The following PROFILE was written by Phillip Mein in 1991 for Annemieke's book THE ART OF ANNEMIEKE MEIN: WILDLIFE ARTIST IN TEXTILES.
The artwork of Annemieke Mein is unique. She combines fabric, paint and sewing threads to produce works that are realistically accurate but that also breathe with life and action, and are emotionally breathtaking for the observer.
Annemieke’s art is difficult to categorise. Textile work has traditionally been ‘craft’, but Annemieke has moved it into the world of ‘art’. As one writer has noted:
The line between art and craft is being bent and breached these days, but there are only a few practitioners who can make it disappear completely.
The astonishing work of Annemieke transcends these and a few other categories besides. Embroidered and painted relief tapestries and fabric sculptures also erase the distinction between naturalistic and impressionistic portrayal.
Black and white photos cannot hope to do this work justice. In situ, one is first startled by her amazing mimicry of nature. A furry moth on brown bark, for instance, both invites and repels the tentative touch of those who are squeamish around insects. A strand of kelp hung with mussels is so real that one is tempted to throw it back into the water.
Having recovered from an intoxicated admiration of this virtuosity, you then begin to appreciate the artistic decisions which raise these works above sober actuality. They sing with her love of nature. They are magnifications (of) and heightened insights (into) nature . . . Annemieke Mein does not anthropomorphise her subjects or clothe them in whimsy. Her vision manifests itself in decisions to magnify a subject and subtly stylise it; in composition, in painterly renderings of the things which surround or lie beyond the focal point.
Textile paints are used in conjunction with complex machine and hand stitching, to create effects which are sometimes astonishingly like watercolours, sometimes like impressionistic oils. Black or sepia stitching is used like the most delicate pen work. In some works the distinction between painterly and sculptural rendering is also erased. (John Clare, Sydney Morning Herald, 31 May 1984)
Annemieke was the first textile artist to be accepted as a member of both the Wildlife Art Society of Australasia and the Australian Guild of Realist Artists. In 1988 she had similar works touring Australia in both art and craft exhibitions. The sculpture Mussels and Kelp travelled with the Bicentennial exhibition ‘The Face of Australia’, and the sculpture Barnacles was included in the Ararat Gallery’s 4th Biennial Exhibition of Fibre and Textiles. She remains the only textile artist to be featured in Australian Artist (March 1987).
Annemieke’s work has come into being with a special combination of uncommon abilities and circumstances. She has superb drawing skills, together with a highly developed sense of colour, and a feeling for composition and light and shade. These would have been sufficient for her to have become an accomplished artist in painting or sketching, but they have been combined with a love for, and knowledge of, the properties of textiles, sewing skills, and an intense interest in the natural world around her. Her ability to observe, experiment and learn; her clever organisation of her limited time, housework and family life; her systematic storage of fabrics; and her freedom in the early years from having to produce work for a quick sale have all contributed to the quality of her work.
Annemieke was born in Haarlem, Holland, in 1944 when Germany still occupied Holland. She and her parents became Australian citizens in 1956. They migrated to Australia in 1951 when she was seven, leaving behind food shortages, rationing and the general chaos of war-torn Europe. In Holland she had spent much time with her mother’s parents and felt very sad to leave them. She never saw them again.
A difficult transition period followed. There was a traumatic and protracted journey to Australia. After a short stay in the Bathurst migrant camp, the family moved to Bowral, NSW, then to Brighton in Melbourne, Victoria.
Annemieke was thrust into a State primary school unable to speak English. Her parents worked long hours to get established. An only child, Annemieke had many hours to herself, but she put them to good use. She was fascinated by the plants, insects, birds and animals in Australia, so different from those in Holland. As a New Australian, she took nothing for granted. In those pre-television days, and with no brothers or sisters to share her time, beetles, birds, spiders and other inhabitants of the Australian landscape became her friends. She studied and sketched them.
Later, when her parents could afford a car, then a boat, the family went fishing and holidaying; again Annemieke amused herself by delving into the Australian landscape and collecting specimens, some of which she still has. She has always been an avid collector. She has collections of shells, stamps and hatpins, tins of buttons, lots of pressed wildflowers and leaves, butterflies, insects, feathers, nests and rocks.
Annemieke’s mother is a skilled dressmaker, with a good sense of colour and a flair for interior design. Annemieke either learnt or inherited these skills too. Her father is an advanced dental technician. Annemieke spent time working in his dental laboratory and followed his example of high standards in the precise manufacture and finish of dentures, plates and metalwork. He also demonstrated artistic skills in manufacturing prostheses such as artificial eyes, noses and ears requiring careful texture and colour matching, and later in some bronze sculptures of his family.
Annemieke attended Brighton State School, Mitcham State School, and Nunawading High School. She continued to sketch and draw during this time and took art as a subject in her Matriculation year. Not surprisingly, she was a star pupil and her art teacher encouraged her to become a secondary art and craft teacher herself. She started training at the Melbourne State College. However, she was unable to accept the abstract art that was in vogue at that time and she left after only three months.
Annemieke then pursued a nursing career, training at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, graduating in 1967. She subsequently trained in coronary care nursing and theatre nursing. Nursing enhanced her interest in biology and has helped her overcome any squeamishness she might have felt in her collection and dissection of specimens.
Annemieke and I met at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and were married in 1968. We moved to Sale in 1971 with our six-month-old daughter, Joanne. Our son, Peter, was born in 1972. For some years Annemieke was fully occupied with two small children and the demands heaped on her as the wife of a country general practitioner. But when she decided she wanted to return to nursing, she found that the policy at the local hospital was not to employ the wives of visiting medical staff. So she threw herself into a large number of crafts in a search for a meaningful and satisfying outlet for her creativity. She dabbled in painting and drawing. We still have many pieces from her year or so of doing pottery. Her macramé used to hang all over the house. She made gift cards, lace, and then lace pictures. She also made pictures out of bird feathers, and later out of bark. Knitting and crochet, spinning and weaving, clay modelling and papier-mâché, leather-work, jewellery-making, paper-making, découpage, patchwork quilting, felting, dressmaking, etching, and restoration of old furniture were all experienced and mastered. Her flair for interior design was put into the house and into some friends’ houses. Perhaps it was her experience with hand embroidery (ranging from traditional cross stitch to crewel embroidery), and fabric collage work, that led later to machine embroidery.
She was expert at this myriad of crafts and her work was widely sought after for craft exhibitions. It seemed, however, that these crafts did not satisfy her artistic creativity, unlike her textile pictures and sculptures.
Annemieke started to experiment with textile pictures in 1977. She would now regard those first works as very primitive. Some of them were copies of other designs, or simple drawings translated into textiles. It was during 1978 that she really started designing wildlife pictures herself, and then executing them in textiles.
She achieved national recognition in 1978, winning the inaugural Family Circle/Coats Patons Craft Award. From many thousands of entries in every conceivable type of craft throughout Australia, the judges selected Annemieke’s Coastal Banksia. First prize was a trip to New York, but more important than winning this was the formal recognition of her artistic achievement, spurring Annemieke on to produce more work.
At that time she established the work pattern that she still keeps. The housework is finished by the time the children go to school, then she goes into the studio upstairs for hours of concentrated artwork. Motherly duties take over again after school, but often she manages a few hours after the evening meal for tying off threads, or preparing for the next day’s sewing.
Her first major exhibition was ‘Invited Gippsland Craftsmen’ at the Sale Regional Arts Centre in 1979. She exhibited about eighteen works, and the public response was incredible. Her work evoked a strong emotional response and many people were moved to tears. They returned with their husbands or wives, their children, their workmates and their friends. The question put by an artist friend, ‘Why do you work in textiles, which take so long, when you can paint and draw so well?’ was answered. Perhaps people’s familiarity with textiles and sewing in clothing, curtains and bedding enabled them to relate to the works more easily than they could to paint. Perhaps Annemieke’s larger-than-life portrayals of her subjects, or the three-dimensional studies, or the textural effects of the fabric were important. Whatever the reasons, her reputation was established.
She has had exhibitions at the Sale Regional Arts Centre every year since 1979. The Director there until last year, Mrs Gwen Webb has been an important and encouraging influence on Annemieke. Mrs Webb is also intensely interested in Gippsland’s natural environment, and in educating the community about its importance. Mrs Webb recognised the public appeal of Annemieke’s work, and since then the Sale Regional Arts Centre has acquired a large number of her textiles. Some have been continuously on display since 1979. Mrs Webb also encouraged Annemieke to make audiovisual aids in the form of synchronised slide films of several works - Superb Blue Wrens, Grasshoppers, Frogs and Small Works in Textile. These are widely used - at the Sale Regional Arts Centre, at other exhibitions, and for education in schools and colleges. They show the way a textile picture or sculpture is created from start to finish. Annemieke does not believe in keeping any so-called ‘trade secrets’ from others, and encourages students to try her techniques. She regularly holds teaching workshops, and Schmeling Art Video Australia has made a commercial video on her work methods.
Annemieke met Charles McCubbin in 1979. He moved from Melbourne to the Sale area shortly afterwards. As a naturalist and as an artist he has been of immense help to her. He is a mine of information on Australian wildlife, especially insects, and willingly shares his knowledge, some of which is not yet recorded in books. In the early days of Annemieke’s career, his encouragement and approval of her work gave her great incentive to continue. It was also the start of a close and enduring friendship.
Annemieke was given a Husqvarna Class 20 sewing machine for her eighteenth birthday by her parents. This was the machine that she used on her early pieces and it was particularly suited to the ‘free-sewing’ technique she developed. Husqvarna have been very supportive of Annemieke, and have supplied later-model sewing machines for her own use, and also sewing machines for the students in her workshops. In 1982, with Husqvarna, she exhibited and demonstrated at the Swedish Trade Fair at Centrepoint in Sydney, and was presented to King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden.
In 1980 Annemieke exhibited Frogs in ‘Australian Crafts 1980’, the Centenary Celebration Exhibition at the Meat Market Craft Centre in Melbourne, and it won the inaugural Hoechst Textile Award. As with Husqvarna, she has enjoyed a very happy relationship with Hoechst Australia Ltd. She uses their pigments in fabric paint, they have twice reported her work in their Hoechst Report, and they have helped with the costs involved in printing catalogues for her exhibitions at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1981, and the Woolloomooloo Gallery in 1984.
Perhaps the most important exhibition Annemieke has staged was at the National Gallery of Victoria for their Department of Education Services. Called ‘Environmental Textiles’, it was officially opened by Dr Eric Westbrook on 14 October 1981. Annemieke further developed the ideas that she had started using at her exhibitions in Sale. Not only were there finished works on display, but there was a large amount of supporting educational material as well — initial sketches, working designs and layouts, colour plans, threads and fabrics used, and notes on her techniques. There were synchronised slide films showing how the works were made, mounted specimens, and a catalogue for schoolchildren to improve their observation and knowledge of the flora and fauna portrayed.
The National Gallery exhibition ran for six weeks and was a resounding success. Enormous numbers of people saw it. The response was a magnified version of the response to her Sale exhibitions but from a more sophisticated audience. There was a flood of letters of congratulations from an admiring public. Since then, many of these admirers have travelled hundreds of kilometres, often in busloads, to view her exhibitions in Sale.
Another important exhibition was the ‘Annemieke Mein Retrospect 1979—1984’, which coincided with the Australian Pacific Embroidery Festival. It was held at the Woolloomooloo Gallery, Sydney, in 1984. The owners, Elinor and Fred Wrobel, invited Annemieke to show her work there in a non-commercial exhibition. Again, it was very successful.
The Annemieke Mein Retrospect 1979—1984 at the Woolloomooloo Gallery attracted 10,000 visitors from the country, interstate and overseas during three weeks . . . The reactions were awe, admiration, adulation and unrelenting questioning about her work, techniques, personality and philosophy. (Elinor Wrobel, Textile Fibre Forum, Vol. 3, No. 3, 1984)
Annemieke took a giant step sideways in 1984-85 when she was persuaded to design and produce six historical bas-relief bronzes for the Wall of Fame in the new pedestrian mall in Sale. They feature the portraits and lives of Alfred William Howitt (1830-1908), Mary Grant Bruce (1878-1958), Ada Crossley (1871-1929), Allan McLean (1840-1911), Angus McMillan (1810-65) and Nehemiah Guthridge (1808-78).
The Wall of Fame concept was initiated by Cr Peter Synan, Mayor of Sale. It was a brave commission for her to accept as she had never worked in bronze before. It also reflected the City of Sale’s confidence that Annemieke would bring the same high artistic standard to the bronzes that she brought to her textiles. She studied the techniques required for bronze, and meticulously researched the lives of the people she was depicting. Mayor Peter Synan later wrote: ‘These bronzes are an extraordinary achievement, constituting artwork of the highest order’ (Reflecting Gippsland, Enterprise Press, 1985).
In 1987 the Sandhurst Trustees in Bendigo and the Bishop of Sandhurst commissioned Annemieke to produce a similar bas-relief bronze sculpture depicting the life of Dr Henry Backhaus (1812—82), the first priest to go to the Victorian goldfields (at Bendigo). The sculpture now hangs in the Backhaus Arcade in Bendigo.
In 1990 Annemieke exhibited her work with the Department of Entomology, CSIRO, Canberra, during Biota ‘90. The huge crowds who attended appreciated the juxtaposition of the scientific displays and Annemieke’s artistry. She also exhibited at the Castlemaine Art Gallery during the Castlemaine State Festival. The gallery director, Mr Peter Perry, confirmed that this was the most popular exhibition ever held there. Mary Lou Jelbart wrote that ‘Annemieke Mein’s three-dimensional creations are works of extraordinary skill, born out of a passionate commitment to the environment that she observes with such a loving eye’ (The Age, 21 November 1990).
The City of Sale honoured Annemieke with a civic reception in 1985 to celebrate her artistic services to the region. They also nominated her for an Australian honour and in 1988 she was awarded the Order of Australia Medal ‘for services to the Arts, particularly in textile sculptures and bronze bas-relief sculptures’ in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. It was a fitting tribute to a remarkable woman.
Phillip Mein 1991
UPDATE IN 2013
There have been many other artistic highlights in Annemieke’s career since 1991. Perhaps the most amazing one was at the exhibition coinciding with the launch of her book The Art of Annemieke Mein: Wildlife Artist in Textiles. The exhibition was at the Waverley City Gallery and for the last two weeks of the exhibition there were queues of people wanting to get into the gallery to see her works. The queues only started when there were 500 people already in the gallery. People waited up to three hours to gain entry and the Salvation Army took advantage of her popularity to sell tea and coffee to those in the queues. I’m not aware of any similar experience for a living artist in Australia
In 1994, the Bishop of Gippsland commissioned her to produce a bas-relief sculpture of Mary McKillop, who became Australia's first saint in 2010. The sculpture is in St Mary's Cathedral in Sale and has attracted a great deal of interest.
With the passage of time, some important figures in Annemieke's life have died. Her parents died in 1996. Charles McCubbin died in 2010, and was an inspirational friend and colleague to the end.
Gwen Webb retired as Director of the Sale Regional Art Gallery, but is still living in Sale and remains a close friend of Annemieke's. The gallery changed its name and is now Gippsland Art Gallery, Sale. Annemieke continues to have strong links to the gallery and a retrospective exhibition is planned there for 2015.
Sadly, Annemieke's health has deteriorated over the past few years and she is unable to work as an artist. The main problem is Cryptogenic Sensory Neuropathy which has made her unable to spend time at the sewing machine or to have fine control of pencil or paintbrush. This has been a devastating blow for her as she had always thought she would be pursuing her artistic career until she died - this loss of artistic creation is as much of a burden as the appalling suffering from the symptoms of the disease itself.
It has been a great privilege to have been alongside a unique artistic journey. Thank you Annemieke.
Phillip Mein 2013
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