A small boy, standing at the edge of one of Rosalie Gascoigne's larger installations, found feathers threaded through sheets of newspaper across the gallery floor as a response to the flat, wintry expanse of Lake George, said gently that it was like looking at waves in the sea.
For Gascoigne, it was a perfect reaction to Pale Landscape: found objects had become evocative and had made someone feel something. Gascoigne was big on art creating feeling. She could have hugged the boy, she told her son, Martin, at the time.
Gascoigne's rise to national and then international acclaim after her first solo exhibition aged 57 is the stuff of art world legend, but her inclination towards landscape and art was always there - she just took the long way round to becoming an artist. Now a new book written by Martin Gascoigne, who had a close relationship with his mother on matters of art, brings together the 692 known works she produced between 1966 and her death in 1999.
Born in Auckland in 1917 to Marion and Stanley Walker, Rosalie Norah King studied languages at Auckland University College, graduating in 1938. After training and working as a teacher, Gascoigne would come to Australia in 1943 to marry Ben Gascoigne, a promising young astronomer, after she accepted his proposal by telegram. She left behind the vibrant city of Auckland, population 200,000, for the remote and isolated life on Mt Stromlo, west of Canberra, where she soon also became a mother.
"And there was no transport because it was war time! They had a bus that took visitors out. There wasn't really much else. And of course, all these pine trees. You were sort of living in this gloom," Martin Gascoigne says. "And then, in winter, there was no heating in the house other than a fireplace. I can remember when we got an oil-burning stove in the mid-1950s, and suddenly we stopped getting colds."
For Gascoigne, her new life on the mountain required significant adjustment. "It did force her back on herself. But the other thing was, it's where she learnt - like any new immigrant - she had to learn about this new country, leave behind what she talked about the squelch of New Zealand for the hard rock of Australia underfoot. And so she had to get used to the different colours. She talked about the birds, a lot of birds, and the whole different colour schemes of the red terracotta roofs," Martin Gascoigne says.
Gascoigne was not expected to fit in and she hated being a housewife. "I was a wife. The astronomy went on, you see. Nobody expected anything of you, except I think to be sort of docile. And the astronomy came first," she said in 1999.
Martin Gascoigne says after a second family trip back to New Zealand in 1948, his mother returned to Australia and realised it was where her life was. "She really had to live here and make her peace with it and all this big space. Nothing was going to go away, nothing was going to change on the mountain - which she eventually realised gave her a great sense of freedom. 'I can't do anything about it, so I can do whatever I want'."
Gascoigne started entering flower arrangements in Canberra Horticultural Society competitions in 1955, integrating found objects into her displays. Flowers were hard to find on Mt Stromlo. She'd bring found things home and display them on the mantelpiece, standing out from the usual approach to home decorating taken by the other women in the small, often socially competitive community. In 1959, Gascoigne was commissioned to provide flower arrangements for the lobby of the newly opened Academy of Science building - it was a stimulating challenge.
Martin Gascoigne says as the three children started to grow up - he left home in the early '60s and his brother soon followed - Gascoigne had more time to herself, with a car and a house in Canberra, where they moved to in 1960. Her engagement with collecting and making was something the family was involved with and watched grow. Gascoigne covered the backyard of their family homes with interesting pieces of wood, tree stumps and other things she found, Martin Gascoigne says.
When Gascoigne took up ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, in 1962, her fellow students were soon distracted from Norman Sparnon who was supposed to be teaching them. "[She] very quickly got to the stage where all the students in the class she was taking watched her rather than the teacher, which didn't win her much favour with the teacher," Martin Gascoigne says.
Martin Gascoigne was collecting contemporary art before his mother started exhibiting her own work. He admits he stood out when he had a four- or five-foot-long abstract painting on the wall in his small room at the Australian National University's Garran Hall in the mid-1960s. "I was the only one," he says.
"At that stage, I had a sense that art was a family value in a way. Mum and Dad had artist friends in Sydney and they were looking at art, and occasionally they would buy something. ... [Art] was something I needed, I suppose. So I started collecting art once I had a bit of money, once I started working."
One of the great joys for me in working with her work ... [is] the sense of hope and possibility that [her] story opens up for audiences broadly, in all aspects of their livesCurator Kelly Gellatly
Martin Gascoigne would send art books he found on his travels - he worked overseas for several years in the 1970s - home to his mother. She subscribed to art magazines for the pictures, not the articles, but her letters show she was highly art literate and the books Martin Gascoigne sent home helped her to place her own growing body of work among other contemporary artists.
He gave her a copy of William Seitz's catalogue for his 1961 Museum of Modern Art exhibition The Art of Assemblage. It would prove a key moment for Gascoigne, giving her the language to describe her work. "I was in this Manila bookshop, an unlikely place, [and] I find this catalogue and sent it back to her for Christmas, I think it was. The book had a lot of things, the sorts of things she was doing; it explained to her what she was doing. She was an assemblage artist. She had struggled around for words to try and describe [her work]," Martin Gascoigne says. "I think it was important because it showed in a way what she was doing was legitimate, that was the word I was looking for earlier. That what she was doing was legitimate art, the choices were legitimate."
Gascoigne's work is made from assembled found objects with a deep connection to place. Retroreflective road signs, old soft drink boxes, feathers, wood - Gascoigne found these materials to create artworks that evoked the richness of the Canberra landscape and the Monaro. Driven by process, she would discard "a proper nothing", choosing to rework, reassemble and continually collect. Her eye was drawn to the colour and shape of the environment around her.
Martin Gascoigne introduced his mother to James Mollison, the inaugural director of the then Australian National Gallery who was making ambitious acquisitions for the new institution, in 1969. It was an important relationship for Gascoigne, who would test her eye against Mollison's artistic judgement. Mollison bought Gascoigne's work for collections and frequently called on her eye, inviting her to see new acquisitions in the Fyshwick warehouse where the national collection was being assembled.
Gascoigne's art world connections would give her the sense that her work was legitimate; they also helped her career to take off. Her first exhibition, held at Canberra's Macquarie Galleries in June 1974, would be followed less than a decade later with her being selected to represent Australia at the 1982 Venice Biennale.
Gascoigne's rise through the ranks of Australian art might now seem outlandish, but Kelly Gellatly, who curated the first large-scale retrospective of Rosalie's work at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2008, says it was a lucky combination of being in the right time and place.
"It is a remarkable story and an incredibly quick trajectory. I mean, in the end, I think if you weigh up the years in which Rosalie was actually practicing, towards the end of her life, she probably really only racked up the time of what we would consider a mid-career artist, at that sort of latter stages of her life," Gellatly says.
"One of the great joys for me in working with her work and doing the show was the sense of hope and possibility that that story opens up for audiences broadly, in all aspects of their lives."
A constant sense of looking is key to Gascoigne's work, which has remained fresh and vital years later, Gellatly says. "She was true to herself and there was absolutely no one else like her. ... She had both a very sophisticated eye and an untrained but very sophisticated sense of contemporary practice and her work seemed to be of itself but fit comfortably within different contexts of the times, which is why her work has been picked up for biennales and the like, and shown internationally."
Martin Gascoigne's task in producing the definitive catalogue was helped by the scientific mind of his astronomer father. Ben Gascoigne realised early on he ought to take photographs of his wife's work, working first with a card index file and then a computer to keep track of what she was producing, exhibiting and selling.
"When he was growing up, he was concentrating and worked very hard at his studies, and certainly his astronomy. But as Mum's practice evolved, he took quiet pride in that and it was certainly supported, when she let him," Martin Gascoigne says.
"Most artists don't keep records for themselves, because they're busy making art, so they don't. So she was certainly very lucky in that [Dad] did recognise the need to keep records. It was his scientific training, I'm sure, that helped do that, but it certainly made my task much easier," he says.
Martin Gascoigne hopes the book, published next week, will boost appreciation for Gascoigne's work.
Echoing Picasso, Gascoigne would say that a person was born the artist. "But you've got to shake off a lot of your conditioning and you've got to shake off a lot of what the people who influenced you in your childhood thought you were, which you certainly are not," she would say.
In the end Gascoigne did shake off that conditioning, forging her own path. A remarkable career for a woman who thought she was not able to be an artist because she couldn't draw and couldn't paint.
Rosalie Gascoigne: A Catalogue Raisonné by Martin Gascoigne. ANU Press. pp. 436. $175.
National Gallery of Australia director Nick Mitzevich will launch the book at 6pm, Tuesday, September 17 at the gallery. Free, but bookings required. Visit nga.gov.au for details.