair – in fact, I was spat at on the city David Jones escalator that same month so the conservatism wasn’t confined to the country!
I’d always felt a little bit different through my years at boarding school and the freedom of expression that was suddenly available to me via being an artist was incredibly invigorating. I found my feet and my particular group of friends by 1983 and we proudly resisted the norm with our crazy hair and op shop dresses, and one of our favourite haunts was the infamous Terminus nightclub. It’s funny to think that style of dressing which has become, more or less, commonplace was so shocking then! People would stare at us on the street, and we reveled in it.
You can take the girl out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the girl, or so the saying goes. Even by the time I went to Art College my political views were very different to my family’s and friends, and yet at the same time I hated the ugliness of Brisbane and longed for the clean open spaces of the country. And I still harboured great sympathy for those outliers, the people of the West who even in the 1980s were still very isolated. TV only arrived at our home after I was already at Art College. Not that I gave a damn because I was refusing to watch it as part of my general ‘social resistance’!
The Bjelke-Petersen Regime, “The Police State” Qld’s unique 1980’s political backdrop how did it directly or indirectly impact upon you, or not?
Only arriving in 1982 meant I was really a different generation to many who were actively resisting the Bjelke-Petersen government. And as art students we were really very indulged – we enjoyed the appearance of studying, while spending most of our time being as crazy as possible, so we really had a huge amount of freedom. In retrospect, this was only possible because we had free education and we also received a student allowance – remnants of the Whitlam Labor government, but also the product of being middle class girls. Our focus was on parties and hanging out with our own particular set of oddballs. I remember seeing David Bradbury’s 1986 documentary “Hasta Cuando” at Metro Arts and thus becoming aware of what was going on with dictators like Pinochet in Chile. By comparison what had happened in Brisbane was pretty tame.
By the late 1980s I had met people like Tim Gruchy who had been active players in the 1970s repression of dissenters, but by then we’d already had the Fitzgerald enquiry etc and we were in a new era.
How did this climate effect you or your peers in other ways?
As I mentioned – we didn’t feel the impact very much. That said, do recall that we had to be super secretive about smoking cannabis, and people wouldn’t even mention it on the phone! But it’s not like that’s changed much.
We hung out with creative types from the LGBT community who pushed the boundaries of sexual politics, but I didn’t have any direct experience of repressive actions by police or others. In fact my most vivd experience of the Qld Police was actually during the Fitzgerald enquiry with my good friend Marrianne Behm. Driving home one night from a club the police pulled us over. She was most definitely over the limit, and was not at all repentant about the fact, but the officer recognised from her unusual name that he knew her cousin in the police force. Not only did they let her off with a warning, one of them drove our car home with us in it! We could probably consider that police corruption…
However, I got more impassioned about being accepted as an artist instead of being belittled as a ‘craftsperson’, rather than being interested in governmental politics. I got quite active in the debate that raged through the 1980s over whether the Australia Council Visual Art and Craft Board’s funding policies needed to be more inclusive of crafts (even if most of this activity happened in my own head and in conversations with fellow artists).
And the type of works you were making during the 1980’s Sheridan, media used, tech, subjects and themes?
More than the police state and the right to march, my concern was what I saw as the insidious foundation of the system itself – patriarchy.
I had read the Female Eunuch in 1983 – and while it was a formative text which exactly matched my nascent feminism, the real impact on my psyche came from reading Colin Wilson’s “The Devil” (a history) and Pennethorne Hughes thin tome “Witches”. These opened my mind to understand how history is a fable agreed upon by the victors, and that everything we’d been taught to believe about women’s sexuality and spirituality was wrong.
Up until 1989, my art work was raw, angry, and ultimately deeply animistic. I focused on the energetic qualities of materials, reviving the ancient understanding of what really makes a material precious. I took materials from my homeland in Western Qld – bones, ram’s horns, rocks, wood, horse hair – combined them with other found objects such as snakeskin, and some pretty rough and ready metal techniques, to produce work that spoke directly to the magic and mystery of the archetypal feminine, so thoroughly repressed by the System.
This was the fuel for my only ARI solo show, “Venificus” (1987). The title was latin for ‘poisoned fig’ (a reference to the real Eve’s Apple) – or at least I thought it was. Years later I realised I’d made a typo, and it really should have been Veneficus (as in venom). But by then I had the posters and everything, so the name stuck.
Venificus, involved performance and installation. There wasn’t a lot of installation or performance based work happening in the jewellery world, but I was quite resistant to displaying jewellery on white plinths in sterile gallery spaces. Even today I believe that process, while convenient, contradicts the very nature of jewellery which is to address the body, movement and wearing.
The theme of reclaiming the powerful feminine continued through my 1987 show with Barbara Heath, “New Icons” at Roz MacAllan Gallery. Here each work was shown in its own cedar wood ‘shadow box’ which Tim Gruchy helped me make.
By 1989 my urge for reclamation now focused on costume jewellery – I wanted to save it from the light-weight pastiche of fashion glitz, and so began using rubber, glass stones, bronze and gold leaf, alongside other materials, to explore the art of glamouring. By the time we set up Chasm (1990) my main focus was on fashion and fashion performance in the dance party context.
Incorporating a wide variety of materials was definitely part of a movement in Contemporary Jewellery. While plastic was a favourite amongst contemporary jewellers, I only used it rarely – it always seemed like a dead material to me. And it felt awful to work with.
Although I can’t say my ideas were well developed or thought through on a conceptual level (which is not to say that there wasn’t a goodly amount of thinking behind them!), in retrospect I can say that I was resisting this sense that jewellery needed to be seen as small sculpture in order to be considered as art. To my mind jewellery was and always had been more intrinsically connected with bodies, social activities, and the performative aspects of dressing-up – whether this called on ritualistic animism or ritualistic glamouring.
So while there was plenty of ideology and thought behind this work, my reading of academic theory was at best cursory. I discovered the writing of Luce Irigaray in 1987, and that spoke to me immediately – I loved it. But mostly academic theories of the 1980s, which inspired so much of the contemporary art movement, passed me by. I pretty much pursued my own path.
While it took me until the 90s to be able to articulate these ideas more clearly, I could see that jewellery was marginalised because bodies (specifically the bodies of women) were marginalised. In contemporary art, as in the society, intellect reigned over sensation, the objectivity of the gallery trumped the subjectivity of wearing.
It was very relevant, looking back, that I didn’t try to adapt my concepts to the intellectual themes of the 1980s, because that would have meant sublimating the real power of the jewel to the dominant paradigm of conceptual theory.
Tell me a wee bit about the many artist collaborations you directly participated in?
In some sense I always felt that all that dressing-up and acting-out that I did with my crew in the first half of the 1980s was very much artistic collaboration. We were making our ourselves into our art. It was definitely what could now be termed ‘performative’. I recall artist Leesa Hepburn participating in one of Peter Brown’s fashion parades, probably around 1984 – she definitely had a art-based approach to fashion! As one of her models she put me in an oversize top made from a blanket (sounds awful but it was actually bright and colourful), and asked me to just to go crazy on stage dancing to Iggy Pop’s “Dog Food” – I went so crazy I almost fell off the stage! That sense of fun and craziness was really an 80s approach to fashion. In comparison, the fashion scene in 1990s Sydney took it’s deviancy much more seriously.
And, for me, Venificus at John Mills National in 1987 was a much more serious affair. I wanted to make work that was in some sense ephemeral and immediate because it was about the active space of ritual. So more important than the installation (I used black plastic construction netting to hang the pieces for the exhibition) was the performance at the opening. It was the 80s after all and everyone was doing performance. To my mind, you couldn’t make static art about ritual, and increasingly I was drawn to the imaginative power of ‘glamouring’ that had been a central tenet of jewellery since ancient times.
In Sydney, contemporaries like Peter Tully were using this power of glamouring to create elaborate Mardi Gras costumes, and later I would take it into a fashion context.
But in 1987 it was about unearthing feminine power. Tim Gruchy, who was my partner at the time, was instrumental in bringing the production together. He did the music, organised video documentation – and performed, cloaked rather like the grim reaper, beating an enormous drum with a curved, sickle-like drumstick. At least that’s my memory… I cannot recall who made the costumes – perhaps I did in collaboration with Marrianne Behm, friend and housemate at the time. She joined me as a performer.
One of my longest forms of artistic collaboration was with Lehan Ramsay, who I met at art college and she became a central member of the people I thought of as my ‘crew’. I modeled for many fashion photos she did, including photographs of jewellery work for Barbara Heath. She documented the Venificus performance. But the collaboration I love most is the work she did for the Full Regalia and Getup collection. The photo shoot was styled by the Sydney-based multi-talented performer/stylist Simon Reptile, and Lehan later tweaked the photos to produce my 1989 cards and swing tags, designed by Malcolm Enright.
The other major collaboration was with Barbara Heath. While I was doing the mentorship we hosted some fun events at her Brisbane Arcade shop where we worked together to make very affordable jewels, much of it from scrap and found materials, giving these events names such as When the Beat meet the Elite. On a more serious note we had a combined show, New Icons, mentioned previously, where we both produced our own work but bounced off themes common to us both. Barbara’s work was humourous and beautifully made. Mine was more intense, and I attempted to make quite complex things with ferocious speed, because everything I did had such an urgency about it then – as if I was trying to capture ideas as fast as possible before the next one arrived. I had no patience for prototyping and perfecting skills!
Kinship: A brief biography?
My father took up a leasehold block of land at Winton in the 1950s, fresh out of school. He then spent 10 years or more on a cattle station in the Gulf of Carpentaria before settling back in Winton when he married my mother. She had grown up in Gympie so the isolation of Western Qld, with outdoor showers and a spinefex roof, was a shock to say the least. I have three brothers who all remain in some capacity connected with agriculture and the land.
I like to say that Winton is the birthplace of Qantas, Waltzing Matilda and me!
I loved growing up in the country, and I always attribute my wide-roaming imagination to this experience of endless horizons. There’s a bit of a pioneering spirit, a ‘going against the grain’, that arcs through my family tree, and in my own way I’ve lived that out as well.
Thanks Sheridan and some measure of detail about your family’s own immigration story?
My family are Irish Catholics on my Father’s side who came out in the 1860s. In fact my great grandfather had a farm in the present day New Farm Park not far from my Optogemel at the Powerhouse. When he was still a young bloke in 1920s or 30s (before the railway bridge was built across the Brisbane River) my grandfather used to ‘drove’ cattle down Queen St, to cross what was then the only bridge over the river, in order to get to the sale yards at Cannon Hill. They would have to leave Newmarket train station late at night and be across the bridge by morning before the general business district opened. Thinking about a mob of cattle moving through the darkened streets of Brisbane always makes me smile.
My Mother’s ancestry is a blend of German and English. On her maternal side, a great great uncle was one of the luddites protesting the industrialisation of agriculture in England and he was sent out to Tasmania as a convict for destroying some agricultural machinery. My German great grandfather Emil Uhle migrated at the turn of the century and had a small goods shop in Gympie. His business suffered during the First World War as local townspeople shunned it due to his German-ness. Fortunately, though, he wasn’t interred in a camp as happened to some German residents during the war.
Having married a Cuban, I have participated in my own immigration story. It has made fundamental changes to the way I see my own culture, as well as given me a whole new cultural milieu to participate in. I now enjoy the irrepressibility of the Latin spirit whenever I can, and I aim to be still shaking my hips well into my 80s!
Are there other members in your family who are artists or designers?
My husband is a musician, but there are no other immediate family members involved in the arts or design world.
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 fantasised about being an actress for a while – as a 10 year old I’d ‘direct’ movies with my dolls and little brothers. We didn’t have a camera, but I could still do the mise en scene with the plot lines and film credits. I always loved to draw, and I would compile and illustrate my own magazines when I was in primary school…but by year 12 I had no idea what I wanted to “do”, only that I wanted it to do something creative.
When it came to deciding on college, I had the “TE” score to enter architecture, and almost did. I often wonder how different my life would be if I had done so – for us art students in the early 80s, the architectural students were always the boring, straight-laced ones! I probably would have got a proper job, and created some rather lovely buildings – and would have a lot more money now! Anyway, I based my choice for art college entirely on romantic notions – “gold and silversmithing” conjured visions of lost ancient civilisations and buried treasure.
Tell me about your schooling and early Art classes/education?
As I said, I loved to draw. I recall winning some drawing competitions. However, my art classes through primary to high school were pretty much standard issue. I didn’t have any particularly inspiring teachers, which was probably why QCA was such a shock! I remember I had a terrible conflict when choosing year 11 subjects because ancient history clashed with art classes. My production design was chosen for the year 12 school play, and I was pretty chuffed about that.
And your direct experience of Higher Education at QCA?
In the first few months of Art College I was like a fish out of water, it was such a culture shock. People like Pat Hoffie and David White who were QCA lecturers at the time, had a strong impact on me – not the least because I found them incredibly creative and very intimidating! Lehan Ramsay and I gelled and soon we had our own creative crew. After that art college was easy – I recall lots of spare time for having fun, op shopping in the middle of the day and generally running amok on weekends. The jewellery department was probably the most conservative in the college. I remember presenting my New Icons work in 1987 as the body of work for my B.A. and my lecturer was really a bit bamboozled by it! At that time ‘conceptual jewellery’ wasn’t big at QCA.
Tell me a wee bit more about your self-directed learning and education during the 1980-1990 years?
I’ve mentioned the substantial impact that both books “The Devil” and “Witches” had on my sexual politics. Neither of these were academic works, but despite their ‘potboiler’ titles, neither were they lightweight, since they clued me into the most significant texts of the previous 50 years around religion and Wicca. Later a friend of Barbara Heath’s loaned us a book on symbolism which really clued both of us in on the fact that a symbol was so much more than a sign or a representation, and this new understanding then underpinned our New Icons work. These interests kick started what is now a relatively large personal library of books about all kinds of esoteric topics connected with spirituality, magic, and alternative histories.
I remember going with Barbara Heath to the State Library, when it was near the present day casino, to research (pre internet days). While she sought out images of kooky invertebrae, I tried to find everything I could about ancient goddesses and feminine spirituality. The funny thing was that a few years later we’d swapped obsessions – I was studying kooky arthropods and she was researching goddesses!
And of course, one can’t forget the essential education we receive from our peers. Tim Gruchy opened me up to the world of electronic art and more ‘futuristic’ topics, and I could say that he was therefore instrumental in feeding a certain ‘science’ bent so that my work became a combination of both the ancient and the futuristic.
Barbara introduced me to the rich world of Contemporary Jewellery, which I had not encountered in my college education. This opened whole new possibilities for jewellery as art.
Marrianne Behm gave me a weighty tome called “The Women’s Encyclopaedia of Myths & Secrets” which I still use as a reference text.
A housemate Dale Constable was besotted with Derrida and he often tried to entice me into the unfathomable waters of deconstructivism. But I had to wait until the 21st century, when I was doing my Phd, before I really understood what Dale found so compelling about him.
You have mentioned the joys of growing up in Winton Sheridan, tell me about your Queensland sense of place and your sense of belonging during the 1980s?
In 1982, fresh from the country, I felt very naive amongst the apparently sophisticated art students and teachers. In some ways those early years in Brisbane were spent covering up the ‘country-ness’, in order to feel like I blended in with my surroundings. Those who’d grown up in Brisbane were already aware of the fashions and music of punk, mods and electronica that was just starting to seep into Brisbane’s subcultures. As well there was the drug use (pretty light-weight in comparison to what’s happening nowadays!) and the gay scene with its explosion of sartorial creativity and wild behaviour on the dance floor – and elsewhere!
All in all 1982 involved a steep learning curve. In some sense Lehan Ramsay ‘adopted’ me and carried me along for the ride, at the same time that she was ‘initiating’ herself into this world. Her gung-ho enthusiasm and extrovert nature was infectious – she was actively making connections with everyone who was anyone in the milieu of Brisbane subcultures. My friendship with her is what really opened these doors into another world.
But I also experienced a kind of conflict around belonging. I would fly home at Christmas and I remember that lovely heart-opening sensation as I looked out the plane window and saw the raw earth, snaked with rivers, and moss-like clumps of trees and marked only occasionally by signs of human habitation. Then conversely, flying back into Brisbane, the sight of that endless grid of suburban housing, spotted with the occasional swimming pool, and teaming with ant-like cars filled me with a sense of being locked down and suffocated It left me feeling, quite literally, nauseous. I still feel remnants of this kind of sensation 30 years later, and it’s not something any of my city-born friends can understand. Or even those who’ve never experienced the sheer expansiveness of that pretty isolated part of the world.
That aeroplane flight symbolised this feeling I had of being caught in a liminal space, as an exile between worlds, not fitting well in either one. But the city won out in the end, because, looking back, I can see that the need to express something inside me was like rocket fuel. I needed that boundary-pushing milieu of 1980s Brisbane in order to thrive – I loved my community of friends, and there was a real sense of belonging, as an active member of that fecund subterranean movement. We were all rebels-with-our-own-particular-cause!
Where did you hang out while living in Brisbane? Where did you eat? What did you eat? Where did you dance? Sounds, smells, tastes?
“White Chairs” (back of the Carlton Hotel) was where we started (and often finished) our Friday night drinking. The air was always dense with cigarette smoke and the scent of spilt beer! It was the cool place, bringing together those straight-laced architectural students and us spoilt-brat art students and everything else in between.
I also loved the ladies lounge at the front of the hotel, fronting Queen St – it had this fab very graphic 70’s wallpaper of green palm tree fronds with slashes of silver. I liked to meet people here – whether it was my Mum visiting from Winton, or a girlfriend. We always looked out for the old ladies with the hats! It was, in someways, like Cloudland (which I missed because it was gone before I got to a chance to go there) – a wonderful slice of Queensland history. Replaced with the ugly Myers Centre.
The Terminus nightclub in the Valley was a favourite haunt that went in and out of fashion for many years. In 1983 the show of the night was often the electronica band Behm and the Megamen (Marrianne’s non-policemen cousin). It wasn’t that they were in anyway good – but it was a classic mix of love-them and hate-them. Much more fun than any drag show, they were the epitome of 80s boundary pushing androgyny. We were captivated by their pretty boy make-up and the outfits, the attitudes were harder to deal with.
The Underground on a Sunday night was also popular – although the crowd was a little straighter and more sophisticated. I recall sneaking in via the back fire escape one Sunday night when we had no money. Harley Stumm was with us and he proceeded to drink all the patrons drinks while they were on the dance floor – he was an hilariously funny drunk. Nowadays when I occasionally see Harley I still recall that evening!
There were other clubs as well, names forgotten, in the CBD and in the Valley. Dancing was always a major part of the 1980s. I shared a house with DJ Jane Grigg in 1985-6 and that was a good way to know what was on and what to go to. She ran a club in the Hacienda (opp present day Artisan) called Short Circuit, hip hop, house, soul and funk music for a while in 1986-7 and that was our regular scene.
I recall a very fun birthday party (perhaps Donald Holt’s) in a club near Bowen Terrace. Paul Andrew cut loose on the dance floor with his classic disco moves! I wore a ‘renaissance burgher’s’ coat that I had made from some 2nd hand ornate curtains, and I had a plastic dinosaur, with dog collar and chain, perched on my shoulder, as a brooch. There was also Kenn Bushby’s birthday party at his house where we all wore a very creative collection of hats.
Honestly I can’t recall much about what I ate! Probably not enough, at least in the first half of the 80s. In my first student’s share house we subsisted on a food budget of $20 each a week. We ate a lot of cheese and crackers. The mother of one of the housemates gave us a tray of sausages and we saved it up for so long the sausages actually went mouldy! Hadn’t we heard of freezers???
There was a Vietnamese restaurant in the Valley (Wickham St I think) which was Mal Enright’s favourite restaurant. A big group of us would go there and order our favourite dish ‘stuffed mice’ – actually, stuffed squid in a Vietnamese hotpot.
I always loved the Brisbane summer evenings after a storm – the air was moist and balmy. And the fresh coolness of September mornings as spring replaced winter. Barbara Heath had a great flat at the bottom of a house in West End that opened straight onto a rain-forest dense garden. It was lovely in summer months. I don’t recall Brisbane being that hot back then, but always sported a giant hat wherever I went. It became a bit of a trademark.
Thanks Sheridan and tell me a little about two or three of your intimate/influential artist colleagues and peers at the time?
Lehan Ramsay and I bonded at Art College in our struggles to master the large format camera. Thereafter she became pretty influential in my ‘coming out’ as a creative. She encouraged me to dye my hair jet black and get my hair cut into a sharp and fashionable bob by one of the coolest hair stylists in town in 1983 – I just can’t recall his name!
She was connected to everyone – even if she didn’t always get along with them all. I met so many of the artists and creatives in the early 80s art scene with her.
Our cohort of 4 (including Robyn and Pauline) were inseparable for much of 1983 – sharing a house on Musgrave Road across from the big red church in Red Hill, drinking one too many flagon’s of dirt cheap wine, and getting glammed up to go to whatever was the happenin’ place to go on a Friday night.
Over the years Lehan and I worked together on many photos – both of my artwork and on photos she did for others or for herself. After college she worked briefly for a fashion photographer in the Valley, and she did some ‘model’ photos of me to persuade me to the idea of doing some professional modelling (I really was pretty terrible at it). I laugh now when I remember that I used one of these glamour headshots for the catalogue of my first official group exhibition, The Queensland Gift, in 1986. I was the youngest exhibitor and the image of me with my black hair teased up Siouxsie Sioux style + lots of red lipstick, was kind of odd juxtaposed against all the old dedicated crafties who exhibited with me!
I have always been impressed by the breadth of Lehan’s creativity – she is one of those people who is able to infuse it into every activity she does, including teaching English to Japanese students in such a way that it didn’t resemble any English class they were familiar with. In early 2001, Tim Gruchy and I collaborated with her on a big workshop and performance event called “Art Harbour” while she worked at Future University in Hakodate Japan.
Lehan and Anna Zsoldos set up the Observatory, in late 1985 I believe, and Lehan invited me in as one of the artists renting studios on the top flour. In 1990, she joined forces with Lindy Stokes, Tom Burless and myself to open another studio/artist-run space at 45 Adelaide St. We were upstairs from the creative powerhouse combo of Glamourpussy, brain child of Chrissy Feld and Kenn Bushby. The space had no official name until the QCA show called Space 1990 (a survey of ARIs around Brisbane), so we quickly came up with the name Chasm to make ourselves look more official for the exhibition!
Marrianne Behm was another housemate and influential friend. We cut fast and loose across dance floors in the mid-80s! I’ve already mentioned our police experience. We shared a haunted house in South Brisbane near the river. She set up a screen printing workshop downstairs but would return everyday to find everything thrown about the space. Sometimes in the middle of the night we’d find the padlocked back door open to the world. One day she rang me when I was working at Aromas and said “don’t go home alone – I’ve just had a terrifying experience”. We followed the advice of the Spiritualist Society who told us to encourage the spirit to move towards the light. But we never waited to see if this worked because after that we really couldn’t live there anymore!
I vividly remember Marrianne’s solo exhibition at That, which I think happened sometime in 1987. One work was a large canvas with a cartoon-like painting of a black & white cow abandoned in a red dirt wilderness. There was a tray of same colour red dirt extending from the base of the canvas. It was titled “Christmas at Winton”. I didn’t know whether to be flattered or offended – because being the daughter of my father and a stickler for accuracy I knew there were no black and white dairy cows anywhere near Winton!!
I’ve also already mentioned how Marrianne was my fellow performer in Venificus. Then in 1988 we made the Grand European Tour together – the first time both of us had left Australian soil. In London we met up with Lehan, Paul Andrew and Jay Younger who were in the middle of the Axis tour. Marrianne stayed on in the UK, when I returned home in 1989, and is still there. She is now an art therapist and is married with 2 kids, a girl and a boy.
I first met Tim Gruchy at the Observatory in 1985 when he was part of the ZIP dance troupe. When the Observatory disbanded I didn’t see him around – although I remember buying a ZZZ release mix tape around that time, because I had a crush on one of the boys in one of the bands (now lost from memory). But there was this weirdo electronic track on there by Tim (and Terry Murphy I think?) and while I recognised his name the track was really not my cup of tea!! We re-met on the dance floor at Jane’s club in the Hacienda – I even remember the song: Prince’s Raspberry Beret!
Tim became a huge influence on my work, encouraging me to experiment with digital art, and as I mentioned earlier, his work in digital arts, and his interests in the philosophical zeitgeist of this emerging field opened my mind to new ways of thinking about science and the future. He also introduced me to many of the artist working in this area, for example Francesca da Rimini, Julianne Pierce, Gary Warner and Stephen Jones.
Tim and I collaborated on many projects – he was basically the producer for Venificus. Later on we worked on a photographic project called TimeWarp – with Simon Reptile styling and Simon’s Anti-Badtime Crew performing. Tim projected hand painted slides onto their white figures wearing my oversized jewels from Venificus, New icons and Full Regalia & Getup. This became a performance piece the Crew presented at dance parties and events well into the 1990s.
In early 2001 we did Art Harbour with Lehan, and in 2002 I worked with him to develop a video projection overlay for an installation I created for Future Factor, a touring show curated by Susan Ostling.
Tell me in some detail about any mentors you had at the time?
I would have added Barbara Heath to the list above, but she belongs here as my major mentor. She first noticed my work at my graduate show in 1984, and as mentioned elsewhere she started to employ me on a contract basis to do odd jobs for her.
The role as mentor became official with a VACB grant in 1986. I worked a few days a week in her Brisbane Arcade shop and the remaining days in my studio at John Mills National. Barbara not only taught me many craft skills, she also helped me see that it was possible to make a living from my work, and to combine both production jewellery and artwork into a my practice. She is both a business woman and an artist, and fresh from art college this was an invaluable thing for me to witness – and participate in by learning just how she got things done.
However, I was a pretty focused on the immediate gratification of my own ardent creative ideas, and in retrospect I can see I would have gained a lot more if I’d been a more patient and observant soul. Nonetheless a certain degree of narcissism is essential in being an artist!
Barb was also witness to a few plier-throwing tantrums when a piece of jewellery didn’t go quite as planned. I was a pretty volatile personality, but I guess we can call that youthful artistic passion!
In 1987 she organised our combined exhibition New Icons, at the newly opened Roz MacAllan gallery. This was my first commercial show, and the culmination of our mentorship. I continued to work with her, sharing her new Paddington studio space until 1989. She was actively involved in organising the first Jewellers and Metalsmiths Conference held in Queensland, and was instrumental in ensuring we had high-calibre Guest speakers from around the world. She also encouraged me to get involved in the organising committee and this was my first experience of being involved in something of that scale.
Tell me about any direct measure of support, patronage and interest from established Brisbane/Qld galleries/institutions you received during this early time in your career? Did it help? How so?
As much as I railed against being placed in the category of ‘craft’ rather than ‘art’ simply because I made jewellery, it was this fact of being considered a craftie that allowed me exposure in established galleries quite early in my career, and often well before my peers who were painters or installation artists.
During the 80s I had work in group shows in major craft galleries from Brisbane to Hobart. In a review of the Contemporary Australian Jewellery Show(1988) at Handmark Gallery, Hobart, Susan Leggett described my work as “easily the most interesting and inventive in the collection”. As young artists you need to put effort out there under your own steam so it was very gratifying to be picked up and shown at institutions such as Crafts Council of Queensland Gallery. It made me feel that my efforts were worthwhile and it definitely helped me to feel that I could pursue an art career.
Thanks Sheridan, okay so much happened at the various artist-runs tell me about a few of your most vivid and most memorable personal ARI experiences during this 1980-1990 period?
Alone at the top of The Observatory gallery in Little Roma Street cutting out titanium shapes for Barbara Heath’s production jewellery, surrounded by pigeon shit. Well not in my space as we shoveled it out, but all the other rooms were dense with it. In my memory there wasn’t even a ceiling, but there must have been otherwise all my tools and equipment would have been exposed to the elements. The building had been vacant for many years before Anna and Lehan rescued it, and the top floor artist spaces were the worst hit by pigeon squatters. There were supposed to be other artists up there but I don’t think I ever clapped eyes on anyone else.
Similarly I spent many hours alone in John Mills National back room studios at 40 Charlotte Street. This time I was surrounded by other artist’s stuff but again I never saw on any of them. My space was up near the back window which provided good natural light. There was an old wooden staircase out the back, where Lehan shot the images projected during the Venificus show. It was raining that day and the sheen of water on the old wood has the texture of gold, while the clouds soften the bright Queensland light so that it appears much more like that ancient European atmosphere that Venificus intended to evoke. Entirely serendipitous that it happened that way.
I have another very vivid memory of Tom Burless setting up the decorations for our Christmas show at Chasm – it must have been the end of 1990. It was both hilarious and creative as only Tom Burless could be, and involved Wanda (a grim-faced African carving), who was our resident mascot and fetish figure, dressed in a Glamourpussy boa and then suspended from the ceiling in the machinery room. A photo exists somewhere – I’ll have to find it because it perfectly epitomized the quirky sense of humour which pervaded Chasm and the related Space 90 exhibition that Lehan curated at QCA.
The ephemera, lots of ephemera then and the ephemera I produced was mostly party invites!
I remember Lehan making the Venificus poster – her parents owned a photocopy shop at Carindale which she used to produce lots of ephemera. Back then you had to use that sticky letter-graphic typeset, and photocopying. You had to line the text up properly before sticking it down – and there’s some wonky bits in the poster. I love that because it’s a remnant of an era when posters were actually hand-made.
Marrianne Behm also drew a hilarious poster for a ‘fast & cheap jewellery’ show that Barbara & I did in the Brisbane Arcade called When the Beat Meet the Elite.
In 1990 while I was at Chasm I did an ANAT Summer School, staying with director artist Virginia Barratt who had by then moved from Brisbane to Adelaide. This was my first foray into creating digital imagery. I can’t recall what program we used but I found the process quite addictive. I went on to incorporate digital based imagery into many of my artworks after that. The outcome of this Summer School was a very tongue-in-cheek piece of ephemera about my ‘electronic enlightenment’, which incorporated a print-out of the digital image and hand written descriptive text in a story-telling style. I enjoyed the irony in the contrast between the digital image and the hand writing.
Tell me about the key roles you had/played at the time, e.g. artist, curator, activist and so on?
I was pretty much just an artist and party girl. Although I was an Artworkers Alliance and JMGA committee member towards the end of the decade when I eased back on the frivolity and got more serious.
How did this newly developing ARI scene fit into the broader arts infrastructure at the time?
The community of fellow artists was the most valuable thing. The fact that we could set up an affordable studio space (Chasm) in the heart of the CBD across from City Hall is pretty incredible looking back on it. We were really playing in the liminal space of Brisbane’s transition from a big country town to a major city.
ARI spaces provided all of us freshly minted artists with an opportunity to explore our creativity. We didn’t have to get really serious to have an art career, we could organise our own solo shows, we could be curators, performers, fashion designers, whatever we wanted to be. Hell, we could even set up our own Community Arts Centre which was Lehan and Anna’s vision for the Observatory.
The ARIs were an invaluable way for us to develop community, and to support each other’s own self-propelled art careers.
Pre internet the question many are asking now is how, where and why did you network, share, collaborate and comingle at the time?
Haha – we used landline telephones! Although I remember that at our first share house we didn’t even have a phone – we used the phone box outside on the footpath! Some people even got mail with invitations in it. In fact every show had to print an invitation back then because how else were you to know the details? Anyway the most effective method of knowing about something was word of mouth. People dropped in on each other at home. We went to the same watering holes every week. We made hand drawn or photocopy collages for our house parties and distributed far and wide.
Networking was definitely a foreign concept to me at the time, but in some sense we were doing it every time we went to an art opening.
Collaborations just happened – I never set out with the intention to collaborate. People would ask me to do something and I’d do it, I would ask someone else to do something and they’d do it. No money exchanged hands, it was simply a spirit of helping everyone make stuff happen.
Why do you feel there was such a significant proliferation of ARI activity during this period?
Moving to Sydney gave me a perspective on what a hotbed of creativity Brisbane really was. What was happening worldwide by the 60s and going strong in Sydney & Melbourne during the 70s, had only a small following in Brisbane. I think the 80s were enlivened by a sense that we had a lot of catching up to do – the existing creative dissent and deviance by a small number of strong-minded people really gained momentum in the 1980s as the community grew. The plethora of funding provided by the Labor government in the early 1990s onwards really took Brisbane’s already strong creative energy into the mainstream.
I’ve always maintained that my creative momentum and innovation, such that it was, came from the fact that there was a certain freedom operating through the 80s. People just felt that being in Queensland we were different – and I didn’t think that was a bad thing, although many did.
In the 80s we started growing out of our own ‘cultural insecurities’. And the fact that I didn’t have distinguished lecturers with expectations about the kind of work that was appropriately contemporary jewellery actually gave me the freedom to explore my own path. I noticed that in the cultural centres like Sydney and Melbourne jewellers tended to mix in their own community and show to their dedicated followers. There was more of what’s called a ‘silo effect’. In Brisbane the art community was small enough that everyone was connected in some way, and you couldn’t silo yourself within the confines of your area of practice. This meant that there was much more cross disciplinary activity happening, much more blurring of boundaries – which is always a great way to foment creative freedom. You didn’t join one group or another – it all crossed over to some degree.
From mid 1986 the Queensland Artworker’s Alliance was an important new professional association for artists tell me about your direct involvement Sheridan?
I was a committee member on the QAA board in 1988, having been invited onto the committee by Lehan. I recall that we decided on Lindy Johnson as the first director of the Alliance. I believe Lindy held that position for many years, I moved to Sydney in 1992.
Picking up on this profileration of “analogue” or hard copy ephemera we produced , why did ephemera matter so much at this time for you?
Ephemera was for me a method to let people know about stuff, not necessarily an end in itself. As mentioned above, every exhibition or party needed an invite, there was no sending off emails to a list. These were fun – lots of photocopying and collaging. Occasionally they needed to be laid out and typeset properly – it all indicated a hierarchy of professionalism – and possibly the difference between something that was an artist initiative and something that was designed for a commercial space.
And the notion of archiving and photo documentation during this period, was this important for you, and why so, so as not to forget, to obtain funding and/or?
Yes, definitely. I did plenty of work with Lehan around documenting my own work. And when I met Tim I began using his photography equipment to document my jewellery collections. I still have bucketloads of slide dupes because basically you just duped everything to send out with every submission.
Lehan photographically documented just about every show I did in the 80s. Tim organised the video documentation of Venificus, but between the two of us we cannot recall who did what.
Venificus at John Mills National?
Copies of the Poster, catalogue, photo documentation and video presented here in the ARI Remix are for Venificus: jewellery and ritual
This was my first solo show – so a biggie for me. All the work was created out the back in my studio. I recall that some of it was a bunch of scrap, like the big breastplate I’m wearing in photo no 1. I can’t recall exactly where it came from but I suspect there was a recycled garbage source. Tim Gruchy essentially produced this show – pulling together the music, organising video, and he performed as well. Marrianne Behm was my accomplice in the performance and did all this odd stuff with great equanimity! Lehan Ramsay documented it – and designed this poster. Neither Tim nor I can remember who shot the video.
I had to include the catalogue because of the glitch where no item 4 got missed in the typed list. It’s a sign of the times because in the days before Word, once it was typed and photocopied, and the show was about to begin, there was no going back. Hence title for no 4 had to be hand written later!
We needed the 4 elements for the ritual and and fire was provided by 2 braziers. Funny to think about doing something like this nowadays with all the OHS requirements – open fire inside an old warehouse building would never be allowed! We also had some big plastic netting nearby that would have melted quite nicely. I don’t remember worrying too much about it, but Tim being a very sensible fellow probably took all this into consideration.
I must admit that on watching the performance again on the video Tim edited for the Remix project, I was thinking WTF is this all about??? But then again, one could say that about most 80s performance art!!!
And Card/swing tags + photos from “Full Regalia & Getup”
This was my first fashion jewellery range in 1989 called “The New Spiritualist Revival”, although we also used several pieces from earlier eras. While I was working at Barbara’s studio at the time of the shoot, this series of images actually got a lot of use! I include it because it’s the image used for my page in the Space 90 exhibition, and a large display of 9 x A4 prints hung in my studio space all the time I was at Chasm.
I can’t recall exactly how this shoot came about. Simon Reptile was working a lot with Tim and he had been drawn to some of my earlier work from New Icons – specifically the Medea helmet with rams horns which I later gave him – and which was returned to me after his death in 1994.
He was also very enthusiastic about this collection, because it was very much connected to the milieu he inhabited – extravaganza dance parties and dressing-up.
Lehan always documented my art work with me as model. This was more appropriate then getting someone else to model because the art work was always first and foremost about me and my ideas.
Although it was set up more or less with the idea of doing a fashion shoot, in retrospect I think of it more as a ‘photo-performance’ – because, as a collaboration it felt like an artwork in itself – rather in the spirit of Pierre et Gilles or the like.
Simon basically wrapped me up in a bunch of white fabric – they may have even been bed sheets. I liked to wear turbans a lot and so he created this enormous turban and peppered it with brooches, and then basically covered me with just about every jewel that I had. The effect is reminiscent of a 1920s shoot with Theda Bara.
Lehan shot both black & white and video, then took photographic stills off the video and treated the imagery using the colour photocopier. This is another reason why I think of this work as so much more than simply a fashion shoot.
It was actually rich with the inventiveness of the three of us working each within our own media.
The colour copy image then became the basis for the business cards & swing tags that Malcolm designed in 1989.
The video stills were collaged into a 87cm x 63cm image which was hung in the window of Cash Palace on Oxford St for a 1989 show that Tom Burless and I did to launch our fashion ranges. It was a huge hit with passers by during the time of the show, and I then displayed it in the Chasm studio all the time I was there.
I love this collaboration – not least because it felt like Simon & Lehan had taken a slice of my imagination and made it into a reality. This was the art of glamouring in action. It wasn’t just about dressing someone up, much as there was a bit of a trend to use real people rather than fashion models in lots of jewellery documentation in the 1980s. It was about Simon and Lehan capturing the essence of my work, by embedding me in the middle of it.
I also loved Malcolm’s hand-drawn font for the cards.
This was a pretty exciting time, in terms of fashion and the underground music scene and I really feel that this photo-series and it’s outcomes pretty much captured a zietgeist.
A4 image: New Revelations digital print with hand written didactic 1990
This image was the only solid outcome from the ANAT Summer School I did in 1990, in Adelaide. While there was a bit of stuff about computer design this didn’t excite as much as ‘drawing’ and manipulating imagery via digital processes. It was the beginning of lots of work I’ve produced since using Photoshop and other image programs. I’ve described it elsewhere as a rather tongue-in-cheek take on my supposed ‘electronic enlightenment’ resulting from the experience. I particularly enjoyed the irony of contrasting digital image and hand writing.
By attending the School I felt rather like I was on the cusp of a wave. There was much theoretical discussion about virtual reality and the demise of any need for a body (“only meat”), and since the body as a site for art was a powerful thread in my work this was something that I felt quite strongly about.
In some sense then, while I felt the coming ‘democracy’ of electronica available to all, I also knew that much of the theoretical discussion was coming from a masculine mindset – which pretty much dominated digital art (VNS Matrix et al aside). Thus the accompanying didactic is more than a little facetious. At the same time it alludes to what I sensed was another possibility for technology, but which was meeting resistance from many of the hard-core (male) digital artists.
I tweaked that by now ubiquitous image from Full Regalia. It was then printed out using the School’s computer printer and the commentary was hand-written below it. 1990 felt very much like artists were on the cusp of a new age in terms of how art was being produced, as access to digital resources opened up to more than a dedicated few. However, home office colour printers were still not commonplace, and most people didn’t have their own computer.
After this, I began to see a way to incorporate my love of language into my exhibition work through the artful use of didactics. This began with The Book of Minor Revelations (1991 with Rhana Devenport), and was a major part of my work created for the Australian Jewellery Biennial (1991-92). I made very good use of it for the Specious series, starting in 2001 and culminating in my Phd work “The Specious Voyages” (2005-2009).
The didactics became a way for me to playfully comment on the often definitive pronouncements by museums and academia. And to make commentary about Western knowledge that has a political undertone. The seriousness of Venificus and New Icons had been replaced by playful humour and more than a little bit of satire. I have used this to refer obtusely to ideas and beliefs that I have around reality and the current paradigm of Western knowledge. The great thing about art is that leaves a space for us to do this. While the world outside of art tends to be more dismissive and derogatory about things that assault accepted paradigms, as artists we can tempt people to use their imaginations to expand their minds.