MEET THE BOARD: Catherine McMahon

Apr 11 2020

Why did you join the Sheila Board?
I joined the Sheila Foundation Board in April 2018. I was a recent graduate of the AICD Company Directors’ Course and was keen to get involved in governance at an organisational level. My dear friend Helen Cook, who was then Chair of the Chamber of Arts and Culture WA and on the Board of the National Gallery of Australia, asked if I’d be interested in joining Sheila as she knew of my love for the arts in general.

In doing some research on Sheila and its aspirations, I was inspired by both the images and the essays detailed in the Into the Light publication of the 2012 exhibition of the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art. I was also bemused to learn that there was such a stark lack of gender parity and representation in the arts. I was then introduced to John Cruthers and was charmed by the notion of him creating this special collection with his dear mother. Also knowing some of the other board members, it was an easy decision to accept a Board position.

What do you love about art? What inspires you about art?
I love art/the arts because, in my view, it is an expression of the best of humankind. It can reflect the beauty (or not) of the world around us and shows what humans can be capable of. It can inspire a different way of conducting a conversation, through the artists eye. Art elevates us, inspires us, makes us reflect and adds beauty and colour to the world. Also, I am always in awe of creative people, given my left-brain tendencies. I think artistic talent is such a gift.

Why is Sheila Foundation important?
Shelia Foundation is important as it can help highlight the plight of women artists who have historically (and presently) been under-represented on the bigger stages of the Australian art scene. Our collaboration with and support to The Countess Report has already achieved a positive impact, helping to professionalise and expand from the first published report to the present 2019 report. Projects such as the Michela and Adrian Fini Artists Fellowship for a contemporary woman artist will provide another opportunity to raise the profile of women’s art. The Into the Light historical project is important as it will provide a more complete picture of the history of Australian artists.

What is your favourite piece of art?
It’s too hard to just pick one! However, one of my favourites in the CCWA is Freda Robertshaw’s “Standing Nude” (self-portrait) 1944. It is the earliest nude self-portrait by a female artist in Australia, submitted as part of her entry for the NSW Travelling Art Scholarship (she couldn’t afford a model). This incredibly strong and striking image (almost defiant) reveals a lot about Freda. My further readings of her reveal that she was an apprentice to Charles Meere, and did a feminist response to his “Australian Beach Pattern”, titled “Australian Beach Scene”. Apparently ’Standing Nude’ was the last figurative painting Freda created, leaving her mentor behind to paint more landscapes and flowers/still life. “Australian Beach Scene” set a record sale price for an Australian woman artist at Sothebys at the time. I had not seen nor heard of this painting before joining Sheila. I think all Australians should know about this painting and artist and this is just one example of why we exist!

Another favourite is sitting behind me at as I type is also a small abstract nude by South Australian artist Caroline Walls. I have a thing for abstract images of the female form lately (Caroline’s specialty).

If you could go anywhere in the world to see any piece of art what would it be?
At the moment, I rue not having seen Lisa Reihana’s “In Pursuit of Venus (Infected)”, a panoramic video which is a moving image interpretation of the French scenic wallpaper Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique. I saw a talk about this by Lisa last year, it was originally shown at the Venice Biennale, then later at the Perth Festival a few years ago (I’m told a better installation than Venice)- but I missed it. It’s breathtaking and was an incredible project to undertake. I also like that it provides a more complete history of Cook’s voyage, incorporating some of the first nations people that took part in the voyage etc. It is touring the world currently and I would be more than happy to travel to wherever it is showing next.

What is Perth’s best kept art secret?
That it is home to the largest standalone collection of women’s art (the CCWA).

Who is Australia’s female artist best kept secret?
I imagine there are many, although hopefully less each year with Sheila’s work. Freda Robertshaw is only one example, highlighted above.