“In her reconfiguration – indeed disconfiguration – of the human body, she proved a catalyst for one of the most significant shifts in Australian visual history.”
Joy St Clair Hester was born on 21 August 1920 in Melbourne, Australia.
In 1936 Joy completed one year of an art-and-crafts course at Brighton Technical School.
Hester studied drawing at the National Gallery School in Melbourne from 1937 to 1938, winning a prize for a life study at the annual students competition.
As a student at the National Gallery School, she quickly discovered that painting killed the nervy impulses that electrified her art. She abandoned course, preferring to attend life-drawing classes at the Victorian Artists Society, Melbourne.
She first exhibited in exhibition of the Contemporary Art Society in 1938.
Between 1938 and 1947 Hester was part of a stimulating and innovative circle of painters— Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Danila Vassilieff, Yosl Bergner and John Perceval—which was colloquially known as the 'Angry Penguins', after the art and literary magazine of the same name published by John Reed and Max Harris. She was the only woman artist in the group.
Joy Hester married fellow artist Albert Tucker in 1941 and they had a son, Sweeney, in 1945.
Hester and Tucker were supported by the arts patrons and collectors John and Sunday Reed, living at the Reed’s home in the area associated with the famous Heidelberg school group of artists.
Sunday was Hester's closest friend, encouraging her work, supporting her financially and later adopting her first son Sweeney.
For the rest of her life, she devoted herself almost exclusively to drawing with brush and ink on paper. It was an unusual choice, one that she developed with great skill through her brief career. During her lifetime her art received little attention. Drawing was not valued as highly as oil painting and was seen as preparatory to the finished work of art. Australian art favored men like Nolan who made big statements about national identity on canvas in paint.
If the Angry Penguins described a social world riven by war, Hester charted more intimate emotions. She focused on potent expressions of the human figure, using drawing as a vehicle to grasp life in all its complexity. She chose the human face as her motif, focusing on the eyes. Intense emotions and psychological states were registered with quick, sure, expressionist strokes. Hester was unafraid to explore subjects considered highly provocative during her lifetime: love, sex, birth, and death.
After her diagnosis with Hodgkin’s disease in 1947, Hester left Tucker and their young son for a new life with the artist and poet Gray Smith. Gray was young artist, working in a picture framing business at the back of his mothers’ shop, with a wife and small child, frequent seizures and no time to really paint and live. Joy and Gray were drawn to each other, drawn to escape.
Joy and Gray returned to Victoria in 1948, living in the countryside around Melbourne at Hurstbridge.
Hester held her first solo exhibition at the Melbourne Book Club Gallery in 1950.
Individually Joy and Gray developed their own unique styles and art practice. Joy experienced her most prolific time as an artist during this time. But her artistic search for identity was more personal. In the Love series, c. 1949-50, her balloon face floats and merges with face of Gray Smith, six years later, in Lovers [II], it cranes and flexes free. Lovers [II] is clearly one of Hester’s most accomplished works. As in many other of her images of the human face, the artist eliminated features such as the nose in order to focus on the eyes and expressive qualities of the whole. Her mastery of drawing with a brush is evident in the way she beautifully delineates the heads and torsos of the joined female and male figures, combining dramatic contrast with immensely subtle washes of grey.
Hester was unusually attuned to pain and suffering - the world's and her own. With her own face often masked in rubber for radiation treatment, these Faces are reduced to pairs of eyes boldly outstaring death. Hester's was never an art of victimhood. Hester's drawings suck the oxygen from the air, providing some of the clearest-eyed images in Australian art.
Despite her prognosis, she had two children with Smith. In Mother and Baby series, 1955, her stalk-like eyes regard her cradled child Fern with a mixture of wonder and wariness - a sense that what is held to the heart could just as easily be snatched away. With Hester's heightened sense of mortality, even Girl Holding Flowers, 1956, takes on a sense of urgency, as if she could be drawing her last breath. She was in remission from Hodgkin's disease until 1956, when the symptoms re-appeared.
Figure with scales 1957 grafts this psychological intensity onto a highly personal episode from a period spent in the rural area of Avonsleigh outside Melbourne where she and Smith eked out a living on the land, growing crops and keeping chickens. After a spell of warm weather, and without refrigeration, the newly slaughtered birds began to decay, the scheme ending in disaster, as evoked in this surreal image characterized by a dream-like strangeness that charges a simple, everyday subject with poetic and emotional force.
During her last years she lived at Box Hill, where she had her first studio. There she produced her largest drawings and, for the first time, began regularly signing and dating her work. The image of a large-eyed child, holding an animal, dominated this period.
Divorced on 14 April 1959, Hester married Gray Smith on 11 November that year She spent increasingly long periods in hospital and died on 4 December 1960.