New Woman: Insights with Christine Dauber
Leona Victoria Nicol was born in Blenheim in the Brisbane Valley in 1915. The fifth child of seven, Nona, as she was called throughout her life by family members as well as friends and fellow artists, received her primary schooling under the direction of her father who worked as headmaster of the school there. At a time when it was unusual for girls to be educated until senior, she completed her secondary education 1928-32 at St Hilda’s School for Girls at Southport.
As her family was still living in Blenheim, she attended the school as a border and the records show little except that she participated in netball and athletics. From there, she went on to become a secondary school teacher and taught mathematics until she retired. She continued tutoring mathematics and painting until the time of her death in 1989. Funds from her professional employment paid for what was the true love of her life, painting.
This necessity to work as a teacher does not diminish her ability as a painter but speaks more about the Brisbane arts scene in which, at that time, it was almost impossible to make a living as an artist. This was especially so for women. Her great passion was made evident when, having no family of her own, she bequeathed her estate to the Brisbane Institute of Art. These funds came at a vital time in the history of the Institute and enabled the continuance of a public arts education program that has seen thousands of Brisbane’s citizens actualise their artistic aspirations.
Two of Nona’s works are included in the New Woman exhibition. The first, a scene entitled The Pink Path, is dated 1958 and is signed Nona Waldie which was her married name at that time. This painting is important as it situates Nona within an artistic circle that flourished out of St Mary’s Studio throughout the 1950’s and 60’s producing many talented artists, some of whom are also exhibited in this exhibition. Here, she was exposed to a variety of teaching styles and enjoyed the friendship and camaraderie of teachers and fellow artists Richard Rovier Rivron, Margaret Cilento, John Rigby, Jon Molvig, and Joy Roggenkamp. Perhaps the most influential of these contacts for Nona was Jon Molvig.
Whilst a sense of time and place can be accorded to many of Nona’s landscapes and cityscapes, she was an accomplished portraitist. Her subjects were often well known to her, particularly if they were family members and members of her artistic circle. For her family, these portraits remain prized for the way in which she was able to capture something about the sitter that went beyond a simple resemblance. Recognisable by all viewers, not just those who knew the sitter, it is this dimension of her work that consolidates her skill as a portrait artist. Here we might give consideration to the second work to be exhibited in New Woman which is the portrait, Christine in the Studio (1968).
In relation to the painting of a portrait Jon Molvig states:
“To me a portrait is not only a face, hands and a body, but also the background, the whole thing. It’s like music. I try to invent symbols that depict the subject’s character in the context. A portrait must be first of all a picture. When the subject dies it must live on by its pictorial qualities. It is the same as any other picture. Except that you must achieve a resemblance to the person painted”(Molvig 138 quoted in Australian Painters: Forty Profiles p 207)
As a student of Molvig, Nona’s portraits achieve this sense that everything included in the setting is not happenstance but, rather, placed there for a purpose and that purpose is to capture not just the likeness, but to give an impression of the sitter’s inner being or character. Primarily a painting of her niece as a young woman, it goes beyond a simple likeness to capture a sense of youthful anticipation. Here we might look to the composition of the painting. The subject sits in a casual deck chair, her knees are demurely together with one foot leading outward from the painting, the other set back but flexed as though she could rise at any moment. Her hands rest comfortably on the arms of the chair as she leans forward as though listening or in anticipation of some unknown event. Painted in Nona’s studio, the eye of the viewer is led inward via the blue and ochre floor tiles to the subject, then beyond to the paintings waiting to be finished or seen. This places the subject simultaneously and intimately within Nona’s artistic milieu and her private creative world. Things here are both finished and unfinished as is the young woman’s life. The colours are bold and bright and create a positive sense of promise. The hands lie idle, but have been featured, so that we might well ask, “What will they achieve?”.
Nona Waldie, The Pink Path, 1958. oil on board, photo: Carl Warner. Courtesy of Christine Dauber.
Nona Waldie Metcalfe, Christine in the Studio, 1968, oil on board, photo: Carl Warner. Courtesy of Christine Dauber.
Museum of Brisbane, New Woman Exhibition Catalogue 2019.
Jon Molvig: Maverick Exhibition catalogue for Jon Molvig: Maverick An exhibition organised by the Queensland Art Gallery/ Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) and held at QAG Brisbane Australia 14th September 2019- 2nd February 2020 Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art Brisbane, 2019.