Elisabeth Cummings: Interior Landscapes

At 81, Elizabeth Cummings quietly quashes the perception that an artist’s work weakens with age. She’s at the peak of her career yet is entirely unfazed by this swelling esteem. The artist simply loves – and has always loved – to paint.

Elisabeth Cummings, Interior, 2001, oil on canvas, 120 x 200cm. Collection of Regina and Philip Law. Courtesy the artist and ANU Drill Hall Gallery, Australian Capital Territory

Practicing since the late 1950s, Cummings has witnessed radical undulations on the Australian art stage; however she’s always remained devoted to her own singular voice, unencumbered by transient art world fashions. Working from her secluded Wedderburn studio on the bushland fringe of Western Sydney, Cummings translates memory and emotion into pulsating expressions of intimate interiors and benevolent landscapes in a silent communion with canvas.

A profound affiliation with the Australian landscape shines through so much of your oeuvre. Having travelled around the country since the 1980s, what are some of the most impacting places you’ve come across?
Many places have been special to me. Australia has enormously rich and diverse landscapes, and I’ve only experienced a fraction of them. The bush in Wedderburn is a constant inspiration. I’ve visited the Flinders Ranges a number of times and love that area. I’ve also spent time in the West MacDonnell Ranges, the Pilbara, Lake Mungo, Namadji National Park and the Kimberley. I return to Currumbin where I spent a lot of time in my childhood.

Elisabeth Cummings, Rain clouds over the Tweed, 1999, diptych, oil on canvas, 195 x 220cm. Arthur Roe Collection. Courtesy the artist and ANU Drill Hall Gallery, Australian Capital Territory

Your work hovers effortlessly between abstraction and representation. How do you begin your paintings?
I enjoy the challenge of the fresh, untouched canvas and love putting the first marks down. I have an idea, sometimes quick sketches of the landscape or interior I’m attempting, but the painting takes its own course. It’s an intuitive process. I add, subtract, scrape off – there are numerous changes until I come to a point where I can do no more and hope I have a semblance of the original idea.

Elisabeth Cummings, Interior, 1974, oil on canvas, 113 x 94cm. Collection of the artist. Courtesy the artist and ANU Drill Hall Gallery, Australian Capital Territory

In the past you’ve noted the French modern masters – Cézanne, Bonnard, Vuillard, Matisse and Braque – as being persistent influencers on your practice. Who are some contemporary artists that inspire you today?
Some Australian painters whose work resonates with me are Ken Whisson, Ana Pollak, Ross Laurie and John Peart. Ian Fairweather and Fred Williams have also been inspirations.

What’s been the highest point in your artistic career so far?
It’s hard to pinpoint ‘the highest point’ as there are always highs and lows. Certainly the Romalis gift of land at Wedderburn has been an enduring and continuing joy and delight, and has sustained me as a painter for almost fifty years.

While you’ve long been considered an ‘artist’s artist’, public recognition and success came later in life for you. Was there ever a time that you doubted your career choice?
No, I wanted to paint from an early age. Painting is what extends and engages me more than anything else I could do.

I always painted as a child – I suppose it was a very natural, intuitive drive. In my last year at school I met Margaret Cilento, and we would paint together on Saturdays. I was living in Brisbane at the time and, as there were no good art schools there, Margaret persuaded me to go to East Sydney Technical College, which I did. Very good advice! This set me on my path as an artist.

Elisabeth Cummings, Red room at the Green Mango, 2006, oil on canvas, 115 x 130cm Private Collection. Courtesy the artist and ANU Drill Hall Gallery, Australian Capital Territory

Your travelling retrospective exhibition is called ‘Interior Landscapes’. Can you elaborate on the role memory and self play in your work?
My paintings are all about memory and self – what more can I say?! Sometimes I work from sketches that I made from memory, but I never refer to photographs. For me, painting is getting back to how I felt in particular landscape. The title of my exhibition, ‘Interior Landscapes’, is both literal and metaphorical. There are paintings that depict interiors, and landscapes, and views of the landscape from interiors, but it’s also all about looking inwards into the figurative memory of experience.

Finally, can you walk us through a day in the life of Elisabeth Cummings?
In my normal painting life I start about 9.30am, stop for a lunch break, and continue till the light fails.

Elli Walsh is an arts writer based in Sydney.

ANU Drill Hall Gallery
Until 9 April, 2017
Australian Capital Territory