Mary Alice Evatt: Art for the People

David Stratton

I was extremely honoured to be invited to speak at the opening of this magnificent exhibition of the works and the collection of Mary Alice Evatt, or Mas as she was often known because she signed her own works that way, in the initials of her maiden name, Mary Alice Sheffer. However, as I’m sure you know, art is not my area of expertise—at least not the kind of art you see on the walls here today.

 

So I’ll leave discussion of the works themselves to others better equipped than I am to talk about them, notably to the curator of this exhibition, Dr Melissa Boyde, who will be speaking about the works tomorrow afternoon. Instead I want to talk this evening about three remarkable women, passionate, engaged and committed women. Two of these women I have known for many years; the third I never met. Let me start with her.

 

Mary Alice Sheffer was born in 1898 in the small town of Ottumwa, in the state of Iowa. The town, located on the Des Moines River, was known mainly for its meatpacking works and its manufacture of farm equipment; but, interestingly, it’s close to Eldon, the village where, in 1930, Grant Woods painted the celebrated American Gothic. Mary Alice’s father, Sam, was an industrial chemist and when she was still a baby her parents moved to New Zealand and then on to Melbourne, where Sam became wealthy. In 1918 they moved to Sydney and settled in Mosman and after attending high school there Mary Alice became a student at the University of Sydney. She met her future husband, Bert Evatt, on the ferry crossing from Taronga to Circular Quay. We know from the letters and poems they exchanged with one another that both of them were romantics. They both loved art and, despite the opposition of Sam, who was conservative and disapproved of Evatt’s politics, they married in 1920 in what proved to be a close and lasting partnership.

 

And while Bert pursued a formidable career in law and politics, Mary Alice began to paint, in the modernist style of which so many in Australia at the time disapproved. Michael Kirby has described the relationship perfectly when he said that Mary Alice and Bert were 'both searching for good—for the noble things in the human spirit—things that inspire and project the best that human begins can attain. But whereas Bert Evatt’s world was one of politics, deals and law, Mary Alice lived, for the most part, in a kinder world involving a quest for beauty.'

 

Mas became a consummate artist, as you can see from her works here today. She took every opportunity to study modern art—in Paris and New York—and she was especially drawn to the work of modern Australian artists like Margaret Olley, with whom she became friends. She and Bert met Picasso who invited them to hMary Alice Evatt, Footballers, 1936. oil on cardboardis studio where they spent an entire day. Picasso was her hero, so she must have been in heaven! But she never felt that her work was good enough to be publicly exhibited.

 

The paintings she chose to purchase for her own collection were works that, as she said, 'moved her heart'. In addition to the Australian art they acquired, Mary Alice and Bert purchased works by Modigliani, Leger and Matisse among others. So when Mary Alice became the first woman appointed to the Board of Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales she brought a rare level of international knowledge to the position. She donated a number of art works to the Gallery, I think because she wanted the art she loved so much to be widely seen by other art lovers. She was a collector who relied on her emotions to choose the works that spoke to her, but she wanted to instil that love in as many people as possible. She was inspired by the Roosevelts, Franklin and Eleanor, and believed in Art for the People. She was one of the principals who came up with the idea of Traveling Art Exhibitions, that would take artworks from the Art Gallery of New South Wales and tour country towns in NSW and the ACT. In those days, there was no art gallery in Canberra, and the Masonic Hall was used for these exhibitions.

 

Unlike Menzies, who was very conservative when it came to art—and politics—the Evatts were progressive—they loved modern art, both Australian and international. They believed that Australians produced world class art and wanted the world to see it—but they were also internationalists. For them, life in Australia was more than sport—art was vitally important to the health of the society. They were a team who gave the works of art they acquired to cultural institutions and to friends—and when they travelled, Mary Alice would often pack a couple of small Australian prints and hang them in the hotel rooms where they stayed, replacing the mostly ghastly so-called artworks for which hotel rooms are notorious.

 

The Evatts had very close links with the Blue Mountains. In 1927 they acquired a block of land at 298 Leura Mall and Mary Alice designed and oversaw the building of their house there. They loved the time they spent here in the Mountains.

 

The second of the three women I want to praise today is Rosalind Carrodus, the adopted daughter of Mary Alice and Bert. I’ve been a close friend of Ronie, as some call her, though I call her Rosie, ever since my wife and I moved to the Mountains 27 years ago. Rosie is the ‘keeper of the flame’. She is incredibly proud of her parents and her face lights up whenever she talks about them. She has a fine collection of paintings by Mary Alice, and also of paintings collected by Mary Alice and Bert, and for her they are more than paintings: they’re friends that watch over her and bring back the happiest of memories. I don’t want to embarrass her, so I’ll simply say that Rosie is unique in my experience and the worthiest of daughters willing and able to keep the memory of her parents, and especially her beloved mother, vividly alive.

 

And now I want to sing the praises of Melissa Boyde, curator of this exhibition. A curator is a bit like a film festival director. The role of both is to act as a bridge between the artist and the art lover. It’s a vitally important link. Melissa and her partner Amanda, became neighbours of Rosie in Leura in the early 1990s. When they first visited her cosy, cluttered cottage in Abbey Street Melissa was taken aback by the art work on the walls—she knew nothing about Mary Alice’s work as an artist until that moment and her first thought was that one key painting, which was hanging in the kitchen, was too close to the stove! It must have been quite a moment for her, and she couldn’t believe that Mary Alice’s work had never been publicly exhibited. Melissa has been promoting and championing the work of Mary Alice ever since.

 

Melissa became interested in modernism at an early age—she was reading Gertrude Stein when she was 17. She is Senior Research Fellow at the University of Wollongong, and her fields are modernist Art and Literature and Animal Studies. Her research into visual arts has concentrated on the work of Australian women artists, including Margaret Olley, Moya Dyring and Mary Alice Evatt. But I must say a word about her passionate love of and advocacy for animals. She edits a journal, Animal Studies, and she lives on what I can only describe as a farm in all but name, surrounded by animals of various sorts and descriptions. I discovered a wonderful piece she wrote in which she succeeded in linking at least two of her interests, when she described the representation of animals in the movies Wake in Fright and Red Dog.

 

She staged her first exhibition of the work of Mary Alice at Bathurst in 2002, when her partner, Amanda, was running the regional gallery there, and since then has brought the works to Sydney, Canberra, Adelaide and Melbourne. And now here to Katoomba—and that seems absolutely right, as though the work of Mary Alice is coming home, to be seen and admired by the people who live in the Mountains she loved so much.

 

So as you view these wonderful works, remember these three passionate women: the woman who created many of these works and who collected others; the woman who proudly and lovingly made certain her mother’s legacy would not be forgotten; and the woman whose knowledge and tenacity has brought Mary Alice to a wider public. Thank you, all three of you. And thank you, too, to the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre for the work you do in bringing art to the Mountains.

 

And now enjoy—Mary Alice Evatt: Art for the People.


This is the text of the speech by David Stratton on opening the exhibition Mary Alice Evatt: Art for the People at the Blue Mountains City Art Gallery on 18 May 2018. Images: Bidgee [David Stratton]; Mary Alice Evatt Footballers 1936 (oil on cardboard, 61 x 50.8 cm. Photo: Graham Lupp) [top]; Fernand Lédger The bicycle 1930 (oil on canvas, 64.8 x 50.8 cm. Art Gallery of NSW. Gift of Mrs H.V. Evatt in memory of the late Dr H.V. Evatt 1966. © Fernand Lédger/ADAGP. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney. Photo: Christopher Snee, AGNSW. 002.1966) [bottom].


See also:

Suggested citation
Stratton, David, 'Mary Alice Evatt: Art for the People', Evatt Journal, Vol.17, No. 2, June 2018.<http://evatt.org.au/papers/mary-alice-evatt-art-people.html>