Interview with Robyn McKinnon

Robyn McKinnon is a Tasmanian painter. Her work Mrs Vermeer’s Kitchen, part of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) collection, will be shown in our up-coming exhibition, Theatre of the World. Theatre is curated by Jean-Hubert Martin in collaboration with MONA and TMAG.

Mrs Vermeer’s Kitchen, 2007
Acrylic paint on canvas

Elizabeth Mead: Do you generally not like to talk about your work?

Robyn McKinnon: Generally not. The title is about as far as I get. The title’s the clue, it’s a bit of a crossword. You’ve got the clue, work out the rest for yourself.

EM: That makes perfect sense to me.

RM: Does it?

EM: Yep. But you did change your mind about this interview. You said no at first, and then you decided to.

RM: Yes. I thought about it, and I thought that if I want to actually put myself in a position where I’m not ignored, then just do it. I also spoke to Allanah from Handmark [Gallery] and said, ‘Should I do it or not?’ They’re not mentors for me, but they look after the business stuff that I don’t know how to look after.

EM: Are you ambitious?

RM: Yeah. I wouldn’t be doing it otherwise. It doesn’t mean that I want to rule the world or anything, but I’d like to feel, apart from the personal satisfaction of succeeding for myself, that there’s someone else who thought I succeeded.

EM: So that would be your determination of whether you’d been successful or not?

RM: No, no, no. My determination of whether I was successful or not is how I feel about it, if it moves me. If it moves me, I can put it out there. If it doesn’t it gets painted over.

EM: Being a painter comes with the pressure of putting yourself out there in the world, with a financial impetus. Do you find it hard to manage your position as a professional artist?

RM: I just usually leave it up to the gallery or in a lot of cases, destiny. I do it because I love it, and the rest of it is really a bit of a pain in the bum. Allanah is really good. I’d say, ‘Well if I’ve got to pay the rates, and the rates cost $200, then the painting costs $200’, and she says, ‘You can’t do that’. So I don’t want to know.

EM: I don’t imagine that you think much of the culture that goes along with the display and production of art – ‘the art world’, whatever that means.

RM: Yeah, not a lot. It’s ok, it’s important, it’s like all strains of society. There are people that you choose to get on with, and people you don’t choose to get on with. You run the gamut, and if you know that those people are no good for you, then move away. They all make up the community. But I stayed away, there’s not enough time. I taught for 27 years. And when I turned 50 I thought, ‘That’s it mate, no more’.

EM: No more teaching?

RM: Nope.

EM: Did you enjoy the teaching?

RM: No, not really. I used to get nervous about it, feel sick in the stomach before every class, until I got the lessons down pat. And then it got boring. And I didn’t want to tell kids that what they were doing was wrong. You can’t do that, I don’t think. ‘You need a ticket’, my father said. The ticket was art teaching, and the rest was mine.

EM: How did you come to be an artist?

RM: I’ve always done it. I don’t know, I can’t remember when I didn’t do it. It was probably when I came back from Europe, I was about 29 and I thought, ‘No, this is no good, I’ll just do what I have to do, what I like to do’. So probably when I turned 50 and gave up teaching, I actually took it on as a profession. Yeah, so for the last nine years I’ve just applied myself in that way.

EM: Have you enjoyed having all that time to just focus on…

RM: I just love it.

EM: That’s wonderful. You’ve earned it.

RM: Well, yeah, I think so. And it’s just great. This really old house that is falling down and needs painting and stuff like that, that’s where I go every morning, front room, at whatever time get up. If I have something on in the day I get up at 3am and work until 10.   

EM: You get up at 3?

RM: Yeah but I go to bed at 7.

EM: Impressive.

RM: No, it’s not impressive, but that’s what I do. It’s eased off a bit. There’s been several catastrophic things that have happened over the last seven months that don’t warrant talking about. So I’m having a holiday. This morning I got up at 5:30.

EM: Oh wow, that’s pretty slack. So back when you came back from Europe that time, and you started to be more focused about making art, did you have a sense of your motivation or objective? Was there something you wanted to communicate?

RM: I think it was probably more instinctive. It was actually not knowing what you were going to create, that was what it was. When I finished at teacher’s college, I did a secondary art-teacher thing. When I finished there I went to art school at night so I could find out more about art. It was easy, if you know what I mean – I didn’t have to push myself to do anything. All these other kids were racing to get work in on time, but I’d have it done, for no reason other than I liked to do it.

EM: So what was motivating you was the sense of exploration, of not knowing what was going to happen?

RM: Yeah, and you don’t, because you’re just the vessel. You start a painting with some sort of idea in your head – no, it’s not the idea of the painting, it’s an emotion, it’s sensibility, a vision, a leaf falling, just these tiny things. And all of a sudden, this painting starts to grow, and then you think about what the painting reminds you of, and then you know. You’ve got to sort of smell it, go with it, and then you think, ‘Shit, how come that happened?’

EM: When you say that you’re the vessel – what’s filling it? 

RM: I think it’s a sensibility that you have. People know more than they choose to know. What they choose to know is pretty banal, usually. What they don’t know scares them, so they prefer to know the banal rather than the scary. It’s not really scary, but it’s a bit unnerving to think that a silly little person like yourself can make – that. That’s not to say it’s great, but where did it come from? I think as you get older, the visionary aspect of understanding a little bit more about yourself helps you to question why you respond to things the way you do. Not why you did it, but why you responded in that way.

EM: What have you learned about yourself over all those years of painting and teaching?

RM: Well, I’m still a stubborn Scot… I couldn’t put that knowledge into words. I like that, because each of my experiences is different, and it doesn’t matter where I go, I think.

You look at a painting, and it activates something in you. Sometimes it might activate a sense of sadness, or happiness, it depends on the painting. And if it does that, then it half fills the purpose – well, for me it just about fills it.

EM: So the only hope that you have for someone viewing your work is that it activates something for them?

RM: That would be the main hope. Also that they would actually choose to come back and look at it again, and maybe question the feeling that they had in the first place, and then think, ‘Oh, I wonder why I feel differently about that’. And maybe it’s them that has changed, and not the painting.

Sometimes – there was one painting in particular last year I put up on the wall, and I couldn’t take it down. And it wasn’t about ego, it wasn’t about that, it was about every time I looked at it I could be in it. The water was so churned up, and rough. It wasn’t scary and you could breathe in the water. When I took it down a felt a bit sad. I put it away, and then someone actually walked in and bought it from Handmark and the amazing thing was that that fellow had gone through a similar situation to the one I’d gone through when I was looking at that painting. It’s weird. It’s not weird, but I think a lot of people find it scary. I don’t know, it’s a bit like an echo.

I can explain it: this lady, her son had committed suicide. She cleaned for the accountant that I take my stuff to and Darren, the accountant, said, ‘Why don’t you take some stuff [of your son’s] to Robyn, she might be able to do something with it’. So she knocked on the door, and she told me about her son – this is ‘talk back’, I get goosebumps, all the way up my arms – and I said to her, ‘I’ll do you four drawings’. She gave me free range, and I took four illustrations to her. And after that – that ‘talk back’ sort of thing – it’s like a connection.

EM: So you think that your work is a part of that process of ‘talk back’?

RM: Not quite sure. But if it does talk back to people, then I’d like it to be part of a healing process.

EM: And does it form part of your own healing processes?

RM: I think it must do. I like people, they’re alright – but in the workshop, I’m really happy because I don’t have to talk to anyone. I always feel content to be there. There are very few days where I pace up and down and go, ‘I hate being here’. Maybe it actually gives me a truer sense of myself, my old self, as I was as a child, not as I have to be socially, or talkatively, or stupidly, as people see me, you know. I don’t know.

EM: So how do you feel about Mrs Vermeer’s Kitchen?

RM: Mrs Vermeer’s Kitchen – it’s probably a childhood memory. My brother had pyjamas with little trucks on them that looked exactly like that. He was born in 1956 and I was born in 1953, so if you can imagine – summer pyjamas in Queensland. I thought people were being too hard on themselves – I thought about this after I painted the painting. I thought, it’s sort of a soft painting, it’s reminiscent of old-fashioned curtains, old-fashioned pyjama material, stuff like that. And it also reminded me of screen-savers. I thought that maybe if people actually saw it as a screen-saver they’d relate to it as something more gentle, something you could actually relate to and say, ‘Oh look at that little pot, things haven’t changed much’. I just felt that when I’d done it. It felt busy, but if felt quiet. Because of the size, too, of the objects, they become more intimate. And it felt like that intimacy thing where you could actually just look at one object and not the whole lot. Yeah, and I thought, ‘It’s fun, that will do’. I felt like it was calming. There’s nothing aggressive about it, except that Mrs Vermeer has too much stuff.

EM: Who is Mrs Vermeer?

RM: Well that’s the other question. Johannes Vermeer’s wife, Vermeer the Dutch master. Mrs Vermeer – you never hear about her. You know The Milkmaid, and the ones with the virginals, and all the pictures he did – she was stuck in the kitchen somewhere. And I don’t even know if he had a wife [laughs].

There’re some jugs in there – the Dutch jugs that you see in his paintings. That’s probably the only reference. Along with that there’s beaters, which Mrs Vermeer would never have know about in a million years. Yeah, it was just to ask the question, ‘Well who was Mrs Vermeer?’ She’s every other woman as well.

EM: How would you feel if someone described you as a feminist artist?

RM: I wouldn’t like it much. If I hear that I think of someone’s work – like eX de Medici. I think tampons, the lady who used tampons in her work, that was probably the height of feminism in Australia. Can you remember things like that? Teabags and tampons hanging off little bits of weaving on walls, and I think, ‘Oh, for god’s sake’.

EM: No I don’t know that one, but it reminds me of Tracey Emin’s My Bed.

RM: Yeah, all that sort of stuff. I don’t know whether that was to shock. I think of someone like Tracey Moffatt, she’s strong as anything, she’s amazing. But if you think about feminism and the power that women can have, it’s neither here nor there in the arts, I don’t think. It sounds like you cry poor if you want to be named a feminist artist. You’re an artist, that’s it.

EM: Yep. So, potentially, someone like Tracey Moffatt, who’s a strong woman, and a strong artist – to relegate her to ‘feminist artist’ could almost weaken her?

RM: I think so. It sounds really crazy, but culturally she’s an icon, isn’t she. So how can she be a feminist as well? What does feminism really mean? Someone said once, ‘If you don’t call yourself a feminist, you’re not a woman’, and I thought, ‘Don’t be ridiculous’.

EM: Well, to me, feminism doesn’t mean everything under the sun to do with women, it means something quite particular. But it’s become so diverse and so imprecise that, as you say, you almost have to identify as a feminist just to be a worthwhile woman. But lots of women are making art, and being a woman is their reality-filter. So for you, whatever it is you’re drawing on…

RM: I’m drawing on where I live, and experiences I’ve had, millions of things…

EM: … the filter for that reality is that you’re a woman, and so therefore someone could come along and label that ‘feminist’. Is there a place for art to perform a social or political duty, do you think? 

RM: I think if art chooses to do that, it does it. I don’t think you can actively decide. Or maybe you can. I’m not the sort of person who actively decides that, I let destiny decide that. People see my work – I don’t invite them in, they just see it, and maybe it fits. If it doesn’t, don’t feel bad about it, just press on.

EM: Do you ever think about artists having a duty?

RM: I think you’ve got a duty to yourself. Again, without ego: if you love what you do, and you know that you can actually better yourself through what you’re doing, then the duty lies there, otherwise you’ve failed as a person. If you give up you’re never going to get anywhere. It’s just a little edge, it’s a little gift, a little bit more than someone else might have. And if you don’t use it, you’re a loser, you waste it. And that’s how I’m ambitious.

‘Why sex matters so much to men’

The word ‘rape’ is pretty potent. It can shut down discussion just like ‘racist’ can. I am guilty of using the r word (both of them in fact) to bully my conversation opponent into submission. I didn’t realise how much it hurt actually, until it happened to me the other day. I was accused, indirectly, of advocating rape.

This woman, Bettina Arndt, gave a talk at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne last week. I didn’t know until later that she was famous or notorious in the arena of sexual sociology; I just heard the title of the talk and thought it sounded interesting: ‘Why sex matters so much to men’. Male/female sexuality, in short, other people’s sex lives, is a topic of endless fascination to me. I can’t get enough.

As it turns out I missed the talk because I was watching my colleague Jane Clark address the NGV Women’s Association on the topic of ‘The Modern Medicis’. Is David Walsh a modern day Medici? No, said Jane. But they’ve both got balls.

I looked up Arndt’s talk on the Wheeler Centre Facebook page later that day, where I was provided with a video recording and told that Arndt had ‘stirred the ire’ of many.

Bettina Arndt, ‘Why sex matters so much to men’, video.

She’s basically giving voice to – authorising, through the discourse of sociology – the commonly accepted truth that lots of men have a higher sex drive than the women they are committed to, have children with, and love. There are plenty of exceptions, of course there are, just like you could say that generally men are taller than women, but I can think of a fair few men who are shorter than me. I think this is a brave and important thing to do, this ‘giving voice’. I also think it needs to be a woman’s voice for now, because it’s less threatening: it seems that if you acknowledge that sometimes things are hard for men, you are taking something away from women, robbing from their pile of woe. Dan Savage, America’s leading sex columnist, has been discussing this and related matters for years. He talks about the GGG principle: the need for all lovers to be ‘good, giving and game’ in order to hold out hope for happy monogamy. I can’t see why women would be magically exempt from this. We’re past special treatment I think. I don’t need it, thank you.

The depth of feeling on this matter was brought home to me when I tried to express my interest in the topic on the Wheeler Centre site, which was soliciting opinion. I found bitterness there, directed at Arndt, who was described as ‘loathsome’ and ‘revolting’. I lodged a comment asking what they meant, and asking why it was so abhorrent to express sympathy for men in sexless relationships, or men who live their lives trying and failing to get enough sex to make them happy. (Just think for a second: this would be so horrid! Imagine being constantly sexually frustrated and rejected. There’s no way I could be happy like that. The history of feminism tells me I don’t have to put up with anything that makes me unhappy).

Sure, it may be that angrier people are more likely to comment on these online forums, but no one ‘Liked’ my comment. No one liked it at all. Instead:

Oh I’m sorry I was unaware that white middle class heterosexual men were so marginalized. Poor things struggling with their overwhelming unfulfilled desires. […]

Poor men in sexless relationships! Oh no! […]

What’s that word for when you coerce someone into having sex with you when they don’t want it… Hmm… Oh yeah, rape.

As if things were not hard enough.

I hope such sentiment is not as widely held as it is deeply felt. If so, feminism must be in a rather sorry state (and I struggle to believe it is!) This much anger and defensiveness can only come from a position of weakness. I don’t accept that most women today – the relatively privileged ones for whom this research was conducted, and to whom the subsequent discussion is directed – are as weak and vulnerable as these comments suggest. Perhaps it’s a generation thing; perhaps these women, and especially the last one, are significantly older than me. The women I know wouldn’t infer ‘rape’ from this discussion, I’m sure, because they have so thoroughly internalised the knowledge that violence and exploitation are never acceptable, and haven’t been for a long time.

That goes to the heart of what I really want to say. To be truly liberated is to know that you, too, wield power. The things women want – career, love, children, travel, sex, in any order or combination – shape our sexual and social realities just as much as the things men want (career, love, children, travel, sex, in any order or combination). If you just take love, for a start: women make up half of it (in heterosexual terms). We’re needed. We’re also needed for sex, and for most men, sex is essential for happiness. We know, or should know, a lot about women’s needs, because of the first and second waves of feminism. We are strong enough now to think of our others’ needs as well. (Again, I’m talking about those who enjoy a certain social privilege. Poverty, lack of education and wide-spread violence, as seen in society’s most underprivileged groups, are issues of human rights and human suffering, and don’t have a place in this discussion).

Finally, I must confess my own indiscretion in bandying about the ‘r’ word, and in doing so, apologise to my ‘victim’: we were talking in a restaurant about women who want children when their male partners don’t. This man said that in a such a case the woman should ‘just do it’ anyway and once it was done it was too late, and he’d be ok with it, because it’s a new life after all. I compared this to rape: the taking of something essential from someone, with potentially catastrophic consequences, without their consent. The men I know would feel this violation very deeply indeed. As I said before, it was an extreme comparison and one that overlooks the physical pain and violence attendant to the standard definition of the word. But my point, then as now, is that every woman has the power to grant and withhold the ingredients of others’ happiness and well-being, as well of course, her own. Only a liberated woman can know that.

-Elizabeth Mead