Binns once recalled that young women studying at East Sydney Tech weren’t regarded as promising in the same way as some male students. Whiteley says it was a commonly held idea in the late 1950s that women should be models or muses. Then, as now, NAS draws an overwhelmingly female cohort to its model of small atelier-based classes and intensive tutoring.
It was at art school that Wendy was introduced to Brett Whiteley, who was working as a commercial artist for an agency and attending sketching advertising clubs and life drawing classes at Julian Ashton Art School.
Shortly after their meeting, Wendy ran away from home and moved into a flat in Kirribilli with a girlfriend to live a “bohemian life”. “I’d sew up these loose dresses, and mine would be covered in paint. I’d have bare feet and be marching through Town Hall. It was all quite harmless.”
From high school art was “the thing I got the most pleasure from and the most applause for as well”.
Although, she didn’t have any real desire to do it every day: “I wasn’t untalented, but I didn’t have the determination which I might have had a couple of generations later, like women do now. [If I had]my relationship with Brett wouldn’t have lasted five minutes.”
Wendy quit art school after a year and, for a while, studied interior design with Peter Travis at night. She tried typing school but lasted “three days because Brett would pop his head up and start making noises and throwing things through the window.” His hijinks cost her a job as an usher at the Lindfield Cinema, too.
Wendy then worked with Brett’s father Clem in his interior design business in Gordon to save for a ticket to join Brett in Italy. At 20, he’d won the Italian Government Traveling Arts Scholarship. It didn’t occur to her that she could also apply.
When the couple settled back in Lavender Bay years later she bumped into Travis who admonished her for not going on with her painting.
“To be honest I never really thought about it,” she says. “It wasn’t a big, heavy decision. We were so busy traveling, we were going everywhere together. Brett was painting in a one-room studio. And I wasn’t thinking, ‘my God, my God, I should be painting’.
“I was having a ball looking at museums and the great works of history and wandering the streets in Italy, Paris and London.”
Later, she directed her artistic passions into the rehabilitation of derelict railway land which became known as Wendy’s Secret Garden. “I never thought of art as a hobby and I hate mediocrity,” she says. “I would be very impatient with myself if I was to just make mediocre things. Whatever I do, I want to do well.”
National Art School Director and CEO Steven Alderton has thanked Whiteley on behalf of the talented women who will benefit from her generosity.
“It is a tribute to the life-changing effect of this school that Wendy experienced herself, and as we celebrate 100 years of making art on the historic Darlinghurst Gaol site after moving here in 1922.
“This endowment offers great encouragement to our next generation of emerging artists, as they embark on their careers.”
Whiteley doesn’t think an artist can be taught but you can be taught the techniques you need. An artist, she says, ideally needs a combination of talent, visual intelligence, determination and a “special kind of grit” to bear criticism.
Whiteley’s gift equals a $500,000 donation made three years ago by the Margaret Olley Art Trust to the National Art School. This was regarded as the single largest bequest to the school in living memory.
“I just hope it’s going to help somebody,” Whiteley says. “The time has come for women to be given a bit of attention.”
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