The Starting Place
An interview with Janet Ayliffe
Other Lives 2, 2008. Watercolour painting on Magnani paper, unframed w 50cm x h 70cm.
Janet Ayliffe is a painter and printmaker working in Kangarilla, in the Adelaide Hills, in South Australia. Her work embraces both the human and the natural environment, forming rich and detailed worlds at once particular and universal.
Kit Brookman for The Signal House Edition: Where are you right now?
Janet Ayliffe: Right now… In my eighth decade of life, I am at my table in my treetops studio, built for me by our son, Gabriel. Out the window, only small metres away, a koala clears its throat. I consider myself privileged beyond my understanding to be at this stage of life, on our shared-with-friends Adelaide Hills property where we have lived for over 45 years.
Around me is evidence of my beginnings, through to now… my books, other books, tattered and worn, from my parents, two sleeping dogs, knitted rugs, a flowery chair found on the roadside, three very fine paint boxes, a family of recorders, a flute, and an excellent pencil sharpener. Down the track is our home, built by my husband, Glen. In there, a huge etching press, which, as my mother observed, will see me out.
From this view, I think of the chance and good fortune to be born into a family and wider community in which there was such great security and care. If I could manage a tattoo, it would be the word GRATITUDE, on my forehead.
The where-I-am-right-now has come directly from my early moments and days. Especially from my parents, with their sense of enquiry, their careful listening — their letting us go…
TSHE: You grew up on Kangaroo Island (which, for our non-Australian readers, is Australia’s third-largest island, located off the coast of South Australia), and much of your work still has a strong connection to the island. How has that particular place and landscape shaped your work?
JA: The coast and scrublands of the island will be a constant presence in my work. The northern edge of my parents’ farm went close to the sea, and to the east and south a large area of the original scrub was retained.
Early Morning Droving With My Father on the Old East/West Line, 2015. Etching with 24 carat gold ink, embossing and hand colouring over archival pigment with 24 carat gold ink on Canson heavy-weight 100% cotton paper, w 90cm x h 60cm.
With thick knitted socks – a bit of snake bite precaution – my older brothers and I would walk out to investigate, all over the farm and beyond. From about the age of six onwards, I would go kilometres to visit friends and together go deep into the scrub or along the beaches, following wallaby tracks and watching over what was happening. The only rule was to be home by dinnertime. That, fortunately, meant “somebody’s home”.
When I was eight, my father made me a tin canoe, which I used for days on end at the Western Cove creek outlet. My attempted crossing of the Nepean Bay [which separates Kangaroo Island from mainland Australia] with my dog and sheep on board did put an end to similar adventures, but I keep my memories of the samphire meadows and the sea grasses, the intertidal creatures.
From a place of security and possibly too much confidence, I drew the hills and plains. I became aware of the mystery of our lands. Being of settler people, I was conscious of the physical and spiritual habitation of the First Nations peoples. I have returned often and drawn these places, this particular north coast, with its sometimes-sea-mist light, the old volcanic Wisanger Hills across the bay.
We didn’t have mainland electricity until I was about 12. My father made a Heath Robinson-type machine which generated enough electricity for the lights and for the radio. When the radio worked I listened to the Argonauts Club. I wrote avid letters to Phidias, the person on the show who told us about art out in the Big World. He would write back — amazing. I learnt later he kept a letter of mine in which I told him the best way to paint the sea, using toothpaste. Phidias, in his real life, was Jeffrey Smart.
Dragonfly, 2010. Polymer plate intaglio etching, hand colouring and embossing printed on Hahnemuhle rag.
Being on the island, my parents could bring us up without worrying about too much of the 1950s conventions. My brothers and I each had a wall in the house, or several, on which to paint, draw, and write. Our collections of body parts (appendixes, tonsils, dead fish in methylated spirits) sat on the mantelpiece alongside the Ormolu clock and the silver Christening mugs.
These intricacies of our island and coasts, the stories and details, have all come into my pictures.
TSHE: The natural world is clearly an enormous source of inspiration for you, but I’m curious to ask about the artists who have inspired you. Are there artists who have been touchstones throughout your working life? Has this changed over time?
JA: From my earliest childhood I think of the books of May Gibbs, Beatrix Potter, Lewis Carroll, among others. But also visits to the Art Gallery in Adelaide with my father to look at the Etruscan sculptures, which he loved, or the Etruscan sarcophagi in John Glover’s garden. Whoever created the design of the Weeties packet (a weetie holding a weetie going on to weetie infinity) must have a mention too.
I hated the pictures in our school readers and fixed them with glued-over ones of my own. So a different kind of inspiration.
Gull's Rock, 2016. Archival pigment on Canson heavy-weight 100% cotton paper, w 40cm x h 33cm
When I was a teenager I discovered William Blake, both his poetry and his etchings, including his wife Catherine’s colourings-in of some of his etchings. Leonardo’s anitomica drawings were so good I could smell them. And Shakespeare, especially in his high weather, like Lear out in the storm or Ariel’s song “Where the bee sucks”. Auden, Eliot’s Four Quartets, and Thomas Hardy. Every one of Judith Wright’s poems.
On leaving school, artists like Samuel Palmer, and the engraver and natural history author Thomas Bewick, and Fra Angelico, and Hokusai, Hiroshige and Utamaro, among many others. Later, I think of Rembrandt, and Vermeer – especially for weather. More recently, artists like John Wolseley.
Music has always been an important source of inspiration, from folk songs and playing the recorder at school, to discovering Renaissance and Baroque music as I got older, to composers like Elena Kats-Chernin and musicians like Genevieve Lacey today.
The list gets longer every day, and nobody ever leaves it. And there are so many I haven’t written down – I could actually go on and on.
The Red-Tailed and the Glossy Black Cockatoos, 2009. Multiple plate etching with chine collé and embossing printed on Hahnemuhle rag paper, w 61cm x h 76cm
TSHE: Sometimes looking at your work I’m reminded of a line from Mary Oliver’s poem Yes! No!: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” Where does a painting or an etching start for you?
JA: My compositions often start from just seeing something, reading or thinking something and joining things (ideas) together. Mostly it is while walking, either on my own or with family, friends – nearly always with a dog or two. There’s so much to see and watch, and pass through, and by. Our children and now our little grandsons – I can know some of what and how their world has been and is right now. For each of our sons, I have made a stage of life composition. Their words and drawings are recorded, in part, in these etchings.
I draw and paint in my little books, outdoors or indoors, at a harbour, on a hill, or in our garden. Thinking all the time of connections – of links back and forward in time.
William Blake said to a young Samuel Palmer:
“For double vision my Eyes do see,
And double vision is always with me.
With my inward Eye ‘tis an old man grey,
With my outward, a thistle across my way.”
I know what he means.
Coming from a family of storytellers, my pictures are often, in their own way, narratives (in an open sense of that word).
TSHE: When it comes to work, are you a planner or impulsive?
JA: I am both. Some of my paintings and printmaking work are direct – drawing them out, and then painting or going through the processes of making the plate or the block. For example, for all the dog etchings, I have sat inside or by the pond and drawn each part. In my mind is the awareness of composition, the essential tool of grammar in a picture, my mind going on automatic for the balance of each part. Paintings (commissions and larger ones) are composed and planned. Working drawings, lists, flea (thumbnail) drawings – big and little changes of mind.
Three Sheep, 2000. Woodblock graving relief print on Rice paper, w 8cm x h 10cm
TSHE: Can I ask what you’re working on at the moment?
JA: I have recently completed a protest poster (or rather a protest set of etchings) organised
by Simone Tippett. A group of us have made posters which will be further printed on in greater quantities to attempt to stop a destructive private development in the Flinders ChaseNational Park. The words I used were on the polite side rather than savage – from my experience and upbringing, a tactical way to proceed. My poster reads: “The tiny creatures of Flinders Chase are holding on by a whisker”.I am also doing preparatory drawings for a large commission, a portrait of an amazing garden – itself a complete work of art. When the weather is alright I draw there, accompanied by the owners’ two delightful dogs, who have adopted me and any lunch I might bring. And so each drawing is by chance framed by four ears, two upstanding and two lolloped.
Protest Poster: The Tiny Creatures of Flinders Chase Are Holding On By a Whisker, 2022.
The Superb Fairy Wren, 2008. Polymer plate intaglio etching and embossing printed on Hahnemuhle rag paper, w 8cm x h 14cm
TSHE: Birds feature heavily in your work. In the 2021 edition of the Guardian’s annual poll on the Australian Bird of the Year, the superb fairy wren narrowly pipped the tawny frogmouth by just a handful of votes. A controversial outcome in your view?
JA: Well, definitely controversial. But I would choose every bird, so that takes me out. The tawny frogmouth is a first prize Royal Show bird.
TSHE: You work across numerous different forms (if that’s the right word) from etchings, to paintings, to relief prints. Do you tend to split your time consistently between them? Or are there stretches of time where you’ll do just one thing and nothing else?
JA: I work between printing, drawing, painting, and engraving sometimes. And soon I will be working with type set, and little linocuts and engravings. I have bought an Adana press – it is almost my age. On the box it says it is wonderful for dance cards, prayer books and raffle tickets. I am going to make a book with my friend Robin’s beautiful haiku. Not quite next week, but soon.
TSHE: One of the things I’ve always loved about your art is how at times it kindly but firmly nudges a human watcher out of their accustomed sense of centrality. In the same painting a human being might appear as a speck in the landscape while a dragonfly announces itself in full, glorious detail. How do these different elements find their way into your work?
JA: Of course the world of us as people, human-centralist as you say, is ever present in my conscious life. My dearly loved family and friends, past and present, the wider circle of acquaintance and of those significant in our lives.
I think of Fra Angelico, Vermeer, Bruegel, Rembrandt and later Chagall, the most wonderful artists of our human experience. My pictures hold both my family, and special animals, birds, reptiles, insects. All creatures great and small. I think the balance in the pictures that you refer to is to do with honouring, caring, and often worrying about and looking after all of our environmental systems.
The Sacred Ibis, 2017. Archival pigment print on Canson heavy-weight 100% cotton paper, w 28cm x h 45cm
I have recently learnt a new word, ‘umwelt’ (good old Germans, having words which hold so much). I read it in an interview with the artist John Wolseley.
“Here… is the life story of a beetle.” With his finger he traces the insect’s furrow from larvae to adulthood… a 5-month journey of steady munching… “It’s part of my work on the umwelt – a creature’s environment or medium to which it is totally connected… We’ve become almost totally disconnected to ours, which is why we’re allowing such terrible things to happen to our world.”
He says much that is important and profound about his own work, but this is what I recognise in relation to making my own pictures: of his role as an artist, Wolseley says his task is to “enact a re-enchantment that mends the broken relationship between nature and humankind.”
 Interview with Fiona Gruber, The Guardian, 27 April 2015.
The Southwest Pygmy Possums, 2018. Multiple lino block relief printed on Somerset paper, w 34cm x h 42cm
JANET AYLIFFE, our featured artist for Issue 16, works as a fine art printmaker and watercolour painter. She was born on Kangaroo Island. Growing up there on the family farm, with the surrounding scrublands and nearby beaches has given form to many of her ideas and compositions. So too, the landscapes of her present home at Kangarilla in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia, where Janet now lives and works. She has developed an original style that reflects her life, her values, her family and environments. From the earlier techniques of wood engraving, etched metal plate intaglio and aquatints, to the more recent photopolymer plate etching used with digital archival prints of her painting, Janet produces art that is, at once, accessible and deeply layered and complex. WEBSITE.
(Image credits: All images by Janet Ayliffe, by kind permission of the artist.)