In the Beginning, There Was Heather

by Marian Evans

Heather McPherson,1973, from poetry anthology ‘Pearl: Winter 1974’ (photo: J.Saxton)

Poet Heather McPherson lives in Auckland New Zealand. This series celebrates her and her founding of Spiral 40 years ago; and is research for an eBook due later this year or in 2017. But it’s not your ‘normal’ Festschrift because Heather will contribute work as well, among women’s texts and images from the 1970s to now. Often the posts interconnect. Sometimes they contradict. (Conflict is normal.) Regardless, it’s all for her, with love and gratitude and delight. As well as for you.

Allie Eagle works on a portrait of Heather McPherson, Te Henga 2016 (photo: Lina Wang)

When Heather attended a Christchurch arts festival in 1973, where “They had this poets’ evening as part of the festival and there were these twenty young men getting up on the stage one after another and they were so interchangeable. There was only one who stood out as reasonably individual”. And “that was when I knew women artists’ voices had to be heard” (A Women’s Picture Book, AWPB, 1988).

In early 1974, she advertised the formation of the Women Artists Group in the personal column of the Press, Christchurch’s morning paper (sometimes in its history the name has an apostrophe). I haven’t found the ad, but I did find the letter she wrote to Marcia Russell, the legendary editor of Thursday, a women’s magazine, outlining the background and her intentions. The Women Artists Group first, then a literary magazine, to be printed by her.

That deletion of Heather’s plan to learn to use a press is hers. Because, she says, she’d visited Don Long’s press and realised she didn’t have the physical capacity to run a printing press. As well, Herstory Press had started up in Wellington.

Heather and her son Carrick (Rick) sitting in park, 1976. photo: possibly P. Barr

The Christchurch Star reported the first Women Artists Group meeting. ‘New group to stimulate women artists’ read the headline, on 17 July 1974. The short article starts–

Encouragement and stimulus for women artists is the aim of a new Christchurch group. Set up by a young mother and poet, Ms H McPherson, of Dover Street, the group is exclusively for women. Ms McPherson thought of the idea after hearing of a similar group in Australia and through her contact with various feminist groups. The group met for the first time last week, and although only four women were present, Ms McPherson was pleased with the result. “We are committed to art and will respect each other’s integrity as artists,” she said.

So far, I can’t confirm who was at that first meeting. Heather, of course, and probably Joanna Paul (1945–2003): others often associated with the Women Artists Group, like Allie Eagle, Anna Keir, Rosemary Johnson (1942–1982), don’t appear till midway in its minute book. Here’s the record of the Statement of Aims the four of them decided on.

The Star article continues–

Ms McPherson believes women are a “disadvantaged group” because very few women reach the level of success of many males. “Lack of confidence is the main thing,” she said. “I had difficulty gaining confidence and I think a lot of women are the same way. We want to give creative women the support they may think is lacking,” Ms McPherson said. She said the group intends working towards a centre operated by women where talents may be shared, with musicians, painters and writers working together. The group also intends to have contact with feminist and other artist groups.

For a while, the group struggled. This newsletter placed towards the beginning of the early minute book, perhaps from late 1974, gives some of the reasons.

Do We Need A Women Artists Group … ‘And — work well. Remember there are others out there.’

And look at that ‘And — work well. Remember there are others out there’. Decades later, working alone at home, I’m still warmed to read this.

The group grew, eventually, and produced the Women’s Art Environment at the Canterbury Society of Arts in 1977, probably inspired by Judy Chicago’s Womanhouse (1972) and perhaps building on Joanna’s suggestion at an early Women Artists Group meeting.

From the Women Artists Group minute book (?1975), in Heather’s handwriting

When Joanna organised A Season’s Diaries — exhibited at the Victoria University Library in Wellington in late 1977 and later in Hamilton and Christchurch — five of the seven artists included were also part of the Women Artists Group: Joanna, Heather, Allie Eagle, Anna Keir and Gladys Gurney. (The other two were Bridie Lonie and I.)

Anna Keir A Season’s Diaries (1977, detail) 22.5 x 14cm at widest points pencil & watercolour on light card

And from Women Artists Group’s modest beginnings came seven issues of Spiral, the women artists’ journal Heather planned. Spiral was a ‘floating’ imprint. The collective for each issue — and later each book, video or audio project — was autonomous, whether in Christchurch or in Wellington, the Coromandel or Dunedin.

Anna Keir describes her experience of joining the Women Artists Group and of Heather’s support in AWPB: “My first contact with someone who was consciously thinking about the issues surrounding art and gender was in 1974: Allie Eagle who was then Exhibitions Officer at the Robert McDougall Gallery and documenting women’s work came and photographed some of my stuff. Then in 1975 I began going to meetings of the Christchurch women artists group. I was twenty-four, had just finished art school and teachers college and was teaching part-time and trying to do my own work as well. I can’t remember a lot about those early meetings but I do remember Heather McPherson…ringing me and asking how my work was going. I immediately started telling her about teaching until she said ‘I don’t mean that’. It seems such a minor thing but it meant a lot to me then.”

Anna helped distribute Spiral 2, late in 1977; and she took Heather’s son to the movies.

Anna Keir ‘A Season’s Diaries’ (1977, detail, 15 x 8.5 cm lead and colour pencils on paper, with double-sided tape marks from attachment to fabric)

Heather was also one of the founding group of the Women’s Gallery in Wellington (1980–84) and unlike most of the founding group she worked there for a time, as in-house co-ordinator of Women & Violence (1981).

After its first four issues from the Christchurch collectives, Spiral became a floating imprint, often a publisher of last resort. Collectives Heather wasn’t part of, based at the Women’s Gallery, published her first collection of poems, A Figurehead: A Face, (New Zealand’s first book of poems by an ‘out’ lesbian) and two more books, The House of the Talking Cat by J C Sturm (Jacquie Baxter 1927–2009; 1983) and the bone people by Keri Hulme (1984). After the gallery closed, two more Spiral collectives published Amazon Songs by Saj (Gladys Gurney, 1987) and Hilary Baxter’s The Other Side of Dawn (1987). In 1999, Jane Zusters & Sue Fitchett used the Spiral imprint to publish their poems and images in Charts & Soundings : Some Small Navigation Aids.

Spiral also represented groups of New Zealand women writers at three international feminist book fairs. Writer Bub Bridger went to London on Spiral’s behalf in 1984. Two years later, Heather travelled to the 2d International Feminist Book Fair in Oslo with a Spiral group that included Arapera Blank (1932–2002), Irihapeti Ramsden (1946–2003), Jacquie Sturm, Patricia Grace, Stephanie Baxter (1968–2009) and me (and Heather wrote about travelling with Arapera here). And in 1988, Irihapeti and I lugged more suitcases of books to the third feminist book fair, in Barcelona.

From the late 90s to the early 2000s, Heather advised and supported the Spiral/Women’s Gallery Getting Free project. Bridie also lovingly supported Juanita Ketchel (1946–2012)’s oral history-based inquiry into violence, resilience and recovery, in Dunedin; and a video component in Wellington recorded aspects of the lives and work of Irihapeti Ramsden, as the architect of cultural safety who, with Miriama Evans and me was a member of the Spiral collective that published The House of the Talking Cat and the bone people; matakite Wai Turoa Morgan; artist Maria MacKay; Allie Eagle and her mother Lorna Mitchell; and Galvan Macnamara (James Mack, 1942–2003) who as an advisory officer at the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council had years earlier advocated strongly for taxpayer funding for the Women’s Gallery. Another Spiral group worked on the archives of actor/painter/filmmaker Shirley Grace (Gruar, 1949–2000).

Allie Eagle by Shirley Grace (1990s)

Heather once articulated her motivation to produce Spiral in this way –

I worked with the material we received–that it didn’t reflect our own reality didn’t bother me too much, it was the idea of women working together for women’s voices to be heard, positively (AWPB).

And for me, that motivation also seemed to permeate, subtly and not-so-subtly, the Women Artists Group, Spiral and Women’s Gallery projects that followed, from the Women’s Art Environment and A Season’s Diaries in 1977 to exhibitions like Women in Violence or Mothers and their associated programmes (both 1981), to the refusal of one Spiral collective to ‘edit’ Keri Hulme’s the bone people and the development of individual chapters in A Women’s Picture Book (produced by a Spiral/Women’s Gallery group). On and on.

As this series attempts to record aspects of the lives and work of some of the many women affected by Heather’s initiative, ideas and warm support and by her ongoing influence, it particularly endorses the idea that Canadian feminst Nicole Brossard expressed, in Trivia in 1986 — “Each woman must repeat her story at least once in her life, with passion and with hope, as a kind of inscription (Trivia 8)”. It also celebrates each woman’s sovereignty, that her story is hers; every woman is the authority on her own life.

As photographer Mary Bailey wrote on Facebook the other day, after she told some of her story here, “My efforts were a small part of a whole that many women invented and drove”. That’s true for everyone who’s part of this complex 40-year story. Although this is the moment to acknowledge one of us, Heather, who started a movement that morphs and continues, the digital revolution means it’s easy to include your work too. Please feel very welcome to share any information you have in the comments, or to email if you’d like a post of your own.

Heather and Lina Wang, Te Henga 2016, after a portrait session (photo: Allie Eagle)
Spiral footer, late 90s