Diary of a Season: A Proposal for a Women’s Exhibition
[by Bridie Lonie]
Reprinted, with kind permission, from Landfall 125, March 1978, pp 63 – 66, except for Anna Keir’s images, reproduced courtesy of the artist; and Joanna Paul’s poster above, from a private collection.
Six women took part, and their work was exhibited in the library of Victoria University, Wellington, in December. The proposal was ‘to find a form to fit the changes of each day’. Several approaches were suggested.
- Three or four women to take a canvas or other surface measuring 3' x 3' or 4' by 4', divide the area into regular intervals or sixths numbered like a calendar, the whole to represent one month, and the named and numbered squares to be filled systematically day by day with words, marks or images that conform to and outer/inner record of teh maker’s life. No day was to be documented except on that day, but each square was to contain at least one element that was continuous with the previous day and at least one that was new.
- Two women to take a canvas surface 3' x 4" or 4' x 8" and divide the area, horizontally or vertically, into seven days to represent one week.
- One woman to take a circle, diameter 3' or 4' or 6' to represent a season; the circle to be divided into three regular concentric rings, each representing one month.
4. One woman to make a poem or diary in which each day’s entry contained something continuous with, and something different from, the day before.
5. One woman to make a montage, 6" or 8" square, or circular, and divided into twelve to represent the hours of one day.
After having worked within the discipline suggested for a month or a week or a day or a season, each woman was asked to choose and map in her own way a second interval of time. The whole was to be regarded as susceptible to change even while it was being exhibited.
The woman who initiated the project says of her own painting: ‘For a woman painting is not a job, not even a vocation. It is a part of life, subject to the strains and joys of domestic existence. I cannot paint unless the house is in order; unless I paint I don’t function well in my domestic roles. Each thing is important. The idea that one sacrifices other values for art is alien to me, and I think to all women whose calling it is to do and be many things. To concentrate all meaning and energy into a work of art is to leave life dry and banal. I don’t wish to separate the significant and the everyday actions, but to bring them as close together as possible.’
The women who participated hope that this exhibition will lead to others.
Victoria University Library asked Joanna to remove the exhibition early. It was later shown at the Women’s Studies Department, Waikato University 1–7 September 1978; and in Christchurch. A Women’s Picture Book (1988, details below) says that A Season’s Diaries was shown at the Canterbury Society of Arts during the Allie Eagle/Anna Keir/Jane Zusters exhibition, 1978. But Anna Keir says ‘No’.
In 1977 Joanna Paul asked me to participate in A season’s diaries: in this I had to talk about myself (paint about myself): and for years now I’d hidden myself from my work. I used the landscape as a metaphor, timidly: but the exercise brought me in touch with the women’s art movement, the Christchurch women, in particular Anna Keir and Allie Eagle: Marian [Evans] I’d known for years by then. That was the first time I’d seen anything Marian had done: she seemed to find no difficulty in bringing herself openly and explicitly into the chart she wrote, with its references to the moon, to Greek poetry and to her garden. I saw that as her particular gift: I remember Joanna pointing out that it was the women who weren’t ‘artists’ who made the most direct and effective statements (Gladys Gurney was the other). I still had too much belief in the art hierarchy to see the point.
(from A Women’s Picture Book: 25 Women Artists from Aotearoa New Zealand, compiled, edited and with afterwords by Marian Evans, Bridie Lonie, Tilly Lloyd — a Women’s Gallery/Spiral group, p168)
I’ve looked, several times, for more information about A Season’s Diaries, most recently at the Alexander Turnbull Library, the research library within New Zealand’s National Library.
So far, I’ve found no record of Joanna Paul’s invitations to Allie Eagle (Allie), Anna Keir (Anna), Bridie Lonie (Bridie), Gladys Gurney (Gladys, aka Saj), Heather McPherson and me to join her (seven of us, altogether). I did find a Comments Book — the already partly-used 1976 diary of Joanna’s mother Janet — that travelled with the exhibition. It is among the library’s manuscripts, reference number 84–072–10/05 and tucked inside its front cover is a copy of Joanna’s instructions.
And the diaries themselves are mostly lost, too. Bridie’s disappeared somewhere in Wellington’s Aro Valley. In the eighties I gave mine to Joanna in Dunedin, with a later, larger, diary; she later told me someone threw them out. Gladys has hers, in a cupboard. Anna found hers, which had been broken down into its individual images and the two large cloths she attached the images to, with double-sided tape, the cloths weighted down by shells hanging from string. Heather promises to look for hers when she can. As I remember it, Alle Eagle’s was a single mandala painting (see embedded Facebook dialogue below). When I remember the process of making my diary, the brief entries remind me of today’s tweeting, or writing a Facebook post.
It’s uncertain why Bridie isn’t named as the author of the Landfall article. It was heavily edited by poet and editor Lauris Edmond and the last lines of Joanna’s statement above— first published in the catalogue for Women’s Art, curated by Alison Mitchell (Allie Eagle) for the Robert McDougall Gallery in 1975 — are missing. They should read:
I don’t wish to separate the significant and everyday actions but to bring them to close as possible together. It is natural for women to do this; their exercise and their training and their artistry is in daily living. Painting for me as a woman is an ordinary act — about the great meaning in ordinary things.
Anonymity pattern utility quietness relatedness.
Two years after she wrote this, was A Season’s Diaries part of Joanna’s inquiry into ‘Anonymity pattern utility quietness relatedness’? I love it that we were all anonymous when the work was shown, partly because it collapsed the boundaries between those of us who identified as artists and those who didn’t. It also made it very safe for me, as someone who didn’t identify as an artist, to take my domestic life into the public sphere. And was that fundamental anonymity perhaps why Bridie chose to be anonymous when she wrote about the project for Landfall (she can’t remember)?
We had a wee email chat about it.
ME: What do you now remember of A Season’s Diaries?
BL: My memories of A Season’s Diaries are of its diversity, a diversity that in some ways contradicted Joanna’s careful strategy. She sent us a page of handwritten instructions, asking us (or so I read them) to create a new work each day, constructed (from the second day) of an element from the previous day and the introduction of a new one. From memory, only a few of us followed this advice; indeed I couldn’t quite discern the rule in Joanna’s own work.
I drew up a 30 day grid on a 2 x 1 m piece of plyboard and took or discarded either shapes or objects from one day to the next. I was quite depressed about painting at the time, and found the ritual activity very helpful. It entailed a consideration of past, present and future that was grounded in what probably for Joanna would have been designed as a primarily visual record; that is, objects that conveyed meaning, symbols, and views.
I remember how completely Gladys’s work rejected the approach and how vividly it synthesized her experiences.
It is hard to remember how contested stylistic choices were. At art school I had painted abstracts for the curriculum — and for the love of them — but also diaristic images that were not for the record because figurative work was seen as an opposition, and undercut any apparent commitment to abstraction. Joanna’s work was grounded in an ethics of the immanence of the everyday and honoured the recoding of life. The politics of the exhibition lay in its capture of the space of the personal in the then intrinsically political form of a women’s only exhibition.
The later work of the Women’s Gallery moved toward a more activist politics, as the roles that we played out in our private lives were aligned with the identity politics of gender and the need to resist violence against women in its many forms. Heather’s exhibition Women and Violence was very powerful example of the confluence of artworks and political activism and representation. Wellington as the centre of lawmaking provided a core of expertise and activism. The contested position of the Women’s Gallery as a women-only gallery and at times a women-only, at times a lesbian-only, space, meant that risks could be and were taken. Heather came and stayed in Wellington, at times, as I remember, connecting the hard edge of shelters and places of refuge with a poetics that seemed blessed in its clarity and kindness.
ME: Gaylene Preston took the photos, on the floor of our house in Oriental Terrace. And you printed them?
BL: I was too amateur to print the photos properly — we paid Gaylene I think to photograph them but not to print them because we didn’t have the cash, and then I made a truly godawful job of them at the Erskine [College, where Bridie was teaching] darkrooms, so I have always felt ashamed of that article. Not that that has anything to do with the fact that it’s a piece of history.
I can just remember hanging the exhibition…I remember your delicate black ink tracery that was like staves of music, and the work of building the garden that you recorded, on the slope, and the writing as the planting grew up the slope over the period you recorded — but that is what I remember and probably not accurate! Anna’s I remember as both delicate and sinewy, people and often a wind brushing their clothing. Angels. Allie’s was a round one, quartered, with yellow and reddish purples I think — it was one thing, but then as I read the instructions I realised that we had different instructions–I had forgotten that. I can only remember thinking that Heather’s was like a text, but I am not even sure of that.
15 June 2016
And then Allie had a look at her archive! Check out the comments here!