BEFORE I interview an artist I do as much research as I can. And so I was able to ask Mary if she was the same Mary Ham on Linked In having attended Kingswood Grammar School in 1944. “Ooh that is a long time ago, isn’t it?” What is also on the site is reference to her gaining her Masters in Visual Art in 2012. If you do the maths, you will realise Mary was 80 when she achieved that qualification.
With an eidetic memory, Mary was able to sail through school except for equations – she was simply no good with maths. She was such a fast long-distance runner that was accused of not completing the course as she was so far ahead of the others. She tells me she was no good with tennis, though, and as often as not would throw the racquet to the ground.
The choices for a career for a woman in the 1950s were teaching, secretarial work, nursing or missionary work. When Mary, who had a bit of a reputation for being clumsy, told her father that she had decided on being a nurse her father said, “Great – you’re going to kill everyone.”
In fact she was good enough to win the gold medal as the best nurse of the year. When she emigrated from England to Australia, she enjoyed working at the Royal Melbourne Hospital as well as the Peter MacCallum. She enjoyed nursing because the rules were tight and explicit – everything cut and dried. She liked the controlled environment.
Which is why it is so surprising that now as a print maker her keen interest is to explore chaos theory – which is full of those equations she couldn’t do at school. And there are certainly no rules to chaos.
I came across a wonderful explanation of the theory: “Chaos is the science of surprises, of the nonlinear and the unpredictable. It teaches us to expect the unexpected.” And here is the nub of Mary’s work: she wants to combine chaos and order.
With a background in nursing, she remains interested in the human condition, including bodies, the circulatory system as well as society, the world and nature. She tells me that every system has a goal – and that is to reach a steady state which is predictable. In mathematics these steady states are referred to as attractors. I laugh when she tells me you can create beautiful images from these despite them being from mathematical functions. She clearly still doesn’t like maths!
In her print making, Mary takes these attractors to control the chaos. If it is all sounding too confusing so far, the best example to demonstrate the theory is the swing of a pendulum.
Mary is a great fan of the work of James Gleick as it puts the chaos theory in a simplified way. You can get a small taste of the theory in this fascinating three minute clip.
Mary told me she first became involved in art when she was walking past a poster in Prahran and saw a drawing. She was 50 at the time, recently divorced and with grown-up children.
Out loud she said, “I wish I could draw like that” and a voice in her ear said, “I can teach you.” I wondered whether it was an inner voice – or even a voice from a heavenly being – but no, it was the art teacher who happened to be behind her at the time.
She tells me she couldn’t draw in the beginning. One day she spent 12 hours trying to draw well enough to pass a test. At 8pm her assessor said, “It’s OK, we’ll pass you – we’re tired and want to go home.”
Mary explains that her prints attempt to put into perspective that life is all about making decisions and taking advantage of windows of opportunity in the hope of making a good life, a successful life, and one filled with love. It is about making a prediction based on the conditions at the time and then following that trajectory. All about trying to put get some order out of chaos.
As we finished chatting, I asked her to tell me a wonderful memory of her nursing, perhaps to demonstrate the chaos theory. She told me that one night she sat beside the bed of a man who was dying. Everyone told her he would not last the night. He was so hot and had to be kept in a special tent to keep him cool. But she wouldn’t give up – she stayed awake all night – and so – in the guise of the science of surprises – he survived. I guess her father was wrong all those years ago.