It was not, insists artist and writer Jacqueline Fahey, a fairytale ending. The final chapters of her first memoir, Something for the Birds (2006), in which she marries psychiatrist Fraser McDonald, may have been “in the traditional manner of romance writers”, but the suggestion that once you have found your life partner you “proceed to live happily ever after” is by no means the end of her story, she explains in sequel Before I Forget. The book begins with Fahey trying to fit into the bizarre and hierarchical world of doctors’ wives in Melbourne with her husband and two young children. “I realised I had to get back into the art world where I could be something like myself,” she writes. “Homesickness, alienation or depression always roused in me an urge to paint.”
That was 1960 and Fahey has painted ever since, carving out not so much a place in this country’s art canon as an outspoken platform born of the vital immediacy of family and community life. In Memoriam (1969) shows Fahey and her mother sitting in shared grief over the death of her father, clothes and scarves covering the bed end. In Fraser Analyses My Words (1977), a domestic argument unfolds over a bottle of Seagram’s gin and bowls of roses. In My Skirt’s in Your F—ing Room (1979), one daughter confronts another with the evidentiary “borrowed” skirt. As Fahey writes, “This painting more than any other is an example of me not resisting the circumstances of my domestic life but incorporating it into my work.” Later, she would depict the rough commerce of the street – the “fallen women”, ageing alcoholics and paddy wagons – in her K’ Rd series. Later again, she would catch the wild, free-falling motion of skateboarders and the hieroglyphs of graffiti in her Grey Lynn paintings.
But in fighting in and for her patch as a young artist, she developed a language of paint that is lyrical, bold, joyous and – like Fahey – dismissive of artistic preoccupations of the day. Just as, she writes, Don Binney, friend and colleague at the Elam School of Fine Arts, imposed “his interpretation on the land”, and just as friend Rita Angus’s painting “was integrated into her life”, Fahey insisted the theatricality of domestic life was a valid subject for art. She ignored the growing interest in abstraction and the “international way”. “How drear,” she says. “What has it got to do with us?” She persisted with narrative art even as it was “sneered at hugely” in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. She ripped the gentility out of so-called and much-denigrated “domestic art”. “Saying that this [the home] is an important arena was a defensive act for women. Reality is not ‘somewhere else’. Big decisions aren’t just made when you go off to the office or the boardroom. They are often made in the kitchen.”
Until her husband’s death in 1994, Fahey didn’t have her own studio. Throughout her years as a wife, mother and exhibiting artist, she used a trolley – “a big trolley” – and an easel. “I moved it around to any section of a room that was available. But we did have space and that was a luxury – hospital houses are ramshackly old farmhouses, which was quite good for a painter.” So there she is, both viewer and participant, like the indifferent goddesses she describes in Before I Forget, living and working in the midst of chaotic kitchens, arguing daughters, messy bedrooms, absorbed husband and the whole village-type environment of the psychiatric institutions where McDonald worked: Porirua, Kingseat, Carrington.
It was an unconventional life: raising a young family; fulfilling the occasional role as superintendent’s wife; campaigning for peace, nuclear disarmament, women’s rights; socialising (“I was a real party girl and I had the sustaining powers for that sort of thing”); and painting, not in the purposeful sphere of Virginia Woolf’s room of one’s own, but in the vigorous heart of a home, family and psychiatric hospital. Signs of institutional life are evident in her work, in the obligatory blue hydrangeas, the curled figures of the Halt and the Lame, the resident gardener, even McDonald’s scrutinising magnifying glass. Living onsite, she says, “gave me more of a medieval sense of reality, like [the work of] Goya and Hieronymus Bosch. It made me see life as very vulnerable. It was a sort of private/public life – coming out of it was like coming out of the army.”
Under McDonald’s watch, the great divide between doctors and patients was eroded. White coats and stethoscopes were abandoned, mixed wards became more common. Some of the doctors’ wives objected. In her book, Fahey quotes one such complaint: “You can’t tell the difference between staff and patients any more.” Which was, she says, the whole point. “Madness really means not being able to cope with the ordinary things of life. Mostly that is all so-called madness is – incompetence. And if you look at how the demise of the human race seems to be hurrying along – madness is just as much in our society.”
Fahey’s candidness remains undiminished in her 83rd year. She is opinionated, forthright and determinedly egalitarian. She does not brook dissemblance, just as she loathes prejudice, a stance born, perhaps, of her proud Irish Catholic ancestry and fuelled by the “rabidly anti-Irish Catholic” element that saw her barred from social events and kicked out of a non-Catholic hostel at the Canterbury College School of Art in Christchurch. Was she angry? “I was indignant, infuriated, enraged. I didn’t believe in God anyway: I remember when I was a small child a nun announced that animals didn’t go to heaven – I knew from that moment the woman was talking crap. And in Timaru I always thought we were rather … special. I had no sense of being inferior.”
In 1980, Fahey travelled to New York on a study trip funded by the QEII Arts Council. Staying at the Chelsea Hotel (she had read John Brinnin’s Dylan Thomas in America), she explored the “mad medieval city” – the galleries, the dirty streets, the wealthy arts patrons, and the street bums squatting in doorways like “Goya’s demons”. The pages of the report reprinted in Before I Forget reveal a curious, fearless woman – open, opinionated and driven. “I know what I’m looking for in paintings,” she wrote. “It’s got to be more like dancing, alive, real, body and vision working together.” Rereading her report many years later, Fahey was, she says, surprised. “Through the nuns of Teschemakers [a Catholic girls’ boarding school in Otago], I have always believed your aim in life is to become more insightful, better, all the time. And I’ve realised I haven’t changed. It was rather a shock. I thought I had developed quite a lot since then.”
Then, as now, Fahey revealed an enduring socialist sentiment, a genuine despair at poverty and a belief in human potential. She rails against rigid, old-fashioned feminists, “like Methodist nuns with rule book in hand”. Against the denigration of political correctness – “it is used so cruelly against very good changes in society”. Against the increasing confidence of the bigot, enduring pay disparity, the abandonment of the mentally unwell to the park benches and booze bottles of “community care”. “It’s ridiculous to talk about being a feminist if you are not a socialist – you have to have a degree of equality to have a feminist society at all. The Scandinavian countries have proved it is the only way to live. They have the least child abuse, the least abuse of women.”
Fahey is back writing, using a kitchen table (“which is really my writing desk where I make room for a plate”) to work on her second novel, a fictionalised version of the story of her great-grandfather, Michael Gerity, an able horseman, a gentle drunk, a flame-haired Irishman who died, or was killed, riding home across the Washdyke Bridge in Timaru in 1870. Still raging? Still burning? “More so! And I can now, there’s nothing anyone can do about me, is there? I don’t feel I can even be bothered being a lovely person any more. There’s really no cause for it.” A lack of gentility, she says, does help. “In that I didn’t feel guilty, which I think is something imposed on you by society, it’s a controlling device. What is it that Joyce said? ‘The sow who eats her own farrow.’ That is what we are like.”
I remind her of a question she poses in Before I Forget: can art change anything? “It is not as influential as one would hope. Knowing the truth and having it eloquently said doesn’t seem to change the minds of those hell-bent on stupidity and destroying everything around them. There is a cynicism now, a sort of blindness, but I hope the moment hasn’t been passed.”
BEFORE I FORGET, by Jacqueline Fahey (AUP, $45), released August 3.
The New Zealand Listener Book Club
You can still join the conversation about this month’s Book Club choices, Fiona Kidman’s The Trouble with Fire (Vintage, $36.99) and fellow New Zealand Post Book Awards fiction finalists Rangatira, by Paula Morris (Penguin, $30), and From Under the Overcoat, by Sue Orr (Vintage, $29.99). Visit the Book Club section of www.listener.co.nz, follow the Twitter account @nzlbookclub or go to the Facebook page New Zealand Listener Book Club. You can listen to a podcast discussion of the books featuring three former award judges; there is the verdict of a “real-life” book group; and on August 2, the day after the awards ceremony, you’ll find interviews with the fiction and overall Book of the Year winners (who may, of course, be one and the same). Next month’s Book Club choice – beginning on August 3 – is David Ballantyne’s 1968 novel Sydney Bridge Upside Down (Text Classics, $15.99).