Le néant

‘Nothingness,’ writes Sartre (1998 [1943]: 21) ominously, ‘lies coiled in the heart of being–like a worm.’ His pessimism is pervasive, but mundane. His obsession with nothingness brings us from the edge of the howling abyss to the yawning emptiness of our wallets, but the view from precipice–or that from the lively but friendless café–permits him to trace deep undercurrents through the nature of our being (1998: 6; 9-10; 30). The holes–the gaps–the refusals–the unremarked slipping by of opportunities–can certainly cause us to well up with existential dread. But they also reveal the immense power we can have over our lives, and the immense responsibility we have for the way we live them. For Sartre, this responsibility is a radical freedom so intoxicating and so burdensome it can make us sick; it is also inextricably bound up with even the tiniest eruptions of nothingness that surface in the world.

Copies after Meštrovic and Mihanovic

For we are the originators of nothingness, Sartre (1998: 8; 24) argues; every nothingness lives in our own minds as a sheer fabrication, a mere interpretation of events. Destruction is but a perspective: a city is only destroyed if we view it as such; in purely physical terms its components are merely rearranged. ‘There is no less after the storm than before. There is something else’ (Sartre, 1998: 8). The world surges on like a ruthless, rolling ocean, re-adjusting its parts without regard for the petty values we place on certain arrangements. The very concept of negation comes from the thwarted sense of importance we have arbitrarily placed on something.

Perhaps he first glimpsed this thread in Husserl. In posing a question, says Sartre (1998: 4-5; 23), we thrust a negative element into the world. Inserting nothingness into the world, we make ‘the world iridescent, casting a shimmer over things’ (Sartre, 1998: 23). When we ask, we admit space for the answer to be ‘no.’ As Husserl (1973 [1948]) puts it, we invite doubt into the world, we acknowledge that things are not unfolding mechanistically, we entertain other futures. Doubt is thus the flip side of possibility. For something to be possible–not definite–it must be able to waver. It could come off or it might not. Doubt, which seems to undermine our plans and our sense of self, in fact gives the world its luxurious openness. Uncertainty looms ahead of us like a door left ajar, it gives us a foothold, it shows the world to be full of cracks into which we can force ourselves and impose our will, through which we can inflict change on the world, redirect its course.

And so Husserl (1972: 87) sees the world as a kaleidoscopic churning of possibilities, of open questions, of expectations, trembling at its edges. As we stalk those edges with trepidation, they shift and reorient themselves according to our every move. The structure of the world, asserts Husserl (1972: 82-83; 1999 [1950]: 45), against the scientific spirit, is horizonal; its horizons are ever just at the edge of our sight, but ever rolling away from it. The view is different from wherever we stand: but from whichever position it remains petulantly ambiguous (Merleau-Ponty, 2012: 79, 80; 196).

We only discover this structure, says Heidegger (1993 [1927]: 74-75), when things break down. When our equipment falters and shocks us out of our practical unity with them, when our reflective, thinking attention is drawn to their heavy uselessness and suddenly obvious separateness from our own bodies. Or when we discover them not there–the unfortunate lightness of our wallets–we are cast into the solemn and terrible mood that is Angst. The small non-beings bring us face to face with the great nothingness, face to face with ourselves. Where we are ordinarily lost in our doings and projects, merged with the world in practical little acts, our sudden reflective detachment from the world presents us with the unimportance of our little schemes and ushers in a sickening sense of futility. Stripped of its practical significance, the world is bare before us, devoid of meaning, robbed of value (Heidegger, 1993: 185-187).

But it is Sartre who remains gravely optimistic. This Angst is too all-encompassing; it makes the world too precarious, a world which in any case has no meaning. Negation greets us in some form at every turn, and it is not so earth-shattering as Heidegger would have it. The small nothingnesses whisper to us sweetly in their languid triviality, but even in their banality they can give us sharp moments of insight to our own freedom.

These insights cause us anguish, but it is anguish that urges us from the wavering edge of indecision. Anguish is an agony that eats us from the inside. Fear stalks us from outside, when we feel ourselves threatened or cornered, at the mercy of fate. Fear swells in us at the edge of the cliff, as we eye the loose gravel and step timidly on the uneven ground. But fear becomes anguish when the sinister thought enters our mind that we could cast ourselves over the edge (Sartre, 1998: 29). That the car keeps to its steady course on the endless highway because of the gentle guidance of our calm hands, but that a violent, decisive movement would wrench us into the oncoming truck. In that moment, we see that all our impulses are alike, that all are equally in our hands, that we are not cast about at the whim of chance but are shaping our future with every act. That every time we fail to choose (another tiny negation), every time we quietly watch an opportunity politely fade away, we have made as firm a choice as had we grasped it.

Even these small, offhand acts, lighting a cigarette, raising a coffee to our lips, are the very things that inject value into the world, insists Sartre (1992: 36-38). In taking up this pen, this brush, I affirm that writing, painting, matter to me, ‘without justification and without excuse’ (Sartre, 1992: 39). In painting this picture I affirm myself, I force myself onto the world as a painter, I construct my identity, I project my future, I declare that ‘I am the self which I will be, in the mode of not being it’ (Sartre, 1998: 32). I make small steps toward that future, laying little seeds of meaning in the world like a trail of shiny coins. I solemnly make appointments with myself in the future, with anguish lurking at my back, agonising at the thought that I might not meet myself there (Sartre, 1998: 36).

Sartre digs up nothingness where others would rather not, but it is because he has seen that possibility implies negation. And where there is possibility one can exert one’s freedom. We must choose at every juncture, continually remake ourselves, examine ourselves at every step, question ourselves, even doubt ourselves (Sartre, 1998: 35). That we might fail is the very condition of possibility: that something is at stake affirms that something matters to us, that we have imposed a pocket of meaning in the world. With anguish hounding us we must seize the burden of responsibility. ‘Only those who can truly give themselves a burden are free.’ (Heidegger, 1995 [1983]: §38).

Heidegger, Martin. 1995 [1983]. The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude. Trans. William McNeill and Nicholas Walker. Bloomington: Indiana University.

Heidegger, Martin. 1993 [1927]. Sein und Zeit. 19. edition. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.

Husserl, Edmund. 1999 [1950]. Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology. Trans. Dorion Cairns. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Husserl, Edmund. 1973 [1948]. Experience and Judgment: Investigations in a Genealogy of Logic. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Husserl, Edmund. 1970 [1954]. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy. Trans: David Carr. Evanston: Northwestern University.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2012 [1945]. Phenomenology of Perception. Hoboken: Routledge.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1998 [1943]. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. London: Routledge.



Rodin, Gates of hell

Confronting Rodin feels like confronting humanity itself. His modelled works, pulsing with the imprints of his fingertips, acceptingly and comfortingly caress the human condition. One senses the impulse to perfection only in the mode of working–in the repetition, the reworking, in the constant search–for the people thus formed are wholeheartedly embraced as they are. They writhe and struggle with life, they sigh and ache and reflect. They stand before us in all their sorry existence, and though melancholy may tug at us, we are not repulsed by their abortive attempts at living. Rodin coaxes them out of the clay with a peaceful acceptance. He observes them tenderly, he heals their wounds by simply permitting them to be as they are.

Rodin, John the Baptist (preaching to the Americans)

They are naked in every sense: utterly vulnerable, entirely exposed to us. But we merge our disarmed selves with them, we suffer with them, and see our sufferings solidified and externalised outside our private reveries. These rooms are peopled with souls acting out every facet of being human; the living bodies that wander among them are temporarily connected by silent and heavy rock.

Rodin, Balzac (in the wild, Paris)

There is a solemn and honest affirmation of personhood here: there are childish faces, gnarled toes and bulging bellies; there are crooked, pursed lips and untamable hair; skin sometimes sags and is sometimes elastic and firm. Legs bow out and take decisive strides–too wide to be elegantly decorative, too full of purpose. Women–devoured by the eyes of silent, captivated men–are sometimes small and hesitant and girlish rather than voluptuous and consciously seductive. We confront ourselves, in all our variety, we find we are desired, nurtured, spurned and ultimately alone–but visible. I exist, and I am a person.

Rodin, Call to arms

How often we seek something from each other, and search each other out wordlessly, grasping after one another with our hands, with our longing eyes, with the full force of our frail bodies, but though tangled up in one another, we glide past each other. The muse clambers over the sculptor, swaying him with the force of her desperation, melting into a single swirling form with him, but he, lost in his private world, dares not touch her, dares not dissolve the vision, dares not seize what he cannot hold.

Claudel, Vertumne & Pomone

Claudel’s sculptures agree: her women are swept along in waltzes, hanging helplessly from their stony partners whose hands avoid fast contact, limply and reluctantly brushing them. One wonders how many of her thumbprints indent the surface of a Rodin, which fingertips are hers and which are his, how fluidly they merged into one hand. Alone, her sculptures begin to fracture. Waves engulf her figures, bitterness pocks their faces. She sees humanity in all its revoltingness; her hands treat it coarsely, contemptuously. It is vile to be human, her aggressive hand assures us, and I may be a woman but I am not delicate. Perhaps the suffering of women is so acute and carefully masked that it is vicious when it seethes out.

Rodin feels, but does not spit on our weaknesses. He exposes them to turn them over gently in his hands, to comfort us, to reassure us. No body is too disgusting, no act too shameful, no thought too secret–we are all made of the same humble dirt.

Rodin, Walking man, Meudon

And that dirt transcends us. We emerge from rock, we gasp helplessly from inside the rock for a heartbeat, and we sink back into it, and so must it be. A woman crouches with an ornamental vase upon her back in a restful piece, but beside her is the more honest version: she carries, in place of the vase, a jagged piece of rock. We carry our rocks or we merge with them–as Eve buries her face in her tree of knowledge all coiled about by her snake in a single rock of inevitability. We face each other as silent half-carved rocks, each on our own private trajectory of decay. Existence is hard, strange and stubborn: let us look at it and take it as it is, and love it anyway.


The gentle ones

Für Oma / For Oma © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Für Oma / For Oma © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

We reserve our respect for the tough people, and the gentle ones often get pushed aside. But maybe the gentle ones deserve our devotion most of all. I know that Oma was not a bold person, that life tossed her about and that she made poor decisions. But reflecting on her life, on all the things we talked about over Speculaas and coffee, on what I witnessed myself, she seems very strong to me. She was full of patience and optimism in spite of all the obstacles. Despite her private burdens, her kindness and generosity never dried up. The cheeky sparkle in her eyes was her quiet defiance, even if she seemed to give in to stronger people.

The Oma I carry in me is the cheerful and talkative one who was always dressed and ready for an outing, always carrying a stash of biscuits in her handbag, always sneaking pocket money for secret treats. She knew that you just keep hoping and trying and enjoying the little things with people that you love. The Oma I bring with me is the one scheming to return to her beloved Europe, the one whose eyes brighten with hope in the face of this impossibility, the one who forged a life on distant and foreign soil, in an unfamiliar language. The Oma I love flatters you with the wrong age on your birthday card, but she laughs freely at herself, and the card is crammed full of sweet words. She makes you dresses that you’ll grow into even if she isn’t sure of your measurements, she takes the bus to the city an hour early to wait for you so she won’t miss a moment with you, she wants to be seen strolling arm-in-arm through Queen Street Mall with you.

We are all making choices, and trying our best to make good ones. As we lay Oma in the earth to rest at last, let’s not judge her too harshly for hers. Some people take life by both hands and wrestle it into the shape they want it to be. Others accept their situation and mould themselves instead, and their quiet contentedness is all you see of a fierce optimism. Her blood and her kindness once flowed through her soft body that hugged us all countless times. Her blood still flows through us, her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and may her kindness too.

Gentle people can be strong too—maybe the strongest.



Sarah Johanna Bruins Groenestyn, 23.03.1926  – 02.04.2016



Die Ecke / The corner © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Die Ecke / The corner © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Stability is not my main requirement to work, though painting is such a material career, and too much mobility limits my work in terms of scale, time and tools. For even within one city, it is possible to live and work in a rootless manner, in the city itself—painting at home, writing classes in a café, drawing in the gallery, writing philosophy in the library, painting at the sketch group. Sometimes I have the sense that I live in the city of Vienna itself—my workday stretched across its many districts, my books and pencils in my trusty backpack as I bike from place to place. It’s almost more important to feel myself in Vienna than to be able to work for eight uninterrupted hours. The city feeds my work. It is not stability, but a clear sense of place that keeps me content and focused.

I feel with Neo Rauch (in Mueller-Stahl, 2015: 37), the esteemed Leipzig painter, that:

‘Ich bin besonders raumfühlig und von äußeren Gegebenheiten abhängig in Hinblick auf das, was ich da meinen Leinwänden anvertraue.’

(‘I have a strong sense of space and of my environment, and that relates to what I put down on canvas.’)


But somehow I lost the unhurried stillness of Vienna in my increasingly busy days. An urgency nagged at me at every station. Even home ceased to be a haven. Long bike rides through narrow streets watching the smoke rising from the pipes of lonely men in singlets leaning out of windows ceased to soothe me. I cannot work when I cannot ground myself, and even my beloved Vienna was slipping out from beneath me.


So I went to Leipzig for a quiet retreat, where a desk awaited me with a neat pile of Wittgenstein, Kant and Rilke, where a freshly-prepared square canvas perched upon an easel next to a glass-topped table of gum turpentine, wax, Champagne chalk and willow charcoal awaited me. Everything laid out with care and attention by a very peaceful soul, who attended to his paintings like a devoted gardner to his potted plants in a neighbouring room.


The light streamed in the bay windows every morning, and we woke slowly with the scent of brewing coffee and burning coals lingering in the chilly air, Spring hesitating at the door. Soulful Bach cello sonatas filled the air with their deep resonance as we brewed our age-old potions: rabbit-skin glue on the double-boiler, with chalk and titanium white pigment; the rhythmic, physical labour of stirring and painting, of stretching and restretching linen, before we returned to our pictures and our books.

rabbit skin glue

‘Ich bin sogar auf eine gewisse Ortsbindung angewiesen. Der Ort muss mich aber auch nähren, er muss mich atmosphärisch beschicken mit Dingen, die vielleicht in jedem Mauerstein nisten, in jedem Winkel dieses Raumes als Schwingungsrudiment anwesend sind.’

(‘You could even say that I depend on my bond with places. But the place also has to give something to me. Its atmosphere has to fill me up with things that nest in every stone of the wall and linger as low-level echoes in every corner of the room.’ (Rauch, in Mueller-Stahl, 2015: 37).)


I escaped to a pocket of Leipzig that gently nuzzled me into a quiet rhythm. There is always more work to do, more that could have been written, paintings that could have been further refined, more moments that could have been stolen for drawing, more books on Ingres, Balthus and Klinger that could have been devoured. But better than all measurable progress is regaining one’s equilibrium by merging oneself with the very cracks in the walls that surround you. At last I let myself just be, and became absorbed into the hushed but diligent pace of another’s place.



Mueller-Stahl, Karoline. 2015. ‘Dinge, die in jedem Mauerstein nisten: Ein Gespräch mit Neo Rauch.’ Spinnerei: From cotton to culture (Report 2015). Trans. Alison Kirkland. Leipzig Baumwollspinnerei Verwaltungsgesellschaft: Leipzig.



The suburbs (oil on linen) © Samantha Groenestyn

The suburbs (oil on linen) © Samantha Groenestyn


In Australia I attempted, as I always do, to live as fully immersed in where I was as possible. I painted the view from my veranda, partook in barbeques, read books on Australian painting, drove a big, powerful car, spent time contemplating the Lamberts, drank flat whites and talked until a reasonable hour about what it means to be Australian, went to bed on time and got up early for work. Something in this sweltering cocktail of true blue experiences sparked a new awareness in me of an Australian myth. I realised that though I had failed to be taken in by this myth, most of those around me embraced it heartily, and it stirs in them a genuine and deep love for that sizzling, sun-drenched rock.

Copies after George W Lambert, Brisbane

Copies after George W Lambert, Brisbane














Bernard Smith’s book Australian painting: 1788-1960 filled many gaps in my patchy understanding of Australian history, by the more engaging route of chronologically tracing the history of painting. Beginning with dry accounts of botanical artists (including, freilich, Austrians much praised by Goethe) and topographical depictions of early settlements, and warming up with the moderate efforts of trained European artists on extended antipodean sojourns, Smith finds the germ of Australian culture in this beginning afresh on a wild frontier. Our painting reveals all: awkwardly transplanted into a hostile terrain, without a folk tradition, without peasantry to romanticise, the Australian attitude and Australian painting grew from similar stony soil. As convicts became stockmen, their brutal, hardworking, authority-shunning attitudes set the tone for the Australia we have built today. The bushman, writes Smith (1962: 28), ‘became the new representative, the new symbol, of a life freed from the restricting conventions of civilized life. His was a life lived close to nature, dangerous, adventurous and often heroic.’ By the time Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Condor came along to forge a homegrown visual homage to this myth, this unpretentious, full-throttle attitude was firmly fixed.


On warm winter afternoons I would sit back and think how remarkable and improbable it is that we managed to build anything at all—so isolated, so set upon by an inhuman climate, so ill-educated and insolent. This is indeed no place for theatres and galleries or any other ostentatious show of good breeding. For well-bred we are not, and embarrassingly proudly so: ‘The rich an’ educated shall be educated down,’ as our highly-regarded poet Henry Lawson wrote in 1893 (Smith, 1962: 131). I suppose it is the worship of physical labour for the sake of physical labour (‘hard yakka,’ in Australian) that has permitted us to achieve what we have, and undoubtedly a healthy dose of vitamin D; but I can’t help but wonder: at what cost?


As my eyes opened to this patriotic pride, the pride that glories in levelling the field, in making us all equals, in pressing a giant ‘reset’ button on the European class system, I began to really listen to my countrymen’s convictions. They would say to me things like, ‘Of course, it’s very beautiful in Europe. But the standard of living there is disgustingly low. I would never stoop so low.’ Or, ‘Sure, the food is nice in Europe, but what about progress? We can’t just maintain a comfortable level; there must be improvement.’ And upon hearing that people my age regularly work a twenty-five-hour week rather than forty, they burst out in disgust, ‘Lazy fuckers!’


I returned to Vienna as autumn gently settled over the city: the air became crisper and the leaves began to fade and fall, spiralling lazily like a steady golden snow in the ancient city streets. I went to the Volkstheater, built on the blood and sweat of the workers who themselves believed in the power of dramatic storytelling, and I drank beers and philosophized in the lavish red velvet upholstered bar glinting with chandeliers, contemplating the seasons and the importance of cycles. And yes—perhaps the key lies in these cycles, wholly natural in Europe, contrasting starkly with the fierce linear progression of single-seasoned Australia. For while Australia provides day after day of blinding sunshine, demanding day after day of (preferably unpleasant manual) labour, urging us on to greater and greater material success, Europe caps the height of summer with a frosty turn and invites a melancholy introspection. Dark times will come, and perhaps there is beauty in this natural regression.


Australia prides itself on a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky, friendly disposition, but this lightness hides a danger I am not willing to overlook. Perhaps hard work alone will not allow us to build ourselves up to where we dream of being. Perhaps progress is an illusory goal. When I return to Europe and I find that people take pleasure in simple things—in locally-grown food, in starting the day later, in bicycling in the fresh air, in putting human well-being ahead of economic gain—I have the sense that I have circled back to an earlier time and picked up afresh something important. And I think we must do this again and again—reawaken, and bask in the frenzy of summer, but allow ourselves to wilt and fade a little, to retreat and reflect, and prepare ourselves to sprout anew. It’s difficult to explain precisely what it is about Australia that feels so foreign to me, but perhaps this begins to illuminate it.


And so I join the exodus of Australian painters that began even at the dawn of colonial Australia, and my departure itself signals a ‘challenge [to] the values of Australian society’ (Smith, 1962: 332). Along with many of my fellow Australian painters over the last two hundred years, I must ‘come to terms with it, or else spend [my life] abroad until old age or death.’ Smith’s (1962: 332) summary of Australia is tough, but, I think, accurate: Australia is no place for the artist, because

‘the uneducated Australian is indifferent to art; and the educated Australian, upon whom the role of patronage normally falls, is, as often as not, a second-rate European with such a strong feeling of inferiority that he is embarrassed by the voices of his own countrymen. Lacking a folk-tradition of long standing from one section of society, or a well-informed aristocratic patronage of the arts from the other, Australian artists have constructed what is national and distinctive in their art in the face of the anti-art values of their society. That is why good Australian art is so often tough-minded and sardonic: not because of the desert but because of the people.’


Smith, Bernard. 1962. Australian painting: 1788-1960. Oxford: Melbourne.


The storyteller

Dr Rhyl Hinwood, drawn from life

Dr Rhyl Hinwood, drawn from life

Dr Rhyl Hinwood is a part of the fabric of Brisbane. Her work wove through my life well before I heard her name; her social spirit created Brisbane institutions that have profoundly shaped my life. Eminently at home here, and deeply invested in our sprawling, sun-drenched city, her life’s work exists not just in the immovable sandstone she carves with her gnarled hands, but also in the people of Brisbane. For while Rhyl loves to shape stone, and her hands have formed memorable parts of the city’s surface, she cares just as deeply about shaping less tangible things.

Steele building, University of Queensland

Steele building, University of Queensland

I learned this when Rhyl and her husband Rob welcomed Ryan and me into the home they built with their own hands some fifty years hence, Ryan eager to paint her portrait. The house is full of personality, and full of Australia. The sloped wooden roof hangs high above the tiled terracotta floor, and the space in between is decked with gumnuts, dried leaves, wicker chairs, exuberantly patterned fabrics and rugs in earthy colours and, of course, endless bronzes. A carved wooden cabinet houses the radio which plays classical music as we work, and on top sit a glowing cluster of green-bronze busts—mostly the heads of Rhyl’s grandchildren, and one of her mother. Frog bronzes pipe at flutes and saxophones as though an Australian rainforest bacchanal procession were coursing through the house.

Dr Rhyl Hinwood (from life); copy after her sculpture

Dr Rhyl Hinwood (from life); copy after her sculpture

Rhyl is possibly best known for her work at the University of Queensland, where I studied, where she got her break carving grotesques for the central quadrangle, the Great Court. This was the beginning of a continuing relationship with the university, with the various colleges commissioning large sandstone works from her to this day, and, of course, the Wordsmiths Café (where I served many a coffee) and its snaking literary tribute to Australian authors. Rhyl assumes her position on the couch for Ryan’s portrait and talks about her recent visit to St Leo’s college, whose gate she recently produced, and where she was subsequently invited to attend a formal dinner and see all the boys suited up for an opera performance. Her attendance is always welcome, and she always follows through—being present, she advises us, is always a good strategy. When you are out in the community, being seen, meeting people, things come up, work comes in. She brims with stories of concerts, Great Court races, bumping into the now fully-grown son of a man she met while carving at UQ decades ago; the governor taking a liking to her and wanting to chat endlessly; the lovely but reserved Canadian woman she met and introduced to university dignitaries with the ease of an equal; the English reverend who saw her working in the Great Court and who invited her to stay with him in England in the very town where she was coincidentally going to work on a church. Rhyl excels because she is endlessly open and interested in her fellow human beings.

Wordsmiths Cafe, University of Queensland

Wordsmiths Cafe, University of Queensland

Rhyl is a storyteller, and at heart, her art form, public sculpture, is about collecting, distilling and preserving stories. Her frankness and clarity are indispensable in this matter. One afternoon we tramp down into the backyard to see some of her works in progress, and her storytelling weaves effortlessly in and out of the imagery. A huge concrete semi-circle bounds her outdoor carving area, a moveable crane fixed to the top, and a starfish adorns it. Heavy power tools rest nearby. Rhyl is working on an arced piece with a little saint, and Ryan’s narrow face is her inspiration for the character—she would hate for her sculptures to be peopled with generic forms. We follow her down a little path through the rainforest garden to the studio. It is a multi-level affair, wooden, again with a dramatically sloping roof. She shows us some plates she is preparing for bronzes, an amalgam of wood and plastic. She traces the elements of each one with her hands, explaining the stories through simple yet eloquent symbols.

Wordsmiths Cafe, University of Queensland

Wordsmiths Cafe, University of Queensland

Over several weeks we sat by her fireplace (flanked in sandstone, decked in coral, shells and urns full of banksias and gumnuts), painted and drew, and shared meals. Her husband, Rob, once in the army, but also a builder and a leather worker and ceramicist, chimed in with jokes and stories, and as the weeks went by, their stories built up a tapestry of their rich and social lives, their children, their travels, their work, their Brisbane. Rhyl’s parents had a house by Yerongpilly, and Sunday afternoons when she was young they would open their doors to Asian students, and together they would spend the evening dining and dancing on the veranda. She and her parents fundraised to construct International House at the University of Queensland, a residential college that operated on the same welcoming principle (‘that brotherhood may prevail’), the residential college I myself called home for two years and through which I made many lasting friendships that span the globe.

Forgan Smith building, University of Queensland

Forgan Smith building, University of Queensland

Paring a story back to the core elements requires much conversation, and asking many questions. Rhyl recalled seeing the austere slogan above the Forgan Smith building at UQ, home to my beloved philosophy department: ‘GREAT IS TRUTH AND MIGHTY ABOVE ALL THINGS,’ and resolving to work around this proclamation. She asked many professors, ‘Do you think that truth is the purpose of the university?’ and was met with a resounding no. After much conversation and deliberation, she determined that the university must, in fact, stand for knowledge: the uncovering of, collecting of, and preserving of. Her research efforts are admirable: she showed us a photograph of a large symbolic piece in the midst of being installed in a college in Sydney. She told us of an ineffectual meeting with all of the stakeholders, in which dominant personalities drove the discussion, and each party felt compelled to have their stamp. Earthy, pragmatic Rhyl simply decided to meet personally with every individual involved, and to give each their chance to speak with her one on one. Having collected every viewpoint, a plan for the piece evolved in her mind, and when she presented it to the group every party was satisfied. There is a profound lesson in this humble, attentive method of collecting stories and compiling them into something fitting and meaningful.

Copies after Rhyl Hinwood

Copies after Rhyl Hinwood

Societies and social events can be very demanding on your time, Rhyl admits, but she urges us to be present in our cities, in our communities. A chance meeting at a symposium, a fortunate conversation over morning tea at Customs House, can open up surprising opportunities. And one suspects that finding one’s place in one’s community and building it over a lifetime comes with rewards far deeper and richer than public commissions. Rhyl Hinwood lives and breathes Brisbane, and can take satisfaction in the knowledge that she and her work are an enduring part of its story.

Wordsmiths Cafe, University of Queensland

Wordsmiths Cafe, University of Queensland


The perfectionist, revisited


My Nanna came to visit from New South Wales and I was very pleased to spend some time sewing under her direction. Nanna, born Aleida Grul—though forced to give up her name through anglicisation and marriage—grew up in Holland, where her father was a tailor, and she herself trained in the same field. As a young woman, she sewed for a living, paying board to her parents and saving up the equivalent of ten full weeks’ wages to buy her own sewing machine—a fierce and serious Swiss-made tank of a machine, driven by a pedal at the knee, which has accompanied her for the rest of her life. Her school was determined to take her on as a teacher, but toward the end of her studies, she and her family immigrated to Australia. Nanna paid her own way with the income she made from sewing. She and her younger sister took over a local sewing business in New South Wales, but eventually the demands of family life took precedent—her own family grew to five children. Still, children need dressing, and grandchildren too, and Nanna has continued to sew prolifically.


When she came up to visit us, I pulled out some lovely, soft, creamy, floral fabric I had found in Vienna, and an unopened vintage sewing pattern I had discovered in Berlin. The pattern pieces were flimsy and sage-coloured, marked only with perforated words and symbols—‘EINHALTEN’, ‘FADENLAUF’—and the instructions ran in stiff, old-fashioned German. A combination of my German, her Dutch, and her practical knowledge of patterns allowed us to piece the thing together.

But more than receiving a little guidance, I was treated to a wonderful insight into her past and her attitude to work and to life. I’ve always known her as cheerful, contented, and unfazed by difficulties, but I failed to appreciate her quiet acceptance of her compromises, her driven and hardworking nature, and her adherence to the high standard she demands of herself. As we carefully measured and remeasured fabric, pattern and me—‘where is your tape measure?’ (my mother recollects Nanna ever having her tape measure hanging from her neck, never out of reach)—she spoke softly about the past, as though the act of sewing were a method of time-travel, a direct portal to the times she had sewn before. And this time I was permitted to travel with her.


At the very beginning of our work, Nanna confessed to constantly unpicking her own work to this day, which surprised me. I wondered that she could be so unsure with her hands. But I quickly learnt that this stemmed from no uncertainty, but from very exacting demands. Should an unwanted pucker appear, should a collar sit too tightly, should a gathered edge not sit pleasingly, it must be undone. From my own viewpoint, of ‘good enough is good enough, no one will know the difference,’ it was a pleasant surprise to be held accountable to someone who produces the best work she possibly can, no matter how ignorant her audience.

Cat sewing

For no one would notice the length of my stitches should they learn I had sewn my own blouse—they would only be impressed, useless as they are with their hands, that I had made something. But Nanna, from the adjoining room, called out gently, ‘your stitches are too short. Small stitches look very unprofessional,’ a judgment made from the sound of my humming sewing machine alone. I lengthened my stitches, I worked more slowly, I took care with the intersections of seams, until my mum expressed surprise at the steady and controlled pace of my machine.

Sachsen Bluse

Following instructions is one thing, but working under the guidance of an expert is another entirely. There are things to learn that don’t read well in explanations—like how to make the back of the shoulders ‘roomier,’ and precisely where to overlap the seams of specific pieces. I began to be less assertive, asking for more help instead, hoping she would reveal more secrets to me at every step. Without malice, but matter-of-factly, Nanna told me, ‘the difference between what you know and what I know is very obvious.’ And I realised with what arrogant confidence I go about the works of my hands! Whether I sew, or knit, or paint, or draw—and this confidence, this ‘just and manly confidence in himself,’ as Joshua Reynolds calls it (p. 211), being ‘among the first moral qualities … which a Student ought to cultivate,’ is undoubtedly necessary. But equally necessary is the humility that comes with recognising a greater power than yourself, and the magnitude of the path they have already travelled, and that lies yet before you.

Three monkeys

I also realised that perfectionism coupled with diligence is no terrible thing. For all her unpicking, Nanna, Aleida—now Alice—is ever moving forward, and no amount of redoing sets her back, discourages her, or prevents her from finishing something.