Beauty often appears in unexpected places. Not just in famous galleries, or on Parisian runways, or spread across the landscape in breathtaking vistas — sometimes really beautiful things can be found in drab, infrequently used university tearooms, hung in a corner where busy academics are least likely to notice them.
An image of two crows, for example, rendered in thick black lines and deep grooves. One a flurry of motion, feathers scribbled upwards, winging its charcoal way toward the edge of a large rectangular frame; the other quiet, a beige echo of the bird above it, sharp beak and wings gouged into the rust-coloured background. A composition so simple — the wood bisected into two sections: above and below, day and night, before and after, presence and absence — and yet so striking. While working on my PhD, this picture drew me to that god-awful tearoom every day, despite its lack of spoons, its pervasive scent of microwave dinners. The crows were part of the university’s collection — all the artworks on campus were — but unlike the rest of them, there was no identifying plaque on the wall, no indication of who had made these frenzied creatures, this incredible expression of flight and stillness. Just a name scrawled in the corner: Rita Hall.
‘I love that picture,’ I mentioned to my partner one day as we sat eating our lunches beneath the crows. (Love didn’t exactly cover what I felt about it, though: I coveted those birds. In my mind, I’d already smuggled them out of the building and hung them on my living room wall.) ‘I wonder how many others she made before she died.’
I don’t know why I assumed Hall was ancient. Maybe it was because I’d spent such a long time studying sagas written by authors who’d been dead over a thousand years. Maybe it was because the work looked a bit dusty, a bit forgotten, a bit old. Maybe I hadn’t had enough coffee that day.
My partner looked at the artist’s signature, then turned back to me, grinning.
‘Rita Hall lives out in Goolwa,’ he said. ‘You can visit her studio any time you want.’
Soon after we’d had this conversation, the South Australian Museum hosted a retrospective exhibit of Hall’s work: Rita Hall: Museum Studies 1969-2009. It was like finally talking about her that day, after quietly admiring her work for so long, had made her real. Before, she was just a name written in a looping hand on the corner of an image I adored. Now she was a South Australian artist, living. Now she was 40 years’ worth of stunning drawings, etchings and paintings, most of which focused on a subject I couldn’t resist.
Rita Hall’s long history as an artist unfolded as I strolled through the huge exhibit. Here was evidence of her training at the South Australian School of Art in the late 1960s. Here proof of her mastery of printmaking over the past four decades, learning and teaching at the Adelaide Central School of Art, at TAFE, at UniSA. Everywhere hints and snippets of the Adelaide Hills, of regional shades and tones, of the distinctly Australian wildlife that surrounded her as she worked. I walked from curio cabinet to museum drawer, viewing the specimens from the SA Museum’s ornithology collection that Hall had captured so beautifully in her paintings and drawings; gleaming reds, blues, blacks and whites on the gallery’s walls. It was an amazing exhibit: bold, powerful and controversial. Yet the artist herself, standing in the corner quietly watching us observing her life’s work, was humble and sweet and blushed modestly when I gushed about her paintings. (Yes, I gushed. I couldn’t help it. The collection was amazing.)
In an essay written to accompany this exhibit, Hall explains that her interest in the SA Museum’s birds was not scientific but artistic. “The notion of making paintings out of birds which pretended to be alive seemed absurd in the presence of so much complexity and beauty, and in the way they were presented as skins … I reasoned that the skins, like many other objects in the museum, already carried their own meanings, their relevance for scientific study and their own histories.”
There are many metaphors we can read into these paintings, prints, and drawings. Ideas of the brevity of life and memento mori, of collections and collecting, preserving and memorialising the dead, holding on to the past, labelling and categorising and fitting things into boxes, the impact humanity has had on the natural world — so many ‘messages’ can be read into these images. In one respect it’s the contrast between the stillness of these still lives and their brash meanings that makes them so fascinating. On a completely different level, they are superb because they present something macabre and make it incredibly beautiful. The brushstrokes, the vibrant tones, the texture of paper and canvas, the softness of feathers captured in Conte and ink and paint are all gorgeous, even though the subject matter is (arguably) bleak.
It’s this juxtaposition of the awful and the sublime that I love so much about Rita Hall’s art, and which makes it resonate with the South Australian setting in which she lives and works. She captures the harshness of life and death, but also conveys a sense of majesty in her subject matter, a sense of survival. Even after the birds themselves have died, their skins remain intact and their colours brilliant. These are images of hope and perseverance, wrapped up as little parcels of death.
Definitely my kind of beauty.
Lisa L Hannett hails from Ottawa, Canada but now lives in Adelaide, South Australia -- city of churches, bizarre murders and pie floaters. Her short stories have been published in Clarkesworld Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, Weird Tales, ChiZine, Shimmer, Electric Velocipede, and Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded, among other places. Her work has appeared on Locus’s Recommended Reading List 2009, Tangent Online's Recommended Reading List 2010, and has been published in the Year's Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2010. 'The February Dragon', co-authored with Angela Slatter, won the 'Best Fantasy Short Story' Aurealis Award in 2010. Her first collection, Bluegrass Symphony, was published in 2011. Midnight and Moonshine, a second collection co-authored with Angela Slatter, will be published in 2012. You can find her online at http://lisahannett.com and on Twitter @LisaLHannett.