This essay was written about my mother Valerie McDonald in 2013 some years after she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She died in July of 2016.
Art and Family
A profile of the Artist Valerie McDonald
On the evening before I planned to interview my mother I watched Queen Elizabeth II give a speech in which she indicated that she would remain dedicated to the job she had been doing for 60 years. The subtext of this speech was that there was no way she was going to hand it over willingly to her successor or be moved out of Buckingham Palace into an old people’s home any time soon.
My mother will be 80 next February, although with her legs pulled up beneath her on the chair and her grey bob neatly tucked behind her ear, she doesn’t look it. She is 6 years younger than the Queen but, like her, is finding the need to constantly rededicate herself to her life in the face of pressure to be old. She will continue to do what she has always done and is still producing pictures. One of her newer pieces is against the wall in her studio, three angels in a choir. It is appealing and competent but to my eye is lacking something of her usual style; perhaps it is a little fuzzy around the edges, a little indistinct. It may not be the only thing.
I would describe the bulk of the pictures on the walls from the last decade or so as God’s eye views of the Australian landscape; an omnipotent perspective – both aerial and linear, with foreground and back in simultaneous focus, with every smallest element given value and importance. They are luminous with colour, powerful, vibrant. Looking at them now takes my breath away.
But it is not just this work that I have come to talk to her about, it is the whole long stretch of her life as an artist that I would like to understand; a life of steady output and quiet recognition. This is a place, the past, where she is still clearheaded, still sharp.
Valerie Virginia Baxter was born on the ebbing tide of the end of Empire, in a country where the carefully overlaid strata of race and class had started to slip. Eventually the approaching threat of Japanese invasion into Burma precipitated a brutal cull of an eight year old’s favourite toys. She and her brother and her parents took the last elephant out of Rangoon and hauled themselves into displacement.
After some years of upheaval in internment camps and the circus of army postings in India, British colonialism offered a choice and in 1946 this family of four washed up in Western Australia. Valerie and her older brother Cedric, both the recipients of an erratic, nomadic education, had few options, so they took their undeniable aptitude for art to Perth Technical College and began a new life, moving into a house across the road from the Perth Zoo, home to exotic creatures and merry-go-rounds.
Ride the Merry-Go-Round – It will look like this:
Burma, war, clinging to a toy dog, jungle, typhoid, elephants, India.
Anglo-Indian, Anglo-Burmese, Anglo-anything will do. Cling to the good bits of your genes and don’t look down. White, white Australia, up, down, around, around. She learns about lines and colours, learns tricks with her fingers, sketches the animals, listens to the lions roar in the night. She listens to her father roar in the night until he leaves the family and they fill the sudden calm and space with pictures. She falls in love with a farmer and goes to live in the wheat belt. Sick sick sick babies babies babies. She takes her pastels with a baby in the bassinet and leaves her sketchbook on the roof of the car. Somewhere maybe in a paddock an old house shelters a pastel picture of itself blown under a verandah nearly fifty years ago.
A chalky pastel picture of an old house hangs amongst the work on display in her studio. Next to it is a textile based, semi-sculpture perspective of a chair. It hangs on a wall where the local myopic priest tried to sit on it, twice in one afternoon. Adjacent is a graphic aerial landscape in oils of red burn and ash with an overlay of a fleeing flock of green parrots. Next to that is a carved and painted wooden icon, which might be a picture of my once infant son in the garden.
It can be interesting when studying an artist’s body of work to note what stays the same and what changes. For many the medium remains a constant and for some the same subject matter continues to obsess them. For Valerie neither is true. Apart from her Catholic faith, which remains a strong theme, her work has radically changed each succeeding decade. I ask about her differing choices and she shrugs.
I just do what I feel like doing.
She answers as if this is a stupid question. She answers most of my questions this way. She says: you already know all that. But I am not sure that what she thinks I know and what I think I know are necessarily related.
I push a little but don’t get any further. I am not sure if this is a question she has never asked herself, or whether she has lost the end of the anchoring thread so I ask her about her adoption of Australian themes of landscape, something her brother has never done in his art. She answers this as if it is obvious. A stupid question.
My husband was Australian; my children are Australian.
I am, you are, we are. The Queen, with all the certainty of her position, can tell the world what she will and will not do, but the legacy of her family’s empire is displacement and a tide of people without the certainty of belonging. I suddenly see that under the surface of what had seemed like an eclectic collection of media and movements, themes of belonging and identity can be traced.
We flip through old photographs; the round cornered ochre tinted squares of the seventies. An exhibition of textiles is pinned here in oranges and browns and creams, extraordinary pieces made of thread and ingenuity. The Red Cross taught her these skills; stimulating the minds and hands of damaged returned servicemen with art and crafts was her first job, but she attributes inspiration freely to a Dutch textile artist living and working in Perth.
What was her name? You know, that girl who did the wall hangings?
Rinske Car? I hazard a guess. It is a name I have heard her mention in the past.
Yes. That’s her. She did those enormous wall hangings.
Although she worked with the Red Cross and in the occupational therapy department of Royal Perth Hospital and learnt every handcraft to some degree, she has always had a strange impracticality, being an indifferent knitter and incapable of using a sewing machine for more than two minutes straight without disaster. She rarely made us clothes and yet she could fashion birds and landscapes and dancing women out of coloured yarns.
The wall hangings are without doubt, some of the most interesting to have been shown in Perth. Beautifully executed from a technical point of view, they have broken entirely new ground in artistic concept. Val McDonald exploits texture and combines dimensional structure with pictorial expression to produce an effect not previously seen here in this artform.
Artlook Magazine February 1977
For one major architectural contract she reproduced a 6 metre long field of indigenous wildflowers each botanically and anatomically correct. In one piece, a commission for a church, she wove a fabric shroud out of fine linen thread and sewed it to show the folds of the tortured soul of Jesus. I will admit this is not the person you want sewing your party dress.
Our mother was an artist. This is something we always knew and while she never let it dominate and always put family first, understanding that it was important was an early lesson.
What was the name of that girl? She did those enormous wall hangings.
Yes, that’s right.
Up down around around
In the 1980’s wall hangings went violently out of fashion but Valerie had already moved on, creating textile pictures, sewn and knotted, embroidered and appliqued and contained within a frame. By the 1990’s she had seized upon some discarded pieces of honey coloured wood and began to carve bass relief images painted with translucent alkyd oils that we had given to her for a present.
Her work has often been described as naïve but it seems the style might be a function of the difficult media she has always chosen – hardly ever a fine brush, or a pencil point, always a solid form manipulated into shape.
Now she is making pictures again with pastels, not the chalky kind but the dense sticky, intensely coloured oil pastels that children love. It is an understandable choice, easy to work and with no time constraints, you can leave off and pick up where you left off, leave off again. But I wonder if a return to this blocky medium is not adding too much uncertainty to her already uncertain edges. If you took her out now to draw she would leave more behind than sketches on the roof of a car.
She would hate to think that she had lost some of her control. Worse she would hate to think that other people thought so without her realizing. I think back to the Queen’s speech; with the support of my family, she said. “With the support of my family I rededicate myself…” I wonder if it is time for a new present, maybe a pencil box of brights and sharps for clarity.
She is bored talking about herself and restless so I show her an app on my phone where you can illustrate a word with your finger and send it to your grandson to guess. She is entranced and rededicates herself once again to art and family.