MY SPACE - Yvonne Audette

The Age - Saturday September 8, 2007

Interview: Lindy Percival

Inside a light-filled room at the rear of an RSL building in Hawthorn, Yvonne Audette, one of Australia's leading abstract painters, shares the lessons of her remarkable career. As a young artist and one-time photographic model for Max Dupain, she left Australia in the early 1950s and arrived in New York just as abstract expressionism was about to transform the art world, meeting leading exponents including Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. "I absorbed everything," she says now. "I drew and drew and drew and learnt from everybody. When I got to Europe, it all sort of sifted together and I worked out my own direction." After a decade in Europe, she returned to Australia in 1966, eventually settling in the Dandenongs. On Thursday, an exhibition of her work opens at the National Gallery of Victoria.

What motivates you to keep teaching?

Two things. By teaching the artists, I inspire them. But also I inspire myself. By talking about everything that's important to me, it's like a ball bouncing against a wall, it comes straight back to you. I go away replenished and renewed with ideas. I couldn't paint as well and work as well if I didn't have the students to teach. I've only just begun to realise how valuable it is. When I've had physical complaints and haven't been able to teach, I think, well, I'd rather be dead.

How do you feel when you enter the space?

I always look forward to coming because I know what's ahead of me. It's an art world. The teaching has been going on here for years, so it has kind of sealed that artistic climate. It soaks into the walls. The Hawthorn Artists Society has been here since 1979. This room has been used for the arts for all that time, so it reverberates with a tremendous energy of creativity. It's a wonderful space for that reason. There's nothing like the student-teacher relationship. Knowing that you've passed on to someone something that's been with you all your life and you know has been valuable - rather like a mother and child - there's a great satisfaction.

Why is life drawing such an important skill for an artist?

The human form is the most difficult thing to draw. Once you've learnt to master it, you can do anything. You can paint well, you can compose well, you can go off into any direction of art, even sculpture. It's like playing piano. If you didn't know the scales, where do you go? I was in New York in the '50s, when the happenings were taking place - sort of like the installation art of our time. Drawing sort of fizzled out. It wasn't so important. From then on, Australia started to take that idea on board. Until just recently, it had almost disappeared from some of the main colleges. Life drawing is the backbone of art. America now has gone back to it. It's in full swing in New York. I still draw from life myself, because I need that to continue to have that discipline. When I come to my painting, I haven't lost that ability of my mind having that control over my hand. And drawing is the best discipline for that. There's no faking it.

What do you want your students to take away from their time here?

My firm belief in the alignment of the heart, the mind and the hand to make good art is what I try to pass on to my students. That, to me, is very important.

And how do you convey that?

By teaching them constructive drawing. By turning the planes in the human form. Robert Beverly Hale (one of her teachers in New York) used to say the outline is nothing; it's the line on the inside of the drawing that's more important. You have to find that point where it turns. But it takes a very disciplined eye to find that turn of the plane. I teach the students how to look, and find that turning point. Then they can master everything. This means also teaching them light and shade. And I teach them what I learnt from a Zen master in New York who took classes in drawing - how to work from your unconscious and work very quickly. I have the model pose for just half a minute and they have to catch it. This means they can't think, they have to draw. From that quick action, it's amazing what comes from the unconscious.

It sounds quite confronting.

You're confronted with shapes and lines that you think, "Where did they come from?" I make sure they recognise that that is something that has come from them, not from copying. They're not copying the model. They've discovered form and shapes and lines that they didn't know what to do with. So then I show them how they can use that in their whole art vocabulary. It's very exciting.

Is it frustrating not to have had the recognition that critics have said you deserved?

It's been my fault, in the sense that when I got back from Europe, I had exhibition after exhibition, I'd had exhibitions in Italy and Paris, London, always with success and good crits. But I got homesick and came back to Australia . . . and I went to live in solitude in the Dandenong Ranges. I had been so immersed in the arts and exhibiting, I just wanted to build up to my storehouse all the things that had been happening and all the art that I had learnt. I had to find myself. So I lived a very meditative life for a number of years. I'd been all those years in Europe, in city life, and I had this opportunity to buy this house in the Dandenong Ranges and I wanted to be close to nature . . . slowly I came back onto the scene. But the world had moved on.

You've had an extraordinary life.

It's extraordinary. And if I look back on it, it's been bloody hard. It's hard to be good, to excel in your work. I never wanted to be mediocre. I always wanted to be a good artist. If a painting goes out from my studio and I know it's not a good one, I can't sleep. I don't want to let it out. People say, "You have to let your work go". "No, no," I say, "I'll bring it out in a few months and work over the top of it."

What do you hope people will take away from the NGV exhibition?

There's a 1954 painting that was done around the time I met Franz Kline and had been visiting Willem de Kooning. I'd been looking a lot at Bradley Walker Tomlin's work. You can imagine a young girl arriving in New York. We had no clue of it in Australia. Abstract expressionism was starting in America, but we didn't have magazines or books or cards or anything to tell us what was going on. So I arrived bang in the middle of abstract expressionism. Mind-boggling. I met de Kooning, Kline, (Robert) Motherwell, I visited Rothko's studio. It just blew me away. And this painting I did was one of the first abstracts. It will show people that I've come right from the very beginning, developing all through that time when art was so vibrant over there. That's what they will get from it. It's the beginning of my abstract expressionist influence, and moving on till about 1967. I came back to Australia in 1966 and brought all that work back with me. It's been borrowed from private collections, so there are works in there that I haven't seen for years. It'll be wonderful for me to see. My students are thrilled because they want to see all that work. But I guess I'll get more out of it than anyone else, because it'll be all my babies coming together.

*Yvonne Audette: Different Directions 1954-1966 _ The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia September 13 until February 17 2007. -- INTERVIEW: LINDY PERCIVAL *