RATITI sauntered over and demanded attention. I had only just entered the amazingly colourful art studio of Heather Towns and already her Tonkinese cat was sizing me up. Ratiti (“Fijian Princess” in English) only responds to the Fijian language. Heather used to have her second home in Fiji, in a traditional bure, nestled on a fringe of an idyllic white sandy beach, she would flee the pressures of her graphic arts business whenever she could.
She was accepted into the community on the proviso that she obeyed “fish people’s” village rules. She laughs as she describes that one part of the rules was to wear the dress worn by the locals. The women would purchase a bolt of fabric and make the traditional, shall we say, less than elegant frocks and all wear them. One day, they all lined up on the beach, along with Heather, to pose for a photograph. Heather laughs, “We looked like a curtain”. What was worse was the coconut husk threaded with frangipani flowers that she had to wear around her neck which felt worse than a hair shirt. But she was happy there eating fresh fish every night and sitting on the floor on woven mats and listening to the stories.
It was very primitive with most either not having access to, or choosing not to, attend the western hospitals. Her very dear friend who looked after her bure and boat, Josua’s, built like an Adonis, became sick and went to a snake oil doctor. He started wasting away and Heather got a message through his cousin to come quickly. She caught the next plane to Fiji. With mobile phone in one hand talking to a doctor friend from St Vincent’s, and her other hand moving over Josh’s body, they tried to work out what was wrong. The doctor suspected lymphoma. She managed to get Josh and his wife on a plane to Australia – but it was his embalmed body in a coffin that went back home.
While funeral and body transportation arrangements were being taken care of, she painted Josua’s coffin with the patterns that the Fijian people painted on their tapa cloths in the brown and white and with frangipani flowers with blocked out centres so his friends and family could write messages to him of their love and respect for him.
Without Josh, it was not the same. The boat was no longer looked after and the bure was last seen on the horizon when a cyclone hit. She sold the engine to the boat and gave the proceeds to Josh’s wife.
But it was this place that became so influential in her art. The raw and repetitive nature of the tribal art she found in the Pacific, Africa, Mexico and American Indian art inspires her. She loves the “pattern on pattern on pattern.” She certainly has no desire to be a tonal artist. What she loves is pushing colours backwards and forwards, push and pull.
Her first forays into art were not about colour. She foraged some charcoal from the incinerator when she was less than five and drew patterns down the concrete paths surrounding her father’s vegie patches. When her parents gave her dolls, she would design and make elaborate costumes for them, then put them in her drawer – job done. She certainly didn’t want to play with them.
Heather used to tell everyone she wanted to be an artist, to which her parents would reply “No she’s not”. Her mother wanted her to play piano and tennis and marry a doctor. She was terrible at school and so ended up at tech school where she was bribed with a transistor radio by her parents to make her attend. She was taught to cook (she failed cooking a brown stew on three occasions), home economics (or, as she refers to it, “how to iron a man’s shirt”), social studies, sewing and art. Her parents wanted her to become either a nurse (as her mother was) or a teacher and refused to support her in art. Heather thought there was no point in living, and decided to drink a bottle of weed killer. She hadn’t realised it would cause violent vomiting which was, as she says, “hard to do quietly”.
So her parents relented and allowed her to sit for entrance exams to Swinburne College of Art. Only 10 per cent of the 700 applicants were chosen and Heather was one of them. Two-thirds of the way through the course her parents stopped supporting her financially, so she had to find ways and means to support herself through her final year.
She then trained in graphic design, studied under Garry Emery, and set up her own graphic design business, Towns & Co, which later became Value Added Design. Think Epworth Hospital, Mildara Blass and Melbourne Docklands and you will realise what an impact she has had on developing iconic brands. For her it is not just the ‘mark’ that makes a brand but the culture of thought – enabling her to discover the ideals and ambitions of the many corporations she worked with.
She is passionate not only about art but also about knowledge. She despairs about news programs that devote 10 minutes to news, 20 minutes to sport, and not a dot about art or science. She laments that the Victorian of the Year is a scientist. “But what do we know about him?”
Confident and witty, with a strong sense of perspective, she does not like the attention to be on her exclusively. She has taken up belly dancing for fitness but also for the tribal feeling that it gives. She tells me she stays at the back – she would never want to be at the forefront.
She didn’t last five minutes at her own first art opening. She was so agitated that she decided to take some “relaxants”, fell out of the car that delivered her to the venue. When someone asked her what her “Medusa” meant, she replied that it was wall decoration, then promptly got back in the car and went home.
She is a member of Artback – a group of painters who go out bush and she is constantly amazed at how they can all look at the same thing and interpret it differently. Her companions laugh sometimes at her straight lines – but then she asks them if they could do it.
Heather believes that art can only be accomplished with love, diligence and talent – and only a few moments in her company convinces me she has them all.
Describing herself as a “doer”, Heather’s next project is working with local artist John Mutsaers on a project called ‘Patinas, Patterns and Painters’. The idea is to have monthly tours of artists’ galleries in the region with viewings and then following up with a soirée where artists will choose a topic to discuss – anything from technique, canvas, colour to brush strokes. If you are interested, contact Heather on firstname.lastname@example.org
When I sent the draft of this story back to Heather I also had the temerity to comment on her business bio. I said, “Forgive me - it is my mother's influence who was an English teacher who can see an inappropriate apostrophe from 100 paces. In your business bio one has snuck in there …” She kindly told me she didn’t mind. “Didn’t I tell you I am also dyslexic? (Not even sure if that’s how you spell it). Interesting isn’t it, my Dad was dyslexic, then me, then my son (he’s really bad) and now my grandson ... sad and difficult, but doesn’t stop ideas or life. Richard Branson is also dyslexic... And my son’s favourite saying is ... Great minds think differently – Not: Great minds think alike.”
If I wasn’t impressed about Heather before this – now I truly am.