Vale Rose Slivka

Here’s a piece by Jane Burns in honour of a significant figure in the 20th century craft scene:

Vale Rose Slivka. I can imagine some readers saying Rose who? From my knowledge of her I am sure there could not be two Rose Slivkas. She was a writer of lyrical prose, a poet, an eccentric, a New Yorker who lived in a marvelous loft in Soho and who was the proud mother of Charlotte and Mark. When she came to Australia in 1973 at the invitation of the then Crafts Council of Australia, the two young Slivkas came also, and among the too numerous stories of the Rose Slivka visit was one I will always remember. I got a phone call at an unusual hour in Sydney having seen Rose and entourage safely on the plane to Tasmania earlier in the afternoon. “Jane… I’m suffering some culture shock here. Am I still in Australia?” It’s a good thing to remember now that thirty years ago Australia was another country in almost every sense.

Rose Slivka died in 2004 at the age of 85. She was accorded an obituary in the New York Times which was headed Writer and Champion of Crafts as Fine Art. Although it is now three years since her death it is fitting that we in Australia should join with eminent writers and artists in the US and Europe in acknowledging the influence she had on international contemporary crafts over more than thirty years and at such a critical point in modern practice.

Also now in 2007, at this time of change in the incumbent Federal Government in Canberra, it is significantly fitting to be reminded of 1973, when the Whitlam Government re-fashioned the Australia Council and gave key arts policy responsibilities to artists and arts administrators with deep knowledge and understanding of needs in specific art forms. Marea Gazzard, a long time friend of Rose Slivka, was appointed the Chair of the Crafts Board of the Australia Council. It made perfect sense for her to seek Rose’s advice on publication policy and, in collaboration with the Crafts Council of Australia, to use her presence in Australia ‘to act as catalyst for stimulating discussion on crafts writing and specifically for Craft Australia’, the then fledgling crafts journal in Australia. In terms of stars of her time it would be the equivalent now of asking a contemporary hot property writer to take time out of busy life and other commitments for three weeks in Australia, no fee but all expenses paid, to give public talks and hold meetings in all states. Bonds of friendship counted hugely in those times and so down-under Rose came. The journey gave her a hearty respect for Australia and she maintained strong links till her retirement from Craft Horizons in the 1980s when among other outlets she began writing for Art in America.

One of her prominent contemporaries in the USA is the textile designer and writer Jack Lenor Larsen. He pronounced Rose a prophet. Lenor Larsen writes, “Single handedly and blind to both opposition and indifference Rose pulled us into art” She saw the contemporary crafts (as opposed to traditional crafts) as mainstream as art. In Grace Cochrane’s History of the Craft Movement in Australia, Rose is quoted as writing in the 1940s: “.We are as we must be, irretrievably an industrial society. What has happened is this: the crafts have realised their own distinct, necessary and rightful place in it – not in conflict with it, not absorbed into it – but existing within the larger structure, true to their own identity, and to their own continuity. We are not harking back to old methods; we are creating new values in an entirely new situation…” This clarity of thought is why it is well for Rose Slivka to be remembered, and for those of us lucky enough to have personal fond memories, it is a time to re-read her writing and to recall her endearing eccentricity. She is one of the distinct characters in the international history of contemporary crafts.

Jane Burns, AM
Founding Director Crafts Council of Australia

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