Ann Thomson, Change Takes Time (2002). Collection Geelong Gallery. Geelong Contemporary Art Prize, 2002, sponsored by the Geelong Art Gallery Foundation. On display Geelong Gallery, Victoria. In 2002, Jason Smith was a guest judge of the Geelong Contemporary Art Prize and his task was to sift through the many entries from across Australia, New Zealand, even Russia, Britain and the US. He was on the lookout for a winner and, among the entries, one richly textured painting stood out. He says it was so compelling he gave it the first prize of $25,000.
At the time, Smith was the curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery of Victoria. And the compelling prize-winning work that caught his eye? It was Ann Thomson’s Change Takes Time. When Thomson’s painting won the prize, it was acquired by the Geelong Gallery and now, 14 years later, Smith has just been appointed the gallery’s director.
Change Takes Time strikes you with the bravura handling of the paint. With its broad, confident gestures, it gives the impression of being freshly painted. The composition is harmonious with its use of earthy siennas, ochres and pale blue.
“What I found compelling then and enduringly convincing now is the simply beautiful pictorial and spatial organisation of this picture,” Smith says. “It is easy to think that a work of such energised painterly abstraction might happen quickly and with utter spontaneity. Ann’s work is deeply considered, and one of the things that continues to intrigue me about this work is that every mark and passage of paint is bound to the other in a picture of exceptional structure and compositional balance. If we took just one element of this work away the entire picture would fall apart.”
Smith says he has always loved Thomson’s sensitive but confident touch. “Her pictures are robust but they have never been bombastic. There is something poignant in the title Change Takes Time. It signals an artist thankful for her aesthetic and conceptual metier but compelled by inquisitiveness and the endless possibilities in picture making.”
Thomson was born in Brisbane in 1933. She once told an interviewer that she discovered painting at the age of nine. “I felt as if it was in me,” she said, “and that it would be very unkind, to my inner possibility, to ignore it.” Growing up in Brisbane, she often disappeared under the house to “make things”. She cut up magazines for collage, made clay objects and constructed musical instruments. When her mum called her for lunch, she would reply that she was too busy.
After leaving school, she studied with Jon Molvig in the mid-1950s. She then left Brisbane for Sydney to enrol at the East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School) where she met artists such as Colin Lanceley and Martin Sharp and top-notch teachers John Passmore and Godfrey Miller. Once she graduated, she stayed living and working in Sydney.
Thomson, now in her 80s, has been exhibiting for more than 50 years, since her first solo exhibition at Watters Gallery in 1965. Since then, she has won the respected Wynne Prize and continues to exhibit widely in Australia and in Paris. Earlier this year she had an exhibition at her alma mater that celebrated the time she attended the National Art School during the late 50s and early 60s.
While Thomson was studying at art school American expressionism was in vogue and, she has said, she was very close to this because abstraction was more relevant to her way of thinking than copying nature.
“Ann Thomson’s career is distinguished by a commitment to abstract pictures,” says Smith, “pictures that are simultaneously tough but lyrical in their evocation of landscape, air, water, myth and mystery.”
Oil on canvas, 137.5cm x 101.6cm