“I just love red and every variation of red – they burn into me…” –
By Roberto Chuter
Here is a Google searched definition of a Bohemian: “True modern day bohemians are people who operate from the margins. They are aware that we have inherited a world whose ideologies are depleted and can only be refreshed from outside the box. They work in co-operation with like-minded souls or in solitude, in refreshing our culture.”
This, in particular, could easily be an apt description of the St. Kilda based Italian artist Josephine A Wadelton, better known simply as Josie. Wadleton has been described by some as “The doyen of the St. Kilda arts scene”, “An idiosyncratic figure, mostly swathed in burgundy or purple or both…”and “Her impeneratable eyes and inscrutable countenance, at times, give little away. “
Bohemians like Wadelton usually do what they want, they live life their way, they value freedom and solitude, creativity and all things aesthetic. Call them ”arty-farties,” “bohos,” “free-spirits,” but basically they don’t care. Mostly, they possess a unique and individual artistry, so “artist” may be another word to describe Wadelton. Some think “artist” reeks of pretentiousness, but to me ‘artist’ is perfectly acceptable. As far as I’m aware there is no other word for ‘artist’ other than specific types like a painter or illustrator. . However, it’s still a label really and labels, as far as I am concerned, are for soup cans.
Of course Wadelton has done most of the exhibition gigs or group shows including forty five downstairs, “The Robots Are Coming” at Artists Studio 106, “Collective Momentum” at the Carlisle Street Art Space, MUFF Kunst! Violence Exhibition, St. Kilda Art Crawl and numerous others. Her work has been featured in the films “A Beautiful Request,” “The Dream Children,” “106 Artists: Follow Your Dreams” and “Golden Parrots at the Gallery.”
Wadelton says: “The major focus in my work is to express the inward significance of an art work. What’s represented on the physical level has a cryptic hidden meaning therefore my interest in text, colour, numbers and codes. A lot of my influences have been Surrealism, Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism. I draw inspiration from the language and structure of poetry and scientific terminology. I’ve also explored a variety of materials and techniques, like painting on canvas, collage, digital media, soft sculpture, photography and more recently the moving image.”
In August 2010, at the now defunct Guildford Lane Gallery, Wadelton created a memorable mixed media installation entitled: “Defaced: The Exhibition” which focused on books which have been banned, burned and defaced. Her artistic recreation of the books enabled some of the authors and characters to materialise amongst her works. A coterie of talented actors in appropriate costume performed short extracts from the texts. The guests were stunned, captivated, delighted and were quite taken aback when D. H. Lawrence read an extract from his book “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” about simultaneous orgasms, Patrick Bateman read the horrific rat chapter from “American Psycho”, Humbert Humbert read the famous first sentence from “Lolita” – ““Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” Then old Radcliffe Hall followed with her classic “The Well of Loneliness” about lesbianism, a stoned William Burroughs read from “Junkie” and finally a Hitler Youth recited from Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” as a prayer.
There was a long silence when the readings ended. Anyone for the bar? The guests were all dumbstruck and speechless. Applause followed sometime afterward then they did quickly head for the bar. Wadelton, smiling, was successful. The bohemian had done what art was supposed to do: communicate ideas – politically, historically, spiritually or philosophically. She created a unique aesthetic, an exploration of perception; for pleasure and to generate strong emotions.
In November 2014, a collaboration between Wadelton and St. Kilda filmmaker Katrina Mathers produced a 3 minute experimental film entitled: “The Worship.” It was screened at Venice International Experimental Film and Performance Art Festival.
“This was my first foray into working with moving image digital media. It melded several socio-religious and culture elements together. Ethiopian women, in a Greek Orthodox Christian Church in the centre of Palermo Sicily, prayed as though driven by some sacred invisible force,” says Wadelton, “Their body language acted as a fluid connection between the architecture of the once Muslim Church and its Medieval icons, mosaics and sacred images. This short has now been exported from the Old World to the New World enriching and nurturing a new audience.”
Mathers created a visual biography about Wadelton entitled “In Her Silence” in 2018. Within a background of Wadelton’s work she talks of her love for the mystery and fragility of colour. The biography also explores a trance-like, meditative and pensive monologue which transcends and challenges the mainstream. Wadelton speaks of her love of silence, of her enduring attachment to art and aesthetics and of the legacy she hopes to pass onto her four adored grandchildren.
“Josie’s incredibly unique, there’s no-one else on the planet like her. She embodies a wonderful strength, she’s inspiring, enigmatic, perceptive and always able to find beauty in the things around her. I feel so honoured to know and be able to work with her. A truly generous and creative spirit.,” comments Mathers.
Both Mathers and Wadelton also created two other video arts, one entitled “Delirious” – A d-word abstract experimental piece created by using the apps “Glitché” & “KinoGlitch which explores the power of words beginning with the letter D. and the second piece “Klunk Memorial” also created by using an app. “This one is my interpretation of “Fallen Leaves” a sculptural installation created by the Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman,” said Wadelton.
Chatting over cafe latte and English Breakfast tea (with Almond milk) I was curious to know how and why Wadelton came to live in Australia…
“The Simeonis’ – my family, emigrated to Australia in 1950. They were originally from Udine in Northern Italy. After the Second World War,my father heard and read wonderful stories about the “lucky country.” So after he finished working for the Italian Navy in Venice, off we sailed to Australia and settled in Clifton Hill leaving behind aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents and also the beauty of Italian Art, History and Architecture.”
Other questions came to mind, so I asked.
What did you do before you became an artist?
“I was always an artist. I knew that at 4. I remember while at primary school in Italy being shown the wonderful works of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Botticelli, Giotto, Fra Angelico, and Raphael. The nuns asked us to draw like Leonardo! So I was quite shocked when I first went to school in Australia that all the kids were drawing stick figures. I made up my mind then and there that I would be an artist and return to Italy and revisit those Florentine, Renaissance, and Roman cities. Then after finishing high school I studied FIne Arts at the University of Melbourne and went on to art school at RMIT. I ended up teaching art in various high schools in Melbourne and teaching art in high school was not taken seriously back in the 60’s. It was a time for playing up. I was quite relieved to stay at home with my mother and not venture back into the school room. Discipline was not my forte and still isn’t.”
Why do you do the work that you do?
“Because there is a strong creative impulse that drives me.”
Which people or what inspires you to work in the arts?
“Being totally surrounded by the creative community here in St. Kilda, the artists, writers, photographers, filmmakers and the rest.”
What do you think are some of the negatives in your work?
“Struggling with large scale compositions!”
What’s been some of the positives in your work do you think?
“A burning desire to research a subject which will lead to a convincing and informative exhibition or installation.”
If you couldn’t do this anymore, what career path would have followed Josie?
Which people or what inspires you to work in the arts?
“Peggy Guggenheim. What a wonderful legacy she has left to the world. This year I was lucky enough to see an exhibition by Jean Arp at the Guggenheim Museum. Peggy’s permanent collection includes works by Max Ernst, Picasso, Braque, Calder, Mondrian, Magritte, Jackson Pollock and Kandinsky. I was also fortunate to see Gilbert and George at a live interview at the NGV. They are both known for their distinctive and notably formal appearance and manner in performance art and also for their brightly coloured graphic-style photo-based artworks.”
What are you currently working on?
“I have been greatly influenced by the Bauhaus movement of the early 20th century. The Bauhaus was one of these movements that gave design a unique place in history: a discipline that fused art and craftsmanship with a philosophical approach. In German, Bauhaus literally means “construction house.” Some of the most notable Bauhaus artists and designers included Paul Klee, Johannes Itten, Mies Van der Rohe, Wassily Kandinsky, and László Moholy-Nagy. It was also the first school to admit female students to its institution! Though the women were relegated mostly to the crafts department, they nevertheless designed avantgarde furniture, tableware, carpets, textile crafts, woven wall hangings and tapestries. The weaving loom design is mostly limited because of its bold verticals and horizontals. So this is how I developed my latest project based on the Grid. Also, wonderfully, I have discovered the power of apps! They have changed the way I create my art work. Using apps I am able to transform and change the scale of my art into various shapes and sizes.”In recent years, Wadelton has suffered with the incurable and mysterious disorder Fibromyalgia. But with her usual bohemian bravado, Wadelton manages the condition like the execution of one of her artworks – carefully, calmly and with much patience.
“The one big luxury I have is to live alone, to be on my own. Which is amazing. Just love being on my own. I never get lonely, that’s one gift I have, I never get lonely. I just like to be alone.“
Now in her early 70’s, Wadelton with her stylish dress sense, crop of silvery hair, still possesses a beauty and aesthetic that emanates originality. Josie Wadelton – the artist and bohemian, lives by the Gilbert and George quote: “To be with Art is all I ask…”. And she is.