Robin’s presence

Posted on March 2, 2018

The Manning Regional looks like the Art Gallery of NSW with Jocelyn’s work on the walls: 30 years of oils and watercolours to which the only applicable adjective is masterful. Her long compositions play out like melodies: myriad figures in motion, turning, twisting, gesticulating, leaning, living. Jocelyn has only ever worked in the classic mediums, which make no concessions to drying time or solubility: they just glow.

“I think a lot of people come into a room like this and think: well, thank goodness it isn’t one of those contemporary art shows,” says curator John Cooper at the opening. “But I encourage you to look again and look more deeply: Jocelyn is anything but conventional.”

For one thing, she likes painting blokes best. Fishermen especially. Also swimmers and sunbathers and rockpoolers. Her partner, Robin Norling, senior education officer of the Art Gallery of NSW, had a house on the beach.  

“It doesn’t seem right that Robin isn’t here,” John says.  

A ripple of agreement goes through the crowd. It’s been a year since Robin’s death, and Jocelyn’s grief is still palpable. She repeats John’s sentiment.

“But,” she says, “Through his teaching, he lives on. And I was his best student.”

When I sit down with her a week later, on a day when she’s painting miniature portraits for a $20 donation to Friends, and the gallery smells of liquin and turps, I ask her:

“So, was Robin your teacher?”

Jocelyn gives me a curious look. I explain my reasoning. As a newcomer to the area, I only knew them as a distinguished older couple who appeared from time to time at openings amid reverential whispers. 

“He went to Julian Ashton,” she says. “We both did. But I didn’t know him then, I just knew of him, as a brilliant student. I didn’t actually know him until he came to work for me at Meadowbank, and I chased him down with an Authority to Travel form.”

She laughs a rare laugh. I’m speaking with Jocelyn Maughan, head and founder of Meadowbank TAFE Art School, which under her leadership became renowned for drawing and employed hundreds of teachers.

“Ah, so you were the boss,” I say.  

“I was the boss.”

She does have an enviable self-possession, one earned from a lifetime dedication to craft. She seems satisfied with the exhibition, leaning back in an armchair, surveying. She’s about to turn 80. When she moves, she has what I think of as a painter’s gait, a little stooped but certain, eager, always ready to seize a moment.

“I’m the artist,” she says, to a patron passing. “I can help you if you have any questions.”

“Hello, young man,” she says to another. “Do you paint and draw yourself?”

The visitor nods humbly: it’s local institution Rick Reynolds. Later, another local artist, children’s book illustrator Stephen Michael King, tells me that Jocelyn was one of his teachers.

“Hmmm?’” Jocelyn asks, in the middle of a portrait, her eyes on her subject.   

“Oh, you taught Stephen apparently. He’s quite famous now. He’s done about a hundred books.”

“Oh well,” she says, pleased but giving a little shrug. “When you teach so many…”

She still loves teaching. When she sees my interest, she invites me to sit and watch over her shoulder. She works simply, on a board in a corner by a window, from a simple wooden box containing a limited palette of quality paints, in an apron jewelled by her brush.  

“I’m fascinated to see you work up from a dark ground,” I say. “Because the conventional wisdom-”

Jocelyn makes a dismissive noise, as if to tssk away all convention for good. It’s uncanny how much she reminds me of my Jewish granny, also a painter and a teacher of painting, also frank and eccentric.

I watch her knock out three portraits in a row, an hour a piece, with short breaks for tea in between. If anything, she seems energised by the work. I’m amazed by the way she captures not just likeness but character, and more than that which meets my eye. Of a forensic psychologist, comes a portrait light and youthful.

“Oh, the seriousness is just an act,” he says, when I comment. “I’m a kid at heart.”

“Don’t distract him,” Jocelyn says, annoyed to find her sitter turning.

“You almost have to almost fall in love with your subject,” she murmurs to me. “But you don’t tell them that.”

Though she no longer holds classes, she’s generous with her knowledge. She’ll sit with anyone and their sketchbook.

“I think Robin and I admired each other as teachers,” she says. “We believed the same things about teaching. And when I retired from TAFE at 55, it was Robin who said: You can do this. Get a studio. Be an artist. He was a great teacher and I benefited, you see.”

“Ahh,” I say, beginning to understand.

“Robin was the one connected to this area,” she continues. “We chose not to combine our assets, so he bought in Blackhead and I bought in Patonga, which is why this exhibition is called Blackhead to Patonga.”

I take another long look around, at the scenes of our famously beautiful north coast, of its characters and communities, as she and Robin must have seen them, travelling and making pictures together for half a lifetime.

“There’s a rhythm to it”, she tells my TAFE group, a week later, pounding on the gallery wall with both fists to show them how it plays across a piece. “Art is just like music.”

She takes us on an impromptu tour, revealing the secrets behind each work, explaining the composition and colour theory, sharing her techniques.

“I could hug you,” I say afterwards.

“I’ll take that,” Jocelyn says, and gives me one.

Jocelyn Maughan’s retrospective, Inspirations: Blackhead to Patonga, is on at the Manning Regional Art Gallery until March 25.

Above (from left) Jane Hosking, Rachel Piercy, Jocelyn Maughan and Johnathan Cooper.

Photo by Julie Slavin. Story by Tessa Kerbel.