The second-hand life lessons of artist Mirka Mora

Interview by Madeleine Dore
&
Art by Amelia Goss 
Photographs courtesy of Melbourne University Press


“There was nobody, and there never will be, anyone like Mirka Mora,” says Lesley Harding, artistic director at Heide Museum of Modern Art.

Few would disagree. There was something about the artist and Melbourne icon that seemed to place her so firmly in the present moment that the world around her appeared fantastical.

“She was an incredible mix of wisdom, cheekiness, and childhood innocence,” says Harding.

“She was the kind of person who could light up a room and will always have a legion of fans because she had a gift for making everyone feel special.”

From a distance, I have long been curious about Mirka’s creative process and daily life. How does someone flourish into their being so completely and create such an impressive body of work in one lifetime?

Having known and worked alongside the beloved artist since 2006 and recently co-authored the book, Mirka & Georges: A Culinary Affair with her colleague Kendrah Morgan, Harding generously offered some posthumous insight.

“There was a pattern to her week, but it wasn't prescribed,” she says. “Mirka had busy hands – she was drawing or making incessantly, and this was her true vocation.”

Daily life was interwoven with her art. “What you see on the canvas or on a sketchbook page are musings about her life and the world around her. Her art is like a visual diary, blending her thoughts and feelings about the human condition, about the miracle of survival, about family and love and happiness and joy and life.”

Ahead of the current exhibition Mirka Mora: Pas de Deux – Drawings and Dolls, Harding and Morgan recently shared their own personal observations about Mirka’s rhythm of living, her whimsical inner-life and the wisdom therein.

Mirka Mora,  Little Girl Dreaming of Red Birds , 2014, oil on canvas, private collection, Melbourne

Mirka Mora, Little Girl Dreaming of Red Birds, 2014, oil on canvas, private collection, Melbourne

On a daily rhythm and connection…

Being an artist can be a very solitary existence, so Mirka’s contact with other people energised her for going back into the studio. Every time she went up the street it would take her ages to get home as she would be talking to people and patting their dogs and commenting on their children while holding an armful of whatever she had been shopping for that day – delicious food or a fabulous book that she had found. There was a rhythm and a pattern to her way of living, but her routines weren’t rigidly structured.

There was a rhythm and a pattern to her way of living, but her routines weren’t rigidly structured.
Mirka c.1955, photography by Athol Schmith, courtesy of Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art

Mirka c.1955, photography by Athol Schmith, courtesy of Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art

On finding the flow…

Mirka talked about how she lost track of time when she was painting or making art. She would enter this other level of consciousness and her mind and hands were working together as one in a kind of flow, and everything else seemed to disappear. This is often an incredibly motivating sensation for artists, and it certainly was for Mirka. Other people may take pleasure in cooking, reading, gardening or exercise in a similar way.

On mindful daydreaming…

She would enter this other level of consciousness and her mind and hands were working together as one in a kind of flow, and everything else seemed to disappear.

At theatre school in Paris after the Second World War Mirka learnt a kind of meditation technique called rêve éveillé (waking dream) which she used throughout her life. She would go to a place where her fantasies, fears and whatever was happening in daily life could be conjured up and these imaginings became a source of material for her art. It was almost like dreaming while awake and conscious, as if there was a film running through her head.

Mirka Mora,  In the Garden of Dreams , 1975-81

Mirka Mora, In the Garden of Dreams, 1975-81

On a commitment to listening and the present moment…

In conversation, Mirka had an amazing ability to make you feel like you were the most important person in that moment, or in that room, or at that time. She was very wise, very observant, and had this capacity to quickly get to the heart of the matter and sum things—or people— up in an uncannily perceptive way. She would listen and say, ‘but of course, this is how it is’ and the situation or dilemma would somehow snap into focus. Mirka was deeply thoughtful, sensitive and reflective as well as entertaining and playful. She was really one out of the box.

On allowing the moment to linger…

After a visit to her studio, we would always offer to clean up the cups and plates of leftover cakes and she would always say, ‘Non, mes chéries, I just want to sit with them for a while and think about our conversation.’ Those times are some of our fondest memories of her. She would walk us out and wave goodbye from her balcony and keep waving until we were out of sight.

After a visit to her studio, we would always offer to clean up the cups and plates of leftover cakes and she would always say, ‘Non, mes chéries, I just want to sit with them for a while and think about our conversation.’

On art at the centre…  

Mirka really came into her own in the 1950s, soon after she moved to Melbourne from France with her husband Georges. She had survived the Holocaust but lost her childhood, so Australia represented a new beginning which translated into this incredible zest for life. She wasn't going to miss a moment. Although she soon had three young boys and worked at the Moras’ cafes and restaurants, she had an amazing energy and capacity for her artistic practice. Later on, life fitted in around her art making. When she was really hitting her stride, art was the constant and she would start the day with hours of drawing, before eating or any other activity. 

On feeling things very keenly…

Some people just flow through life and feelings wash over them, but Mirka was not that kind of person. She felt emotional pain acutely, but equally experienced happiness and love in a heightened way. Maybe people who feel the high-highs and low-lows have a richer life, or maybe a more problematic life. But Mirka never shied away from intense feeling and was very emotionally honest.

The only predictable thing about Mirka was her unpredictability.

On leaving a lasting impression…

Mirka admitted to us that she would deflect any sense of anxiety of performing back onto an audience by doing something unexpected or outrageous or simply naughty. During one event at Heide she managed to convince most of the women present to remove their bras and wave them around! Her derriere and ‘boosies’, as she would call them, were fairly regularly displayed in public, and she wasn’t beyond lifting up someone’s skirt to see if they had anything on underneath. It is well known that on her birthdays she would plant her face in the cake and say that anyone who didn’t eat a slice didn’t love her. The only predictable thing about Mirka was her unpredictability.


More

Read Mirka & Georges: A Culinary Affair

See Mirka Mora: Pas de Deux – Drawings and Dolls at Heidel Museum of Modern Art until 24 March 2019

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