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Major history book prize winner highlights importance of women in Tasmanian history


Dr Alexander speaks on what inspired The Waking Dream of Art: Patricia Giles, Painter.

A biography of a leading, but overlooked, female Tasmanian contemporary artist is the winner of one of Australia’s most significant history book awards.

The Waking Dream of Art: Patricia Giles, Painter by Dr Alison Alexander (Pillinger Press), has won the Dick and Joan Green Family Award for Tasmanian History. The $25,000 biennial award recognises works that make a significant contribution to our understanding of Tasmania's past.

Judges commented that the biography, which includes 300 fine reproductions of Giles’s paintings, “addresses a significant gap in documentation of the growth of 20th century Tasmanian visual culture”.

Chair of the judging panel historian Professor Kate Darian-Smith, Executive Dean and Pro Vice-Chancellor of the College of Arts, Law and Education at the University of Tasmania, said Dr Alexander’s “rigorous and exhaustive engagement with archival and social sources has resulted in the rich documentation of one of Tasmania's most important but often overlooked female artists.

“This biography offers an intricate study of gender, politics and environmental activism in the mid to late twentieth century, and the influence of these forces on artistic production and cultural life,” Professor Darian-Smith said.

“Giles emerges as a modest woman with an extraordinary strength of mind and purpose in pursuing her career as an artist who opened the eyes of many Tasmanians to the wild beauty of the land around them.

“In awarding the 2022 Dick and Joan Green Family Award for Tasmanian History to Alison Alexander, we recognise the importance of the role of women in Tasmanian history, and the powerful creativity of artists such as Patricia Giles.”

Author and historian Dr Alison Alexander said Patricia Giles inspired people with “a love of the Tasmanian landscape, almost the Tasmanian soul, which she showed so well in her watercolours”.

A seventh-generation Tasmanian, Dr Alexander is the editor of the Companion to Tasmanian History and has written 35 historical works about Tasmania. She was the recipient of the Australian National Biography Award in 2014 for her acclaimed study of Jane Franklin.

Dr Alexander commented that while much of her previous work focuses on the colonial period, “We have got more history than that.”

“My biography on Patricia Giles deals with 20th century, the second half of the twentieth century, which was a time of immense change, in which she (Giles) played an important role.

Giles was born in Hobart in 1932 and loved art from a young age but needed to work, so was only able to attend art school at night. She began full time work as an artist in the 1960s, living, as Dr Alexander said, “Off the smell of an oily rag. She didn’t care about money.

“Giles tried all forms of art, but her great love was watercolour landscapes,” Dr Alexander said.

“Her family, when she was a child, had a shack up at the Great Lake, which was unusual for that period, and she fell in love with the wild landscape up there … where there was no sign of human intervention, just the bush, just the Tasmanian landscape.

“In the 60s, she joined a painting group that included Max Angus and influenced them in this love… She got them going out into the bush as she did, to mountains, to bush, to coast, to cliffs, to paint just exactly what was there and nothing else, with no human imprint.”

Giles’ love of Tasmanian landscape saw her develop a lifelong interest in conservation; she was a strong advocate for the protection of Lake Pedder, later flooded by the Hydro Electric Commission.

“There have been many women artists in Tasmania’s history, there’s not much been written about them, so this is a way of showing that Patricia at least receives her due,” Dr Alexander said. “Art is really vital to our lives and vital to history.”

The book’s title comes from a poem which was written about Giles by James McAuley, well-known poet and former Professor of English at the University of Tasmania.

The judging panel consisted of panel Chair, historian Professor Kate Darian-Smith; Professor Greg Lehman, Pro Vice-Chancellor of Aboriginal Leadership at the University of Tasmania and co-author of the winning book for the same prize in 2020; and Ian Terry, retired historian and former Senior Curator, Cultural Heritage at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

Dr Alexander will discuss her work in the 2023 Dick and Joan Green Family Award for Tasmanian History Lecture.

About the award

The award commemorates the contribution that both the late Joan Green, who passed away in March 2022, and her husband, Dick, made to preserving the heritage of Tasmania. Both Dick and Joan Green were key players in the establishment and ongoing work of the National Trust in Tasmania and have been strong supporters of the arts and many community organisations. Dick Green was a former Mayor of Launceston and served on various boards, while Joan Green was a champion golfer and, for more than 50 years, was a leader and volunteer who contributed to a variety of organisations.

Speaking on behalf of the Green family, Caroline Johnston, one of Dick and Joan's daughters, said her mother was deeply committed to this award and would have been very proud to see Alison Alexander win the third award for Tasmanian history.

“This book provides a very clear yet sensitive portrayal of Patricia Giles as a person, and her work and her love of the Tasmanian landscape,” Ms Johnston said.

“I’d like to extend my congratulations to the winner whose work is a very impressive contribution to the history of Tasmania, recognition of the artist and the arts community. As a family we are deeply grateful to the judging panel for their contribution to the award.”

Other shortlisted authors were: Cassandra Pybus for her deeply researched book Truganini, Journey Through the Apocalypse, and Jock Serong’s evocative novel The Burning Island.

More information about the award is available on the University of Tasmania and Green Family Award websites. View a webinar featuring all shortlistees, and Alison Alexander’s speech.

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Alison Alexander with her award-winning book.