Never too late: ‘I was one of the oldest ones there, and I also had no hair. But it was wonderful’


Name: Allison Barnes

Age: 62

Public servant turned visual artist

When I left school I trained as a teacher. Back in those days, teaching was what girls from the country did: teaching or nursing.

When I graduated, in the early 80s, there were no jobs for teachers at all. There was a recession. I was underemployed for years; did casual teaching, worked in a bank, cleaned houses, did screen printing at a factory, sold photographs in Kings Cross, worked in catering and as a security guard. Then finally I got a job in the public service, at the Royal Australian Mint, in Canberra. When I was there I heard of the Office of the Status of Women and I thought “I want to do that”. I managed to get transferred to Office and I worked there for about eight years. That was, for me, a very big break. Following that I worked in policy and research for all of my career, in a whole lot of different areas in the public service.

I thought to myself, if that’s the best thing I can say about this, why am I here?
It was great. I could work on really interesting things. I really loved it. While I was working, I became aware of how little superannuation women had, so I decided that I would try to make sure that my own retirement income was OK. I always intended to go at 55, when I was allowed to access my super. When I got to 55 I had done 30 years, and that felt like plenty. I felt like a change and I took up a redundancy package.

It wasn’t like I had a big plan about what I was going to do after I retired. Initially I started teaching English to new migrants. Doing environmental weeding. I participated in a refugee action committee. I did repairs and things around the house. I also started on a graduate certificate of environmental science at ANU. However, when I got to uni I found not having a background in science at all was difficult. So I wasn’t enjoying it. I withdrew.

I travelled overseas, and while I was away I found I had a lump in my breast. When we got back, for six months I underwent surgery, chemotherapy, radiation – you know, the whole shebang. Cancer is quite an isolating thing. Your friends are very supportive, but at the end of the day, it’s just you that it’s happening to. You’re the one who sits there having chemo. You’re the one who loses their hair. When I finished radiation I took up a short-term contract to make myself feel a bit normal. I was coming out of work after four or five weeks, and I was thinking “It’s so wonderful to be leaving work in the daylight!” And then I thought to myself, if that’s the best thing I can say about this, why am I here?

That’s when I enrolled in CIT [Canberra Institute of Technology] for a certificate IV in visual arts. It was just great. Probably about three-quarters of my class were under 25. I was one of the oldest ones there, and I also had no hair. But it was really, actually, wonderful.

I stayed on at CIT and started the diploma. By the time I completed it I had lots of artwork, so I applied for ANU art school and was offered a place in print and drawing. This year I’m starting honours.

When you leave work you’re usually an expert in whatever you did. Then you start something new and everyone is younger than you, they know more than you do, they’re probably better at risk-taking, I think they’re better educated. It’s easy to feel intimidated. But remember you have skills that you’ll be able to build on.

I had never done printmaking. I’d never done drawing, really. What art I had done, I hadn’t done since I was in high school. Two or three times I had enrolled in night-time art courses, but it was just really difficult. About half of the time I wasn’t able to leave work in time to make the classes. Periodically I’d do a little bit at home, but I didn’t do anything really.

When I’m working hard on something it’s pretty much all I think of.
When I was in the public service, you’re writing cabinet submissions and things like that. You might write something, but up the line other people decide what goes in and what goes out. It’s not yours. No matter what you’re working on, it’s public policy and you don’t own it in any way. Art, on the other hand, to borrow an idea from Marxism, it’s like doing “un-alienated labour” – when the product of your labour is the thing you own.

I’ve been in a couple of exhibitions. It’s quite an affirming thing to see your work exhibited. Your friends see it, and that’s really nice. When it’s shown in public, and particularly when it’s been selected to be shown in public, it says that someone else thinks it’s worth looking at.

Art gives me a different place in the world. A different place to look at the world from. When I’m working hard on something it’s pretty much all I think of. It’s very all-consuming. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it, and how I’ll do things.

One of the things it really does give me is a real sense of joy. When I’m making stuff, and I’m hard at it, I feel very joyous.