Published  30/06/2020

Ann Thomson – interview: ‘Art is a means of renewing culture’

Ann Thomson – interview: ‘Art is a means of renewing culture’

Now in her late-80s, the Australian artist discusses how her love of Aboriginal art was sparked as a child, being influenced by the Scottish-born artist Ian Fairweather along with American, French and Chinese art, and being compared to Cy Twombly

Ann Thomson, January 2020. Photo courtesy Mitchell Fine Art.


One of Australia’s leading artists, Sydney-based Ann Thomson (b1933, Brisbane) has forged an independent path while absorbing a wide range of influences from gestural abstraction to Aboriginal art in Australia and Chinese art and culture. Landscape is an important inspiration, but she does not paint it literally. Rather, she seeks a state of receptivity and openness where memory and intuition inform the creative process.

Ann Thomson. Chasing Summer, 2019. Acrylic and collage on linen, 153 x 122 cm. © the artist.

Thomson’s paintings draw their imagery from the concrete world, yet they operate within an imaginative and metaphysical realm. She has devised a personal language to parallel an inner world. Her work embraces an element of chance; she looks to Indigenous art and to eastern philosophy for inspiration. Drawings that employ collage, ink and pastel, she says “enable her to think”. Her drawings are relatively small and inform her large oil paintings; they do not, however, act as preparatory works in a traditional sense. Many of her paintings are made up of drawn lines, ranging from delicate to emphatic, using oil sticks or pastel as drawing implements rather than a form of paint.

Ann Thomson. High wire, 2019. Acrylic and collage on linen, 153 x 122 cm. © the artist.

Thomson’s work alludes to the world of the subconscious. None of her gestural exploratory work would be possible, without a rigorous training, first in Brisbane with Jon Molvig and then at the National Art School in Sydney with John Passmore, Godfrey Miller and John Olsen for painting and Lyndon Dadswell for sculpture.

In the 1970s, Thomson visited New York where she encountered a wide range of new work; the action painting of Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell and Robert Rauschenberg appealed to her for the physical involvement with process, a strong painterly mark-making that still characterises her work.

Gestural abstraction over 40 years has given Thomson a rare ability to capture the fleeting sensation or moment. Her calligraphic marks share the poetry of Cy Twombly, whose work she admires. To think abstractly and to define spatially requires a conceptual and emotional leap of faith. Each work is an ephemeral experience, and in her own view a continuation from the past, in anticipation of the next. The organic sequence captures transient phenomena and the passing of time.

Janet McKenzie: The rebirth of Aboriginal art from the 1980s – in terms of the wider world being able to view it – came when European materials were introduced at Papunya Tula in the Central Western Desert. I can see in your work evidence of the multifarious cultural influences that Australian culture has been enriched by. What aspects of Aboriginal art interest you most?

Ann Thomson: My own experience of Aboriginal art predates the 80s. I have always loved Aboriginal objects in books. My father was a bookseller and there were just two books on Aboriginal art, so I collected them. After a while, there were so many books published on Aboriginal art that it was not possible to buy them all. It was like an explosion of interest.

But going back much further, I used to visit my grandparents in their house in Brisbane with a terraced garden and a shed where Indigenous works of art were stored. I can’t tell you what they were because I was very young, but I would spend a lot of time looking at them: there were spears and boomerangs, artefacts in a box that was, to me, a box of wonder. It was not a matter of knowing what they specifically were in any detail, rather the fact that they affected me.

Ann Thomson. Jamberoo, 2017. Gouache on paper, 37.5 x 28 cm. © the artist.

Over the years, I have been interested in Aboriginal art and made numerous trips to the Northern Territory, including Arnhem Land and Kakadu, and to Queensland. One of the most impressive artists was Yirawala (1897-1976), who was known as “the Picasso of Arnhem Land”. He was a ceremonial leader and dedicated to the preservation of his people’s culture. His work was about getting to the source of things; he wanted to convey the depth of Aboriginal culture and its sacred knowledge to the white population. Every part of his bark paintings is precise. Every part of the work is alive. Art is a means of renewing culture. I have a deep passion for Australian Aboriginal art, but I don’t want the Aboriginal influence in my work to be visible. Rather, I hope to make art that captures the “other” or the spiritual in life.

JMcK: Why did your grandfather have a collection of Indigenous art?

AT: His uncle had been a missionary, so he must have collected or taken pieces.

JMcK: When you were at art school, was there any interest in other cultures, in anthropology?

AT: No, it was strictly European.

Ann Thomson. Magnetic Island XIX, 2017. Gouache on paper, 28 x 37.5 cm. © the artist.

JMcK: Later on, your work developed as gestural abstraction. Did you discover that in New York in the 70s, or were you already aware of American abstract expressionism?

AT: I went in search of it. It was easy to meet American artists. Ken Noland visited Australia and said: “When you’re in America, call me.” So, I did and I stayed with him in Vermont. I also visited Chuck Close’s studio. It was all around. You immediately belonged to a club centred on the Knoedler Gallery in New York, where painters joined together and made something happen.

JMcK: Australians are particularly receptive to new places and to seeing art in the flesh for the first time because we learned art history from reproductions – slides in art school lectures – or black-and-white reproductions in books and magazines.

AT: I learned from sepia prints and when I first travelled, I went to Europe, particularly to Paris.

Ann Thomson. Masque. Wood, rope and chain, 106 x 34 x 10cm. © the artist.

JMcK: When you were in your 30s, you and your then husband, the photographer Robert Walker, frequently visited the Scottish-born artist Ian Fairweather (1891-1974), who was living a hermit-like existence on Bribie Island, off the coast of Queensland. Can you describe what it was like meeting him?

AT: That goes back to 1965. I was travelling with my husband, who was a documentary photographer – he loved photographing people and interviewing them, people that he thought could easily vanish – he wanted to put images of them into the world. We used to go to Bribie Island for a holiday – take a cottage and go in search of Fairweather. He was hard to find. He lived in a hut that he had made himself in the middle of the island. We had been given instructions to look for a log in the shape of an archway and then you were there.

JMcK: So, he knew you were coming?

AT: No, it was always a complete surprise.

JMcK: Was he pleased to see you?

AT: Not always. Robert stood outside and called: “Mr Fairweather.” And he would come out: it was something out of the mythology I had created around him, out of his hut into the bright sunshine, blinking those bright blue eyes. He was a hermit who quite liked seeing people.

Ann Thomson. Newhaven IV, 2017. Acrylic on linen, 122 x 153 cm. © the artist.

JMcK: What did you learn from Fairweather?

AT: He taught me what a real artist is. There was an interview with him (for a newspaper) and it seemed he worked mostly at night. The interviewer said: “What do you do all day?” And he replied: “I paint, damn it.” Meaning that an artist is an artist all the time. It is not just the time that you are actually painting. Being in the world as an artist, I can look out the window of the studio and be in touch with the process of looking, of seeing nature. I learned that from him.

JMcK: Did you know Fairweather’s art as well as the intriguing individual?

AT: He was showing at the Macquarie Galleries in Sydney, so I had the opportunity to see those exhibitions. I was very taken by his work, as people were at the time. I knew that was what I wanted to pursue rather than more conventional realist art that was being produced in Australia at the time. I asked him once when we were looking at a circus: “Is that where your circus painting comes from”? And he said: “Yes, I always start with a subject.” Later on, he gave himself permission to lose the subject as his starting point. The subject came in though because if you looked around, in the area outside his hut, the leaves on the ground looked rather like his paintings. Those things are picked up and brought into the work, but not consciously so.

Ann Thomson. Overwhelmed by summer, 2019. Acrylic on linen, 76 x 204 cm. © the artist.

JMcK: You practice meditation and recently did a residency in China. You have travelled a great deal and it seems that the older you are, the more refined this process of connectivity has become: the interaction between your mind, your thoughts and your physical breathing?

AT: It’s not sequential. You become part of everything that has entered you, been forgotten and then come back. I think that is where my abstraction has come from. It’s not looking at a landscape. I learned a lot from the head of my art school, the East Sydney Technical College, now known as the National Art School. We went to his house and he had a frame hanging in front of a still life and within that frame was an actual painted still life, and I thought, I don’t want to do that. I wanted my art to come from everywhere. One of the most important things I did when I first went to Paris was to go to the Louvre and sit for ages every day and look at Duccio and his contemporaries in Italy in the late 13th and early 14th century. It’s not the way I paint, but I often absorb such experiences of quite different artists’ work and they become part of my experience.

Ann Thomson. Polarise, 2002. Oil on linen, 92 x 61 cm. © the artist.

JMcK: What age were you when you visited Europe for the first time?

AT: I didn’t set foot outside Australia until I was 40. When others were setting sail on big ships to visit collections and live and paint abroad, I was busy with other things. I was busy trying to get to art school. I married and had children, so had no opportunity to travel, but then I got a number of scholarships – the Arthur Boyd residency in Tuscany was great with my teenage daughters. I painted small watercolours there of places that I got to on a bicycle. The Australian writer David Malouf lived nearby.

JMcK: When did you first go to China?

AT: Only two years ago. Before that, I was interested in Central Desert painting, Aboriginal art and European art and the history of French art – Monet and Matisse. In the 1970s, when I was at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, I was able to go to museums and look at things properly.

Ann Thomson. Rainforest, 2017. gouache on paper, 37.5 x 28 cm. © the artist.

JMcK: Is Cy Twombly an artist you have been consciously influenced by?

AT: Yes. Edmund Capon, director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (1978-2011), said I was the artist most like Twombly in Australia.

JMcK: That’s a very great compliment.

AT: I have seen Twombly in many places around the world – Germany, Italy. I was extremely fortunate and loved it. Numerous Sydney-based realist artists called him Trembly and didn’t like his work at all. A good painting for me should be alive.

JMcK: How do Twombly and Aboriginal art connect in your creative practice?

AT: Emily Kame Kngwarreye (1910-96) once described her work as: “I paint whole lot.” That’s what I am interested in, too. Twombly says it as well. You can’t paint solidly the whole time; you have to wait for it. I sometimes have a terrible time and feel I can’t paint any more and then, boom, I’m off again. I’ll have a run of creative energy like that and produce a new body of work.

Ann Thomson. Rainforest IV, 2017. Acrylic on linen, 60 x 71 cm. © the artist.

JMcK: I saw you working with a very large paintbrush and I was taken by how calligraphic your engagement with the process was. It was physical, but also very Zen. It shared drawing’s immediacy of expression and yet you seemed to be allowing the universe to guide you. Can you describe your recent residency in China, at the Sanbao Ceramic Art Institute in Jingdezhen?

AT: It was wonderful to go to China, but I also felt that I was already there. It is so sad that the doors to working in China are closed for now. I painted on everything I could find and very quickly, to the point that they decided I should go to the nearby factory to work. I went with the Australian artist Joe Furlonger, who mostly painted outside. I shared a studio with a Chinese artist. When I started working on a piece, he gasped and gave me the thumbs up. I also shared a studio with a 32-year-old monk and we also seemed to share an approach or sensibility.

JMcK: I was surprised that you had not travelled to China earlier in your career, that you were in your 80s when you first went there, because your work seems to be underpinned by a calligraphic sensibility.

AT: When you visit the place, it is so very different from the knowledge we have from reading, attending exhibitions, museum collections. Every street is full of art materials; it was incredible.

Ann Thomson. Rotator, 1990. Wood, rope, metal and firehose, 82 x 27 x 27 cm. © the artist.

JMcK: You painted a lot of ceramics in China? Did you go specifically to paint porcelain?

AT: I went with Furlonger to paint; he had visited China many times before. We were funded by the Nock Art Foundation and Joe discovered a place by the edge of rice fields, called Sanbao, and it looked perfect. It was a ceramic institute. When we got there, the rice fields had been replaced by vast motorways, and yet it was still beautiful. We had an incredible time and each day felt like a month. We worked on rice paper, canvas and ceramic surfaces. There was so much happening every day.

JMcK: Had you painted on big vases before?

AT: No, I just started and kept going. My gallery was organising an exhibition of artist plates, so that is how it started, but I loved it and couldn’t stop. Then I went to the pottery shed, where I had people to facilitate the process.

JMcK: You admire the work of the bark painter Nonggirrnga Marawili (b1938) – the way she makes things, the very act of making?

AT: She’s a wonderful artist who lives in Yirrkala in the Northern Territory. I’ve been invited to go up there, when we are allowed to travel again. Yirrkala is a hotbed of creative female artists.

JMcK: And you are drawn to the manner in which Aboriginal artists paint the land – not by looking at it – but by identifying with its inner life, the soul of the land?

AT: Their painting comes out of a whole other way of seeing.

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