Sheila’s sheilas

A unique art col­lec­tion was born when a son took his mum gallery-hop­ping, writes Vic­to­ria Lau­rie

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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

Look Again Look.

(1955) by Mar­garet Pre­ston, in the Lawrence Wil­son Art Gallery’s

ex­hi­bi­tion from the Cruthers Col­lec­tion of Women’s Art

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