Sculptors dodged IRA bombs to create Hills haven
By Ieva Tomsons
FOR THE past 50 years, Gidgegannup sculptors Joan Walsh-Smith and Charlie Smith (right) have travelled the world creating large-scale public art projects many of which are now part of Perth’s urban landscape.
They grew up in Ireland’s oldest city Waterford, both were Catholic but their families were poles apart.
When they were 17 they met at Waterford School of Art and Design where Joan was training to be an art teacher and Charlie was completing art courses to qualify as an architect.
“The boys from architects’ offices would come three days a week to study and it took me a while to adjust to their disruptive behaviour after a strict boarding school education with nuns,” said Joan.Read more
A mutual interest in visiting Waterford’s numerous ruined Norman abbeys and castles drew them together on weekends when they would sketch the great stone carvings of Ireland’s historic past.
“This was the start of our life-long collaboration,” said Charlie.
At 18, they decided to escape the “narrowness” of small-town Waterford and moved to a bedsit in London.
“We couldn’t see the point of hanging around and arguing” (with Joan’s parents who thought they were far too young to marry). “It was time to get on with the great adventure of life,” said Charlie.
Their ‘elopement’ was short lived and they returned to face Joan’s parents “as adults” but the situation was now worse as Joan was pregnant; totally unacceptable in Catholic Ireland.
Charlie’s family were supportive and helped organise the 18-year-olds’ marriage in a small church in the countryside.
The newlyweds moved into an idyllic thatched cottage at the seaside and Joan kept studying while Charlie earned a living as a heritage draftsman and designer during the late 60’s and early 70’s manufacturing boom in Ireland.
At 19, they found themselves the parents of three children, two being twins which came as a major surprise in the days before ultrasound.
The children spurred on the reconciliation with Joan’s parents who financially backed the purchase of a spectacular piece of land overlooking Waterford Estuary in 1967.
“We could see the world’s second-oldest lighthouse and the east side (of the estuary) was the Hook and the west, the Crooke. The saying ‘by hook or by crook’ goes back to 1649 when Oliver Cromwell promised to conquer Waterford by whatever it took,” said Charlie in one of his interesting asides.
For 14 months the family lived in an on-site caravan while Charlie designed and built a stunning glass-fronted studio/home.
“We were buying expensive double-glazing windows when we didn’t have any furniture,” laughs Joan who says she still can’t think of caravans without reliving the horrors of managing three toddlers in a confined space on a wild stormy cliff.
Charlie struck out on his own as an industrial designer and looked after the kids while Joan completed her teacher training.
Joan was apprehensive when Charlie suggested they “go full on for sculpture” but winning a prestigious award in 1972 to create a piece in Londonderry Northern Ireland launched their career.
It was the height of the IRA’s bombing campaign and Joan was meeting with the landscape architects who designed the park where their 50-ton 100m-long concrete relief wall was almost completed when 16 bombs were detonated across the city.
Their sculpture was destroyed but they meticulously reproduced it.
They were getting fed up with the situation in Ireland when they met a Swedish couple who invited them to organise an exhibition at their villa in Marbella, a resort town on the Costa del Sol Spain, which became the base for their continental expansion.
In 1978 the family moved for a year to Marbella where the kids were enrolled in an international school but they realised that raising them in a town full of casinos among high-flyers in the “pursuit of pleasure” wasn’t a good move, so they returned to Ireland.
Joan had been juggling motherhood and being an artist for some time and Charlie thought it “was time for her to fly” with a solo exhibition, Fragments of a Woman, which was exhibited twice in Holland.
After the two successful Dutch exhibitions, Joan and Charlie were invited to represent Ireland at a contemporary sculpture Biennale, Arteder ’83, in Bilbao Spain.
“We’d throw our hat in the ring for anything and even won an art print competition in Brazil,” said Charlie.
“If you asked us to paint a white line on the the road we would have done it,” said Joan.
As keen divers Australia had long been on their radar and they first visited in 1983 at the invitation of the Adelaide Fringe Festival.
From that point on their minds were set on living in Adelaide but there were many hurdles to jump in the immigration process.
“Artists were not on the preferred list of professions,” laughs Charlie, “but we came in as ‘cultural acquisitions’ or something like that”.
An unplanned extended stopover in Perth convinced Joan and Charlie that Adelaide was not going to be where they would settle.
“It dawned on us that Perth’s natural landscape was much more Australian and Adelaide felt too European and conservative,” said Joan.
They sold their house in Waterford and moved to Australia in 1984 and the following year bought a small property in Stoneville which they quickly realised would be surrounded by houses.
“When we first saw this block (60ha in Reen Road) the evening sun was reflecting off a great wall of ancient rocks and we knew that this was it,” said Charlie.
Aislinn (Gaelic for a poet’s dream) Studios, was born.
Local commissions started rolling in and winning the prestigious National Memorial of Australian Army project in 1987 set them on the road of military memorials.
“Australia is a young country which is still building its civic monuments and we have had the opportunity to be part of that journey,” said Charlie.
To date, they have completed more than 100 public artworks and are the only artists to be awarded two national monument commissions. They were also awarded the Centenary Medal for Public Art.
The memorial in Geraldton to the 645 sailors who lost their lives when the HMAS Sydney II sank in 1941 is a 20-year project which is closest to their hearts and visitors are often brought to tears by the poignant reflection space.
Joan and Charlie aren’t ones to sit around waiting for commissions to land in their laps and when local work started to dry up in the 1990s they embarked on projects in Indonesia, Japan and Hong Kong where they are still involved constructing a major series of works for the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Much of their inspiration comes from nature and when they were designing the St George’s Terrace kangaroos they would have had no shortage of life models as their home is a haven for roos and 100 rescue birds which are housed in soaring aviaries.
Ninety percent of their property was burnt in the February fire but their studios, aviaries and home were saved by fire fighters – to whom they are eternally grateful – and Charlie’s sprinkler system which ran continuously for five days providing a refuge for a huge number of displaced roos.
So what makes these indefatigable artists tick?
“We’ve grown together and between the two of us we make one reasonable artist,” laughs Joan.
A successful collaboration, they say, is based on “never blaming each other when things go wrong”.