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As Rosslynd Piggott prepares for I Sense You But I Cannot See You – the second retrospective of her career at the National Gallery of Victoria – she reflects on her childhood in Frankston, her ambition as a young artist and her life’s work. “I did a year of teaching in 1981 in the remote Victorian country at Werrimull. I’d just come out of post-punk Melbourne, thrust up there in the middle of nowhere. I was never going to do three years up there. After that, I just ran away, basically, to St Kilda, doing dishwashing and waitressing. I knew I wanted to be an artist.”

By Steve Dow.

Rosslynd Piggott’s sense of self

Artist Rosslynd Piggott.
Credit: National Gallery of Victoria

She swims in the morning. Not every day, but frequently, to clear her thoughts and listen to her body. This alchemist whose dreamlike art plunges into the potency of nature began doing pool laps because a long relationship broke up. She started to swim at a crisis point, and never stopped.

For 25 years, Rosslynd Piggott rented a rambling old house and garden in Prahran, in inner Melbourne, and often swam at the local public pool before breakfast, when there was less distraction. A decade before we became enslaved to smartphone screens, Piggott presciently wrote about a crisis in “people’s ability to think, to dream, to engage in reverie, in slow time, in silence”, to be “in contact with their own power”. She hews to a Buddhist-like view that, despite our egos, human life is part of “the endlessness”, that our energy continues after death.

These days, at 60, Piggott frequents the public pool in Fitzroy, having moved her studio from Flinders Lane in the CBD to a space two floors above a cafe cluster in Brunswick Street, close to her home. It’s no use pressing the baroque doorbell at street level. She rejoiced the day it broke, dissuading people from dropping in and climbing the narrow wooden stairs for a chat. “I’m not an artist that likes to share,” she says with a laugh, her grey hair neatly parted to one side.

But there are compromises: Piggott does share this studio space, with its white walls and white-painted couch and reflective silver coffee table flanked by bonsai, with her long-term partner, Miles Du Heaume, a sometime composer and recording engineer who plays synths and guitar. His music desk is covered in cloth while he works his IT day job. A floor below, the artists David Palliser and John Waller have studio space.

A city-bound number 11 tram clangs. It is 4pm. Piggott draws down the blinds to minimise the late-afternoon sun streaming in. She describes the meditative state of painting, of being in the creative zone at this time of day, as a kind of autism. She is putting the finishing touches to half-a-dozen new large canvases that are bound for her career retrospective I Sense You But I Cannot See You at the National Gallery of Victoria, her first survey since the self-described “princess moment” of her career, the Suspended Breath exhibition of 1998, also at the NGV.

Great swaths of gorgeous pinks and purples and baby blues and lilacs and whites unfurl across these latest canvases. Piggott aspires to her audience having a synaesthetic sensory encounter, whereby the visual lushness hits the retina and penetrates the optic nerve to suggest smell and taste. There is no figuration, but these are flower paintings, not abstractions, insists Piggott, running through her list of glorious titles such as Imagined Rose and Expanding Violet and Ice Camellia and Blush and the Gertrude Stein-inspired repetition of Expanded Rose Rose and Petal Space. “The titles I love,” says Piggott. “They’re like little poems.”

One of the earliest works in the survey is the painting Tattoo (1986-87), of a nude woman inked the length and breadth of her body, though I cannot see tattoos on Piggott. “I look back at those works and I see a younger artist and a younger me. Doing the research, looking back at archives and opening the drawers, I’m in tears. It’s quite emotional. Flicking through a few piles of photographs or notes, it’s like your life is coming up at you. It’s a self-archaeology, and it’s really quite confronting. I’m generally by myself doing that, in my storeroom, and at times I’m thinking: ‘God, am I preparing for my death’, you know?” She laughs.

More recent works, the engraved glass sculptures Garden Fracture/Mirror in Vapour reflect Piggott’s concerns about the state of the world and perhaps her own mortality. She has worked with professional glass-blowers. “You can see them as decorative artworks, you can see them as [examples of] the mastery of engraving which they certainly are, or as images on glass that could easily break. The effect, when you’re looking at those works, is of a kind of fracture. The images are of flowers, so they’re already ephemeral, and passing.”

A four-month residency in Japan in 1997 began Piggott’s love affair with the land of the rising sun, where she collected cherry blossom air in delicate glass flasks that she then sealed with wax. The “incredibly refined” and “intellectual” Japanese approach to nature and culture challenged Piggott’s Western way of thinking. She has returned to Japan many times since.

“Flowers are a sex organ,” Piggott wrote in her diary last year. “I enter into their space. The sensory encounter enters into a bodily realm. Is this an act of love, I wonder, or an act of thinking?”

Piggott prefers not to talk too much about her work, and worries that the emerging artists she teaches at Monash University are under pressure to speak about their art too. At the beginning of the semester, she implores her young charges, raised on mobile screens as though the devices are extensions of their bodies, to put their phones away and make as much room as possible for visual cues and personal responses.

 

Rosslynd Piggott is the eldest of three daughters to jewellery maker Lynette Moon and the late artist Owen Piggott, who was born in Tipton, in England’s West Midlands, referred to as Black Country because it was where much of Britain’s Industrial Revolution originated. He migrated as a young man to Australia in 1950. The couple met studying art at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, and built their home in Frankston, 55 kilometres south-east of the city, where Rosslynd was born in 1958.

Several of Owen Piggott’s paintings, featuring subtle gradations of light, can be seen online as part of the NGV collection. His art studio and Lynette’s jewellery workshop were next to each other, but the view was not equal. “Dad’s creative life took precedence,” says Piggott, who wrote the eulogy for Owen when he died in 2015. “It is a familiar story. But it’s interesting now: in her 80s, Mum has taken up drawing classes. So she’s still a very engaged and creative person.”

Piggott attended Karingal High School. This is serendipitous: I tell her I attended the same school a decade later to get my Higher School Certificate, but that our alma mater didn’t make it into this century; falling enrolments meant it was merged with another school some distance away, where the two campuses were consolidated in 1999. Our old school was then bulldozed for an aged-care facility, a sign perhaps of an ageing population, as well as a small cluster of new houses.

“Oh,” says Piggott, to whom this is news. “Oh no.” The artist has returned little to Frankston since leaving the area well over 40 years ago. Summer holidays spent further south linger longer in her imaginative mind: staying in a huge, beautiful 1930s house belonging to friends of the family by the dunes of Blairgowrie back beach, swimming in rock pools and running through tea-tree tracks, like an “Australian Shinto upbringing – our place was very much in nature”.

Nonetheless, the humble Karingal High played its part in Piggott’s ambition to become an artist. “It was really a quite progressive high school. They had amazing teachers there. My art teachers ended up giving me a little mezzanine studio of my own in the later years, which was amazing. We had this really fabulously groovy English literature teacher who used to drive a vintage MG. She got sent home one day because her kaftan was too see-through.”

The times were not always progressive: just as Piggott was gaining her HSC, a constitutional crisis hit federal politics and shattered Gough Whitlam’s reform-minded Labor government. That November, the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, dismissed Whitlam and installed Malcolm Fraser as caretaker prime minister. A month later, Fraser’s Liberal Party, in coalition with the National Country Party, won the federal election.

As Labor supporters who were “appalled and disgusted” at what they saw as a subversion of the democratic process – “They thought: ‘We just can’t stay here’ ” – Owen and Lynette sold their home in Frankston’s Heatherhill Road and packed themselves and Rosslynd, then 17, and her two younger sisters, Michelle and Kate, off to Europe for a year.

“I was a bit of a surfie chick at the time, which as you know it was cool to be if you were in Frankston,” recalls the artist, affirming that she shared her parents’ politics and outrage at Fraser, whom Whitlam dubbed Kerr’s cur. “I very much gravitated towards pacifism, really, and those nice ideas.”

The Piggotts landed first in England but were dismayed at Margaret Thatcher’s likely trajectory to power in Britain, so they bought a converted German campervan and went journeying. Owen was passionate about art history and the family traipsed through major art museums in Britain, France, Spain and Italy, then across archaeological sites in Greece.

Rosslynd spent her 18th birthday in Delphi. Greece would prove the most memorable part of the trip. “Dad was obsessed with Ancient Greece, so he took us to all these archaeological sites. We were promised a house on the island of Lemnos, in the northern Aegean, but when we got there the house was knee-high in weeds. So we settled in the campervan on a beach called Thanos, just on the edge of fields.

“We had to walk about a kilometre to get water, and the locals were intensely interested in us. I had a little studio in a deserted kafenio on the beach. There was a woman, Despina, who used to come and speak to us in rapid Greek. I actually started to speak a little Greek.”

Piggott went for interviews at art schools in England and got acceptances. “But I was very young, so I decided to come back to Australia,” she says. “I do often think about that time now. I would have been the generation of the YBAs [Young British Artists] had I stayed.” Any regrets? “Not really, no. I don’t think you can regret those things because you’re so young. It did mean I’ve kept travelling, basically, all through my life.”

Was there a moment when Piggott knew there was no going back from her desire to be an artist? “That’s a quite potent and interesting question,” she says.

“There was a point where I was deciding what to do next, and even though I’d been for interviews in England to go to art school, Dad didn’t particularly want me to be an artist. I suppose most parents can see where their kids are going, and just think, ‘Oh shit’, you know?

“He said, ‘Look, you’re too sensitive, and you have to do something else.’ He was quite forceful, actually. And then I undertook a teaching qualification. I was very lucky to have a studentship, so I was paid as a student, which is unbelievable [viewed from] these times. But I was also bonded, so I did a year of teaching in 1981 in the remote Victorian country at Werrimull.

“I’d just come out of post-punk Melbourne, thrust up there in the middle of nowhere. I was never going to do three years up there. After that, I just ran away, basically, to St Kilda, doing dishwashing and waitressing. I knew I wanted to be an artist.”

Recently, Piggott’s mother found a letter the young artist wrote to her father, saying: “Please don’t worry; this is what I want to do.”

Piggott says she has suffered financially during her life, something her father never faced because he always had teaching and was superannuated early. “He suffered through [lack of] critical recognition. He really had a hard time with that. I understand. He wasn’t duly recognised in his lifetime.

“That very often happens with artists,” she says. “It’s a very complex thing. He was alive to see my first survey show and he was always very, very proud of me, and very generous in that way. They did help me, whenever they could.

“They just knew it was a hard life. And it is. There’s no getting around that.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 13, 2019 as "Coming to senses". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.