By Dr John Meade
My friend, Kate Daw, died from cancer on 7 September. Kate was Head of the VCA School of Art, in the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, at the University of Melbourne. I first met Kate in 1994 when I was a third-year undergraduate student in Sculpture at the VCA. I had just returned from my first trip to India – six weeks in Rajasthan and my head was spinning. Somehow, I knew that Kate was about to take up a three-month Asialink studio residency in Baroda. I saw her one day just outside the Sculpture yard (she taught in Painting) and I approached her to introduce myself and to talk of India. From that moment we stayed within each others’ psychic radar; we also had the good fortune to travel to India together.
A couple of years later, Kate was awarded an Anne & Gordon Samstag International Visual Art Scholarship and headed to the Glasgow School of Art to begin her MFA. On her return to Melbourne she completed her MFA at RMIT, where, by then, I was doing postgraduate study, and in 1998 Kate and I both started teaching in the RMIT Sculpture department, headed by Robert Owen. The energetic culture in this department proved to be a great training ground for us in the way that it prioritised pedagogy, putting aside staff-time each week for discussions on teaching techniques and strategies. We taught alongside Robert Owen, Peter Cripps, Terri Bird, Aleks Danko, Simon Perry, and Lyndal Jones. It was in this department that the universally popular, or unpopular, subjective/objective critique format was first put into action in Melbourne (introduced via a Dutch exchange student).
Kate and I both returned to the VCA to teach in the early 2000’s. I think we understood the School of Art as our “spiritual home”. Kate commenced her PhD investigating the use of “narrative” and quotation in her paintings and formally laying the groundwork to construct her stories. She could take small gestures, such as Peter Norman’s gentle act of support for his fellow athletes at the 1968 Mexico Summer Olympics, and, with her collaborator and friend Stewart Russell, develop a series of works spanning a decade recounting his story in multiple ways. Amazingly, Kate and Stewart managed to interview Peter Norman before his death. Their major work, A Simple Act, 2007, was acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria. Kate’s love of the quotidian comes through loud and clear in many of her projects, as in when she and Stewart engaged the Horsham Homing Pigeon Club for a work called, The Club, for the group exhibition, A Country Practice, at The Horsham Regional Art Gallery; and in another, influenced by her grandmother, she set up a series of workshops with 17 women from the local CWA during an IASKA residency in Kelliberrin, a Wheatbelt town 200km east of Perth, culminating in a finale parade of giant combine harvesters driving down the main street to the opening of her exhibition.
Her academic research was always directed through her art practice and her voice often reflected her social and moral conscience. Her style was open, curious and caring of others – qualities that deepened her engagement with those in her orbit and it flowed through in her teaching. When she assumed the role of Head of Painting, she transformed her office into a shabby chic salon where you were welcome to laze around and chat. This, is how Kate taught art. She knew how to create the conditions for an exchange to occur – so that each comes away more enriched. She championed students and generously created new opportunities for them. As Head of the School of Art, and now an Associate Professor, Kate brought a similar lightness to the institution. She knew the value of a rich and varied cohort of students and created programs that loosened up access to the School of Art. She had a skill for strategic thinking and her focus, and creative force, was always moving toward a broader vista.
Kate was a powerhouse of energy and she rode on the back of it. This energy supercharged her hope and she wanted it all. And in the balance of her family – Robert, Theo and Camille, a solid art practice spanning over 35 years, and being a great teacher to boot, she sort-of got it all. This breadth enriched her practice because it gave depth to Kate’s story. And so, although we may lament the huge loss of Kate’s passing, we know that, through her, we have all gained.
Dr John Meade is Coordinator Graduate Certificate of Visual Art at the VCA Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, The University of Melbourne. This is an edited version of the piece he wrote for the School of Art’s tribute to Kate Daw.