History of the Canberra Art Workshop
Members of Canberra Art Workshop paint and draw in art groups in the M16 Artspace in the inner suburb of Griffith almost every day and night of the week. Hundreds are involved.
Some of their workgroups explore experimental painting. Some do portraits. There are pastel and watercolour groups and printmakers use an etching press in the studio.
Other groups have painted en plein-air, travelling to the mountains or nearby scenery.
And the Canberra Art Workshop brings in well-known out-of-town artists as teachers to shape the city’s contemporary art activity. They’ve been doing it for more than 70 years.
For many, life drawing is the core and starting point of its workshop activities — attended by artists of all ages. They range from art students to retirees, from amateurs to exhibiting professional artist, and from accountants to public servants.
Canberra Art Workshop’s activities have viscerally shaped Canberra’s art community – despite the workshop during most of its history only ever having been in rough digs — just a step ahead of the demolishers’ bulldozers.
Back in the beginning, in 1948, it was known as the Canberra Art Club — brought together by active community artists like John Scollay and the club’s first president, Jenny Neilson.
Its first annual exhibition was held at the Canberra University Cottage, featuring an oil painting by Max Meldrum — on sale for 150 guineas. The then National Art Gallery of NSW also lent Max Meldrum’s painting Portrait of My Mother for the exhibition.
In 1950, when the club’s workshops and exhibitions were held in rooms at The Canberra University, then in West Row, it was granted 150 pounds from the Cultural Development Committee.
Then it started its work in earnest to shape, challenge and shake the city’s contemporary art, bringing Margo Lewers and Allister Morrison from Sydney to show Canberra their abstract expressionist works in 1952.
The weaver Solvig Baas Becking, one of the first members of the club, invited prominent, forward-thinking artists from Sydney and beyond to give classes through the club in Canberra.
During the 1950s and 1960s artists such as John Coburn and Clifton Pugh were brought to Canberra by the club to tutor members for six-week periods.
Reporting on the club on 7 December, 1965, The Canberra Times said, “It would be admirable if the club could make a regular feature of inviting guest artists to exhibit with it, for Canberra is rather cut off from the stimulation of the galleries and exhibitions of the larger cities”.
Over time, the club changed Canberra’s ‘landscape of the mind’ with a stream of prominent artists who included Margo Lewers, Allister Morrison, John Brack, Joshua Smith and Lloyd Rees.
Behind the scenes, the club’s first workshop group for its member artists was organised by Nancy Parker, and they haven’t stopped for about seven decades.