Opening address – Joanna Murray-Smith

Delivered by Joanna Murray-Smith at the opening of Mary Schepisi’s exhibition ‘Springtime Pleasures’ on 19 September 2019…


The art speaks for itself. The organisation of shape, form, the framing of the perspective and of course the colour are idiosyncratic and complex to us, the viewer.

Mary told me that her choices – and each work is so distinct and unto itself, despite the shared bird — are entirely spontaneous and unconscious. She will choose a colour and sometimes carefully remove it to try another. And she begins with the bird’s head and if the head is right, she knows the rest will flow. But apart from that, the composition is like a stream of consciousness.

I wasn’t surprised. I know from writing that the most intricate plot elements, the parts of a play which often look the most engineered, often spring direct from my unconscious. The bypass intellect. And when that happens, they are usually gold. The parts of the play which are worked over deliberately and strategically are sometimes right but often less compelling. When I look back at a play from ten years ago, I realise that only in the most superficial way is it what I thought it was. Actually, it was formed, complete in the subconscious and drip-fed to my conscious self.

There is no such thing as creative freedom. We are hostage to our childhoods, our relationships, our DNA, our culture, all prejudicing the individual artist’s ability to choose and shape. The unconscious is the artist’s driver, the well-spring of inspiration and often the most astute possessor of taste. And in these magnificent works is the unconscious in full flight, so to speak – our Australian birds, reconceived through the prism of Mary’s own particular sense of colour, embellished with seemingly random forms, indigenous inspired horizontals, Japanesey shapes, Matissey pops of colour and wiggly geometrical tree branches criss-crossing the canvas with a whimsical choreography. As Mary and I looked at the intricacies of each one yesterday, she repeated over and over again: I don’t know… I have no idea…. I wasn’t aware of choosing those colours… I have no idea what I meant. The surest sign that an artist is in our midst.

Mostly, these works are just beautiful.  Some are polished and complete. Others reveal the journey to the seemingly random point Mary calculates is the right place to be done with them. Their pencil marks reveal the artist’s diversion from the original plan. She was going to stitch here but she didn’t. The transparent centre of the frames allow us to see the stitching and abandoned threads of the composition at the back. There’s no pretence at perfection. Each piece captures the motion of creation, the lack of certainty, the thinking, the entire journey from picking up the fabric and skewering it with the first needle-load of thread towards the artists’s leave-taking.

The works – finished but unfinished – are very Mary like to me. They are confident in themselves and their lack of convention. They are engaged in ideas – the play of form and colour, the ambivalence of complete and incomplete — but mostly they are excited by and for the eye.

She’s unafraid to chase beauty and doesn’t see it as a betrayal of the serious business of being an artist. The works have her whimsy, her dedication, her light touch, her diligence and a sense of a life on the road, but mostly her sense of loveliness. They are composed wherever she may be, small exquisite companions on an aesthetic adventure whilst bodily on a bigger adventure with Fred, criss-crossing the globe.

I want to talk about Mary a little bit. I sent Fred a questionnaire, which I hoped he would respond to after a couple of his excellent chardonnays. For two life-guzzling bon-vivants, it seemed entirely appropriate that when they met, in 1971, Mary was a booker for the Ford Model agency in New York, firmly ensconced in what was then almost certainly a Mecca of Me-Too-Moments, and Fred was shooting Park Drive cigarette commercials, making emphysema incredibly sexy. Those were the days… I can just imagine Mary with that glorious hair piled on top of her head, her sparkly eyes, and her beguiling self-possession showing Fred around New York only to find that Fred also had a New York to show her.

That must have been the start of their art-world, cross continental  Brangelina brand. The Aussie director with a bunch of astonishing films up ahead and the stunning New Yorker who had grown up in an Upper East Side New York hotel just like Eloise, amusing herself riding the elevators, calling for room service, with uniformed doormen for buddies and going off to school ten blocks away in what eventually became Jeffrey Epstein’s mansion – a house that clearly had an affinity for young girls one way or another.

This was not just the start of two wonderfully creative lives, or the start of one marriage made in heaven. New York in the 70s, combined with a love affair – well, this was also the apprenticeship of the world’s greatest party throwers. How could it not be? Before bureaucracy and political correctness ruined a good martini.

I asked Fred what Mary’s most admirable qualities were.

Waking up happy and ready for the day EVERY morning and champing at the bit to do her art.

Her New York directness in all things.

I asked Fred what her most annoying qualities were.

Waking up happy and ready for the day EVERY morning.

Her New York directness in all things.

Having had a Jewish mother and being a Jewish mother, at least in part, I must admit when we first met, I felt very at home with Mary’s directness. She had that fierce impetus to just tell the truth as she saw it… something that Australians often find a bit too full-on. If she disagreed with you, she just told you so: an open invitation to engage or argue back. Because life’s too short and an interesting life is one where you have human encounters that make you question your own positions or test them. It didn’t surprise me when Fred observed that one of the downsides of being two artists in one marriage was: “We can just occasionally be too blunt.” He also mentioned in my questionnaire that Mary had lived on a Kibbutz in Israel in her early 20s, milking cows barefoot and enjoying having an Uzi under her bed.

And yet, despite that take no prisoners directness, I saw in Mary right at the get go, a softness. Fred says she declares herself not a romantic “in any way, shape or form”. He disagrees and so do I. Even in my first encounters with Mary, she was so tender when she spoke of children and grandchildren. She had a bountiful sense of humour, a generosity towards others and a forgiveness and understanding about people who had failed in some way. To me, she had the wisdom of having lived and continuing to live a very full life, full of encounters with all sorts of people from the most powerful to the most anonymous, being buried in stories through travels and her life immersed in Fred’s work and her own internal conversations that are part of an artist’s sensibility.

She understands the complexities, the contradictions and there is a softness and love within that that is very palpable and to me optimistic… I think despite the love of the Uzi, she is a romantic, she just doesn’t know it.

The third quality that Fred cited was – and I quote – “Her humanity, which is obvious in her art and her work for various charities and the way she embraces friends and  particularly family – no mean feat for a step mother/mother of 7 very individual people; making them feel loved, welcomed and comfortable.”

This humanity is right here, stitched into the birds, their personalities and the romanticism of her gaze. As Fred observed, their lives as artists are and must be mutually inspiring.

“We understand the trials and tribulations we go through to create works that matter. We know how to be encouraging while given honest assessments of each other’s work. We can often inspire each other. And in our case… We both can continue doing what we love without it being at a cost to either of us.”

The blending of two humans who have grown together, towards each other, through good and difficult times, making and raising other humans, venturing into the imagination in multiple forms with all its exhilaration and pain, and finding, amongst other things, a shared talent for friendship…. This is part of both their creative stories.  It’s a beautiful thing.

In this case, the works on these walls were in some cases, a response to Fred’s exploration of Haikus, which are quite formulaically complex but require much less complicated funding than a film and fewer compromises, although admittedly, less cocaine.

A beautiful day.

Stock market’s up, a new pope

I’m still married.

And I like this one:

Lush spring abandon

in Chianti, vines in lines

My glass is empty.

So… let’s have no more empty glasses. I declare this beautiful exhibition by Mary Schepisi open!


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