Miriam Stannage is a highly regarded Australian painter, photographer and printmaker who has been creating art for over 50 years. Her work is characterised by its references to the Western Australian landscape and a desire to challenge social conceptions.
Miriam was born in Northam in 1939 and moved to Perth with her family at the age of five. Miriam recalls looking through large illustrated books of famous European paintings as a child, while her father explained the stories behind them. She left school at 15 and took courses at a business school, finding work as a secretary. During her late teens she spent two years studying nursing before deciding to continue with office work until 1961, when she travelled to Europe, Canada and the USA. She visited major art galleries along the way, revitalising her love for art.
Not long after her return, Miriam took up night classes in art, beginning her education with William Boissevain. She enjoyed the work, but it was not until she began to take classes with painter Henry Froudist in 1965 that her passion for art deepened. Froudist’s professional, encouraging approach inspired her greatly. “I couldn’t stop painting, and I haven’t stopped since.” In 1965, despite only a few years as a budding artist, Miriam opened her own art space – the Rhode Gallery. For around 18 months, she displayed and sold pieces from artists across Australia.
Miriam sees Froudist’s death in 1969 as a catalyst for the beginnings of her independent career as an artist and her first solo exhibition was held that year at the Old Fire Station Gallery in Perth. The following year she won the Albany Art Prize with an abstract piece, judged by art historian Bernard Smith. Her profile as an artist was propelled instantly and she was awarded studio space at the prestigious Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris for seven months. Her time in Paris caused a breakthrough in thinking for Miriam and she returned full of inspiration.
Miriam began to teach art at universities and technical colleges and taught art therapy in various hospitals as she continued her own personal journey as an artist. Her perspective on art began to expand and so did the way she worked. A trip to Europe in 1979 with her husband – painter and educator Tom Gibbons – happened to coincide with the anniversary of the invention of photography, and exhibitions were scattered across Venice. Yet again, an overseas trip sparked a new interest in Miriam and she took up photography upon her return.
She has since created and exhibited numerous photography series, with a particular focus on words and symbolism. She has taken risks with her photography, often handcolouring her photographs and creating collages. A major exhibition of Miriam’s early photography work was held in 1993 at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, entitled Words on the Landscape.
A number of themes have run steadily through Miriam’s works from the beginning: her religious upbringing, a fascination with war and conflict, sexuality, humour, and the way that humans see the world. In recent years, she has focused on surveillance and crime, particularly following the events of September 11. But it is the Australian landscape that is most prominent throughout the artist’s work, which Miriam puts down to her early years in the country. The artist has spent her life travelling between the city and country, taking numerous trips to the bush alone in an old campervan. In 2000, Miram spent a month as artist-in-residence at the International Artist Space in Kellerberrin, where she created work related to the land and her family.
In 1989, the Art Gallery of Western Australia held a retrospective of Miriam’s works dating back to the late 1960s. In 1998, Miriam was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Curtin University and in 2006, an exhibition showcasing her work from 1989-2005 was held at the John Curtin Gallery.
Miriam’s work has been showcased in group and solo exhibitions across Australia and is held in State galleries including the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. She has influenced many young artists through her work and teachings. Though she never set out to become an artist, she “can’t think of anything else.”