NATASHA Williams-Novak’s friends treasure the cards she sends for celebrations and other occasions: the simplest of line drawings that perfectly capture the essence of a seagull, a person or a scene.
It’s a hard-won simplicity, refined from decades of practising and thinking about art. It also reflects her personality: one part a flamboyant wild child of the 1960s; three parts deeply serious and analytical about her art.
She’s been making art all her life. Growing up in Liberec, Czechoslovakia, she started making Christmas cards and the habit has continued. She went to a special art school to learn to design costume jewellery (Gablonz, in Bohemia, is world famous for its costume jewellery) and metal engraving. However, she soon tired of the fiddliness of engraving and started working as a window dresser. On the side, she was also doing cartoons for the local newspaper.
What she really wanted was to go to the art academy but that was impossible in the Communist state of Czechoslovakia because her mother was an escapee to the west, living in Melbourne, and her father, to whom she was very close, had been jailed for political dissidence. “He was in jail for two years then had to do another two years’ manual labour. It almost killed him. When he came out, he couldn’t hold anything, his hands shook so much.”
Her life must have been harrowing, but she speaks of it with equanimity. The state was oppressive but her own life revolved around art, friends and having fun. And it was at a nightclub one night that she met a man who promised he could get her a passport so she could leave Czechoslovakia.
The passport duly arrived and in 1965, aged 22, Natasha arrived in Melbourne. She lived with her mother in East Brighton and got a job making labels on a pantograph for a small engraving firm in the city. “Because I couldn’t speak English, I used to make mistakes. All the rejects went into this apron. I was like a pregnant kangaroo at the end of the day.
“When you do a menial job like that all day, it affects your thinking. I used to go by bus from Brighton and go back by bus. I was exhausted. I was pretty much alone in Australia and without the language.
“It was a very hard time, not because of Australia but because of my mother. I was thinking sometimes it was would be easier to swim out into the sea.”
She went away for Easter and when she came back there was someone more suited to operating a pantograph machine. It proved to be a happy sacking: she went to the Immigration Office and they got her a new job at the PMG (Post Master General, fore-runner of Australia Post and Telecom) as a retoucher in the photographic section.
And there her real life began again. “I had an eagle eye. Everyone was awfully nice to me. I made some good friends.”
An English sculptor called Jim Rowe, who worked in her office, used to take her to visit his family in Ferntree Gully at the weekends. She joined the Ferntree Gully Art Society and it was to play an important role in her artistic career. She later held many exhibitions there and became the society's president.
In 1966 she joined the Victorian Artists Society and befriended Noel Counihan and Jock Frater. By then she was living in East Melbourne and working in Spring Street. She had mastered English by reading newspapers and translating them. Later she obtained her degree at the Phillip Institute, a predecessor of RMIT.
The only time she stopped making art was when she had her three children in rapid succession, but she took it up again after about eight years. “I needed art,” Natasha says. “I need to do it constantly.”
Later, the family started coming down to Phillip island, and she discovered a new love: boogie boarding, which she continues to this day. For years the family camped on a friends’ farm at Ventnor until nine years ago she decided she really didn’t need to live in the city any more and shifted down full time.
To tell you the truth, she confides, the kind of art she likes isn’t being made much any more, so she doesn’t mind being out of the Melbourne mainstream. She names some of her favourite artists: Ian Fairweather, Colin McCahon, Tony Tuckson, Joy Hester, John Olsen, Alan Mittleman, Rover Thomas and Emily Kame Kngwarreye.
Since moving to the island, she’s also been thrilled to discover some local artists whose work she likes very much, including John Adams and Peter Walker.
“I was listening to the radio the other day and they were talking about a new stream of music called slow music, like slow food. What happens in music usually happens in art. I hope there will be some slow art happening, art that doesn’t happen overnight, or by a lucky accident, but comes after many years of working and thinking and analysing and evaluating.”
Away from the city, she’s doing lots of painting and print making. “When I have a block in painting, I go to my graphic work. I can always make prints and free myself up that way.”
Life on the island is good. She’s joined the local chess club (“lots of really bright, funny old guys. I love it”), the boogie boarding season is fast approaching and she’s agreed to be the Bass Coast Post’s cartoonist.
Which leads us to her first cartoon for the Post: A port out of place
September 9, 2014
Congratulations on another outstanding issue. Especially loved the bio on Natasha Williams-Novak