The Art Blog: Occasionally I find an artist that really inspires me to keep painting. Well here it is. This just raised the bar on when I will retire from painting.
Joyce Meier couldn’t imagine doing anything else, and neither can I.
So here’s to reaching my new goal of 94 years old and painting!
Canvases testament to a life’s work
Dedicating a life to art
Relatively unknown Australian artist Joyce Meier has been painting and sketching her whole life with her home acting like a makeshift gallery.
Throughout her long life, Joyce Meier has painted and drawn wherever she could find the space.
In the kitchen of her East Melbourne home, on its walls, on scraps of theatre tickets or bits of paper, the remnants of her lifetime’s devotion to art are everywhere to be found.
But most people would never recognise Joyce Meier’s name, nor her maiden name, Joyce Ehms, which is what she went by when she first began dabbling around the edges of Melbourne’s art scene in the late 1930s.
Dedicated: Artist Joyce Meier in her former home/studio in East Melbourne. Photo: Ken Irwin
”It’s just one of those things, you’ve just got to accept the way things go,” her daughter Sue Lovitt says. ”Look, I love her work, I can’t help that, I admire it enormously … but it was never noticed out there in the public arena.”
Instead Joyce Meier’s story is one about labouring for the sake of love, of painting every day and everywhere just because she couldn’t imagine doing anything else, even without the encouragement of mainstream recognition.
”There was nothing much else to do, was there?” Meier laughs. ”I just did, I don’t know, I just did it. That’s all.’
Now 96, and with failing eyesight and hearing
It’s been two years since Meier picked up a paintbrush and she’s not likely to do so again.
She tends to play down her abilities, often saying her work simply wasn’t ”good enough” to take her further.
But much of it still stands up, 60 years later, her training as a figurative painter clear in the hundreds of canvases that lean in stacks along the walls of the rambling East Melbourne home.
One of Joyce Meier’s murals. Photo: Ken Irwin
Full of colour and joy, Meier favoured scenes of children and women early in her career, later turning her hand to wildlife portraits, lithographs, stained glass, wood carving and even enamel jewellery-making. She drew inspiration from her years in Palestine during the war, for which she interrupted her studies at the National Gallery School in Melbourne to work as a Voluntary Aid Detachment member with the army, introducing rugged landscapes and groups of women, some of them veiled, into her painted work.
A keen student, she returned to the National Gallery School (later incorporated into the Victorian College of the Arts) after the war and did well, a runner-up for a prestigious travelling scholarship. She also won some minor awards. When in 1949 she married Dennett Meier, life changed pace and she worked at being a stay-at-home mother for her two children, Sue and Peter. But she never stopped painting.
”When she got married and changed her name she dropped from being recognised,” her daughter says. ”But mum and dad were so in love it would never have been discussed why she didn’t make it.
”Mum painted all the time, there was always work going on in the kitchen, which is the only place she could work. And when I came home from school she would have to put all her paints away out the back in the laundry and of course they would come out again the next day.”
It’s not an uncommon story. The postwar years for women artists in Australia were challenging, says John Cruthers, an art consultant and curator whose family donated the country’s largest collection of Australian women’s art to the University of Western Australia in 2007.
”There’s a lot of work made that didn’t get very well known,” he says. ”I think it was just inherently a very conservative period, the postwar period. This is what we had been fighting for – families and home and suburbia, that’s what everyone wanted, the national project was to re-establish family life.
”I think of the women who did succeed as kind of heroes, people like Margaret Olley, Dorothy Braund, even Joy Hester.”
In a way, Sue Lovitt is grateful that her mother never officially broke through. It allowed her to paint and create as she wished, unaffected by market forces or collectors’ desires.
Although Joyce Meier now lives in aged care, the family’s East Melbourne house – two houses, really, joined by knocked-out walls and narrow staircases – remains a warren packed with hundreds of her canvases, lino-cuts, brushes and exhausted tubes of paint.
It’s time to sell up, but going through a lifetime’s worth of possessions and creative output is daunting.
And with that comes the inevitable question of what has to be left behind.
”It’s a bit sad,” Lovitt says. ”It’s the murals that I’ll be sad about leaving because you think someone will come in and won’t like them and they’ll disappear.”