The artist who put women's work front and centre reflects on life, love and the view from the kitchen table. Kim Knight visits Jacqueline Fahey ahead of a major summer exhibition.

Books. Mirror on a stand. Thick blue goblets. Pot of hibiscus tea. Invitations. Envelopes. Two china plates of chopped-up custard apple. Placemats. Magnifying glass. More books.

Jacqueline Fahey sits at the head of this crowded table. Arched eyebrows, arch wit. A lifetime at her fingertips. She is in some of these books and her art is on the cover of others. The autobiography spans two volumes (and counting).

"Yes," says Fahey. "I got in first. I saw what happened to my friend Rita Angus. You know 'lovely' Rita. I thought, 'Oh Jesus Christ, come off it'. Rita wasn't like that at all. She was very political, very left-wing. But it was, 'Lovely Rita, put a halo on her head,' I thought no way, I'll get in first."

Advertisement

She pauses and it is definitely for effect.

"Lovely Rita. AWFUL Jacqueline."

Fahey turns 90 next month. She was married to the psychiatrist Fraser McDonald and they had three daughters and she fought like hell to be a professional painter in the era of Wife and Mother. Yes, it was very hard. And no, she really doesn't mind these questions. She understands it has become unfashionable to ask women about age-and-stage and gender-bias but, frankly: "Oh Jesus, I find that sort of pompous carry-on so tedious. I think that's nitpicking and avoiding the issue. If you're asking, a lot of other women will want to know. It's obvious - these situations are tricky."

If you can't leave the kitchen, paint the kitchen. That's Fahey's Christmas exploding in 1986. She's the woman wedged between table, stove and sink, headless turkey escaping from the fridge, the kitchen all cats and rats and flying fish. In 1978, while her cinched-waisted daughters prepare for a night out, her husband smokes and reads the paper and has the flu. In 1973, a girl sits by a window. Outside, it's a jungle. Inside, among other detritus, a single tennis shoe in a red cane basket on a table.

"Everyone was taking things away. A rather cleaning-up, puritan approach to art. And I was putting everything in. It seemed important to put everything in. I wanted to tell it like it was," says Fahey.

"Like the shock of being in domesticity. And the horrors of cooking and cleaning and nappies and, you know, LABOUR. Serving. And yet making it meaningful and seeing the beauty in it. I had to do it, if I was going to stay with the kids and Fraser, and I had to work that out on the canvas, didn't I?"

Artist Jacqueline Fahey:
Artist Jacqueline Fahey: "I wanted to tell it like it is." Photo / Dean Purcell

This week, Jacqueline Fahey's Suburbanites opened at Auckland's Pah Homestead. It combines images from the Wallace Arts Trust collection with those from a recent retrospective show at the National Portrait Gallery in Wellington.

In the catalogue for the latter, gallery director Jaenine Parkinson wrote, "We can look back with nostalgia at the birthday parties and preparations for school balls in Fahey's paintings but her subject matter is not lightweight. Her work considers interpersonal, intergenerational, social and mental health issues, from the isolation of women as homemakers through the angst of teenage years to the difficulties of ageing parents and the trauma of suicide in the family."

That view from the kitchen table? Complicated. Fahey was only 16 when she went to art school. Her career was inspired and encouraged by older women artists. In 1964, she and Angus organised one of New Zealand's earliest exhibitions to take a deliberate gender-equal approach, featuring equal numbers of male and female painters. In the 1980s, she was awarded a grant to travel to New York to investigate "what circumstances helped women artists survive in a male-dominated profession". But, as she recently told a Radio New Zealand interviewer, "I was as trapped as any other wife ... I was still doing the cooking and the cleaning and all that stuff."

Advertisement

It's all there in the paintings. Pie wrappers, toys and bottles of gin. Hydrangeas, the husband and, eventually, three kids. The artist herself, in mirrors and multiples.

"While many of her contemporaries embraced the rise of modernist abstraction," writes Parkinson, "Fahey resisted the dismissal of figurative painting as unfashionable, arguing for its relevance and ability to connect with audiences."

Or, as Fahey puts it: "Telling the truth."

One thing the artist would like to do, on this fine spring morning in the Grey Lynn home she has lived in for 24 years, is talk about what she calls her "divided self".

There is a theory, for example, that the painting Couple Drinking, is about Fraser having an extramarital affair. It's true there is more than one woman in the painting, but: "It is so far-fetched and ridiculous. It's obviously me ... the self in the mirror and the self who is behaving badly, that's been misunderstood. People not realising that is my alter-ego, and that it is a judgment on me."

1977's Mother and Daughter Quarrelling stems from a matriarchal decree that she devote herself to family. Fahey is the daughter arguing but, again, she is also the woman in the mirror, "My more compassionate alter ego watches, appalled at my lack of control," she writes in her memoir.

From the head of her current kitchen table, she says she paints to explain life - "this bizarre place" - to herself.

"I think of it as a sort of revelation that helps me to understand."

Often, she says, a painting does not finish in the way she intended when she started. It's a game of chess. Making a move, pausing for a gin, going back and looking at the board in a new light.

"Something quite different in your imagination begins to take over ... particularly in the 1970s, I found I was doing paintings that I myself didn't fully understand. And that 'me' in the mirror, I began to realise, was the divided self. I was often not behaving at all as I would like to grow into ... that I was a squalid, arguing, angry person."

In her memoir, Fahey wrote that marriage came with the built-in potential to damage the protagonists; that she and Fraser were, from the very start, coerced into playing institutionalised roles.

"I mean, Fraser felt like that too. That's why we survived, because we shared a mentality. Granted, mine was more extreme and, as he got older, he became - as men seem liable to do ... Less."

And women become ... More?

"That's right," she says, and her laugh is great and gasping. "When the hormones are no longer blinding their sense of justice!"

The wonder, perhaps, is that she married in the first place.

"I could even wonder that myself."

Would she do it today?

"No, I wouldn't, to be perfectly frank. Although I did want to have children but whether that was because it was so induced by society? But no, it was a genuine need actually, I really wanted to have a baby and I suppose there was no way of having a baby with any sort of decency and being treated reasonably in society without being married.

"And I married Fraser because he was the only man I'd really met who read a book. Most of them read books for their degree but they weren't READERS and they didn't think. Fraser and I could live together. And he went through a stage of being madly in love with me. That helps."

Tools of the trade - inside artist Jacqueline Fahey's studio. Photo / Dean Purcell
Tools of the trade - inside artist Jacqueline Fahey's studio. Photo / Dean Purcell

She didn't have children until she was 30, relatively late for the times. Fraser had tuberculosis and was frequently hospitalised; she worked at Harry Seresin's infamous Wellington coffee shop and that was when she painted Artist as Warrior.

"That, I think, is the sort of feminism I had. Especially if you looked a bit attractive and put lipstick on and got about dressed a bit 'out there', to a straight man's way of thinking .. you know, men were looking for suitable women to lock up. I really wanted to show an angry intent."

Her paintbrush as a sword; her palette as a shield. Later, she was bemused to encounter the women's movement idea of the brush as a penis.

"I said, 'No, bugger that. It's a skill I've got, and I like it, and I will decide what it's about.' It's not imposed on me."

Stroppy. Strident. Strong. Fahey embodied descriptors that required constant vigilance
against conforming to the norm. Let discipline drop for a second, she says; and other peoples' needs would rush in.

"I can remember a really decent woman who went on many committees to save this and do that saying, 'it's all very well to be as selfish as you are able to be.' I knew my painting was a voice. I was achieving something. She was doing it her way, I was doing it my way. After all, she didn't paint."

Her children - Alex, Augusta and Emere - were all girls. Add their gender to the list of her perceived failures.

"Pure chance! I had a BABY, I didn't have a boy or a girl. It used to f*** me off when they'd say, 'Oh, you couldn't give Fraser a boy.' Amazing sort of women who would say that. I thought, 'Up yours'. I mean, how bizarre. But those times - you wouldn't believe how prejudiced society in New Zealand was."

Scratch the surface, she suggests, and it's still there.

"Because of capitalism, only the upper classes have benefited in any really confident way. The working class in New Zealand is still . . . women, particularly, are bottom of the heap."

There is, of course, a female prime minister with a baby. Fahey acknowledges this is a very good thing but her politics are to the left of the left.

"I think the Labour Party sold itself out over that Rogernomics period."

At the far end of the kitchen table, is the book Children of Rogernomics. Fahey did the painting on the cover - a scene from Grey Lynn, with her on the pedestrian crossing, sunhatted and striding, circa 1996.

Before breast cancer (scant details, moving on) she routinely walked her suburb.

"Overnight, the old cottages and the old inhabitants had vanished and there would be huge amounts of activity as they turned them into modern houses with the barbecue and the two cars and the dog and the running shoes and the whole accoutrement, running the baby up the hill, Lifestyle programmed and the houses all white and grey or black."
At her house, the trims are purple. She acknowledges (with zero regret) this will be a disappointment to the neighbourhood. "Absolutely!"

Fahey likes to joke that she is rediscovered every 10 years or so. A public gallery hauls out their single acquisition; critics note "she can actually paint" and her domestic narratives, once decried as old-fashioned and musty, find a new audience. When Suburbanites showed in Wellington, it spawned a love letter from art critic Megan Dunn, who wrote many gorgeously intelligent things before signing off in the manner of many gorgeously intelligent women when confronted with a Fahey: "I saw your show and I f***ing loved it."

Born in Timaru and educated by Catholic nuns in North Otago, Fahey says art school was not as bohemian as you'd imagine. Back then, "Christchurch was very straight ... art school was made up of better-born young women doing a degree and upper-working-class chaps who were doing it to teach and then men who came back from the war. It was 1946. There was a pilot who had been in some way damaged ... they were just keen to get their degree, get a teaching job, marry, have babies."

"My skirt's in your f***ing room" by Jacqueline Fahey, 1979. Image / Collection William Dart

She was 18 when she sold her first painting, The Ice Cream Boy, purchased by Mrs Lascelles after it was exhibited in the window of Ballantynes Department Store. She was in her late 50s when she became the first female painting lecturer at Auckland University's Elam School of Fine Arts (a former student says she championed rigour and discipline - no "learning by osmosis"). And she was 77 when she became the only New Zealand painter to have work selected for the major international show WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Fahey didn't get to the LA opening. She told Deborah Shepard in an extended interview: "It's a pity they didn't select some of my more intelligent paintings."

The shock and delight of a conversation with Fahey is these statements that stop traffic. She would never, for example, have married another artist.

"Oh no! I already knew about Colin McCahon's wife [painter, Anne, nee Hamblett]. She said if she had continued painting, she would have painted like me. She could see, every day, the same sort of thing."

All those dishes. All those meals. All those people to look after.

"I didn't want to leave them," says Fahey. "But I wanted to leave the job. I mean, I wasn't trained to be a cleaner and I wasn't particularly good at it. You see, obviously, Colin McCahon's wife was good at it and that was her problem."

AWFUL Jacqueline.

Artist Jacqueline Fahey says she paints to understand this bizarre thing called life. Photo / Dean Purcell
Artist Jacqueline Fahey says she paints to understand this bizarre thing called life. Photo / Dean Purcell

Fahey once said, "I've lived longer in psychiatric hospitals than anywhere else." Housing came with her husband's employment at Carrington, Kingseat, and Porirua Hospital.
Today, she describes it as "very medieval, the sort of feudal life I was leading ... we were like the upper class of a big village and I was isolated in the sense that as soon as Fraser became a superintendent, you had a responsibility to the staff and then patients were looking after your grounds and the vegetables and the flowers ... "

In a video interview made for the Christchurch Art Gallery show Say Something! Fahey says that rather than "getting away from it all", she decided anything that happened in her kitchen was as momentous as anything that happened in Queen Elizabeth's banquet hall. So when it was the school holidays and Alex burst in and screamed at Augusta, "My skirt's in your f***ing room," Fahey painted it. Her daughters, the table - and the letter advising her travel grant to New York was contingent on the production of three paintings over the school holidays.

"They were behaving so badly ... they settled into it ... I felt, with my daughters, I made them very much part of it. I felt that I was showing them that as women they needed to achieve something. That they would want to, really. That pretending you didn't was kidding yourself."

Jacqueline Fahey's Suburbanites, Pah Homestead, Auckland, until February 16