How one of Australia’s most renowned living artists Elisabeth Cummings found her voice

Elisabeth Cummings calls herself a “slow developer”.

Since she was a child growing up in Brisbane she has always painted, but she says it took time to find a voice of her own on the canvas.

There was no particular turning point, she says, in the evolution of her renowned landscapes and interiors.

“I just kept on painting, I suppose,” Cummings says in typically low-key fashion.

“That’s all I can say. And slowly, slowly, there were changes.”

A painting of a messy space with pinks and reds and white.

The exhibition includes more than 40 paintings from the past 30 years.(Supplied: Elisabeth Cummings)

The now 89-year-old’s distinct visual language will be celebrated in a major show at the National Art School opening on Friday.

National Art School director Steven Alderton says Cummings is an inspiration to students today.

“She has determinedly and daringly painted her way to the stature of one of Australia’s most eminent artists.”

Preferring the freedom of memories, Cummings never paints from photos.

“The photos have already pinned down a subject in its own photographic way. I wanted to create my own image, how I want to interpret that subject,” she says.

A woman stands in front of art on a wall and paintbrushes on a desk.

“There’s always something to paint,” Cummings says. (Supplied: National Art School)

‘Mostly it’s a struggle’

Over time, Cummings’s paintings have become less traditional, less representational, as she strives to inject them with energy above all else.

“I hope to make them alive, that’s the aim anyway, to create that life in the painting,” she says.

“I love the process of doing a painting in spite of all the frustrations, it’s not easy. Sometimes it’s easier than others and it just flows.

“Mostly it’s a struggle, but it’s worth it.”

A painting featuring clouds with whites, blues and purples.

Early morning Osborn Bay, Kimberley by Cummings. (Supplied: Elisabeth Cummings)

The exhibition will add to her “wonderful” memories as one of a handful of students to complete the course there in the 1950s when it was the East Sydney Technical School.

Her talent was recognised early, but not all approved of a woman pursuing an artistic career.

A black and white photo of a woman staring into the distance.

Cummings, pictured in 1974, at Wedderburn.(Supplied: National Art School)

When Cummings was awarded the NSW Travelling Art Scholarship the head of the Julian Ashton art school, Henry Gibbons, wrote to the newspaper complaining that it was a waste to give it to a woman.

“I’d forgotten that … but yes, that was the attitude back then of some people. My own head of the art school, Douglas Dundas, wrote a reply to that, backing me up which was nice,” Cummings says.

She went to Florence in Italy and stayed in Europe for 10 years.

“You could live on very little, and travel a bit,” she says.

“You could do a lot in the 60s very reasonably, it was an exciting time.”

‘Always something to paint’

Cummings was surprised that she missed the Australian bush.

“I used to find the bush very boring, we used to drive through it or play in it, but it’s what I missed when I was away,” she says.

“There’s something about this landscape that gets into you.”

Cummings’s studio at her Wedderburn mud-brick home in south-west Sydney, which was originally part of an artist’s commune, also provides plenty of inspiration.

A woman with a wide brim hat sits in a camp chair holding a paint brush surrounded by bush.

Cummings continues to travel to paint, recently going to Ross River, east of Alice Springs. (Supplied: Ann Cape)

Artists like her, she says, paint whatever’s around them, referring to a quote from the Dutch-American abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning.

“He said I could be locked away in a prison cell with a few objects and I could endlessly paint them,” Cummings says.

She has just returned from Ross River, east of Alice Springs, and when she gets back in the studio plans to work on ideas sparked on the trip.

“There’s always something to paint.”

Radiance: the art of Elisabeth Cummings opens Friday, August 18 and runs until October 21 at the National Art School in Darlinghurst.



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