Born: 1921 Heyfield
Ailsa was the middle daughter of Ralph Donaldson and Margaret David. Ralph Donaldson was both an innovative and inventive person. He married Margaret David from Maldon. Margaret's father was one of the many Welsh miners that had settled in the district. Not long after their marriage Ralph went away to the First World War, fought at Gallipoli and was lucky enough to be able to return to Australia. His first daughter, Joy, was born while he was
away and she was about three years old by the time he returned. They moved to Heyfield in the Gippsland region where Ralph's family lived and he obtained work at the Heyfield Butter Factory. Ailsa was born in 1921 and some years later her younger sister, Shirley, was born. They lived there for approximately nine to ten years. Ailsa would have almost certainly gone to the local primary school.
In either 1930 or 1931 the family moved to Portland. Shortly afterwards Ralph established a bakery which was very successfully run by both him and Margaret. Ailsa attended the Portland Elementary School, and for a short time the Portland High School. Her older sister, Joy, had developed a 'bad leg'. thought to have been infected from a cut while swimming. The ulceration that followed became a major medical problem necessitating frequent trips to specialists in Melbourne. Ralph and Margaret wanted the girls to have an education and were aware that Ailsa was an excellent student who adored school as also having an artistic inclination.
Ralph and Margaret took the plunge and purchased a bakery in Chelsea. It was a bad decision and after a very short period decided to cut their losses and they moved to Mudgee. Joy and Ailsa stayed in Melbourne boarding at a Presbyterian Hostel, and later sharing a flat with other girls somewhere along The Boulevard. Ailsa in her later writings described her parents as 'self-educated people who worked in bakery businesses throughout the depression years, trying to afford education for their daughters. Things were hard but as a family we took an interest in the world.' Ailsa, many years later explained to her daughter, Megan, that drawing was not just a choice but something that she had to do. So it seems natural enough that in 1937 she went on to do a general art course at Melbourne Technical College on a four year technical scholarship which paid a allowance of seven pounds per term plus fees. It took her two years and also within that time she undertook the extra burden of evening classes for a teaching course and an extra fine arts course. In 1939 she completed her teacher training at Melbourne Teachers College. It was also during 1939 she undertook some Saturday classes at the George Bell School and there she met Vie O'Connor, her husband-to-be. At the age of 19 she was teaching large wartime classes at the notorious 'Brunny' Tech (Brunswick Technical School) where one of her students was Leonard French.
During 1938 she was an inaugural member of the newly founded Contemporary Art Society. Ailsa described her work at that time as 'a very simplified kind of post expressionism with a little touch of Surrealism thrown in.'
The first waves of immigrants fleeing Hitler's Germany were arriving including academics, musicians composers and artists. The artists bringing with them first rate collections of modern German art containing an earthy expressionism that seemed to be lacking in Australia. Ailsa described herself at this point in time being 'avid for art'. The new information on what was happening in Europe was devoured by the art movement here.
In 1942 Ailsa married Vie O'Connor. That same year the affects of the war were impacting on Ailsa. She totally identified with the suffering of women experiencing the war overseas. Her anxiety and compassion flowed onto paper and many crayon drawings evolved. She exhibited some of these with the Contemporary Art Society in their 'Anti-Fascist Exhibition'. She was the only woman exhibitor and managed to achieve a little publicity via a 'Bulletin' critic.
Her son Sean was born in 1944, and although the birth was anticipated with joy, Ailsa was not prepared for motherhood and found the adjustment 'traumatic'.
In 1945 she participated in the 'Australia at War' exhibition and won the prize for the 'Women in Industry' section. The painting was based on the young factory girls of Richmond and Brunswick going home from their factory jobs whom she identified with the Russian women workers who were heroically standing up to the fascists. She thought 'she was made'. Decades later, in May 1976 in a talk she gave at the 'Women’s Art Forum' she admitted there were not many entrants in that section.
The affect of the depression, war, fascism, social injustice turned both Vie and Ailsa towards embracing the Communist philosophies and regarded their art as a way of communicating to the world the injustices of poverty witnessed. She and Vie were both admirers of Picasso, Gropper, Braque, Evergood and for Ailsa above all, Kollwitz. Kaethe Kollwitz, a German Realist artist (1867-1945), was to remain a major influence on her throughout her life. She first saw Kaethe's lithographs in 1942 and they had an immediate emotional impact on her. Kaethe's husband was a doctor in Germany working amongst the socially under privileged and she drew what she saw - gaunt, sad and hungry people.
Ailsa, in 1972, presented an illustrated talk on Kollwitz at a 'Women in the Arts' meeting and described her as perhaps the greatest woman artist in history. For a short time there existed the Kaethe Kollwitz Club, a sporadic Saturday afternoon life drawing club. Kaethe Kollwitz is still comparatively unknown in Australia to this day.
Ailsa's daughter Megan was born in 1946. The early child rearing days caused Ailsa to feel a loss of identity as an artist. She turned her energies to the political struggles of the time and focussed her attention on the problems of women in the home and factories. She stated 'in that way I tried to fob off my inner guilt at deserting temporarily my real love - art.' She remained an activist among women for nine years, though still painting and exhibiting intermittently.
Towards the end of the 1940s she was part of a group dubbed the 'Social Realists'. Initially she was the only woman but MaryHammond joined shortly afterwards. Mary at the time was also a student at the National Gallery School. The dubbed 'Social Realists' included Bergner, Counihan, O'Connor, Wigley and Rust, etc. and ran parallel to the abstract expressionism phase and the antipodeans. The realists were a counter-stream, almost underground within the art world, officially ignored, yet their work selling well to a section of the public. Their Sydney counterparts consisted of artists such as James Cant, Missingham, Dalgarno and Dora Chapman.
In 1950 the Union of Australian Women (UAW) was formed and shortly thereafter Ailsa became their secretary. The aims of the UAW were to preserve peace and to co-operate with women in all countries who had similar aims.
In 1953 she attended the World Congress of Women in
Copenhagen as the Victorian Delegate. She also visited Romania and Poland. She arrived back home in Australia fired with enthusiasm to set up a child art exchange. Whilst in Copenhagen she had the
opportunity to meet with many of our Asian neighbours, and felt they had much to offer Australians. Ailsa felt she could contribute given her past art teaching experience and her contacts, and after consulting a diversity of people she concluded that an interchange with South East Asia was the most desirable. So was born the Asian Australian Child Art Exchange (AACAE). Ailsa with the help of friends and associates put her heart and soul into the proj ect and put in three years of effort. Also in 1953 she won the May Day Art Prize for her painting of French women in Toulon opposing the sending of arms to Vietnam.
Back in 1945 Ailsa had much admired a work by Tina Wentcher titled 'Bessarabian Boy', a small pewter head which was in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. (This work is now assumed to have been stolen.) During the fifties Ailsa met Tina. This was a momentous meeting for Ailsa as Tina had not just known
Kaethe Kollwitz but had been a friend. There was now a direct link to the art stream of German expressionism that was so influential to Ailsa.
In 1955 she returned to full-time art teaching within the state secondary system. In her words 'to bolster up a home that was coming apart'. She taught until 1970, completing her time with the department as headmistress of Moorabbin High School.
During her fifties and sixties she exhibited on a regular basis with contemporaries Noel Counihan, Mary Hammond, Herbert McLintock, Vie O'Connor and James Wigley. In 1961 Ailsa took advantage through the Education Department to extend her art training. She did a Diploma of Sculpture course, and in the years that followed primarily concentrated in that medium. In 1965 she undertook a Fellowship Diploma of Sculpture at Melbourne University.
During the fifties and sixties there was a general denigration of figurative art and Ailsa knew that those who contributed in that mode, and this included herself, were apt to be regarded as morons. Ailsa was obstinate and absolutely convinced that figurative art was not obsolete. To her a new kind of person was emerging that no other artist had ever portrayed. A new look was taking place. Females were emerging in
their own right. Germaine Greer's 'The Female Eunuch' precipitated an awakening of our potential. We were taking a good look at ourselves, re-assessing. A stronger and more optimistic woman was emerging. Ailsa wanted to encompass the new emergence and that became evidenced in her sculptures.
In 1971 she went overseas spending a good deal of time in Italy and Greece. That same year she had a joint exhibition with Mary Hammond and by 1972 was able to commit herself to sculpture full time.
In 1975 Ailsa had her first solo exhibition of sculpture and drawings at the Russell Davis Gallery.
In 1977 she took part in a trip to China organised by the Victoria Print Guild. For Ailsa the highlight was a exhibition of satirical works of the highest quality.'For wit, brilliant drawing, sophisticated technique, they would be hard to beat anywhere.'
In 1978 she exhibited at a group exhibition at the McClelland Regional Gallery. In 1979 she went to Italy and remained there for
eight months. Also in 1979 she was awarded the City Council Invitation Art Award. She also had a joint exhibition with Mary Hammond at the Trades Hall Gallery.
Ailsa died of cancer in early 1980. Throughout her life she wrote and it was her dying wish that her papers be published. Her papers were sorted by her son Sean and daughter Megan and with the help of friends they collated and compiled the book titled 'Ails a O'Connor Unfinished Work'.
In 1971 Julie Cope land had met Ailsa in Greece. Julie wrote a lovely and fitting forward for the publication and an extract from that says it all.
"In her unassuming way, Ailsa O'Connor was one of the most 'involved' people I have ever known. Her response to individuals and society was the product of a sensitivity which, unlike that of many of our friends and colleagues, never became cynical, never said, 'It's hopeless,' never gave up believing the world could be a better place."
Source: Megan and Sean O'Connor
"Ailsa O'Connor - Unfinished Work"