Sunday, February 5, 2012

My grandmother's art (Pt 1)

I was thinking about my grandmother's job recently and how it's one of those jobs that's become extinct. It was the kind of job that, for the next generation, won't make any sense at all - like dial-up internet, landline phones and camera film. She did, in fact, work with photos, but in a way that's so alien to us now. She coloured them in. Her job title was 'colourist' but I think that refers to a different (much more modern) job now because when I googled it, nothing came up about this old-school craft.

My grandmother's photo-colouring work (Before and after)

I remember from my childhood seeing examples of her work: black and white photos, painted with oils, to resemble the actual colours of the real world. This was obviously before colour photography and it must have been such a special thing to go off and have your photographs coloured. When I asked my mum if I could have a look at these photos, a few days later she got back to me with a huge collection of so much more of my grandmother's work.

My grandmother, Marie Smith, did a Commercial Art course at The Melbourne Technical College in LaTrobe Street, Melbourne, from which she graduated in 1938 (wooah)! My mum has much of her folio work - from rough sketches to finished pieces. You can definitely see her development as an artist, from her early work at the beginning of the course, to her very accomplished art towards graduation. Here is a selection of some of her folio pieces. Because it was a commercial art course, much of her work was training for creating advertising and catalogue images: fashion, ticketing, posters, book covers, that kind of thing.

This is one of my very favourite photos of her (below). She is the one at the front, on a boat, sketching with her classmates on a field trip. I often try to imagine what she was like when I look at photos because I never knew her. She passed away only months after I was born.

The wooden board these items are resting on was the board she worked on for her photo colouring work (later in her career). It is covered in pin-holes from where she attached the photos she was working on, paint splotches and is seeped with oil. It is one of my most treasured possessions and I feel so lucky to have such a well-worn and special memento.

My mum has saved my grandmother's paintbrushes, and was very lucky to find one of her used oil paint tubes recently when we cleaned out my grandfather's house for sale. It was the very last thing she found, hidden at the back of a top shelf in the bedroom wardrobe, and seemed a fitting final treasure to uncover.

When I returned the work to my mum after taking photos of it (many more than I have room here to show you!) my mum gave me this piece:


I just love it. The colours, the styling, the image and the way it's very much of its time but, at the same time, hasn't really dated. I love the airbrush work she's used as shading on the right-hand side (can you see it? - the blue splotches). I love the hand-painted typography. I just love it. I'm going to frame it and put it up at my desk as something to remember her by and a prompt for me too: to keep making art, to follow in her footsteps (in my untrained, trial-and-error way).

Mum also gave me this:


While it's not a completely finished piece, I think that's what I like about it. I also like that it's on hard card (like the previous piece) and I will have this one framed too and will hang it in one of the girls' rooms.

When my grandmother married my grandfather, William, she became Marie Ward. She went on to have two children, my mum and uncle. She worked as a photo colourist at her dining room table. But I'll write more on that tomorrow.

My grandmother would have been 91 today. It's her birthday. So I wanted to write this post for her.