At the start of 2020, in pre-COVID times, when Northern Beaches artist Susie Dureau found out her friend and actor Anita Hegh was starring in Virginia Woolf’s, A Room of One’s Own she knew this was her excuse to paint her finally. ‘I thought it was a perfect premise for us to talk about motherhood, working as an artist, friendship and support for women in the arts,’ says Dureau.
Hegh had moved to Newport on Sydney’s Northern Beaches last year, and through their partners, were connected – finding a friendship as mothers and artists. ‘We started going on walks and talking about what it is to be an artist living in this country, the under the politics and the difference of cultural perspectives people have towards artists in this country,’ says Hegh.
‘Susie and I are probably in a similar position in our fields and that we’re not maybe superstars of our practices but that we’ve been consistently working and still being able to make a living out of what we do,’ she adds. ‘I think perhaps in Australia compared to our friends in other countries it’s still a little more of a struggle.’
This struggle quickly became very obvious in Australia’s lockdown. The two women sharing their frustrations that the arts were one of the first to be shut down, while an industry such as sports was the last to close and the first to reopen (note: the arts contribute $14.7 billion to GDP while sports trail behind contributing $14.4 billion).
The nature of the arts meant many artists were ineligible for government benefits, and notably, childcare assistance. ‘That’s something I’m facing, particularly with childcare, because as an artist you don’t get any special artist subsidies for childcare, you don’t have a consistent income,’ Hegh reflects.
Woolf discussed these limitations almost a hundred years ago in A Room of One’s Own, the struggles as a woman and a mother being able to carve time in a creative space. ‘[Woolf] says that the only women that could have been artists were from nobility, class and privilege,’ Hegh adds. ‘And, they were childless, because if you had children and you had no money, your mind would be completely occupied by your family—you don’t have room for any kind of creative freedom.’
‘Now, of course, we see that’s changed a lot for women, and there’s a lot more flexibility, but I think there’s still a long way to go. I don’t think we live in a culture where people understand that artists need space or the same financial rewards as people that have regular jobs – it’s challenging to have all those things balanced,’ she adds.
The resulting artwork by Dureau, She Will Be Born – If We Work For Her, unites Woolf, Hegh, and Hegh’s daughter, as a trinity of the three generations. Dureau writes in her artist statement, ‘The title refers to a female artist, imagined by Virginia Woolf, who, for the first time in recorded history can create art in a society that allows women to make great art… Woolf muses that until a woman can free her mind from the shackles of inter-generational anger about women’s role in society and give her mind fully to art, her imagination will be compromised.’
During Hegh’s sitting for the artwork, Dureau noticed that even while the actor prepared for the play, studying her lines in intense concentration, she had a finger entwined with daughter Edie’s little hand. ‘It was just this bodily gesture of love… and then at the same time she had this incredible concentration and determination towards what she was trying to achieve professionally,’ says Dureau. ‘It was a poignant comment on that balance that you have as a mother in the arts.’
A following moment is captured in the painting, Rehearsal, which features Hegh balancing baby Edie on her legs, reading her script, surrounded by a vivid pink background. The composition centres Hegh and her child, while the pink encircles her. This colour always appears in Dureau’s artworks to give warmth to her paintings, but when the artist had finished the work, she originally painted over the pink in a creamy white. In doing so, felt like she lost the sense of a cloistered room referencing Virginia Woolf. ‘The fact that she was sitting in the space of my studio was important to the idea of this nurturing and gestation of ideas,’ says Dureau. ‘And it’s fitting that pink is womb-like as well.’
The painting was inspired by Woolf’s text and the challenges women artists face. ‘She’s asking all the important questions that, ultimately, it’s very hard to come up with solutions or any definitive statement about where we go,’ Dureau reflects. ‘Obviously one of the big things that she promotes, and I think we still need to address, is the visibility of women in the arts. Prizes such as the Ravenswood Australian Women’s Art Prize are essential to that task. Once women can be paid equally and shown equally through galleries and theatres and art institutes, then the other things will fall into place.’
This year, another artwork Dureau has been working on attempts to reflects the pay gap between men and women. Gap features the artist’s distinct style of dreamy clouds; however, in geometric voids, the artist has left parts of the artwork empty of paint. 25% of the painting is incomplete; the raw linen remains as a stark reminder of the pay gap.
‘My dream is that by the time we reach the 100th anniversary of A Room of One’s Own which will be 2028, we will have closed that gap,’ Dureau concludes in her artist statement. ‘And as Virginia Woolf herself pointed out, when women no longer have reason to be angry we will be free to make art without the ever-present tether of anger.’
‘A Room of One’s Own’ is scheduled to run again at Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney in May 2021.
The Northern Beaches Council proudly sponsors this article as part of the series ‘Documenting Art in the Time of Corona.’
More information about the project can be found here.