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Joan Kerr
, 2004

by Peter Drewett

pokerwork on spotted gum

Joan Kerr AM (1938-2004), art historian, writer and lecturer, was responsible for several monumental reference texts on Australian art. She grew up in Brisbane and studied at the Universities of Queensland, Sydney, London and York before starting work at the University of Sydney in 1969. In 1980, after a postdoctoral fellowship at the Australian National University and two years as President of the Art Association of Australia, she was appointed Associate Professor of Fine Arts at Sydney, a position she held until 1993. She was a foundation member of the Society of Architectural Historians of Australia and New Zealand, and during the 1990s she was a Trustee of the Historic Houses Trust of NSW and a member of the National Portrait Gallery advisory committee. From 1997 she was a Professor at the Centre for Cross Cultural Research at the Australian National University. Kerr was an enthusiastic advocate for rural artists, and artists working in unconventional mediums.

Peter Drewett is a Grafton craftsman. His earliest memories of making art are copying the Rosella logo off the factory wall next to his grandmother's house in Richmond, Victoria, and fashioning little animals out of clay and sticks. His secondary schooling focused on carpentry and woodwork, and worked as a screenprinter from the age of 16. In the mid-1970s he took his young family to live in the bush on the north coast of NSW, building a house, furniture, sculpture and toys from bush timbers, and working as a logger for 15 years. In 1999, after a series of personal vicissitudes, he visited the Northern Territory. Here he began experimenting with pokerwork (or 'pyrography'), an art form that he credits with restoring his sense of self worth, patience and joyfulness. As a result of his meeting Joan Kerr, his work Unfoundlands was exhibited in the National Gallery of Australia exhibition Home Sweet Home (2003-4). He has recently pyrographed six enormous poles supporting sails in Skinner St, South Grafton, funded by the Australia Council for the Arts.

Joan and Jim Kerr saw some of Peter Drewett's work in a shop in South Grafton in 2002 or 2003. By chance, he was in the shop at the time, and Kerr gave him contact details for 'outsider' art collector Peter Fay. Fay commissioned a piece from Drewett, and the result was Unfoundlands, painstakingly executed on six fragile gourds. While he was working on Unfoundlands Drewett learned that Kerr was ill. He writes: 'I felt so much like thanking Joan for opening up my world and giving me the encouragement to believe in myself as an artist, that at the opening at the NGA

. . . I asked Mr Fay to send me any photos of Joan that may be suitable for me to do this portrait as a way of thanking her. He sent me a copy of a photograph that Jim Kerr had taken of Joan holding a drum that I'd done, that had first caught her attention. I feel very privileged to have been able to give the portrait to Joan only two weeks before she died and she gave me the most beautiful smile when she first saw it. Whatever else comes from this portrait, nothing will ever be as important to me as that smile.' This is Drewett's first portrait.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Gift of James Semple Kerr 2004
Accession number: 2004.11