Bronwyn Oliver: On the outside looking in

By Kip Williams

An edited transcript of a speech given by Kip Williams at the launch of Hannah Fink’s book Brownyn Oliver: Strange Things, published by Piper Press, at Carthona, the home of Roslyn and Tony Oxley, on 14 October 2017.


It is my pleasure to be here today to talk about Bronwyn’s incredible body of work and her remarkable life, a life that Hannah has captured so beautifully in this book. As Hannah conveys, it is hard to separate the life and work of Bronwyn from one another, so deeply interlinked they are. It is one of Bronwyn’s great gifts to us that we can still experience her life force through her work. Like Bronwyn herself, her sculptures emanate a quietly powerful energy, one that probes deep into our minds, both intellectually and spiritually.

Indeed it’s this quiet powerful energy that first struck me when as a five-year-old boy I met Bronwyn Oliver, or Miss Oliver as she was to me. It was 1992 and I was a student at Cranbrook School. I wouldn’t at that point in time envy any teacher who was trying to teach a bunch of Cranbrook boys, let alone those aged between five and seven. I think it’s a task that leads many a teacher to raise their voice in search of control, or to assert a dominant personality in search of submission.

But that wasn’t Bronwyn’s style. That was the first thing that struck me about her: her quietness and her stillness. Like some extraordinary zen master, she would instantly calm a room of motely boys and suck them into her presence. Her lessons were like meditation. We gravitated towards her as if under some kind of spell, and there was something sacred about her classroom. It was almost like a church. We would sit in awe at the possibilities unlocked by our high priestess.

I think Bronwyn struck a real affinity with her students. It’s telling that an artist of such significance, note and success maintained that relationship with teaching so long throughout her career. Upon hearing that I would be launching this book, my mother dug out an article that had appeared in the Daily Telegraph in 1994, when Bronwyn won the prestigious Moët & Chandon Fellowship for her work Eddy. The article is accompanied by a hilarious photo of Bronwyn surrounded by little boys holding up their artworks and beaming. Right in front of her in prime position is me. In this article Bronwyn talks of this affinity with her students: “I find that for boys, art is just another language. It’s a language they learn at the time they learn to speak. They learn to draw and manipulate materials before they can write words, so for them it’s a perfectly normal way to go about finding out about things and experimenting with ideas.” Later on in her career she would say, “The boys are always asking questions, not taking anything for granted. They help me to see the world as constantly new and mysterious.”

That seems to me to the core of what drove Bronwyn. To see the world “new and mysterious”. Her position in the world as a self-anointed outsider seems to be key to how she achieved this. In Strange Things Hannah draws our attention to a quote from Levi-Strauss on the cover of a collection of photographs from Bronwyn’s work White Pages, “I felt uneasily that I was always on the outside looking in”. Indeed when The Australian covered the win of the Fellowship, the article begins “A young Sydney sculptor who feels an alien in her own country and an outsider when abroad yesterday won the prestigious Moët & Chandon Fellowship in Perth”.

This was an aspect of her personality that she led with front and centre, and she did so unabashedly. It was one of her great virtues as an artist, as a teacher and as a person. That perspective of sitting outside the chaos of life and looking in, finding a new perspective and conversation upon that society in which she lived, was so evident in her work. It was also a key lesson she imparted to the young budding artists in her classes.

As a sculptor, Bronwyn’s primary material was metal: copper, bronze, aluminium. For me as a theatremaker, my primary material is space. So much of how I manipulate my material was learnt in those early days of Miss Oliver’s classroom.

She wanted those lessons to be about forging new ideas, and every class would begin with a blank piece of paper. “Draw something new” she would say. “It can be anything you want – you just can’t have thought of it before”. We would scrawl away venturing into space, or under the sea, or into dreamscapes. “Ok, swap it with the person opposite you and discuss what you make of each other’s drawings”. Her lessons weren’t just about developing new ways of seeing the world, they were also about conversation. Conversation that could emerge from art, and she was leading us very gently to understand that our image making was always about conveying ideas. It wasn’t just form for form’s sake.

My favourite exercise she ever gave us was when she brought in a stack of paper and said, “You have to make an animal. The rules are it needs to have at least 5 limbs and 3 heads”. Mine had 18 limbs and 7 heads. That’s the other big idea that she imparted to us. Her lessons were about breaking rules and smashing the limits, about seeing the world differently as an abstract space, about the unlimited potential of the imagination, and they all commenced with a challenge.

I think the challenge was central to what drove Bronwyn and the work that she made, and I see it reflected in her own practice. As Hannah writes, “Bronwyn thrived on difficulty. She was not afraid of the intellectually forbidding terrain between the two- and three-dimensional, but able to inhabit it imaginatively. It is as though she found an opening at the point at which they met, a space that opened out into a universe of things that did not already exist – the world of her creative imagining.”

Whenever you look at one of Bronwyn’s sculptures you see that world opened up for you, an aspect of a universe that you had never considered before. I live in Potts Point and when I have a show of at the Sydney Opera House I often walk through the Royal Botanic Gardens on my way to tech rehearsals. This walk always leads me past Bronwyn’s two sculptures. I often stand by Palm and reflect upon the lessons that I learned from her. It’s a great reminder before going into the terror of a tech rehearsal to be brave, to push the limits, and to think differently.

It’s easy in the context of the Botanic Gardens to see Bronwyn’s work and think about the association between her forms and nature. Bronwyn however was adamant about her work being far broader than this limited reading.

I’m going to close by reading an excerpt from Hannah’s book which speaks directly to this. Hannah writes, “Graeme Sturgeon, the authority on Australian sculpture, invited Bronwyn to participate in a book he was writing on contemporary Australian sculpture, asking if she would answer a few questions in writing. She spent two days writing (and copying out neatly) a lucid eighteen page account of the development of her work. Sturgeon sent Bronwyn his thousand-word essay, asking for comments. The deadline was short: Bronwyn stayed up until midnight handwriting her response to his text. He must have been surprised to receive in the return post not a letter, but a package. ‘I must apologise for my zeal in sending you thirty-four pages of notes when only one thousand words was required,’ she wrote. Bronwyn took particular issue with his insistence that her forms had been ‘paraphrased from nature’. ‘I did not observe or learn from nature. I do not, and did not then, “attempt to arrive at a similar result by applying the same structural principles found in nature.” Not interested. I am interested in what materials will do.’

As Hannah continues, “Most galling was his emphasis on handiwork. ‘I feel that reference to the craft aspect of my work trivialises my intentions. The craft of making is only important in the service of an idea. It is the commitment to the idea which is important. The idea must be totally surrendered to in the process of making’. She explained that she tried to make her work at once both – and neither – organic and man-made, and hoped that her best works might ‘hover between the two possibilities of creation”.

When Bronwyn said “The subject of my sculpture is structure”, she was talking about the conceptual enquiry into the origins of the physical world. Her aim was metaphysical. She was not interested in making beautiful objects for their own sake. The beauty of her works comes from the beauty of the thinking behind them.

Bronwyn went on to say “I am not an especially good craftsperson. I don’t have the time for perfect corners – what I want to say, my ideas, are far more important. I am trying to create life. Not in the sense of beings, or animals, or plants, or machines, but ‘life’ in the sense of a kind of force, a presence, an energy in my objects that a human can respond to on the level of the spirit”.

Well Bronwyn, thank you for the force of life you imparted in so many ways, through your work, through your lessons, and through your life. It gives me the greatest pleasure to officially launch this glorious celebration, Hannah Fink’s remarkable book Bronwyn Oliver: Strange Things.

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