An Australian or Two in Paris Nineties-style

On four Australian artists working in Paris: Marion Borgelt, Tim Maguire, Helen Kennedy and Heidi Woods

Living out a fantasy is rarely easy and for many of us, the idea of living and working in a city like Paris is just such a dream, loaded with almost mystical expectations. In reality it is quite a task to take on.

My particular fantasy was to be a documentary film maker and I got my opportunity when my partner Raphael Zimmerman, an artist, was awarded the Moya Dyring/Denise Hickey Studio at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris for the summer of 1997. A steady stream of Australian artists regularly make this pilgrimage to the 'artistic motherland', often aided and abetted by the many different awards and scholarships which encourage us to maintain our European connections. I found the concept a fascinating one and despite being unable to get any funding for the project I decided to join Raphael in Paris and use the opportunity to record on camera the experiences of Australian artists working in and around Paris. To find out not only what brought them there but why they chose to stay and what basing themselves in Europe has done for their careers.

There's no doubt about it, Paris is a fabulous, exciting and stunningly beautiful city. It is also very expensive, overcrowded and the exchange rate is lousy. With visa restrictions it's often impossible to stay for long periods of time and even more difficult to get paid work. Getting a show up is highly unlikely. Organising a studio space is very costly and complicated unless you choose to live and work in the same room. Sending work back to galleries in Australia is also expensive and time consuming as well as risky. So why do these artists think it's worth it?

Marion Borgelt has been living in Paris for almost 10 years but returns to Australia each year to 'reconnect'. She feels the two countries are quite disparate, Australia offering an intuitive perspective, with a heartfelt and natural approach while she thinks France concentrates on the cerebral. She enjoys both and finds that travelling regularly between the two countries enriches her life and inspires her work. She is interested in taking on new challenges and in widening her experience horizons and living in Paris has provided fertile ground for both.

Helen Kennedy has a studio at the Cité and seems completely at home after living in Paris on and off for 3 years. For her, creative freedom is one of the main benefits. She trained as a printmaker in Melbourne but was keen to tackle painting. Away from her home environment she was liberated from both her external and internal critics with the result that she now paints almost exclusively. Her main problem is that she cannot get a long term visa so she has to make regular trips out of France which is costly as well as time consuming.

Heidi Wood, a painter, has been living in Paris for 8 years. Learning the language has been one of the great pleasures for her and has become an important theme in her painting as well as her way of earning a living. She works part-time as a subtitler for French television. In the early days she desperately wanted to blend in with the Parisiennes but she now realises this is never going to happen. Despite her fluent French, she is constantly introduced as "Heidi from Australia" something she is now proud of and she enjoys the status of being odd, different, an outsider. She finds it gives her greater freedom. But as a young, emerging artist she feels there are greater career opportunities and more financial support for her in Australia. At this point in her life, Paris is where she wants to be.

Tim Maguire also enjoys this outsider status. He and his family live in a village to the south of Paris where the locals still consider them a mystery, even after 4 years. Not only have they come all the way from Australia, but he and his wife Adrienne Gaha make their living as artists, not a common career choice in their rural community! Tim finds his anonymity provides a freedom which is difficult for him to achieve in Australia and this makes it easier to focus on his work and push his ideas further, faster. Even so, we watched him spend a lot of time dealing with faxes, phone calls and other business which must be more arduous long distance.

Now that the Maguire children have started primary school the family is not so free to move between continents a choice has to be made and the lifestyle itself is one of the things that holds them there.

Another thing Tim has become aware of since living in Europe is the weight of their history, the idea of Picasso leaning over one shoulder and Matisse over the other paralysing many young European artists. In Australia we don't tend to have that awestruck respect for history which gives us a creative freedom we may not even be aware of till we travel to the 'old world'.

All the artists talked about the access they now had to the rest of Europe and its huge art buying public, so different from the comparatively small art market in Australia. Tim feels to create a buying public in Europe he needs to be there and as he's now showing in Holland, Germany and Switzerland, he could be right.

After our three months at the Cité Raphael felt he had reconnected with his European heritage and appreciated what it had to offer in a way he had not been aware of when he left Germany as a young man of twenty one. At the same time, he became more appreciative of the richness and promise of life in Australia where he can live and work as an artist, free from any constraints from an ancient lineage.

As for the film - we have great interviews with thoughtful and articulate people; stunning shots of life in Paris; interesting themes and a script on the way. Hopefully the post-production will be completed and it will be sold to a broadcaster. But, whatever happens to the film, for me, it has been a successful exercise and an opportunity to live for three glorious months in the City of Light.

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