Allen says her new work is about the joys of being a grandmother. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Hailey Renault)
Inside a studio in a funny little house in Toowong, a woman living a “perfectly normal, boring life” spent five decades letting her emotions flow through oil paints.
Archibald Prize-winning artist Davida Allen’s body of work is on show in Brisbane this month, running alongside a new series of paintings celebrating the joy of being a grandmother.
Allen has received some of the highest accolades Australia has to offer and her expressionist paintings have been shown in galleries around the world.
Grouped together on the white walls of Griffith University’s Art Museum, the survey of Allen’s work takes onlookers on a journey through her life.
Bold colours and tactile smears of oil paint reveal moments of happiness and turmoil in motherhood, special family connections and memorable landscapes seen through her eyes.
Ethereal figures on dark backgrounds reveal her sorrow following the death of her father.
Some of the work displayed in the museum’s latest exhibition has never been shown before.
Allen, now in her 60s and a proud grandmother of eight, said it was extraordinary that her paintings looked as fresh as if they were done yesterday.
New Zealand film star Sam Neill appeared in a series of Allen’s work. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Hailey Renault)
Even her most infamous series of works — a young married woman’s expression of her sexual fantasies for New Zealand film star Sam Neill — have aged well.
“People thought it was fairly outrageous that I was flaunting myself in paint publicly for a movie star,” she said.
“It became an historical landmark both for me and for general gossip in Brisbane, this artist proclaiming that she loved an actor.
“Those pictures look totally amazing now and the story still holds.”
Emotions an inspiration
Each period in Allen’s life is captured in her works.
She said the woman wielding the brush in the 1970s and ’80s was a mother at home with children, irritable because she didn’t have time to do her own paintings.
A series of smaller landscape paintings of F-111s taking to the skies above Amberley air base west of Brisbane reflect the city she built her career in.
“I’ve constantly been painting pictures about the emotions that go through me,” she said.
“That’s the way I’ve resolved my problems in life and resolved the emotions that are overpowering and I can’t contain.
“I’ve been fortunate because, being an artist, it comes naturally to explode in paint and feel a lot happier.”
Fellow Archibald Prize winner William Robinson at Davida Allen’s survey exhibition. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Hailey Renault)
Allen described her new exhibition, now open at Brisbane’s Phillip Bacon Gallery, as “uncannily fresh”.
“It’s the first exhibition that I’ve gone open slather about being a grandmother and the joy in how children play, how they perceive things.
“It’s all about the love and excitement and the small things that children do.”
It’s not the first time Allen has alluded to a child-like quality in the work she does.
She said her process of deciding what to paint closely resembled how her own grandchildren decide what they choose to sketch for their parents.
“I’ve just maintained being a child and just painted the things that are in my life now.”
Archibald inspired by ‘act of love’
There’s obvious emotional themes in some of Allen’s paintings, but the work that won her the Archibald Prize in 1986 had a more subtle story to tell.
She said the portrait of her father-in-law, Ipswich GP Dr John Shera, represented a moment the two had together in his garden that was hard to forget.
“There was also this old-fashioned social law in those days that a man would not open the front door of his home to a stranger unless he was wearing a shirt,” she said.
“My father-in-law was watering his garden and I arrived to see him with the children.
“He did not run away and hide and put a shirt on, which he would have done had I been a patient or a stranger.
“He came to the car and greeted me … I was someone he felt so comfortable with and it was an act of love really.”
Moments of motherhood, sorrow and sexuality are depicted in Allen’s paintings. (ABC Radio Brisbane)
Forty of her paintings are being featured at Griffith University Art Museum but she’s painted many more that never made it to a gallery wall.
To cull paintings she doesn’t want the world to see, Allen returns to her Central Queensland roots.
“I’ve always been a burner,” she said.
“It is a cathartic sort of thing and I’m lucky because I’ve always lived in the country and there’s always plenty of room and plenty of tinder to make the fire happen.”
Allen said the ritual burning of her art was part of moving on and doing something fresh.
She said her husband Michael Shera, who painstakingly makes her canvasses out of wooden marine plyboards, was never thrilled about this part of her process.
“My husband always gets upset because he makes the boards with the most amazing, time-consuming professionalism,” she said.
You can see Davida Allen: In the Moment at Griffith University Art Museum until June 30.
Her new works are on show at the Phillip Bacon Gallery until June 2.
This is the first time these sketches have been shown in a gallery. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Hailey Renault)