Reading art books is a great way of gaining inspiration. Recently I have been immersing myself in the lives of two wonderful Australian artists Margaret Olley and Judy Cassab. They both lived long and prolific lives and both endured tragedy and personal struggles. Their lives of dedication to their art are inspirational.
Judy Cassab (b.1920) was a Hungarian Jewish refugee (the term was ‘displaced person’ back then) after World War 2. She arrived in Australia in 1952 with her husband and two sons at the age of 32. She and her husband built their lives anew in middle age, in a new country, after the trauma of losing family members and surviving threats to their own lives. Margaret Olley, born eight years later, was a Queensland artist who was at art school during the war and later travelled to Europe for inspiration and adventure.
Both women lived and worked in a time when women’s roles as wives and mothers were strictly defined by society. The second wave of feminism was only to become a force for social change when they were both well into middle age. To live as a female artist would have required determination and creativity beyond the canvas. They are both examples to us of how a life in art can be forged in spite of social pressures. Margaret Olley never married or had children and her only long term relationship began in middle age when she was already financially independent and well established in her work as an artist.
Cassab’s husband was eighteen years older than her, and her condition of their marriage was that he would allow her to continue to pursue a life as an artist. She spent lengthy periods travelling away from her family in order to establish herself as a respected portrait painter. In later life Cassab regretted the time she spent away from her children. As women artists today, there are more supports available, such as child care, and it is an easier path to take than it once was. I sometimes regret the time I wasted not making art, as a mother who spent almost every minute with her children when they were young. There is never an easy answer.
Both artists drew inspiration from the Australian landscape. Margaret Olley’s best known works are mainly still life with flowers, but her early years growing up surrounded by nature in Queensland shaped her love of ‘Green, green, green.’ Cassab gained notoriety as a portrait painter and won the Archibald prize twice. However, trips to Central Australia fuelled her creativity and provided fodder for a lesser known but important realm of painting.
Both artists endured difficulties and doubts throughout their lives and careers. Self doubt is a recurring theme in Judy Cassab’s diaries. Financial concerns, lack of sales and a constant desire to become a better artist are anxieties that arise time and time again in the almost 50 years that the diaries cover. Margaret Olley had her own inner demons to contend with, struggling with alcohol abuse in her twenties and suffering a debilitating bout of depression in her later life. Both women emerged from these trials with art the centre of their lives, work was an intrinsic part of their identity.
I have enjoyed reading about the lives of these long lived and prolific women. We live in a time when we are bombarded with stories of artists making vast sums of money, our lives are lived partly on social media and there is a myth of instant success and gratification. Children today grow up with a desire to be ‘famous’, not for the work they can do or what they achieve in the world, fame seems to be a goal in itself. These women show us how fully and wholeheartedly a creative life can be lived beyond the media myths of the present day.
Margaret Olley and Judy Cassab model a lifelong dedication to their work as artists. Through all the ups and downs of their creative and personal lives, they continued to make art. Art was the cornerstone of their lives and they continued to seek greater mastery of the work throughout their lives, they were in it for the long haul. Their devotion to their work is certainly something I aspire to emulate. Margaret Olley and Judy Cassab show us that there are no shortcuts to success, showing up to the canvas is the only way to achieve anything. The joy to be found in making art is its own reward.
Cassab, J (1995) Judy Cassab Diaries. Random House, Milsons Point
Stewart, M (2005) Margaret Olley : far from a still life. Random House, Milsons Point