Art

Obituary: Pioneering feminist artist unafraid to tackle abortion and other difficult topics

Alison Lesley Mitchell (aka Allie Eagle): artist; b January 9, 1949; d May 25, 2022

Alison Mitchell was a pioneering feminist artist in the 1970s, prepared to tackle difficult subjects like rape and abortion. A decision in her early 30s to follow Jesus deepened her sense of social justice, with her work exploring environmental issues, biculturalism and relationships, whilst to examine the role of women in continuing society.

Known as Allie Eagle, she was born in Lower Hutt. Both her mother, Lorna Mitchell, and her grandmother, Muriel Jacobs, were accomplished painters.

Lorna was a major influence, embedding a sense of social justice that stayed with Eagle all her life and provided the framework for her art.

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After schooling at Hutt Valley High School, she spent the years 1966-68 at Ilam​ School of Fine Arts in Christchurch , where Gaylene PrestonJonathan Mane-Wheoki​, Bill Hammond and Philip Clairmont​ were peers.

In the 1970s, she became a prominent figure in the women’s art movement, helping to redefine what art is.

Eagle in her studio in Te Henga.

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Eagle in her studio in Te Henga.

Her work was often challenging and after an exhibition in Christchurch in which she had a large watercolor, This Woman Died I Care, based on a banned photo of a woman who died after an illegal abortion, she received hate mail.

The painting was accompanied by a stethoscope with instructions for those viewing it. ”To view this woman’s death place stethoscope on and listen to your own heartbeat.”

After graduating from Ilam, Eagle trained as a teacher at Auckland Secondary Teachers’ College. There she formed lifelong friendships with, among other artists, Joanna Margaret Paul​ and Derek March.

Eagle taught at Upper Hutt College, before returning to Christchurch in 1973. She then worked as exhibitions officer at the Robert McDougall Art Gallerythe first woman appointed to the role.

She spent time networking with contemporary women artists in New Zealand and overseas, including American feminist artist Judy Chicago. During her time at the gallery, she curated two shows of women artists: A Survey of New Zealand Women Artists (1974) and Women’s Art: An Exhibition of Six Women Artists (1975).

Eagle was influential in the formation of what has become known as the New Zealand Women's Arts Movement.

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Eagle was influential in the formation of what has become known as the New Zealand Women’s Arts Movement.

These were a response to an earlier show, Six New Zealand Artists, which had featured work only by men, including work by Boyd Webb, who had been a fellow student at Hutt Valley High School.

Her exhibitions promoted the work of women as artists and drew criticism for having a show of one gender – the very thing Eagle was reacting against and set out to highlight.

Whilst in Canterbury, Eagle worked with artist Olivia Spencer Bower and further developed her skill with watercolor under Spencer Bower’s supervision, creating light-filled poignant images. Eagle spent two years assisting Spencer Bower in the collation and cataloging of her life’s work for a national retrospective exhibition, for which Eagle wrote the catalog.

During this time she was authorized in the formation of what has become known as the New Zealand Women’s Art Movement​. Working with Heather McPherson, Paulette Barr and Kathryn Algie, she launched the women’s literary and arts journal Spiral, which emerged from the women’s collective they founded.

In 1977 Eagle, as part of a collective, facilitated the collaborative Women’s Art Environment at the Canterbury Society of Arts. Her art at this time challenged the prevailing modernist doctrine of art for art’s sake, by using subjective autobiographical art.

The following year saw her exhibiting her pioneering feminist work around rape and abortion, including This Woman Died I Care and Empathy for a Rape Trial Victim themes she would revisit in later years.

Art researcher and writer Joanna Osborne, who interviewed Eagle extensively, says the impact of her art in the 1970s has been far-reaching.

Eagle introduced feminism into art and used subjects like abortion and rape to challenge popular thinking of what is appropriate in art.

The women’s movement was strongest in Christchurch, where it paralleled what was happening internationally with feminism impacting on art.

“There was a community there of women who were working on the issue of what it meant to be an artist and a woman.”

A workplace injury and a decline in health saw Eagle moved to Auckland for a period of rest and reflection, renting a bach at Te Henga/Bethells Beach where she painted loose gestural watercolor paintings exploring the natural environment.

During this time she was baptised and dedicated the rest of her life to Christianity. Over the following decades, she continued to explore social justice issues and look for ways to integrate art with her emerging personal faith.

Eagle settled in Te Henga, living for a time in a bus before building her own home out of predominantly reclaimed timbers in 1991-92. She remained in Te Henga, except for a few years spent in Ōtaki caring for her mother and painting out of a studio at nearby Reikorangi​.

Tough Call, by Allie Eagle.

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Tough Call, by Allie Eagle.

Eagle was an influential teacher, teaching at various times at Liston College (a Catholic boys school), Elam​ School of Fine Arts, Whitireia Polytech, and Manukau Institute of Technology. She taught community classes and summer schools at Auckland Art Station and Corbans Arts Estate, and at UCol in Whanganui, as well as teaching out of her atelier studio.

Eagle at work in her studio.

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Eagle at work in her studio.

The film Allie Eagle and Me, made in 2004 by then fine arts student Briar March, looked at Eagle’s place in the women’s art movement in the 1970s, her journey from being a lesbian feminist to celibate Christian, and her reconsideration of some of her positions in this period.

She made it clear that her view on abortion had changed since the 1970s. “I think what I should have been doing is saying let’s build up families. I think I made a lot of mistakes.”

In later life, her Christian faith began to appear in her art. That was shown in a 7m x 2m painting for Waitakere City in 2006/7. Child Jesus in the Temple was described as a celebration of Waitakere’s growing diversity.

An exhibition at Mahara Gallery, Waikanae, in 2011 showed she was still interested in social justice. It featured a wall of male faces, painted live from men invited to sit with Eagle in her studio. The exhibition can be seen as her response to the tendency in art for men to paint naked women.

Eagle was deeply involved in every community she was part of. This included the radical lesbian separatist movement during her early years, the community at Te Henga where she expressed her environmental concerns, commitment to her local Ranui Baptist church, and continued involvement in various arts networks throughout New Zealand.

Throughout her life she showed leadership, initiative, and a deep love for people, including tangata whenua and ethnic minorities. Her legacy includes mentoring the next generation of artists, with several of her proteges now working at national and international levels.

Allie Eagle self-portrait held in the Christchurch Art Gallery te Puna o Waiwhetū.

Allie Eagle self-portrait held in the Christchurch Art Gallery te Puna o Waiwhetū.

She also continued to write, contributing to numerous publications throughout her career.

Her paintings are held in several public collections, including the Auckland Art Gallery Toi oTāmaki​, Christchurch Art Gallery te Puna o Waiwhetū​, Wellington’s Alexander Turnbull Library and Suter Gallery in Nelson.

A private woman, Eagle gave a few media interviews. In a 2004 interview with the Nelson Mail, she was described as having led “a volatile and sometimes controversial life”.

“Formerly identified as a ‘lesbian separatist’, Eagle was as radical as they came in the ’70s and is promoted as the public face of the women’s art movement. Some in the industry say it is hard to imagine its emergence without her.”

She declined to explain why she became a celibate Christian but did give a hint of what motivated her as she grew older.

“I was an angry young woman. I am anything but that now – certainly not young. But I am still, in a way, ready to stand up for things when I feel something’s come adrift.”

There was also an insight into her view of art.

“I like the challenge of demonstrating how art galleries are there to represent lots of different kinds of people and that art is about normal stuff and that ‘arty’ is only really a way of telling stories and being real about human experience.”

By Nicholas Boyack and Jillian Wordsworth. Sources: Joanna Osborne, Stuff Archives, Allie Eagle and Me (documentary), Allie Eagle and Me website, Chrysalis Seed News (Sept 2004).

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