Rita Hall Museum Studies, Rita Hall

Rita Hall

The following is an extract from the catalogue essay of my exhibition, “Rita Hall. Museum Studies 1969-2009’ held at the South Australian Museum in June 2009.

Printmaking, and in particular etching, was my major interest and preferred medium after graduating from the SA School of Art in 1968. My teaching specialisation became printmaking and most of my early works were in this discipline. I generally printed in small editions across a range of subjects within a still life genre.

In 1979 I began to make screen prints on fabric, still a printmaking technique but on a much larger scale. The initial reason for this development was a growing frustration with the limiting size of etching plates, paper and presses. During 1976 I had visited Europe and became of aware of the beautiful screen printed textiles and wall papers in various museums and the striking Marimekko fabrics of Finland.

The early stencils for the screens prints were hand cut, using a swivel knife on lacquer stencil film, which was then adhered to the mesh with thinners. I was able to make bold, lively drawings in ink and charcoal. The printing inks were water based dyes, that became permanent when heat set. Cotton drill could be purchased in 50metre rolls up to 1.2metres wide. The possibilities for creative expression seemed endless.

The first image I made was a wild looking banksia, followed by a huge blowfly. This prompted me to visit the Museum in search of interesting looking insects which I could draw for the fabric prints. Those found included: crane flies, wasps, beetles, stick insects, moths and many others. During the next eight years I made over 5,000 fabric wall hangings, usually printed in editions of 50. The word “Australiana” was attached to them, but that was never my intention, rather I sought to make graphic drawings of the natural world around me.

By 1981 I had acquired a vacuum frame and exposure light unit. These enabled me to make direct emulsion stencils from drawings on transparent draughting film, allowing much more freedom of expression and with finer detail. Exhibitions, workshops and large commissions were undertaken during these years and during 1985 I invested in a large studio in the coach house of Mount Lofty House. Gary Campbell was appointed as a studio assistant and David Jackson, my husband, managed the business side. We also employed a number of casual assistants. Wall hangings were sold throughout Australia and the craft galleries and shops eagerly awaited each new series.

During my fabric printing era I also illustrated three children’s books and again found I needed to use the Museums’ resources for visual reference. Dr Terry Schwaner, Curator of Reptiles, helped enormously through loaning me specimens of various lizards along with a few live ones. I remember I was not too happy about drawing in the company of live snakes at the time. These studies led to a series of wall hangings depicting goannas and other reptiles.

Works on fabric were purchased by the National Gallery of Australia, Art Gallery of SA, the Art Gallery of WA, Tamworth Fibre Award and many Regional Galleries for their permanent collections.

In early 1987 a variety of factors caused me to abandon the production of wall hangings. Once again I wished to move on to new ideas in printmaking. I found I was trapped by the commercial success of needing to make pleasing images to sell. I did try to be more adventurous with the art, but there was a public resistance to the image of a dead magpie caught in a barbed wire fence. I thought the image powerful, graphic and terrific, but only a few friends agreed. I was also quite exhausted with the physical labour involved in making such large prints. We eventually sold all the equipment, including the eight metre long printing table, and built a studio at home in Crafers. I had kept the small etching press which was put back to work.

As a transition back to works on paper I made a series of 10 linocuts of Australian birds to be printed in editions of 100 each. These were drawn from display specimens at the Museum as well as other sources. I found a wonderful Japanese hand made mulberry paper which had similar qualities to fabric and the added benefits of paper. The old battleship lino I used to cut the images had been rescued from the floor of the Central School of Art building in Gilles Street that was being renovated while I was there teaching printmaking.

By 1989 bird print production was in full swing. I was also teaching again at various venues. I then decided to reassess my art practice in a major way. It became a time to ‘calm down’ and redefine the hectic artistic activity of the previous ten years.

A grain of sand seemed a likely metaphor for this period. I began to draw on the idea on a more philosophical level, determining to find the simplicity in images which had always inspired my art. This led me again to the Museum where so many ideas had become manifest. I began to look seriously at the stones in the collections, from grinding stones to stone tools, axe heads, artefacts and other stone implements.

I enrolled in the first Masters of Visual Art programme offered by the University of SA in 1991 with a vague notion of further exploring stones as a point of reference for making art. The research project led me in diverse directions, travels throughout Australia and contact with museums across the country.

My art project has always been to find the visual imagery from the real, to develop it from that reference point into something which may be called art. To me the ‘real’ is already so abstract and so odd it needs no embellishment by an imagination and its banality is more than enough. For the art works, I sought to clarify or distil my first impressions and my studied perceptions. Through formal means, technical experimentation and application of learned skills I made a body of work encompassing a range of subjects.

I wanted to make powerful art from ordinary subjects. I was drawn to specimens in the Museum which had already been given some significance simply by being included in a public collection. They had their own history or ’otherness’ although they were also familiar in that they often came from the natural world. Many, like the stone tools or the bird skins, had the mark of human intervention, therefore giving them another dimension of interest. Fortunately, the specimens in the museum are static, a great help in making drawings and studies, even of birds in emulated flight.

Art works emerged which embraced experimental combinations of printmaking, drawing, pastel and watercolours. I tried to suggest solid weight, texture and colour with the simple round stone forms. Gradually the forms began to change into elongated or pyramid shapes as I investigated other cultural uses of stones and I began to wrap them with decorative bindings. Some were printed from matrixes made with leather, lace and fabrics.

These developments were further enhanced by the observations I had made of indigenous implements and artefacts in the museum collections, including an exhibition of Toas. My own aesthetic impulses determined many of these developments, always with an eye on the eventual art making.

In 1992 I completed the Master of Visual Art degree, and continued to make art and teach at the SA School of Art in Printmaking and Drawing. Many new art works evolved, in various series relating to my life and interests at the time. Printmaking continued to be a preferred media and I purchased a new 30 inch etching press. It weighed 750 kilos and became a dominant feature of the studio.

Together, the press and I produced prints depicting wrapped horses in canvas rugs then leather rugs without the horses. As I hung around the cold manege, watching a little anxiously, as my daughter learnt to ride dressage, I found myself wanting to draw the horses in the opposite paddocks.

Over time I made many more series of prints, usually unique states, of bowls, vessels, tools, landscapes, shoes and wrapped bundles of fabrics. These series are not included in this exhibition as they do not directly relate to the Museum collections. However the technical experimentation continued from the original stone series and I felt the ensuing works had been informed by the simple beauty of the stones.

In 2002 the SA Museum called for entries for the first Waterhouse Natural History Prize. There was no question about entering the competition and I spent months making a large watercolour painting incorporating printmaking techniques of plant specimens reminiscent of a 19th Century museum collection. The resulting work “A 21st Century Urban Collection” showed a range of native and introduced plants – some now declared weeds. The specimens were painted from life and collected from my own hills environment.

The work was accepted as a finalist for the prize and a year later I submitted it to the Fleurieu Landscape Prize Exhibition where it was also a finalist.

In 2004 a major shift occurred in my art practice when I decided to abandon printmaking as a vehicle for expression. I sold the beloved etching press, but in a panic of anxiety called ‘printmaking withdrawal’ I immediately purchased an ‘as new’ old wood mangle. With this mangle I could still make basic prints and continue editioning the seemingly never ending bird linocuts.

Nevertheless, I faced a new challenge: to become proficient in painting. At this stage of my career, it was a serious endeavour. On many occasions throughout the years I had tried to work with oil paint but had always given up in frustration. This time I resolved to persevere, even though the same frustrations appeared again after a few months of trying to paint.

Printmaking and drawing are so direct, a mark is made and it is controlled or directed in an immediate way. To me painting, though pleasurable, was too slippery. Each new brush stroke affected the previous one and the messes became failures. Gradually I began to understand the possibilities and found some satisfaction in the results. Having always responded to the crisp graphic image, it took time to value the more subtle evocations of oil paint.

Once I got the hang of putting paint onto canvas, I again went to the Museum to find suitable ‘painterly’ subjects. I was attracted, perhaps by familiarity, to the bird display. The exhibits of birds were mounted specimens pretending to be alive in diorama backdrops. They were all still but the glass cases made them difficult to make detailed studies. I decided to focus on the heads and began a series of small paintings in oil on canvas of bird portraits. It was a great opportunity to practice the painting craft as well with so many subtle colourings and forms to study.

Mike Gemmell in the Discovery Centre allowed me to take some mounted specimens home for more detailed studies. I soon exhausted his motley collection and I became reluctant to pursue this course as my cat had attempted to kill the “on loan” stuffed magpie.

I was directed by Mike to make an appointment with Dr Philippa Horton, manager of the Ornithology Collection at the SA Museum. This marked a turning point. When I first viewed the birds skins stacked in the collection room drawers it was a revelation. Maya Penk became my guide and for the next two years I immersed myself in a serious study of the bird collection.

This study was not ornithological nor scientific but artistic. My interest, as usual, was in their forms, the shadows they created, their colours, textures and shapes. It became my constant project to find a way to make art out of these very real objects. The notion of making paintings out of birds which pretended to be alive seemed absurd in the presence of so much complexity and beauty, and in the way they were presented as skins. I was

reminded of a wonderful Museum exhibition many years earlier that showed the collections of Captain White and being shocked and confronted at the number of dead white birds gathered together on one wall of the gallery. I was about to do the same as Captain White with paintings and drawings.

I had no wish to add anything to the bird skins, but simply present them in an honest way, as they had appeared directly to me. The liberties I did take were to arrange then into compositions, either singularly or in groups, to provide opportunities for formal art making structures. I reasoned that the skins, like many other objects in the museum, already carried their own meanings, their relevance for scientific study and their own histories. They seemed a perfect metaphor for the ecological issues of the contemporary world and had no need for embellishment with artistic symbols or devices. I wanted the graphic impact of the real just as the earlier etchings had been.

In 2007 my drawing of crows was awarded second prize in Category B of the Waterhouse Prize and a Painting called “Museum Specimens” was a finalist in Category A and highly commended by the judges. Another similar drawing became a finalist in the 2007 Dobell Drawing prize at the AGNSW.

The new work appeared to be validated by this public recognition. At the same time I am still very excited about this new subject and its possibilities for art making. Recently Maya showed me the bird skeleton collection and I realised then I would need another lifetime to penetrate the possibilities of exploring it.

This exhibition represents four decades of constant practice, with many twists and turns. I am personally thrilled to have been given this opportunity to show a retrospective of this particular strand in my life’s work, and to see the growth over the years. There are also some surprising continuities between the early and late works.

My enthusiasm for art making is undiminished. As always I need to be astonished by the subject before I can attempt to make art from it. I do not intend to stop. I hope and expect to continue to visit the SA Museum, to see where else I may find a new inspiration for my work. However the birds, I know, will always have much to offer.

Rita Hall

June 2009

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