Phillip Island & District Historical Society

Oral History Project - Josephine Kent Allen. Theme: Business, Art as business on Phillip Island

Last updated on 27-Jan-22

Phillip Island District Historical Society Inc Oral History Project

Interview with Josephine Kent (aka Josephine Allen) 

Held Monday, 10 January 2022 at 3.00 PM

Interviewer: Christine Grayden

THEME: Business. “Art as a business on Phillip Island” 

 

C: Christine Grayden, interviewer

J: Josephine Kent, (aka Josephine Allen) being interviewed

 

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Josephine Allen in her studio 2021. Photo: Josephine’s own collection

 

Early life:

C: Where were you born? Where did you go to school?

J: I was born in Launceston Tasmania in 1955 and I went to several schools because we moved around. We were in Smithton for a couple of years, then went to the Mallee and then to Melbourne. I went to 3 State Schools and then secondary school was Melbourne Ladies College, Kew.

C: When and how did you develop your love of art?

J: I didn’t develop it, it was just there. I don’t ever remember a time when I thought “I’ve developed my love of art”, it was always “I love art”. I have this incredible memory of the very first time I made a mark on paper. I think I remember it because of my mother’s story. I remember picking up this red pencil and touching the page and going “Ahh!” and flipping the page and doing it over and over and over again – in her best recipe book!

C: Good start! Would you say that was a family influence, that you were provided with pencils?

J: Yes, definitely family influence. Art was considered – all creativity – was important in our family.  Education, reading, literature. Creativity was just naturally included. I never thought it was something different. It was just something we all did. Mainly my family were musical and I was a bit if the odd one out because I loved to draw. And also write of course. My brother drew a bit as well. But it was always just considered part of everyday life. It wasn’t something special.

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Allen family Jenny Mum Don Josephine and Dad c 1958. Photo: Josephine’s own collection

 

C: Did you have any particular teachers who encouraged you at school?

J: Mr Bainbridge (laughs) – that was year 6. There was a grade 4 teacher too. Most of the teachers recognised that I had a bit of skill so they’d get me to drawings on the blackboards and things like that. But again I never felt it was anything greater than anything else I did. 

The most influential teacher was in secondary school where I had the great privilege of having the same teacher for 4 years in years in third form, fourth, fifth and HSC (ed: Higher School Certificate, now known as VCE). Her name was Olive Hilson. She was fabulous. Still now when I’m drawing and I might have a little problem, I hear her voice. She really helped me.

C: You obviously had access to art books and good art materials at that stage. What about formal art training after secondary school?

J: Well, I was fairly addicted. I decided at the age of 11 I was going to be an artist. After an experience in a very hot shed on a very hot day. I’d set up a tiny art studio there with a tiny easel and a couple of pieces of Masonite and someone had given me some oil paints. There I was steaming in this garden shed – I must have been high on turps (both laugh). But I had this gestalt! This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life. 

J: Yes, I was copying out of one of those very big books you used to get at hardware shops. I think they were called ‘How To’ books. This was back in the 1960s. I was learning to paint a portrait. I was using the book and copying; teaching myself to paint a portrait. 

During HSC I was very fortunate to get into Caulfield Institute of Technology to do Fine Art where I got in half way through the year. I thought I was going to fail my HSC – I don’t know why – so I thought I’d be able to do what they called a ‘preliminary year’ or just go straight into first year. Well I passed and I went straight into first year, which was great. I was there for one and a half years and had a little heartbreak – or ‘Artbreak’ – as in “We’re only going to bring Abstract Expressionists out and anybody else who has a different style – you will be failed”. 

It’s quite interesting because I see a lot of Abstract Expressionism in the way I paint. They actually did very well in making that skill even though I’m a figurative artist.

C: People might think that Surrealism was a passing phase from the 1920s and 1930s, but it’s everywhere. Russell’s art for example has Surrealist aspects. (Ed: Russell Kent, Josephine’s husband was also an artist). 

J: Oh yes.

C: So that one and a half years did influence you in a way, even though you didn’t really want it to. What other studies did you do about then?

J: Yes, I studied by travelling. (laughs) I decided to do the ‘gap year’ a bit later. I went off travelling with a girlfriend just around Australia and worked our way around. I soon found I was getting very tired of hospitality and those sorts of jobs, so I ended up in Perth and decided to go to Teachers’ College where I did secondary teacher training, and finished it – I’m a qualified teacher in Communications and English. 

C: Did you actually teach in schools?

J: I actually mainly did the teaching course because I wanted to make films. To direct films was my dream at that time. That would have been putting all of my creativity into one category. So I chose a teaching course where I could make a movie. I’d actually applied for the Film and Television School when I was 18; the first year they started in Sydney. For directing. They said “Look, you’re just the type of person we need. But go away and make a film and come back”.

I thought the teaching course will cover everything, I’ll be able to make my film and apply again to get into the Film and Television School and it (ed: the course and the film) will be useful in my future employment – which it certainly was. 

C: Did you make a film?

J: I made a film, yes. I made several. (laughs)

C: That’s lovely – where are they now?

J: They’re in a cupboard in a box where I’m hoping that the dust is not corroding them! I can’t use them because we don’t have projectors now. But I must try to get them digitised. 

C: How did they happen? Did you recruit your friends to act in them?

J: Yes. It was Super 8. I had friends as actors and the subject was ‘Unemployment’. It was a symbolistic sort of film. I had my poor friend climbing up a rope play thing, and I did about 10 takes of that scene! (both laugh). She would often complain about that afterwards! 

But it was the actual physical editing thing – you had your cutter and you had all your strips of the best of them hanging up there – your ‘rushes’. It was fun, it was good. That film was submitted to the College and if you were admitted they would give you a 16mm to play with. There were only 2 films submitted for the place: 2 men and me. And they got it. Although most people said mine was more interesting. (laughs). We won’t go there.

C: Those were the days, Josephine. There weren’t so many women film directors.

J: No, but the first year of the Film and Television School was Jane Campion, maybe Jocelyn Moorhouse. I would have been in hugely, wonderful company. 

C: When you were living in Perth, is that where you met Russell?

J: Yes, I met my husband Russell Kent – who was a wonderful man – there. He was practicing his art in Perth. We met when I was in my final year of teachers’ college. He was living studio lives in abandoned office buildings in Perth and then later in Fremantle. We actually met like Venn diagrams. I was with one group of friends who were very creative-minded people in theatre and writing and I was having my little break from visual arts. There was a lot of music. And he was with a lot of the artists of the era and the two little groups used to meet. So we met up that way. One day Russell heard that I was no longer with the boyfriend I’d been with, and he dropped around and that was it. 40 years later…

C: That’s a lovely story. He was living pretty rough back then?

J: He was living very rough. It was basically ‘camping out’ in abandoned office space. They were really exciting times actually. You might have a toilet down the hallway, you might have your little washing area with a bucket, or you’d go out to visit friends when you needed a shower. 

C: It was like the archetypal struggling artists in the garret.

J: Well it was real! There were a few of them.

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Russell Kent, High Street Studio, Fremantle, Perth, 1979. Photo: Josephine’s own collection

 

C: Were they actually creating in that space too?

J: Not in the same space, but it was a trend at the time. It started in Perth and moved to High Street in Fremantle where there was quite a lot of empty space upstairs that artists and musicians and different creative people would take on. Russell was paying $10 a week or something crazy. 

We didn’t have phones, we didn’t have mobiles. How we managed to communicate, I think it was through ESP! (both laugh). But if you went around to visit him you had to stand in the road and yell up. (both laugh) He always left the window open a bit. It was Perth after all. 

C: How long did you stay in Perth?

J: I was there for 4 years. I met Russell in the last year and we fell in love. We actually ended up moving into a little house together in North Perth that was fun. Russell was born on Phillip Island in Warley Hospital and he goes back several generations in Dalyston, right back to Kingdon Kent – I think Kingdon was the first of 4 generations of farmers there. So of course, Russell had a great feel for Phillip Island and the region. But I must admit that until I got to Perth I didn’t know where Wonthaggi was. (laughs) I had to go to Perth to find out that there was a place called ‘Wonthaggi’. 

I’d heard of Phillip Island because I’d visited when I was a kid. When we were really little we used to catch the ferry over for the day. The first time I ever met Phillip Island was from the sea. I still have a picture of that landscape – that really lovely old landscape with the Isle of Wight and the Rotunda. We’ve all seen it in pictures. It was just so romantic and beautiful.

C: There’s nothing like arriving to a venue via the sea. It’s such a wonderful sense of arrival. 

J: It is. 

C: It was a little bit the same driving onto the old bridge.

J: I don’t think I ever did go on the old bridge.

C: Well, there’s not much sense of arrival with the new bridge, but with the old bridge you’d hit and it would be: Rattle, rattle, rattle and you’d be: “Oh, we’re here on Phillip Island!” 

J: I think when I was about 12 I came over for the day to visit a friend who was staying at the Continental Hotel. All I can remember is driving and thinking “What a barren place”. It was so yellow and there were these funny little chicory kiln buildings. 

C: How come you ended up living here?

J: Because my husband was born here. It was actually because his father had a stroke. His parents had a business on Phillip Island – the Anchorage general store at Ventnor. Russell came over to help out and I was left there to decide “Is this someone I want to follow on not?” By that time I had finished my teacher training and had a really great job working with the Spastic Welfare Association as a craft worker and I loved it.

C: You gave that up because to be with a man and work in a shop!

J: Yes, I was in love. What do you do? But I had visited the year before to meet his parents so had seen the shop. We drove over. But when I came here to live it was October 1980, and then you had very strict seasons. It was the 6 weeks over the summer – Christmas, Easter, the school holidays. There wasn’t that constancy as it is today. But it was an incredibly conservative community.

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Kent family at The Anchorage, Ventnor, 1981. George, Josephine, Russell, Nanette, Peter, Craig and Jean. Photo: Josephine’s own collection.

 

J: Basically, Russell went off travelling at about age 20 and went to Perth specifically to do art. He lived in this amazing house in Mounts Bay Road where there were about 12 people living and a whole lot of creatives came from there. He actually started his artistic life there by joining... I don’t know if you remember when they used to go door-to-door selling paintings? The paintings were really formula where they would have 10 in a row and somebody would do the sky, someone else would do mid ground, that sort of thing. He was selling these paintings and he decided “This is crazy. I can do my own.” So he started painting and just going and selling his own door to door.

C: Did they sell?

J: Yes! He did quite well! (Laughs)

C: That was his first excursion into business as art. That’s extraordinary. I hadn’t heard anything about that.

J: No, he didn’t tell that story that often.

C: Has Russell ever had any formal art training?

J: No. He did go to art school but the same reason as me he wanted to be a high realist and the stream was Abstract Expressionist so he decided to leave. He is basically self-taught. He went to life drawing, but that was sessions. Life drawing is the greatest skill that any artist can have. It just teaches you. He also associated with some amazing artists. You learn from them. It’s a lot of just learning from your peers. Russell – whenever he wanted to learn anything he would just pick it up. He had a phenomenal brain.

C: Did they work together in the studio or were they in separate areas? Could they see each other’s work developing?

J: No. They were in separate studios.

C: Did they have any exhibitions?

J: Yeah, yeah. I met Russell’s art before I met him!

C: Well I knew John’s (ed: Christine’s husband John Eddy) parents before I knew him.

J: At the time I had this boyfriend who was a musician and did avant-garde music and he was playing at an exhibition opening at the Perth University of all the up and comings.

C: Avant-garde – Did he use a synthesiser?

J: Yes a synthesiser, and he would also tape sounds. He had a 4-track reel to reel mixer! (Laughs) Those were the days! He would go out and record how the wind vibrated on the masts of yachts, and cars, lots of different sounds. And then bring in instruments as well. There was an incredible, beautiful work; he did beautiful work! Yes he had a synthesiser of course. Probably now he would have a laptop. 

I was his roadie. (Laughs) he was the musical entertainment and I was his roadie. He had a little Honda Scamp and he had amplifiers in it, boxes, the reel to reel. It took us a while to set up, but I’ve always enjoyed a bit of technical stuff. Once it was set up I went around and looked at all the art. There was quite a lot there I was a bit bored by. But there were 2 pieces there that I just kept going back to. One was a very high realistic one of an army water bottle and the other one was of a cracked wall. You could just feel the paint peeling – it was amazing. I just loved them.

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Russell Kent ‘Water Bottle’, Oil on Canvas 1978. Photo: Josephine’s own collection.

 

I’d been watching this guy wandering around all hair and beard, jeans and hippie clothes. He was getting a little bit drunk. And I’m thinking “He’ll be one of those Abstract Expressionist artists” and I wasn’t taking too much notice of him. But at the end because my boyfriend did his work for free, they paid him in the leftover flagons of wine. That’s what they used to do at those openings – flagon wine and little cubes of cheese. So while he was packing up or talking to someone I was sitting on some steps minding the wine and this guy wended his way over to me minding the wine. And he says “Can I have a drink?” And I said “No. This is the musicians payment I’m sorry.” I’m thinking he’s had enough (laughs). I’m trying to ignore him!

C: Good start to a relationship!

J: Hoping he would go away and he said “I’m one of the artists”. I said “Oh yes, which one?” And he pointed to the 2 that I had been admiring all night and I took a 2nd look at him. (Both laugh). And then he wanted a lift home in our Honda Scamp. No room. There is no room in the car. (Laughs)

C: Worth a try!

J: But he didn’t forget me. And that was that Venn diagram thing. My boyfriend  and I used to have Sunday sessions where people would bring their art or poetry and we would have some wine and food and it would just be a gorgeous afternoon. And Russell came along to a couple.

C: Wow! What a great afternoon. And then you move to Phillip Island!

J: (laughs) Yes when we got here I said to Russell “What have you done to me? You’ve brought me to a cultural desert.” But not entirely true. For a while I was terribly, terribly lonely. We just thought we would do this for a while then we would go to Sydney where “I would go to film school and you can be a great artist and we’ll be famous” – as you do think when you’re in your late 20s.

So I was quite lonely for about 6 months. But then I met a wonderful Yolande Royal

C: Did she used to come shop?

J: Yes she used to come into the shop and she and Jean (mother in law) used to love talking and Yolande of course was from theatre and acting and of course I immediately enjoyed talking to her too. She used to come at night and go out the back of the shop with us and have a drink and talk with Russell and I. And she said “You should come along to the film society”. The film society at that stage was showing in the Penguin Parade in the little theatre there.

C: Oh I didn’t know that. That would be in the building down the ramp?

J: Yes. We go in there after the Penguin Parade closed, down the ramp. And the first time I went Yolande had said “You’ll meet people there. You’ll meet the people you want to meet.” So we went there. It was a really foggy night and Yolande was driving at about 40 ks and it was quite exciting. We got there and everyone was having drinks and nibblies and I heard someone say “Oh that’s a bit existential” and I thought: “I’m home.” (both laugh)

The first person I met was Jill Ryan, Eric Juckert, who was a wonderful potter – several people. I can’t remember all the names. I don’t remember the movie but the funny thing about it was that because it came in 4 reels, somebody accidentally put the second reel on first. I thought “This is classic”! I didn’t care, I was just there for the people. 

Anyway I got to know a lot of people and the start of realising the artists were here, it was just you had to find the right person to meet to get to know them. I think it still happens today although there are so many more of them. It’s exponential I suppose with the population.

C: There are many more opportunities to get together.

J: Yes. Then there was really very little.

C: You were lucky that Yolande lived here in Ventnor.

J: That’s right. The other person who was instrumental was Reg Langslow.

C: He was a lovely man.

J: Yes, he was beautiful. Reg was an illustrator and an artist.

C: He used to do those massive billboard advertisements that in those days they actually painted onto the sides of buildings. I’ve seen photos of that work. 

J: Yes, he was amazing. Russell was in the Anchorage and Reg lived around here, and Reg picked up Russell’s natural talent. It was actually Reg who taught Russell to paint, and encouraged him, and probably really fostered his art. So when we came back Reg was one of the first people we met.

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Russell Kent and artist Reg Langslow c1980. Photo: Josephine’s own collection.

 

Yes, so with Reg and Yo and Eric – when I met Eric, there’s a whole line from there. I can’t remember how I met Jan Bodaan but she was along the way. 

I’ll go back a bit. The feeling of meeting these people was like, I’ve always called it, ‘out of the tea tree’. It’s like they’ve always been there but they suddenly come out of the tea tree. Because tea tree can seem very ordinary, but when you go in there it is stunning. The beautiful textures and subtle colours.

C: And it’s full of life.

J: Of course it is. It was that sort of syndrome. And once you meet one, you meet another and it just grows and I realised there was an amazing lot of talent on the island. 

C: How long were you in the shop?

J: Eighteen months. Yes, and then we moved into a funny little farm house in Kitty Miller Bay Road. (Laughs)

C: Joe Grayden’s house?

J: Was it Joe or John? His wife was Margaret. When l was lonely my mother-in-law she said to me: “Do you want to come and meet some people? I’m going to the Ventnor Progress Association meeting tonight.” I thought yeah, I’d meet some people there, not really knowing what it was about. (laughs). Well, guess what they were looking for? They were looking for a secretary weren’t they, and they said “Oh, you’ve had teacher training”. (both laugh) So what do you do with the newbies – secretary! 

I did enjoy it. It was a good experience, because then I realised that Margaret was one of the first secretaries of the Ventnor Progress Association. There I am sitting in this old house doing the work that she would have done there once. Probably sitting in the same spot.

C: There was a bit of synergy there.

J: Yes, it was amazing. I found it that way.

And of course if it wasn’t for the Ventnor Progress Association I wouldn’t have become have become an environmental activist, would I Christine? You remember Saltwater Creek?

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Beach protest, Saltwater Creek Action Group. Secretary Josephine Kent in striped jumper centre, alongside husband Russell Kent, Mary Anderson with Mandolin. John Eddy at left with guitar and Greg Johnson spokesperson. 

 

C: I think anyone with any sort of sensitivity eventually becomes an environmental activist here in some form or another. Unless they’re walking around with their eyes closed. But anyone with any creative sensibility become inspired enough to want to protect it. 

J: Yes. They do go hand in hand I think. The first major letter we wrote was in this house (Ed: Christine’s house) for the Saltwater Creek campaign. You may not remember. But I had to come here and John (ed: John Eddy, Christine’s husband) and you wrote it and I had to put my name to it and I couldn’t understand why I had to do that. But I soon learned that was the secretary’s role. Letting people know what was going on at Saltwater Creek (Ed: threatened with a residential canal development). 

That was the start of – again – meeting more and more people. So it did work.

C: Josephine, this is a loaded question, but did you ever feel regret that you hadn’t stayed in Perth and pursued what you wanted to do there?

J: I was ready to leave Perth. There had been times when every now and then I’d say to Russell “Come on.. .Sydney.”

C: Do you regret that you didn’t move to Sydney and pursue your film career?

J: No, I didn't have regrets. I can't do the Edith Piaf accent - Non, je ne regrette rien (Ed:translation: "No, I don't regret anything") but you know what I mean. But no, not at all, because I did end up directing in many ways over the years.

C: Offshore Theatre.

J: Offshore Theatre, well there was a few little sketches and in 2009 I directed a play that I wrote, which was a pretty amazing thing for an amateur theatre to take on. That was very brave of them, even with my little budget. (laughs)

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Offshore Theatre, ‘Two Days on the Road’, directed and written by Josephine Allen 2009. Caroline (Alison Kingston) Prem (John Coulton) Jo (Katherine Paterson) Photo Hayley Justice. Photo: Josephine’s own collection

 

C: We were talking about if you had any regrets. But you were quite happy here in the Phillip Island community?

J: Yes.

C: Josephine can we talk about when you and Russell decided on this ginormous step to open a gallery. Where did that come from?

J: It started at a life drawing group at Jan Bodaan’s house where about 8 or 9 artists would gather. They were wonderful days. That was again in the mid 1980s. 

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Jan Bodaan in her Ventnor studio. Jan’s own collection

 

We’d draw in the morning from a life model, then we’d have this great lunch. Everyone would bring a plate, a bit of wine – a bit slow in the afternoon. (laughs) But lots of talk went on. One of them was, because at the time the exhibitions were the Lions Club exhibition at the Anglican Church hall (St Philip’s), and also Tudor Inn Gallery was there too.

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Tudor Inn Art Gallery in the former Catholic Church building in 1980s. Artist: Lance Sullivan. From Phillip Island & District Historical Society collection

 

C: Sutcliffes and Reids.

J: Yes. There were people like John Canning

C: Walt Sykes?

J: Walt was a bit later. Brookes. They were very much the traditional type.

C: Landscapes, seascapes, watercolour, oils..

J: Yes. It’s certainly got its place – I’ve done them over the years.

C: It was always a lovely place to go. Not challenging.

J: Yes, I loved it too. And besides that every Easter we had the wonderful Jason Monet of course. We must mention Jason who came to the island I think in the late 1970s. He came as Artist-in-residence for I think for Wonthaggi Burrough at the time. So he settled on the island with his young family and kept on doing his marvellous work, and he used to have Easter shows every Easter. That was the only really contemporary, different art activity at the time. 

C: What was the venue for that?

J: He just had it in his home. He had a wonderful space at his home that all opened up. 

C: At Sunderland Bay?

J: Yes. At life drawing it came up that we should do an exhibition and we’d all put in money for it. Russell and I said we would both go away and we’d actually do the costing.  I suppose we just naturally from experience at the Anchorage Store, myself through my teaching and the different things we had a nouse about how to go about planning something, we had also done an exhibition at Findlay House with Russell’s work and two ceramic artists. 

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Exhibition at Findlay House 1985 (mock up photo for the local paper). Leela Maki, Anne Farvis, Josephine and Russell Kent, Rob Jenkins and Greg Price. Photo: Josephine’s own collection

 

So we got all our quotes and worked it all out and did a timeline and went back and told everyone about the costs and they all baulked at it. These were all people who were all semi-retired and who had plenty. And we thought “Oh, come on!” 

We were in our late twenties, so what we did was say “Well, we want to do this. Would you mind if we took a commission and we’ll put it on ourselves?” Everyone thought that was great – they didn’t have to do anything. 

So we did that. We went to the bank. We had no money (laughs). I think at the time I was working in hospitality again. Russell was working at the ‘servo’ (Ed: David Cook’s garage, Thompson Ave Cowes) part time. We both purposely worked part time so we could do our art. We went to the bank with our two part time jobs and they gave us a card, which was our very first card which was a Bankcard. I think it had about $600 (ed: credit amount limit) on it. We thought “We’ll use this to fund our exhibition”. So that’s what we did. $600 was a lot in 1986.

C: What was your commission?

J: It was 30%. We set it up in the Heritage Centre meeting room and Russell came up with the name ‘Island Influence’ and that’s stuck and it’s still going. We set it up there and used to have to pack it up for one of the churches then set it all up again. But it was a good little venue. We had abstracts. We started inviting artists to come in. Not just opening it up, but actually curating it. 

C: How long did that go for?

J: I think it was 2 or 3 years. (Ed: Josephine checked later: 1986-1989) We did these one-off exhibitions at Easter. Purposely at Easter with Jason’s agreement, so that we’d could network. We would advertise each other’s exhibitions because that was something a bit different. Would you believe? Contemporary modern art? Not so different now but back then it was. We were thought to be very brave. I didn’t think we were being brave. But we used to sell really well! Those were the days.

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Island Influence Art Exhibition poster 1987. Photo: Josephine’s own collection

 

C: Where were people getting their work framed back then Josephine?

J: Good question. All sorts of different places. Russell and I used to just get it all cut up in Melbourne and bring it down and 2 weeks before an exhibition our house would turn into a framing place. He’d cut the mounts and I’d put them all together. But after a while we just used a framer, there was one at Dalyston.

C: Dalyston?

J: Yes, when we used to do life drawing at Dalyston. We also did an exhibition in Melbourne. Took a group to Melbourne. At Waverley Gallery. It wasn’t just island artists – that’s why we called it ‘island influence’. We had a couple of Wonthaggi artists. That actually came about because the life drawing class moved from Jan’s to Cowes Primary School. Which was quite weird to have it at a school. 

C: What area of the school? You would have to black everything out for the life model.

J: I know. It was quite a business but I think they had venetian blinds. And one day we had them the wrong way around and we heard all these boys tittering on the other side, so I went up and quickly closed them the other way and they all fell off the bikes they were standing on! (both laugh) 

Anyway, we then moved into the old Shire rooms at Dalyston which used to be the Timber Treat place, which is now something else opposite the pub. So we moved into that room. We’d go and have lunch at the pub then go and do an afternoon’s session. So that picked up artists from Wonthaggi, all around the island. It really grew the network I think.

C: Basically it just got too big for you to keep doing the little meeting room one?

J: No, we were happy with that. But we did some different ones with different people. 

C: In other venues?

J: Yes.

 

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Article from Phillip Island Star newspaper, April 4 1989, ‘Island Influence at Tutor Inn’. Image: Josephine’s own collection.

 

C: All the time you were getting commission and selling your own work there?

J: Yes, that’s always a bonus if you sell your own. The first time I exhibited I sold most of them! It was so exciting.

C: Josephine, how did you actually learn the skills involved? Was it because you were going to a lot of galleries and seeing how other people were doing it?

J: Yes, probably. They didn’t teach it at art school. They did have Art Appreciation where we had to go to galleries. But they didn’t do as they do now, as in Arts Business or Arts Development or Marketing or anything like that. 

C: But also just in terms of the infrastructure required just to hang things…

J: Yeah well we, and I forgot about this, we went around looking at various sorts of exhibitions and what sorts of screens they had and asked questions, and did our own research basically. Because Russell when he did anything, he was like a scientist, he had to go back. He would do all that and I would do the upfront, personality stuff. I hope I did it well (laughs)

C: You must have, because it was a winner!

J: It was a while before we went into (ed: their own) galleries because also at the time, the most wonderful thing happened on Phillip Island for the arts was the Phillip Island Arts Council. That started I think it was 1986/7, a year after we had Island Influence.

C: That was Reg George, Tony Hart, Eric Sumner..

J: And Eric Juckert. Anne Davie. It actually started because of Greg Price - he was the councillor at the time. The youngest councillor ever – I think he was 21 or 22 wasn’t he? Anyway he went to a Regional Arts conference, I think it had a different name. And he came back and said “That’s what we need on Phillip Island”. He got together with Tony Hart and Eric and Russell and a few other people and they started an interim Arts Council. Russell was the first treasurer actually. 

C: So the whole thing came from Greg Price moving it?

J: Yes, amazingly really the different way that it happened. Well Greg spent a lot of time at our house too. We used to have a few parties at that old house.

That (ed: PI Arts Council) began and went for 10 years I believe and it was known as one of the most successful Art Councils in Victoria. Which of course for people these days the Arts Council is now Regional Arts Victoria. Same body, different name.

They used to do a fantastic exhibition every year which of course was accepting new and fresher different sorts of works, so it gathered more artists. Out of the tea tree they came. They’d do that every June.

C: What was the venue for that?

J: The Parish Hall again. The Parish Hall was a good venue for art. Just for the lighting.

C: An incredible community facility over the years. 

J: Yes, and still doing it. There were then 4 exhibitions a year by the end of the 1980s. Our opportunities in the area were getting bigger. We were also attempting to exhibit elsewhere and exhibit into other types of markets as well. Mainly after our little one-off exhibitions we were just concentrating on just furthering our own market. 

C: How was that done? Did you just ring galleries up, or send them photos of your work? What were the logistics there?

J: Well, yes. A phone call to find out what you need to do. Still applies I think although these days probably an email. They’d indicate what they want and you’d supply them slides back then. You used to have to have slides of all your art. You’d send off a few and see if you could get an appointment.

There were also lots of group exhibitions. Russell was into taking his art into lots of different places…in the time he was doing that, he won quite a few prizes. I haven’t got his resumé in front of me. One of them was delivered by William Dargie. Russell got second and Dargie came up and said “I would have made your first”. (laughs) Russell was quite chuffed. 

But we were so ignorant back then of the art scene. We didn’t really know how important it is to appear when you win a prize. The first one…Burke Hall I think at Xavier College - he won, they rang us up to tell us the good news – and I think it was worth $1000, which was quite a lot then – and we went: “Oh, we’re going out tonight. We can’t come.” (laughs).

C: Did you go out?

J: Yes!

C: Oh, Josephine. You look back in horror on that one!

J: You live and learn! We made sure we went to the next one even though he didn’t win anything. And we definitely went to the next one which is when he got the second prize with William Dargie. So we learnt our lesson – if you win a prize, make sure you’re there as much as possible. It does look good. You learn in many different ways, don’t you?

In 1994 we registered our name – Island Influence. Took us a while, didn’t it? And in 1995 we rented our first space. That was in Dunsmore Road Cowes with two other people. We shared a factory. We shared with Bonza Bags, making calico, environmentally friendly bags, and a dressmaker. 

Also in the meantime – I skipped a few years. We realised that we were really going to have to branch out from just fine art and make art products. It was all good practice so you weren’t ‘selling out’. There was this silly elite idea that it was a sell-out, but it’s actually a really great way to learn so many different skills. Russell then learnt to screen print and do all the graphic arts. 

C: That was part of an employment scheme wasn’t it?

J: No, we did it ourselves. That was NEISS, that came in after we had set ourselves up. 

C: Russell was producing tee shirts, so he would have had to approach the Phillip Island Nature Parks, or if before them the Penguin Reserve Committee of Management.

J: Yes. Shops. He started just hand-painting tees, and got into one of the shops, Pedro’s, (ed: Pedro Camelleri ) and I think from talking with him about screen-printing. Again, Russell looked into it, taught himself how to do it.

C: Pedro would have wanted the Phillip Island style. He is very astute.

J: Oh yeah, he was a great encourager. Russell’s first design was the ‘Moon Penguins’, which sold for years and years.

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Russell Kent, Island Influence: ‘Moon Penguins’, screenprint design for tee shirts. Photo: Josephine’s own collection

 

C: It was very popular. Do you still have any?

J: Oh yes I have a little case of ‘specials’. Russell started to go to different shops, but he had to be careful to look after his patrons, his distributors. Then we both went to places like the Penguin Parade; made an appointment. Also the Bass Coast Shire Council for the Information Centres. We had actually regular orders with both of them which filled and kept us going for 10 to 12 years I think. 

C: A lot of work though.

J: Yes, but it was fun. We wanted to make it Australian made tees, cotton. We were making money because we were doing our own designs, and didn’t have to pay designers. But it was just getting too expensive. The prices of the tees were going up and we just couldn’t move them. Russell decides, “Well, let’s make them.” (laughs) His friend who was making the calico bags, the Bonza Bags, Rod Spottiswood, used to cut the material. We got someone to design the tees and make the patterns and then we went up and would buy all the rolls of material, all the different colours. I can’t remember where it was, but Russell would go up and come back with a carload of material. That would be laid out and cut and then we found that in Wonthaggi they used to have – was it Pelaco? 

C: You mean upstairs in the old theatre in Graham Street?

J: Yes, down near where IGA is. Well, they closed but the ladies still had a little sewing group who used to do it as a home business. There were about 5 of them out in a garage. We’d take them over to them and they’d sew them up for us. We got labels made: “Made on Phillip Island”, “An Island Influence Product”. Yes, they went well. 

And then we extended our market because we LOVED going to Tasmania. Then we had the “Lost in Tasmania” with the (ed: Tasmanian) Tiger on it, and that sold really well in Tassie. That kept us going for a long time.

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Russell Kent, Island Influence ‘Lost in Tasmania’ screenprint tee shirt design. Photo: Josephine’s own collection

 

C: You must have been full-time at that. It sounds huge. Did you consider at that time, “Well, this is our art practice now and we’ll put everything else on hold,” or were you still tinkering away at your own art late at night?

J: No, we always did our own art work. But it was all art, and also manufacture. I always kept something going. Russell did too. There was always something happening. Because we were going for exhibitions, so we had to keep it going. But we didn’t have children, so like a lot of people in our situation, it opens up a bit of time. We did want them, but they didn’t come. We had lots of ‘creative babies’. They were our projects, that what we put all our energy into. It wasn’t hard. It was actually exciting! 

C: What a great thing that those women were still around and do that sewing.

J: I know, it was fun!

C: How many would they produce a week?

J: We’d have them done in lots of 300. 

C: Over what period of time?

J: I don’t know, but whenever we’d be about to run out. Because we’d get orders for 100 or so. You weren’t selling 4 or 5, it was bulk tourist stuff.

C: Did they see you through to the end when you stopped doing that?

J: Unfortunately they closed before we ended up. But we had enough tees, and also Russell was finding he was starting to have trouble with his hands from screen-printing. We had to look at a different way of doing things. It just slowly faded away. But he also used to just screen-print for other people. He used to do the Channel Challenge (ed: San Remo biathlon) before anybody else by screen-printing all the tees, just by all the strokes needed to operate the machine! (laughs)

C: I remember his screen-printing setup alongside Jean’s house and I used to think that looked like pretty hard work.

J: While he was doing that – I had actually an allergy to the inks and stuff, so I couldn’t help him. And that’s when I started developing the gallery at Dunsmore Road, where we shared with Rod and Helen, and we put on a couple of one-off exhibitions there. We did the first “Body Works”, which was all life drawings. And because we were involved with the Offshore Theatre Company we borrowed their flats and made a room within our third of the factory and just put life drawings up on the walls. It was part of a Fiesta for the Phillip Island Arts Council, which were very exciting times and there’s a whole story in that. 

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Island Influence at Dunsmore Rd 1995. Photo: Josephine’s own collection

 

That started me thinking. So we started opening it up for people to come for invitation appointments, then we started having hours, and I thought “I want people to come to a real venue”. I did a business plan because I’d learnt the business planning when we were looking at 65 Chapel Street for the Art Council. The council said to us: “We need a plan”. We had someone come in and teach us how to do a business plan. 

C: That house-gallery went for a few years, didn’t it?

J: I can’t quite remember. They were very successful.

C: Was that all volunteers looking after that when it was open?

J: Yes, it was all volunteers. It was a community arts space and the business plan was for that. Because it had several rooms we could have different ‘feelings’ in different rooms. You could have print area, painting area, craft area. We had an area we could meet. Any arts groups could meet there. It was quite exciting really. 

But then the Arts Council started to flounder, as committees do. 

C: Well, they weren’t chickens, and I suppose Eric Juckert died at that stage.

J: Yes, he did die. But these things happen. Things change. So they passed it on to the Artists Society of Phillip Island, ASPI. They’d been in existence for a while, and used to do their own shows as well. The council promised everyone they’d give us a really nice gallery at Cowes Cultural Centre. That’s how ASPI came to have it. 

Then in 1994 with shire amalgamations they redid the Cultural Centre and made it. They’d promised 65 Chapel Street that we’d get this really beautiful gallery and we got this room. That changed its whole feature really, from being a real community hub, an arts hub. That was a bit sad. But the gallery is still alive, so that’s fantastic! Now it’s at PICAL (Ed: Phillip Island Community and Learning Centre) while we wait for our new building. 

C: So you had a history with that, and you also had a history with ASPI too. 

J: Not so much. That happened more after the Arts Council. I came in (ed: to ASPI) later on when John Adam was president. I joined the committee there. But I have got a Life Membership! 

C: You have, I was there when you were presented with it. You gave a little potted history of the society. 

J: Yeah, I was honoured. But it was a bit odd. It was for all the arts activities not just for what I did with the Society. And of course when we moved to Settlement Road, which was the major gallery we had, which was 1998 – 2001. We were in there for 3 years and that was great because it was a factory and the front room was really classy.

C: Which building is that now?

J: It’s where the take away shop is now on the corner. That was Island Influence Art. 

C: I had it in my brain that it was bigger than that.

J: Well, the shop was the front area, then you’d go into the back which was the factory area, which was our studio space. That was the best time of all. I loved being there. We really built it up to a regular stable of about 15 artists and then we’d have 2 or 3 exhibitions a year.

C: I think you were open about 3 hours a day, about 3 days a week weren’t you?

J: It was seasonal. In summer it was basically 6 days a week. I took one day off. You could guarantee you’d get a phone call that day! Actually during the very peak season, the 3 weeks, I worked 7 days a week. And then the holiday season. Other times, yeah, 3 days, 4 days. It depended on what was going on. 

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Josephine with Phillip Island artist John Adam with his work in the Island Influence gallery in Settlement Road. Photo: Josephine’s own collection.

 

C: Back in the 1990s the rent wouldn’t be anything like it is now.

J: It was still hard. It was very hard to make that rent.

C: You were a bit out of the way there.

J: Well, yes, we had to be very canny with our promotions and marketing.

C: How did that happen? What did you use?

J: We went to the bank and got a loan. I wrote a business plan. (laughs) Another one for this particular building, with graphs and predictions and all sorts of things. The bank manager was very impressed. We got a loan and were able to buy equipment. We were able to buy a hanging system, lighting, I think it was a word processor at the time. Later moved to a computer. Yes, generally to set up and to use it for promotion. We got signage done – signage on the building, signage outside, sandwich boards, without permits which you didn’t need then I don’t think. And also an advertising budget. Every week it was in the Advertiser (Ed: Phillip Island & San Remo Advertiser local newspaper) and other arts periodicals.

With our exhibitions we’d had over the years we had created a mailing list. I would take down anyone’s names and addresses whenever they came so our list ended up being quite extensive. That was our greatest seller I’d say. That’s the most valuable tool a business can have. 

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Russell and Josephine at an exhibition opening in the Island Influence gallery at Settlement Road. From Photo: Josephine’s own collection.

 

Yes -- just through all those means, and the Information Centre. There was a membership and we had brochures there.

C: What about Phillip Island Tourism or the Promotion Association? Were you involved in that?

J: No, we never got involved in any associations. We really liked being independent because Russell was still doing screen-printing and it was a great outlet for selling tees and stuff, and taking on commissions. I created a silk scarf label too – ‘Natural in Nature’. I used to sell a lot of those products.

C: What sort of images did you have on the scarves?

J: Oh seals and…I stayed away from penguins because Russell had the penguins. But I had the seals and rocks and trees. Anything Phillip Island inspired of course. They were square. I used to buy them all beautifully sewed around the edges. They did OK but I think the tees did better. 

The most money would be made from the sale of paintings and sculpture. But we also used to do holiday art activities in the back area. We could have up to 16 kids and families there and they’d make products. The first thing we ever did with them was painting on the plain Bonza Bags, so they’d be able to walk out with this product. I loved that. Summer was pretty busy! Because we did it over a number years, and even in the next venue I continued it, we’d have them coming back and the kids would be growing up. It was just lovely to have that sort of return as well as new ones.

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Children’s holiday art session at the back of the Island Influence gallery at Settlement Road. Photo: Photo: Josephine’s own collection

 

C: You used your teaching training after all Josephine!

J: I did! I also did teach some art at PICAL on occasions. I had private tutoring in the gallery as well. You do everything you can. If you’ve got a space you’ve got to fill it. The other thing I really liked doing was that Offshore Theatre would sometimes use it as a little rehearsal venue for a pittance of a fee (laughs). 

C: What about painting props and backdrops?

J: Yes, we did sets for Cinderella in Dunsmore Road. That was the first pantomime that Offshore Theatre did. So we did all the scenery and had volunteers in. There was a few of them happening. That moved into Settlement Road as well. There was a lot of activity.

(Ed: From Offshore Theatre FB page About section: 

"On a rainy night in winter Offshore Theatre Inc. was formed in the winter of 1995, when six friends, unanimous that Phillip Island was in need of its own theatre company, met on a rainy night in winter. It was decided there and then that a theatre company on the island was not only viable but necessary. The group included Amanda Price, Anne Davie, Michael Cleeland, Sue Pearce and Sharon Davie. From that night the theatre came into being. It was agreed that the new company was to produce a Pantomime or Melodrama the following summer. Thus a play was chosen, an enthusiastic group of players cast and Cinderella became the first production staged by the burgeoning company….Cinderella was a huge success and set up the company financially, allowing it to produce more shows".

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Offshore Theatre: Pantomime Cinderella’s ‘Castle Glamorous’ - sets by Island Influence. Photo: Josephine’s own collection

 

We made banners! Lots of banners. We’ve lost them all, I don’t know where they are. There was one: ‘Hands off the Prom’, that got paraded down the main street (ed: of Melbourne). One of the stories was that someone outside of Chloe’s Hotel (Young and Jacksons) said “That’s the best banner I’ve ever seen”. Because it was a picture of the lighthouse area with the words “Let it Be!”. Then there was one of Jeff Kennett (Victorian Premier) eating the Nobbies.

C: That would have been a good one. Where did you show that one?

J: That was NAG’s one (ed: Nobbies Action Group). There was another one. We’d make them out of the calico. Calico was our soul material.

C: Was that displayed when Kennett came down?

J: No, when Kennett first came down, that was the launch. I did go to the launch. I led his car in my little Corona. They landed him at the Penguin Parade, or maybe they drove him there, but I saw him coming out of the Penguin Parade car park. I just got in front and slowed down to about 20 ks (both laugh)

I also made that poster ‘Taste of Conservation’ with Kennett in it too, which had Port Campbell and all sorts of places.

Poster: A Taste for Conservation by Josephine Allen. Photo: Josephine’s own collection

C: Where did you get the ideas from?

J: My head. 

C: And what about in terms of banner making? I mean it is a huge tradition in Australia. Did you have any background in that tradition?

J: No. We had people like Rod who would sew them up for us and then we would just put any paint on it. White paint, then paint on top of that. It doesn’t matter because a banner is not meant to last. It’s there for a short term. We did a few for Susan Davie too when she was working to be elected. Yeah, there were a number of banners over the years. 

C: How were they held in place?

J: Different ways, different places. 

C: Held by poles?

J: Yeah. Many different ways.

C: They don’t do banners like that anymore. They just do it all on the computer and just print it out. 

J: Yes, I know. On canvas.

C: Or plastic.

J: But they’re so much fun, using all the old paints. Usually there’d be a few people involved.

C: Community activists?

J: Yes, that sort of thing.

C: Fantastic. Do you have photos of them?

J: I don’t think we have any photographs of the banners, which is pretty sad. 

C: No photos of events with them in the background?

J: Maybe someone has, but the memory’s good. We do have photographs of making props and scenery.

C: I’ll leave you with that. Once you get the transcript you can go through your images please and see what you’ve got to match that.

J: Yeah, there’s lots of images. The other thing I used to do was get paid to hang the Arts Council show. I directed the 1996 one. That was before having Settlement Road gallery, so it gave me a taste of curation. That taught me how to do the forms and talk to artists. I think I knew how to talk to artists, but you know…(laughs)

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Putting the final touches on the banners for the Phillip Island Arts Council Exhibition 1996 at Dunsmore Road to go on the outside of the Anglican Hall. Photo: Josephine’s own collection

 

C: Were you being mentored in some way when you were doing those Arts Council exhibitions? Or did you just go by gut instinct, or by going around and seeing how the other galleries did it?

J: Yeah, yeah, and just having an aesthetic sense, and wanting it to look better. I didn’t want young people to be walking in and saying “Oh, this is old hat.” I wanted to make it different. I had a few tussles.

C: With the committee that didn’t agree with your approach?

J: Yes, but they let us go, which was great.

C: How did you overcome that, because people on committees can often have very set ideas, and someone coming in with new ideas can be a bit of a challenge. 

J: I think the proof of the pudding was the sales! (laughs) I mean there was a lot of “We’ll wait and see. We’ll give you a go, but we’ll wait and see.” They were a good committee. They wanted arts to be fostered. And you could see over the years – well, we’ve done a couple of decades now haven’t we – the growth, the amount of artists who came here and their quality. I’m really digging seeing what’s happening now. It’s really good. I’m really glad I don’t have to be so involved now. (laughs).

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Arts Council Exhibition 1996. Photo: Josephine’s own collection

 

C: Do you have anything else to tell us about the Settlement Road gallery, because you did a number of things down there I didn’t realise. 

J: After that the rent went up and I still had to maintain a hospitality job 2 days a week just to be sure.

C: Where were you working?

J: Conti. (Ed: Continental Hotel, Esplanade, Cowes). Where all good people go! Worked – everyone worked at the Conti. It was a great place to work, with the family, the Jobes and everything. It was just a safety net. It really just supplied me with petrol actually and some personal things which women need, those sorts of products weren’t cheap. But for everything else we lived off the gallery and the screen-printing. 

There were times I would look in the mirror and think I was going grey wondering how we were going to pay the bills. I wouldn’t know because it’s such an unusual income that you have to be brave enough to have enough faith that somehow it would come in. And it would always be when I’d think “Well, we’re going to have to close the doors. We can’t do this anymore. We just can’t ” Then someone would come in and we’d make a really big sale. I always paid the artist first, then paid us. 

C: You did that for 3 years.

J: I did it for more than 3 years, but 3 years there, that’s right. Than we moved to the Flower Farm (Ed: Newhaven) and were there for 3 years. Six years we did it and more with Dunsmore road. 

C: I was curious to know how on earth that came about?

J: The rent went up (ed: at Settlement Road), we realised we needed a new venue. Synchronicity. The people who owned the Flower Farm came in and said “We’d love some art work on our walls. Can you help us out?” I said, “Well, I’ll come and have a look first.” We were just talking and I could see all this space. At that time they weren’t using all those little sets. I thought “this could be exciting!” We all got excited. So we made an arrangement – a contract between us, an agreement – that I’d look after the art. And that’s how it came about. 

The timing of it was good. I was so sad to lose Settlement Road but I couldn’t have done the rent. You had to promote as well.

The Flower Farm was interesting because a lot more people got to see the art. The exposure of art was increased greatly. 

 

 

The group of artists involved in the “Body Works” life drawing exhibition held at the Flower farm gallery. was Russell at left in green shirt, and Josephine in top row in blue top. L to R: Mike Doyle, Russell Kent, Graeme Henry, Bill Binks, Josephine Allen, Jo Jo Spook, Camille Monet, Trudy Barclay, Jonathan Hannon, John Adam, Paul Satchell and Dennis Leversaha. At front: Lesley Miles, Janice Orchard. 

 

But when people came to Island Influence at Settlement Road they came to see art. 

C: To see art, not to look at the flowers. 

J: Yes. The actual money had been slowly going up over the years and it didn’t change its pattern at all. So it was still people coming to find art to buy. I found that interesting. But I kept thinking that I was exposing so many more people to artists like Bruce Tozer who are super-surrealistic sort of black.

C: it was very brave of you to hang that work; that very contemporary art. 

J: Well if you love art, that’s what you do. I never felt brave. I just felt energised. I loved it. I hated the stress of not knowing where your next buck was going to come from, but I loved the actual process. 

C: How did that go with the gallery space when they put in that sort of avenue of old shop fronts.

J: That was there when I got there. They started off with that so I utilised them as art alcoves. Then I got that lovely room in the middle as well.

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Island Influence exhibition: Bruce Tozer ‘Narratives’ at The Flower Farm 2003. Photo: Josephine’s own collection

 

C: It was a really good space with good lighting in there.

J: Yes, it was good lighting. I would say my most favourite exhibition was the Bruce Tozer ‘Narratives’. That was a retrospective. For me that was probably the top exhibition I’ve ever done. I think I’ve got about 30, or 40 under my belt or something. Yes, it’s just a ‘tiny’ list. Including the work I did at Council. I just liked curating.

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Poster for ‘Narratives’ exhibition of work by Bruce Tozer 2003. Photo: Josephine’s own collection

 

The other thing that happened when we were at Settlement Road was that Bruce unfortunately died. He was a dear friend and I had some of his work. His wife asked if we could keep it there. We made storage racks, boxes for it, and she paid us to do that. We also sold quite well because – well, people love a dead artist. Sad. But what it taught me was about curating and Excel sheets and keeping all that database. Also cleaning. I did the research. Russell did all the storage stuff. He did the physical stuff. Those boxes were great that we made. Damned heavy though – you’d need a forklift to lift them. But it was like having everything in a room.

But the other thing I discovered was that people loved buying from racks. You can have the works beautifully displayed on a wall, but they see these racks and say “Oh, can I have a look in?” It’s like a bargain basement, but you sell them for the same price. 

C: Were the shelves horizontal or vertical? Were the paintings upright?

J: Vertical, but we had some horizontal shelving for drawings as well. 

C: Also with the vertical racks people love when you pull the works out and they’re gradually revealed as they slide out. 

J: Yes. We also had the racks lined with carpet so the works easily slid out and slid back. It was quite fun. You sort of “Ta da!” (laughs)

Then because I discovered that I really liked dealing with collections, and I loved that whole process, we then looked into Fred Coventry, who was a very well-known artist.

C: Yes, good friend of Heather Tobias.

J: Yes, that’s right. He was part of the Eltham milieu back in the 1950s and 1960s. The family came on board and we did the same thing with them. Starting at Settlement Road and then moving them to the Flower Farm. When we went to the Flower Farm we actually got a storage unit. I didn’t want to leave the boxes there. 

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Fred Coventry: ‘Still Life’, Oil on Canvas 1000 x1170 1969. Photo: Josephine’s own collection

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Visitors to Fred Coventry exhibition at Island Influence, Settlement Road. Photo: Josephine’s own collection

 

That was pretty exciting. We had the holiday art activities there as well. 

C: That would have gone well there because it was a popular place.

J: It went very well! In fact it went so well that I found it hard to sell paintings because I was caught up with the kids. But that’s ok, I loved that.

So that’s how I learnt. I learnt by reading, and experiencing and doing. And I joined memberships, another thing that’s helpful for young artists, the Arts Law, Arts Hub, various bodies that would help me deal with commissions. For a long time I sent invitations to openings to the National Gallery. There may be some archives hidden in a box somewhere – ‘Island Influence, Phillip Island’ (laughs)

C: Did anybody ever come from the NGV?

J: No! They always sent beautiful letters: ‘Thank you so much. We’ll try and get there if we can’. I did that later on myself. (both laugh)

C: In your position with the council?

J: Yes.

C: There must have been an awful lot of them you could not attend.

J: You had to select. I used to think I can go to just so many things a week.

C: Otherwise it eats into your working week.

J: Oh, your spare time! 

Community arts projects was another work area. Murals, different things like that. Mainly, when I was in Settlement Road. Such as the CFA mural in Dunsmore Road. When they were celebrating their something or other anniversary, 50th maybe? They asked me if I would do it, but it was painted by 30 people and I just co-ordinated it. It was like paint-by-numbers. Now it has been painted over and when it was ready to be repainted, I tried to encourage them to get a young artist. But I didn’t succeed. They got a signwriter to sort of copy it. But ours was there for years, and so many people worked on it and were so proud of it. 

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CFA Community Mural volunteers in action at Island Influence, Settlement Road. L to R: Danny, Lousie Champion, Cora Elise, Susan Pearse, Sharny Taylor, Ray Champion. Photo: Josephine’s own collection

 

C: We’ve covered a lot of the questions. You’ve done so many things Josephine.

J: Well, I am 66 years old! A life of art. 

C: We are up to your work with Bass Coast Shire Council. What was your position there and what were your main roles? I know you were dealing with heritage as well. 

J: My position was Arts Officer initially and later Arts and Cultural Officer. It was at first 2 days a week, which had been upped from 10 hours, so that was pretty cool. My position covered all arts and heritage and culture. 

C: All that in 2 days a week!

J: Yes, of course I could do that! But I mean you didn’t do it all at once. You did bits and pieces initially. At first it was mainly project-based. I did an exhibition a year. We did a heritage project with sporting images.

C: Was that ‘Celebrating our Sporting Past’?

J: Oh yeah.

C: That was years ago!

J: Yes, 2004.

C: I remember going through the Phillip Island Historical Society’s photos to help work out what to contribute.

J: Yes, the previous Arts Officer had started the project.It was a good way to get to know people and I loved the heritage groups. I loved working with all the groups, all across the arts: visual, performing, music, writing, heritage. It did grow to 3 days the following year and then later 4. Then in 2018 they went to full-time arts and cultural team leader. I didn’t want to work full time, so my time ended at Council and l became full time artist. I had a choice a few times along the way to do full time administration, but Russell and I made a decision in our 20s that if we wanted to be artists we could not work full time. And we kept that, and that’s why we’ve been able to achieve what we did. 

C: That’s amazing that you worked at all of those extra things and were still able to keep our own art practice going.

J: Oh, there were times when we were frustrated. There always is. It’s time poor. That’s what most artists are – they’re time poor.

C: Artists of any description, including writers. I have struggled to find time for my own writing.

J: Exactly. Now I’m so-called retired, but not. But now I can do it all the time. (laughs) 

C: So you’re not employed at the moment?

J: No, but I do take consultancy jobs from time to time, commissions and things when they come along. 

C: Consultancies of what nature? Exhibitions and things like that?

J: Yes, all the areas of my arts expertise, but Covid has put a stop to that.

Another area at Council that l loved was the Public Art program. And that was really exciting, because people started saying “If we can see public art around the place we feel a lot better”.

C: Absolutely. 

J: At the time we had a strategy but no funding. We had a fantastic council at the time, a couple of people there who really wanted it. So we managed some funding which is still existing. It’s pretty exciting. 

C: You mean it’s ongoing in the budget?

J: Yes, sorry, I’m talking bureaucracy now. We started with very little budget, and by the end of my 15 years the budget was substantial. I think that shows in itself just the growth of arts, the natural growth of arts. As an Arts Officer you’re there to facilitate it, promote it, encourage it. To help it. But you’re not there to make any creative decisions. (laughs) That was a challenge for me! That was a real challenge at the beginning. 

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Josephine opening the Artists Society of Phillip Island exhibition, 2011. Photograph by Robert McKay, from Josephine’s own collection

 

C: Were you dealing with amateurs and professionals?

J: Yes, dealing with all the artists and all the community was my favourite part of course, and a big part. One big thing that happened over the years was the slow development of getting the Robert Smith Art Collection. That started from a community group who came to council, and of course went to the arts people.

C: Which community group? Did it have a name or was it just a bunch of people who got together for that reason?

J: A bunch of people, led by Wendy Crellin.

C: Were they Wonthaggi-based because of the mining art works?

J: Yes, Wonthaggi-based because of the Counihan’s connection. 

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The Miner, 1947, by Noel Counihan, from the Robert Smith Collection. See images of the collection here: https://victoriancollections.net.au/organisations/bass-coast-shire-council

 

That actually started during my time with council. It was a very long process. 

C: Was he alive when that was happening?

J: Not Counihan, but Robert Smith was alive even when I left. He died last year.

C: He actually donated the collection before he died?

J: Yes. It was all done while he was in fit mind because he was 90 something. A good age. But he’d been a fabulous collector – around 600 pieces of amazing Australian, mainly works on paper.

C: I’ve seen it on Victorian Collections (ed: website:https://victoriancollections.net.au/organisations/bass-coast-shire-council

J: Yes I was involved in the early stages of the collating. 

C: We were talking about the Robert Smith Collection. You actually started digitising that, did you Josephine?

J: Yes. We actually employed people to take photographs and employed…I mean that’s what you do, you facilitate; you bring in your specialists. I’ll  simplify it.

C: That would have been a fairly big budget. Where was it being stored at the time?

J: Yes, When it was with Robert it was stored in his house. But we had a room in the art centre that we did up. We also made a film.

C: Oh, is that available somewhere?

J: It was on the Bass Coast website. 

(ed: ‘Speaking of Art – the Bob Smith collection’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=va3i7exK5NA )

It’s 2 years since I was there and things change. Very quickly. So that was pretty exciting to be part of that process. 

C: Did you get to meet Robert?

J: Oh yeah, I had a great time with Robert!

With Mr Green we made the movie where Robert told his stories. I was the interviewer and got to hear all his marvellous stories. He was a very theatrical man. He loved to do poetry and read Shakespeare, and he had the greatest stories about Noel Counihan and all the other various artists he had in his collection. He also worked with Regional galleries. The council has that film. It’s part of the collection now. That was pretty exciting. To be doing that interviewing. So again that bit of the director. That’s why I don’t have a regret! (Laughs)

There were many, many things in the job. It’s amorphous and it keeps changing and I love what they’re doing at the moment. A lot of things I wanted to see happen are happening at the moment in Council. And I think that’s great.

C: What sort of things Josephine?

J: Oh just the budget, having someone full-time, not so tight... A bit more creative.

C: I mean on the ground. What sorts of things do you see there?

J: I have no idea not being there. And even when I was there it was always a little bit of a surprise. (Laughs) Let’s wait and find out.

little bit of a surprise. (Laughs) Let’s wait and find out.

C: Can I ask you about the exhibitions of the various winners of the art shows? The council has quite a collection of all that.

J: Yes well the council started collecting before they were amalgamated so the collection sort of came across to Bass Coast from the 3...

C: Was that from Phillip Island too?

J: No, Phillip Island didn’t collect actually! From Bass and the Wonthaggi Borough. It started from there. Initially they were just giving prize money and an acquisitive prize for each of the community groups a year. But it was getting unwieldy. I think we had about 88 pieces. No one was curating it of course. They were just hanging on walls. Part of my job was to create a database for them, curating them and we got someone in to do an audit.

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Launch of BCSC Council Acquisition program 2010. Photograph by Josephine Allen

 

The old cry that many councillors do about art is: “We need a regional gallery!” But you can’t have a regional gallery unless you have a collection. With the audit all these pieces that had been acquired from various art shows over the years showed us that we had maybe 10% of a collection that had some worthiness. So that’s again an issue. But at the same time the Robert Smith collection was happening and that’s another impetus.

C: And there’s a lot of things in that collection.

J: The Robert Smith? Yes something like 600 pieces.

C: You’ve suddenly got a regional gallery collection…

J: Exactly. And that was a donation from Robert Smith. He was amazing and he wanted it for the Wonthaggi people because of Counihan’s part. He came to live with the miners and did this series of the linocuts called ‘The Miners’, and which are probably some of his most famous pieces.

C: If that’s the case Josephine, according to Robert’s wishes if there was to be a Bass Coast regional gallery it would be better in Wonthaggi. But as far as visitation is concerned and things like parking where would you put it?

J: Well there’s the now empty school there. (ed: Wonthaggi Secondary College McBride Campus)

C: Yes but it’s not owned by the council.

J: No, but again I don’t have to worry about that. Somebody else has got to worry about that.

C: Yes but I am interested to know your thoughts about that?

J: Oh my thoughts? Well, I always thought that would be a good spot.

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Former Wonthaggi Technical School/ McBride Senior Secondary College, mooted as a possible arts and culture hub. Image: Bass Coast Post. Read the article here: https://www.basscoastpost.com/arts

 

C: Parking would be a problem. You would have to take up most of the quadrangle area with parking.

J: There are always a lot of problems there. There has always been a vision of it being an arts precinct with workshops, with regional, Robert Smith gallery. That sort of thing. So hopefully, it will happen. It’s exciting. All these visions that you have way back. You just have to be a little bit patient and know that it takes time.

C: Yes we are all hoping that happens with the Cowes Cultural Centre. Have they turned a sod yet or anything?

J: I don’t know. Again it was just so hard working on council and knowing there was a Phillip Island passion for that new cultural centre. And not been directly involved with the project. But I had to remember “Just remember what you’re here for”. Promotion of the arts.

C: Can we talk about that move online because you have had that website for a long time.

J: Yes it was one of the earlier ones. My lovely 11 year old niece showed me how to do that. (Both laugh)

C: And how old is she now?

J: In her 30s!

C: That is a long time to have had a website!

J: It was when we were at Settlement Road. Actually, the website was a Bass Coast funded program. They asked fledgling businesses if they would like to come along and learn how to do a website and Internet marketing. Russell and l went to that and part of it was that they set up your website at a very cheap level. It was pretty exciting and a good thing that the council did. I think it was through the Economic Department.

C: They were having to recognise you as artists and a business.

J: Well we had a business. We were registered, its online, with the Taxation Department and all the rest of it. That was nice and that started the website. It’s moved in many, many different manifestations over the years. Pretty static at the moment. To tell you the truth I’ve never sold much from the website but it has been a fantastic promotional tool.

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Header of home page of Island Influence website: islandinfluence.com.au

 

But of course what that has morphed into these days is the online art galleries. Which I am on one. I should be on another one because you can be on several. Also Covid has escalated that. That’s a whole different way of buying and selling art. It’s no longer that sort of being in a gallery, having a stable. It’s no longer that pocketed thing. It’s now broadened. People aren’t so afraid to buy from the websites.

C: Why do you think that is? Is it because people are just so used to buying online now?

J: I think so. People are used to shopping online. It’s also Covid. People sitting around in their houses wondering about that blank wall (laughs).

C: Lots of people have white walls

J: Well that’s why we have white walls; so we can put our paintings up.

C: We don’t actually have a white wall in our house.

J: Yes well, that was Russell. He wanted white walls so we could just fill them all up with paintings. The website is interesting but I still haven’t sold much from it. But you’ve just got to be really active with your social media and your sharing.

C: It takes a lot of your time. Social media is like a black hole.

J: It can be. I have to do a bit more work on that one but I try and update our website now and then. We used to have to get someone else to do it and that was hard, we were always paying someone to do it. But now I can do it myself because it’s just a click and drag situation. It makes it easy; I’m almost there.

C: What did you think about ASPI and their online exhibition last year? It seemed to be quite successful.

J: Yeah! I thought that was good, it was great. And it solved that issue, the Covid issue. I don’t think I had any feedback about that myself.

But also one of the other things I’ve done over the years is judge art shows.

C: Is that paid work?

J: Sometimes, sometimes not.

C: Is that something you got through your work with Bass Coast?

J: No it happened before that, doing exhibitions and things like that. That’s been going for a long time.

C: That must be very challenging.

J: I love it!

C: Yes, but gosh there’s been some controversial decisions over the years. I mean just about every decision in an art exhibition is controversial. So it’s a hard thing to do.

J: Maybe. I have ways of thinking about it. I don’t like the word ‘judge’. I shouldn’t have used it. I think you’re ‘selecting’ and because you have a bit of experience I go in with a criteria in mind and I always speak to it at the opening, not beforehand. Because you don’t want everyone painting to them. Or working to them in whatever way. There will be criteria and it could be something as simple as “I want something to make me feel happy” or “I want something that shows me it’s got outstanding compositional elements”. So I’m selecting.

My hardest thing is because I know so many artists over the years - is falling in love (Ed: with a piece of art) and thinking: “are you falling in love because you like that person or because you like that piece of art?”

C: It’s not about liking the art really is it?

J: No, we won’t use the word ‘like’.

C: But I know what you mean. Most people who know writing in Bass Coast would recognise my writing style.

J: Yeah it’s also quite common in all types of selecting prizes. I think if you’re going to go into them you’ve just got to go in with open eyes and understand that it really is the luck of the draw.

I don’t have to look at someone’s signature to know someone’s style. But last year I was asked to select the Kernot Art Show and they did that online for the first time. 500 pieces or more! I had to do it all online on my laptop. I realised what I knew – but I love it when you have a greater realisation of something you know – that seeing a piece of art in the flesh will give you an experience that you don’t have when you look at it as an image.

C: It’s a flat image on the screen, and all the pixels and variations in the computers colours from the actual work.

J: And the texture. I had to work out a whole new way of finding the criteria.

C: You can to a certain extent, get some idea of the texture online by enlarging the image.

J: Oh I did all that. But sometimes it’s even the smell. It’s a ‘tactile-ness’.

C: And with the objects, the 3D art. That’s hard.

J: Yeah.

C: I was going to ask you about commissions. Last year you did those 2 significant commissions for Phyllis Papps. Would you like to do more commissions?

J: I love commission work! I’ve always enjoyed commission works. There’s something about me that’s a bit different from other artists.

C: I guess it depends on the approach. If you’ve got creative control...

J: Well, it depends on the person. It’s a brief. They give you a brief and they have an expectation. I think the challenge as an artist is to try and try to visualise what their expectation is. And can you meet it? Sometimes I will turn a commission down because I know I’m not going to meet it.

C: Do you ever say to those people “Are you interested to see what I would do with this?” Or are they just too fixed?

J: Sometimes you just can’t work with people. (Both laugh)

Russell didn’t like commissions.

C: I think Russell was rather anti-authoritarian and would have seen commissions as a form of authority.

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Portrait of Dick by Russell Kent (Print) Photo: Josephine’s own collection

 

J: Yes. He was an absolutely fantastic portrait artist but he found it very hard when people were sitting there to do that. Even with me. And I’d say “You live with me you bugger!’ But anyway, we are all different. But I don’t mind that challenge of trying to meet those expectations. You get wonderful experiences like that last year, doing those commissions with Phyllis and Francesca – ‘The Landscape of our Lives’ and also later a realistic portrait. She just kept saying “I want you to just be totally creative”. That’s such an honour! That was a wonderful time.

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Phyllis Papps with the two paintings she commissioned from Josephine. Photo: Josephine’s own collection.

 

C: You know each other both so well, she trusted you with the process.

J: Yes. I mean I did try to get things out of her and I pulled it out – it wasn’t that hard actually. (Laughs) That was a wonderful experience. I’m so glad I did it actually.

And of course Russell passed away 2 years ago and that’s been, it’s put me in a whole different space. For a start I suddenly did not want to do any more of the community art stuff again. And I think those days have maybe finished for me. I’m going to be selfish. I’m going to do my own art. I’ll take on commissions of course because I love them. Who knows? I might do anything.

C: Josephine it must be very hard because you don’t have Russell to bounce things off now.

J: We were each other’s Muses. People may not have realised because we seemed to have very separate lives. But we really were each other’s Muses. I do miss that. It’s really hard.

But I want to do a retrospective of his work. That’s all. That’s the future.

C: We’ve spoken a lot about memorable times for you in art. Is there anything else you want to add?

J: About art? I’d say exhibition management. Yeah I’ve always loved that.

C: It must be nice when the red dots start appearing.

J: Yes, I love a red dot experience!

C: Not just for your paintings but for other people you’ve curated the exhibition for.

J: Oh yes. Well if you are running a gallery you’ve got to make money. You do like your red dots! (laughs) You do have to cover your costs. Which is basically it. I don’t think we ever made a real profit, we just covered costs. The business paid for certain things. It paid for your car expenses and various other things so it was offset. It made a living. But I think if we were in a different place, not Phillip Island, I think we could have made a lot more.

C: You mean in Melbourne? Or in Sydney?

J: Yes. It depends. I probably would have shifted into videos and things, multimedia.

C: But there are all sorts of ways of doing that online now.

J: Yes, it’s exciting! It is an amazing age. Actually in just talking today, to see how it’s changed from that very traditional view of “We must have an exhibition” to “how can I share this work and still make a living?” (Both laugh) Because there is still the question of making a living.

C: Well there are now lots of websites for creatives like patreon.com where the creatives don’t want to buy into the commercial space where they are dictated to by the big companies that control that. They go on their own and people hop on and fund them per month – $5, $10 or whatever.

J: Yes I’d forgotten about crowdfunding. I would have loved that to have been around in the 1990s! That would have been fabulous!

C: It’s much better for people because you’re not subjected to that sort of barrage of haters that are on certain platforms, ads imposing on the work and that sort of thing.

J: Yes and that happens with some online galleries to. So artists – read the small print. Just read it. You might hate it, but you’ve got to do it.

C: Well that’s fantastic Josephine. We’ve covered so much. You’ve been here for over 2 hours. We’ve covered the last decades of Phillip Island art history. Thank you very much.

(Interview ends 2.08.09)                 

 

POSTSCRIPT:

Added by Josephine, 24.1.2022:

You talked of highlights before and I have thinking about a balmy evening in February in 1995.  Standing outside the waterfall doors of the National Gallery awaiting with a mob of Phillip Island artists, artisans, their friends and family for entry to the opening of Postcards and Souvenirs. I flashed back to a time as an art student, standing almost on the same spot waiting to enter the gallery and thinking l doubt l will ever be shown here. Yet my work was inside, as was Russell’s, along with 27 other artists in the Access Gallery of the National Gallery of Victoria.  Thanks to Barbara Pratt and John Bligh’s vision and sponsorship with Australia Post. (Josephine 24 01 2022)

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Full page feature on the National Gallery of Victoria ‘Postcards and Souvenirs’ exhibition of Phillip Island artists, which also featured local writers reading their work in the Great Hall. 

 

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Josephine and Russell in front of her artwork in the ‘Postcards and Souvenirs’ NGV exhibition, 1995. Photo: Josephine’s own collection.                                             

 

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