New lady in town at the Hughes shops
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New lady in town at the Hughes shops

There's a new lady in town at Hughes.

A bronze female figure, cradling a large bird in a touching, whimsical pose has been chosen as the new artwork for the Hughes shops.

The sad end to the Lady in Pearls sculpture at the Hughes shops after the bulk of the sculpture was stolen in May, 2016.

The sad end to the Lady in Pearls sculpture at the Hughes shops after the bulk of the sculpture was stolen in May, 2016.Credit:Rohan Thomson

It will replace the much-loved artwork Stepping Out (The Lady in Pearls) which was stolen in 2016 and never recovered.

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Former Braidwood, now South Coast artists Suzie Bleach and Andy Townsend have been chosen to create the new sculpture for the Hughes community.

"We consider it a total privilege and honour to do this work for the Hughes community,'' Mr Townsend said.

The couple's work can be seen around Canberra, from a sculpture in the grounds of the Canberra Grammar School to a mosaic floor at the QEII Family Centre and even the adorned toilet doors at the Canberra Museum and Gallery.

The Hawker and Narrabundah shops and the Canberra Hospital also feature their sculptures and mosaic. The sculpture of the explorer La Perouse at the Red Hill shops is also theirs.

Ms Bleach said the Hughes work was about tenderness, trust, delicacy, with a dash of surrealism and surprise, to make it a talking point.

The couple always wanted to have a woman in the sculpture, as much as a nod to the previous work and its creator, as to the #MeToo movement and a general desire to see more women front and centre.

Stepping Put (Lady in Pearls) was much-loved by the Hughes community.

Stepping Put (Lady in Pearls) was much-loved by the Hughes community.Credit:Elesa Kurtz

"Hughes is named after a male prime minister and all the streets are named after servicemen, and we just thought, 'Where are the women in all this?' We need a presence," Ms Bleach said.

The work was also something that reflected the "harmony between nature and humans".

"We both feel very strongly that if humans had a more tender approach to nature, then things would be better for both nature and us," Mr Townsend said.

Yet the new work also had an element of danger.

A concept drawing of the new artwork for the Hughes shops by artists Suzie Bleach and Andy Townsend.

A concept drawing of the new artwork for the Hughes shops by artists Suzie Bleach and Andy Townsend.

"If you think about all those swans on the lake, I'm not sure you could embrace any of those without them pecking your eyes out," Ms Bleach said.

Arts Minister Gordon Ramsay said the Hughes sculpture was created in response to community feedback.

“The design by Bleach and Townsend meets the Hughes community’s wish for an artwork that is
nostalgic, imaginative and playful. Hughes residents also have a strong sense of connection to their natural surroundings which is also represented in the artwork,'' he said.

The ACT Government has budgeted $100,000 for the new artwork.

The previous sculpture, Stepping Out (The Lady in Pearls) by Giovanna Ianniello and Gerard Murphy, was installed at Hughes shops in 1997. It was stolen in 2016, most likely for the metal, unceremoniously cut off at the knees.

Mr Ramsay said residents were left devastated by the theft.

"Many people said it was like losing a loved one, she was such a part of the community,” he said.

Stepping Out was unable to be recast as the moulds no longer exist, so Hughes residents were consulted last year for their thoughts on a suitable replacement.

ACT Policing called for community assistance to help locate the stolen sculpture but, to date, it still remains missing.

Another concept drawing for the new sculpture planned for the Hughes shops.

Another concept drawing for the new sculpture planned for the Hughes shops.

The new artwork will be developed over the coming months and is expected to be installed in early 2019. It will feature reinforced footings and fixings to mitigate against theft.

Mr Townsend said he and Ms Bleach had considered the woman holding a small bird, but that was too pedestrian an approach.

"We wanted it to be rather extraordinary and spoken about, an object of surprise, of mystery,''he said.

"The larger the bird, the more bizarre, the more unexpected and extraordinary the idea was - 'Who is that woman? And what's she doing with that rather large bird?'."

Mr Ramsay said public artwork was a fundamental part of cultural life in Canberra, and each piece became part of our community.

“The government has been working hard to ensure that any new artwork reflects the values of Hughes residents and can not only fill the gap left by Stepping Out, but can create its own place in our shared history.”

Mr Ramsay said Ms Bleach and Mr Townsend were well-regarded artists who had strong links to Canberra. They had a number of works in the government's public art portfolio, exhibited at Floriade last year and will have a work outside the National Library as part of Contour 556 in October.

The couple are well known for their connections to the Australian National University School of Art: Mr Townsend studied there, as did their children, Harry and Rose.

The couple has recently moved from Braidwood to Wapengo, between Bermagui and Tathra, still working on private commissions but revelling in also creating public art that everyone can see.

"We've got room,'' Ms Bleach said, with a laugh, of their new home. "After 30 years of working from our back garden, we know have five acres to play with."

Andy Townsend and Suzie Bleach at the installation of another of their artworks, at Floriade in 2017.

Andy Townsend and Suzie Bleach at the installation of another of their artworks, at Floriade in 2017.Credit:Sitthixay Ditthavong

Bleach and Townsend have also continued their work despite a devastating fire in 2013 when their long-serving Braidwood studio was destroyed.