Obituary: Rosalie Gascoigne

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The Independent Culture
ROSALIE GASCOIGNE was one of Australia's leading avant-garde artists. She was also a phenomenon. She did not begin her artistic career until she was in her fifties. She had her first solo exhibition in 1974, at the age of 57. Her vision and originality were recognised at once. The show was an immediate critical and commercial success. From that moment on, while others might have been thinking of retirement and a quiet old age, she continued to develop an extraordinary body of work, introducing a new note into Australian art, and forging an international reputation.

Although Gascoigne is regarded as an Australian artist, she was born in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1917. She was the second of the three children of Stanley and Marion King Walker. Her parents separated for a period during her childhood, and her early years were dominated by the womenfolk of her mother's extended family. As a child she showed a love for nature, solitude and making things, but little interest in art. She was, by her own account, hopeless at drawing. Although she always felt in the shadow of her academically brilliant elder sister, she did attend Auckland University, and subsequently got a job as a teacher.

While at university she met Ben Gascoigne, a bright and popular student with an interest in astronomy. They shared an enthusiasm for bridge, and "tramps in the ranges". By the time they graduated they had reached an understanding that - all being well - they would marry. The coming of the Second World War precipitated their plans: Ben Gascoigne's eyesight made him unfit for military service, but he applied and got a job at the Stromlo Observatory just outside Canberra, Australia's new capital. Rosalie followed him there, and they were married in January 1943.

The early years in her adoptive country were austere and sometimes lonely. The community at Stromlo was tiny, Canberra itself was a small, undeveloped city of barely 8,000 souls. She had two children within two years (and another two years later). The landscape too was unfamiliar and often oppressive. She set about exploring it, however, and soon discovered its special beauties. She made a garden and also gathered wild flowers, learning how to dry, preserve and arrange them.

It was her growing interest in flower arranging that began to open up to her the possibilities of art. In 1960 the family moved down from Stromlo into the Canberra suburb of Deakin. Rosalie's imaginative dried-flower arrangements became increasingly in demand for public and private functions in the capital. The decisive shift came in 1962 when Rosalie allowed herself to be persuaded to sign up for a course on Ikebana being given by the Japanese-trained Australian expert Norman Sparnon.

With her well-honed eye and her detailed knowledge of plant forms she discovered that she had a natural genius for this stern Japanese discipline. Her work won plaudits. When Sofu Teshigahara, the founder of the modern Sogestu school of Ikebana, visited Canberra in 1967 he singled out Gascoigne's work, praising it for its artistic sense. The recognition of her Ikebana work proved extraordinarily liberating. As she put it, "It was the first time I found that I was actually good at anything."

In tandem, Gascoigne was developing an informed and impassioned interest in modern art. Her eldest son, Martin, by now in his twenties, was collecting contemporary work. He also introduced her to James Mollison, the maverick young curator who was to become the first director of the National Gallery of Australia at Canberra. Another important influence was Michael Taylor, a young painter and teacher at the Canberra School of Art. Encouraged by these sympathetic spirits, Gascoigne began to experiment beyond the boundaries of Ikebana, making assemblages out of old metal, bone and other found materials. The work drew its material, quite literally, from the landscape, and was inspired by Gascoigne's response to the land, but it shied away from any attempt at direct representation.

The work grew in scale when, at the end of the 1960s, the family moved to a new, larger, and specially designed house in the suburb of Pearce. The following year she gave up Ikebana and devoted herself entirely to her art. She began to show locally in Canberra, but the turning point came in 1975 when Michael Taylor, who had moved to Sydney, selected her as his choice to exhibit at a mixed show for "young" artists at the innovative Gallery A in Sydney. Gascoigne's art stood out as something completely different. There was a chorus of approval. The critic for the Sydney Morning Herald found her work unlike anybody else's in Australia:

She assembles disparate objects like a neat horizontal stack of dried stalks in a piece of convex metal, with a marvellously sure and fully sculptural taste in setting up contrasts of texture, colour, direction and weight. In addition there is a poetic trace of domestic imagery, a hint of the satisfaction found in tidiness

and housekeeping, a suggestion that a fireplace is a kind of shrine.

Gallery A at once offered her a solo show. With the success of this, Gascoigne found herself at the age of 58 embarking on a new artistic career. Offers for work and exhibitions flowed in. Pieces were acquired by public galleries across the southern hemisphere. She established a position as a unique and powerful voice in Australian art. In 1982 she was chosen to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale.

Her work, although always based on assemblage, continued to develop and deepen right up until the end of her life. Working with found objects - beekeepers' boxes, discarded dolls, Schweppes drink crates, corrugated iron, shells, grasses, bones, reflector road signs - she created an art of daring beauty and power.

Although during her later years she travelled to Europe, Scandinavia, America and Japan, her work is still shockingly little known outside Australia and New Zealand.

Rosalie Norah King Walker, artist: born Auckland, New Zealand 25 January 1917; married 1943 Ben Gascoigne (one son, two daughters); died Canberra 25 October 1999.