Janet Hawley: Artists in Conversation

Janet Hawley

Janet Hawley: Artists in Conversation
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Janet Hawley: Artists in Conversation

Janet Hawley

Artists in Conversation is a beautifully presented collection of essays examining the creative output of some of the greatest Australian artists over the last century. It also includes chapters on international artists including Picasso’s muse Francoise Gilot and the Chinese contemporary artists' boom.

Drawn from thousands of interviews by Janet Hawley - some from her widely read Good Weekend features - each essay offers a rare glimpse into the lives of the people behind the canvas. Spanning continents and decades, Artists in Conversation brings to life the creative talents of more than 30 artists including Brett Whiteley, Ben Quilty, Margaret Olley, Bill Henson, John Brack, Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Adam Cullen, John Wolseley, John Olsen and Albert Tucker, among others.

A feature writer, not a critic, Janet Hawley provides each artist with the opportunity to explain their work - from the initial inspiration and then often gnawing doubts, to the absolute thrill when the work takes on a life of its own.

Artists in Conversation
explores the motivation, the struggles and triumphs of the artist. Each essay is based on many personal encounters; numerous conversations in the artists' studios and homes, meals shared in cafes and many days spent travelling with the artist. It’s this environment that allows for the most honest and revealingly frank dialogue, and this is what gives Artists in Conversation its greatest appeal.


janet-hawley-revIf any book was to confirm the accepted notions of the artistic life, it could be this one. In her many years interviewing the stars of twentieth-century Australian art, Janet Hawley has clearly gained a level of trust from the artists, their families and their friends. I found myself quite surprised and moved by the emotional honesty of some of the subjects, because artists on the whole do have challenging and difficult lives – even if the rewards can be high.

Initially a bit resistant to the journalistic format, I found myself fascinated by the love and devotion of partners, family and friends, the sheer exuberant impossibility of a life such as Donald Friend’s and the refreshing attitudes of John Brack. While I know their work, there weren’t many artists whose lives I knew much about, except the more public and tragic figures such as Brett Whiteley and Adam Cullen.

Hawley seems to have a benign and compassionate appreciation of the artistic temperament that elicits a degree of confidentiality, and this came through for me with the women. Although none of them felt regretful or made any complaint, you could surmise that one of the reasons for an absence of female artists in that earlier twentieth-century period was due to the fact that, as young art students, many met their talented husbands, got married and became wives. The few who have become well known, such as Nora Heysen and Olive Cotton, were strong characters, but also fell in love and got married. Their careers became private affairs until recognition late in life.

I found this book to be an interesting social document and would recommend it as an excellent introduction to the lives of artists, a safe gift for young and old, and a fascinating look at creative life before digital media.

Margaret Snowdon is the Art & Design Buyer at Readings Carlton.

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