IN HEATHER Tobias’s 85th year, the last thing she was expecting was her first solo exhibition. “It’s taken all this time,” she marvels.
Not that Heather is Wonthaggi’s Grandma Moses. She was part of a vibrant Bass Coast arts scene from the 1980s to the early 2000s, and actually taught art and used to show her work in the annual Bass Coast Art Group exhibitions – but this is the first time her work has been exhibited as a collection.
Earlier this year, ArtSpace Wonthaggi curators Ursula Theinert, Susan Hall and Karin Ellis visited Heather after hearing she wanted to exhibit some of her work in the gallery. “We were amazed at the breadth of work that had been tucked away unseen for so many years,” Karin recalls.
The works had been in storage for a long time and some of them needed restoration work, which has taken place in Ursula’s studio. Ursula and Susan cleaned the paintings and frames, made some small touch ups to scratches, varnished the paintings, framed a couple of paintings and retaped and placed D rings and wire on several of the frames.
Art was a part of Heather’s life from a young age. Her grandparents lived next to the Boyds in Murrumbeena. Heather used to hang over the back fence and watch the Boyd kids enviously. “They seemed so free. They had bare feet and they could do what they liked. I became aware at an early age that there was that other world of the arts and I wanted to be part of it.”
Then she started school and the headmaster had a couple of Hans Heysen prints in his office and in the corridor. She was telling her father one day and he said ‘How on earth do you know about Hans Heysen?’ When she told him, he made her a big blackboard on an easel and she used to draw on that.
Later she studied various classes at the Sherbrooke Arts Society. “I’d drawn all my life and used charcoal and I’d painted with very uninformed water colours but I’d never painted with oils before.”
She was increasingly drawn to tonal impressionism, thanks to classes with Roy Griffiths, Alan Martin (apprentice to the legendary Max Meldrum) and Peter Wegner, making her “a third generation student of Max Meldrum”, she jokes.
She describes the technique like this: “Each time you look for the biggest difference you can make. If you’ve got a white canvas, the biggest difference is going to be the darkest tone, so you scrumble the paint onto the approximate location on the canvas. Form is not important in the beginning; the imagine reveals itself as you proceed. It’s built up by paint upon paint. It doesn’t have to be thick. I don’t paint with heavy paint …”
When she moved with her family to Wonthaggi in 1983, she soon found herself leader of the Wonthaggi Art Group – “there were people ready to step down” – and teaching art classes, first in Fred Coventry’s studio in Broome Crescent and later in the old shire offices at Dalyston. Twice a year the class would have a weekend at Shallow Inlet because she wanted her students to paint en plein aire.
Painting with words
Heather Tobias is also an accomplished poet with two acclaimed collections, A Feather in my Hair and The Glass Staircase. She sees a likeness in her approach to both art forms.
“When I paint, the shadows are my first concern setting the tone of the painting.
Details remain understated, supporting the mood, the drama and movement of the whole.
“Writing is the same. I begin with an undisciplined collection of quick, surface thoughts – maybe scribbled on any surface available at the time. These are shuffled, thrown into a loose structure and then the excess is pared back in the search for fine points.”
She hasn’t painted for a while. “I have trouble with my hands. I’ve lost a lot of touch. Also Max Meldrum said you’ve got to stand while you’re painting. You don’t sit.”
The retrospective is giving her a real lift at a difficult time, when she is pretty well housebound. She’s only sorry she can’t be at the exhibition opening in person but she hopes to make a virtual appearance
But she’s been looking at her own work with fresh eyes, and remembering how much pleasure art has given her. “I was always happy with what I painted. There was never any chance that I was going to change.”
The Heather Tobias Retrospective is at ArtSpace Wonthaggi, 1 Bent Street, from September 28 to October 30, open daily 11-3pm. The opening is on Sunday, 2nd October from 1-3pm. All welcome.