A unique art collection was born when a son took his mum gallery-hopping, writes Victoria Laurie
IF Sheila Cruthers were still alive, she would have relished seeing her women’s art collection, or ‘‘ Sheila’s sheilas’’ as it was nicknamed, staring down from the walls of the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery at the University of Western Australia. The tiny, always dapperly dressed figure would have lingered before familiar faces, portraits of artists that she and her son John collected for more than three decades. Elise Blumann’s amused gaze from under a perky brown hat; Jacqueline Hick’s intelligent face half-lit by strong sunlight; Ann Newmarch’s quizzical look, her held camera pointing at us; a silhouette self-portrait in felt by Sangeeta Sandrasegar, clasping a sequinned serpent.
And then there’s a portrait of Sheila herself, painted by her friend Julie Dowling: a resolute figure in a utilitarian plastic chair, capable hands folded over, work done.
‘‘ She would have been delighted to see all of her ladies lined up along the wall,’’ John Cruthers says of his mother, who died aged 86 on December 31 last year. She would have liked the companionable hanging of modernists, such as Nora Heysen, Dorothy Braund and Grace Crowley, in the first gallery space, followed by postmodern and feminist artists such as Jenny Watson and Narelle Jubelin in the second.
‘‘ She’d probably have looked at some works and said, ‘ Oh bloody hell, John’s gone and bought stuff that’ll never fit in the house,’ ’’ John Cruthers says. He gestures around UWA’s gallery. ‘‘ But it doesn’t need to fit there now that the collection has an institutional home. There were 250 works hung inside Mum and Dad’s house — there were paintings hanging behind the toilet door, it was ridiculous.’’
Look. Look Again displays an impressive 140 artworks from the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art. The entire collection is even more substantial, more than 600 items that form the largest single body of women’s art in the nation. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s because this private collection is only now venturing into the public domain. It had one previous outing in 1995, during a nationwide series of women’s art exhibitions initiated by Sydney academic Joan Kerr.
The present Cruthers show is billed as ‘‘ a unique survey exhibition of historic and contemporary works of art made by women’’ that ‘‘ presents a significant record of female creativity in Australia over the past 125 years’’. Another claim is that it offers ‘‘ an alternative frame of reference for engaging with Australian history and culture’’.
The statements provoke a flood of questions about an arbitrary ‘‘ frame of reference’’ that views Australian art through the prism of women artists only. Why the need for such a collection? And don’t a few female artists reject such gender-bound categorisation? Far from shying away from such debates, the Cruthers Art Foundation is funding a series of talks and seminars, entitled Are We There Yet?, to accompany this exhibition. And there is a catalogue in which art historian Juliette Peers wades into the debate by describing the Cruthers Collection as ‘‘ a dissonance, a resistance’’ to other public collections and their orthodox ways of collecting and narrating the nation’s art history.
Peers says the Cruthers family, while acquiring outstanding works by modernist figures such as Clarice Beckett, Grace Cossington Smith and Margaret Preston, have been important in collecting dozens of little-known artists from the past such as Ada May Plante and Helen Stewart, and dozens more emerging ones. Importantly, says Peers, the collection assiduously has collected work by female artists from South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania, in contrast to major art gallery collections that historically were focused on the eastern seaboard.
Heated ideological debates about the merit and content of women’s art made little impact on Sheila Cruthers. Sharp, brusque and charming (when she wanted to be), this singular West Australian woman simply loved the courage, wit and artistry of the women artists she encountered.
Perhaps her empathy came from origins far removed from the comfortable wealth she enjoyed in later years. The ninth child of Italian rural migrants, she was cared for by siblings and distant relatives while her parents ran hotels in WA’s mining towns. Then her father, Giovanni, died, leaving his widow to rear her children in the Depression, including five-yearold Sheila.
At school, she topped her class, but at 14 Sheila was removed from school by her mother; she needed her to earn money for the family. Secretarial work in a law firm led to a senior paralegal job; the money she saved went on stylish clothes and outings with beaux, including a young newspaper journalist called James Cruthers. Much like the post-war female artists she later came to admire, she relished her hard-won independence.
Then she married, had two children with James and supported his career as an executive for TVW Channel Seven, Perth’s first television station. Cultural outings consisted of visits to the ballet and play opening nights, and there was little art in the house — until son John began an arts degree at UWA.
‘‘ My family’s involvement in art began with me,’’ he says succinctly. ‘‘ I wrote art reviews at university, and I used to drive around art galleries and take Sheila with me. We learned together, Mum and I, through looking and reading, and then Dad became involved. Our collection was driven by our three distinct personalities from the beginning. I preferred contemporary work, Dad liked mid-20thcentury artists such as Sali Herman, Lloyd Rees and Guy Grey-Smith, and Mum was drawn to women’s art. She would instinctively know whether it was a woman’s picture or not.’’
In time, Sheila’s preference won out, her choices mediated by the discerning eye of her son (now a Sydney-based art consultant and curator). Affordability also came into it. Lesserknown artists, as women invariably were, were
(1955) by Margaret Preston, in the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery’s
exhibition from the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art