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Finding Mrs Frisby

by Robyn Sweaney, 6 December 2016

Some days are less ordinary than others. Some days can change your path and be like no other. This is a story of chance and serendipity. It is how I met an inspirational and creative woman who had lived around the corner from me for at least fifteen years, yet I had not known of her – a woman who inspired me, connected me to other people who then became friends, and took me on my ownjourney of discovery and new work.

The landscape, particularly the suburban Australian landscape, is the usual subject matter for my paintings. My house paintings could be seen as portraits, if not literal, of the people who reside within them. The few portraits I have painted have been of people I admire and have been inspired by, including Mrs Violet Frisby.

I live in the small town of Mullumbimby on the far north coast of NSW, a little inland from the popular coastal towns of Byron Bay and Brunswick Heads. It is a quiet and unassuming town; it has a community spirit that was one of the main attractions for me when I moved here from Melbourne with my young family, twenty-eight years ago. The original houses are humble dwellings, but are generally well cared for and maintained. Another of my favourite things about Mullumbimby is that it is flat, and I can ride my bicycle (slowly and carefully) around town. As I ride around the township, usually in the early morning or evening, I pass by homes and observe little things: the light on the walls; the flowering of plants; the arrangement and placement of objects or furniture on porches. With these visual clues, I try to imagine what may be behind the closed doors – those dwelling within and their lived experiences. Sometimes I take my camera to document an element that may inspire a future painting, or to hold onto a memory or a feeling. These often gentle meanderings keep my body moving, as well as giving me time for musing and contemplation.

Untitled (self portrait with black bow) by Violet Frisby

Around the corner from my home is an unassuming white stucco house, like many of the others in the street. Stopping to observe it one day, I looked through an archway hung with soft pink roses. I could see on the small front porch a figurine of a Spanish lady with a red dress next to a seat decorated with hand-painted hibiscus flowers, and asolitary wire rocking chair. Guarding the steps were two resting concrete lions, flanked by pot plants on either side. I noticed on that occasion that the blinds were drawn and the doors closed, but on another day in 2007 the roller door of the garage was open. What I could see inside literally stopped me in my tracks. Next to a red mobility scooter facing the street was a wall of framed, colourful and eclectic paintings of smiling portraits, and landscapes with animals.

It wasn’t until a year later when I was returning home from town that I noticed that the garage door was open again, but this time an elderly woman was manoeuvring the scooter into position.

Cautiously, I approached and introduced myself. Dressed elegantly but moving slowly, she shyly introduced herself as Mrs Frisby; Mrs Violet Frisby, in fact. I commented that I had noticed her paintings and, as I was a painter myself, they had ignited my curiosity, and that I was particularly struck by how manythere were. She then told me that what was in the garage was nothing, as her entire house and backyard studio were full of her works! She also disclosed that due to recent ill health she had stopped painting, and was instead concentrating on making delicately crocheted dresses for dolls. Upon being invited into the house, I found myself completely immersed in someone’s inner life and imagination. The front lounge room was dominated by her carefully arranged, huge doll collection, displayed in glass cabinets. Every inch of the rest of the house was crammed from wall to ceiling with paintings; it was a sight both overwhelming and wondrous. The paintings were framed with varied mouldings, and all bore Violet’s distinctive signature. The tin shed/ studio in the backyard was also filled with piles of paintings; they became less orderly as you progressed along either side of a little pathway through the middle of the collection. I could sense that she had got to a point where she didn’t quite know what to do with them all.

I knew instantly that I wanted to find out more about this woman who so obviously wanted to paint, despite never having had any formal training. I had always been interested in naïve painters, but had never seen such an immense body of work by one person in one place. I took a few photos and made a date to return a week later, so I could do a drawing of her and find out more about this fascinating woman’s life. She had made it very clear to me that she didn’t want any fuss and bother, or other people coming around, but was happy for me to visit again on my own.

A week later, I returned and completed a few sketches of Violet sitting in her front lounge room. From these, I formulated the idea of the portrait I wanted to paint. I saw her as an isolated figure, with the onlyadditions being rainbow lorikeets that symbolised her free imagination, and an open birdcage reflecting the inner containment of her life. These colourful birds also appeared in many of her paintings. The portrait, Mrs Violet Frisby, was selected to be a finalist in the 2011 Doug Moran Portrait Prize.

During the morning that I spent with Violet, she began to slowly open up and a little more of her story began to emerge. She had always wanted to paint, but life and family commitments had been her priority. She had no idea what paints she used, although she had received some practical advice from a local artist over the years. Beryl, her daughter, bought and cut up masonite board for her to paint on, and helped her source frames and dolls from opportunity shops. 

Through other family members over the years, I have been able to put together a little biographical information on her life. Violet was born on 9 January 1917 in Glen Innes, NSW and was oneof ten children to Jesse and Sarah Dorrington. (The Dorringtons have family connections to the Olsen family). When she was ten years old the family moved to a farm at Doubtful Creek, north west of Casino, near Kyogle NSW.

In 1938, Violet married Haydon John Frisby at St Mark’s Church, Casino NSW. They then moved to Cooranbong, near Lake Macquarie NSW, where they ran a gravel yard and raised four children – Beryl, Daphne, Pamela and Archie. As well as being a devoted mother to her children and grandchildren, Violet worked as a psychiatric nurse and ran her farm ‘Glen Elgin’, near Cooranbong, before moving to Ocean Shores in northern NSW. After she separated from her husband in her seventies, Violet bought a small old cottage in Stuart St Mullumbimby.

Like many other Australian naïve artists such as James Fardoulys, Charles Callins, Sam Byrne and more recently Frank Nowlan, Mrs Frisby only began painting in her retirement. Beginning after her move to Mullumbimby, she painted hundreds of paintings over a fifteen year period until ill health stopped her, a few years before our meeting.

Violet was a Seventh Day Adventist and was described by one of her cousins as a ‘real game player’, independent, yet a quiet, private person. She made all her clothes – she never wore pants, only dresses – loved dancing, red shoes, riding horses, animals, crocheting and dolls of all descriptions (mostly sourced from opportunity shops) and never owned a television. All her life she treasured a doll she was given as a young child, which no one was allowed to touch.

Violet framed and signed all of her paintings, but never exhibited them. Her images depict her life story, her experiences and her memories: her life on the farm as a child, her farm in Cooranbong, her self-portraits, her children and grandchildren, her pets including dogs and horses, religious themes and sometimes worlds of her imagination. She knew she wasn’t very good technically, but she kept painting regardless, and did so obsessively. The paintings’ flat surfaces, strong and bright colour and inconsistent perspectives illustrate, exuberantly, a full and colourful life. They have the intensity of vision of an innocent observer conveying all that was meaningful to her. Violet’s composition, symmetry and use of negative space give her paintings a distinctive style. 

Not long after my visit, Mrs Frisby’s declining health saw her move out of her home to a nursing facility in Lismore, where she died peacefully in 2011, at the age of ninety-four. She was buried wearing her favourite pair of red shoes decorated with black bows. Her family began to distribute her possessions and her paintings, and I now have a small collection of her works, out of the hundreds that she painted. 

In 2013, I exhibited a body of work incorporating my fascination (or what some may term an obsession) with Violet’s story and the internal world she lived in, both literally and in terms of her creative output. I exhibited my works alongside a selection of hers. Though Violet’s work expressed exuberance and joy, mine tended to be melancholic, based on the introspective nature of her life.

Because of his interest and expertise in outsider and naïve art, I was told to contact the art collector and curator Peter Fay for advice on ways to foster interest and draw attention to Violet’s work. He and his partner Robin have become good friends, and my portrait of them together with their beloved dog Millie are the subjects of another painting in the Popular Pet Show exhibition, showing at the National Portrait Gallery over summer 2016-17. I love the fact that this exhibition brings their portraits together, just as that chance meeting introduced me to Mrs Frisby.

Mrs Violet Frisby, 2011 by Robyn Sweaney

Mrs Frisby was a true naïve painter – an innocent and intuitive observer who painted from her heart. 

Her impetus was not about impressing the ‘art world’, but about the telling. She painted from a desire to record and express a lifetime of experience. Expressed simply, her narrative is personal, sentimental, rich, and colourful. Within the walls of her home she quietly and modestly surrounded herself with a vivid tapestry of mementos of a humble yet full and varied life. Her paintings recount an innocent yet solid expression of life experience that many artists aspire to impart in their work.

Although she would not have appreciated the attention, she would have loved seeing her paintings on a ‘real’ gallery wall. My portrait, Mrs Violet Frisby, is a tribute to her story and her enormous passion for creative expression.