Finding ‘Me’

Irena Sibley - Self Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Staffordshire, England : Central Park, Vic, Lytlewode Press, c2007.

By Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox

Irena Sibley’s autobiography Self Portrait of the Artist’s Wife published in 2007 recounts her first thirty-six years of life, from her birth in Lithuania in 1944 until 1980. An ‘Epilogue 2004’ written by Irena reassures the reader that the intervening years have been full and that she has become all the things she said she would. The well-known Australian artist, Andrew Sibley, and Irena have been a couple since 1964, marrying in 1968. Irena’s autobiography invites the reader to enter the ‘seminal’ part of her life. Upon finishing the book the reader is sure that an autobiography recounting the years from 1980 onwards could not and would not be titled Self Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, because whilst she is still Andrew Sibley’s wife, she is also known as a multi-talented artist in her own right.

However, Irena has deliberately called herself ‘the artist’s wife’ indicating an early acceptance of her husband’s projected persona. Women of her generation were often determined by their husband’s occupation: the doctor’s wife, the lawyer’s wife, the butcher’s wife. However, at some point many of these women become known as more than a projected persona. Indeed, Googling Irena Sibley’s name in 2008 provides various descriptors of this very talented woman, including artist, writer, children’s book writer, teacher, book illustrator, printmaker. Yes, she is also mentioned as being married to Andrew Sibley.

Irena writes about her past in the constant present. The reader is taken back in time and loses sense of it. Her economic use of adjectives plus her matter-of-fact short sentences add to the sense of ‘now’. There is no sentimentality. Irena and her family are far too capable for this kind of indulgence. Irena’s stories weave a fascinating tale of her family’s forced departure from their farming lands in Lithuania during the end stages of World War Two. They wandered Europe for five years before leaving their last ‘home’, a transit camp in Naples, for the unknown land of Australia. Their arrival in this brown land is an excruciating experience for the reader, who feels the pain of these proud, intelligent, and educated people trying to make a new life in parochial 1950s Australia.

Despite the hardships, Irena’s family members do not lose their love for creating beauty and fun. Food is a consistent theme with vivid descriptions of exotic Lithuanian delights and delicacies created by her grandmother, mother, and then later by Irena. Parties and celebrations regularly punctuate Irena’s childhood and adulthood. The reader feels like an invited guest enjoying the company, food, and wine. Indeed, we meet many of Irena’s family and friends face-to-face in the photographs interspersed throughout the book.

Irena has a feminine heritage of strong-willed and talented women. Her mother and grandmother both fulfilled traditional roles at home. They also worked during the day and/or night to help financially support the family. A strong sense of propriety and a desire for a better life for themselves and Irena and her brother propel these women. Yet, the reader cannot ignore the fact that if the world had not been engulfed by war the family would never have left Lithuania, where they were landowners and professionals. Characteristically, Irena does not engage in lamenting but she certainly lets the reader know that her parents were educated and talented. Indeed, in contrast to most Australians, her accountant-trained father spoke six or seven languages, yet was given labouring jobs when he arrived here. How often do Australians and various government authorities make the mistake of assuming that English is merely a second language for new arrivals to our shores?

Throughout Self Portrait of the Artist’s Wife a pantheon of Australia’s most significant artists including Clifton Pugh, John Coburn, John Firth-Smith, Ian Fairweather, Colin Lancely, and others are mentioned as friends, fellow students, teachers, and acquaintances. All male artists and all successful. Male artists obviously had their ‘tribe’ in which they could be nurtured, challenged, and stroked. Mirka Mora is the only well-known female artist mentioned. Irena’s female friends at art school are not and do not become familiar names - their talents lost to the projection of husbands’ occupations maybe? Where would a female artist of this era find her ‘tribe’? How many female would-be artists worked for wages in full- or part-time employment and/or at home with children, leaving little time for creative space? Not long after graduation, Irena starting teaching art in secondary schools and in 1968 was pregnant with the Sibleys’ first son. She succinctly puts her heart on her sleeve in the telling chapter ‘Every Artist Needs a Wife, 1968’ when she says, ‘There is no empty space either around me or in me. Besides, it is too hard painting pictures. It is easier to bake cakes. So I do.’

An event nearly ten years later forces Irena to find an ‘empty space’ for herself. As with many of the changes in a person’s life, the catalyst for Irena’s recalibration was not pleasant. But in hindsight it can be seen as an opportunity. She writes about her husband’s affair sparely and in doing so maintains honour for both of them. The reader senses that whilst Irena may prefer not to write about this event, she knows it marks a turning point in the expression of who she is and who she wants to be. The effect of an affair on a marriage is upsetting. But there are choices. One is to separate, another is to forgive and self-reflect. Irena chose the latter and went to New York to think on her own for seven weeks, leaving her husband with their two young sons. It also gave him time to reflect.

On her return from New York Irena declared to her husband, ‘I have changed, reinvented myself. The new me is a writer, an author, an illustrator, a creator of childrens’ books.’ Her husband’s reply was, ‘Ah, about time!’ However, the word ‘reinvent’ does not quite ring true. By the time the reader has traveled with Irena from childhood to this point, it is clear she has always been all of these things. Rather than being destroyed and needing reinvention, they have been veiled by the wife, mother, and provider roles so easily donned by women. Irena at the age of 35 actually un-veils to re-discover herself. Sometimes it takes a shock to be diverted onto the road of re-discovery. How many women resonate with this? Good on you Irena!

Her husband’s response ‘Ah, about time!’ suggests he also knew she was always everything she declared she was now going to be. After all, when they met in 1963 Irena was in her fourth and final year at art school. There are signs that Andrew expected Irena to be a practising artist, but expectation on its own does not sustain growth. Andrew, nearly eleven years older than Irena, was already a respected artist experiencing the challenges that critical and uneven financial success brings. The reader picks up that his success, coupled with his understandable need for support, intimidated the younger Irena enough for her to avoid her own painting career. Certainly her secondary school art students benefited from Irena’s re-directed energies. She was also fulfilling a practical necessity because her teaching and, occasionally, her culinary talents provided a regular income for many years.

Beautiful black and white vignettes reproduced from scraper board sketches by Irena are dotted throughout the Self Portrait of the Artist’s Wife. A glorious image of a woman, whose hair cascades with an array of rich foliage, flowers, fruit and mythic-like creatures, is reproduced on the inside of the front and back covers. Like her writing, Irena’s art is strong and succinct. There are no unnecessary markings, yet Irena has an ability to provide the kind of detail which gives emotional depth, satisfying the viewer and reader alike. She also has a talent for humour, both in her art and writing. Many of the delightful vignettes reflect the retelling of funny or quirky stories, the type of stories which foretell her later success as a writer.

In the front pages of Self Portrait of the Artist’s Wife Irena has placed a reproduction of a self portrait which she drew at the age of nine-and-a-half. After reading her autobiography the reader can look at this exquisite pencil drawing knowingly. Irena, the child, gazes directly and confidently at the viewer. There is no guile. Dressed in a perfect school uniform, she displays her individuality with an elaborate hairdo of plaits and ribbons. The drawing’s background is treated similarly to the way the adult Irena approaches image making. Energy is apparent.

Irena has drawn a narrow frame around her childhood self-portrait. This frame is decorated with hearts, crosses and wavy lines. It is also ‘decorated’ with the word ‘Me’ written five times as if to make sure there will be no mistaken identity. Indeed, nine-year-old Irena looks as if she knows exactly who she is. She is ‘Me’, full of potential. The first thirty-six years of Irena’s journey into this potential is Self Portrait of the Artist’s Wife. Maybe Irena will write about her life since 1980. If so, what would the title be?

Visual artist Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox has an extensive exhibition history in South East Queensland and more recently has exhibited overseas in London, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Seoul, and New York. She completed a BA with a double major in Art History from The University of Queensland in 1980 and after graduation worked at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. However, marriage took her to Goondiwindi where she spent eighteen years before moving to Brisbane in 2000. Whilst living in Goondiwindi, Kathryn exhibited in Brisbane and generally in South East Queensland. She also worked as a freelance curator in various regional art galleries. Kathryn has three daughters.