'Things that have a
long way to go'

A biography of Kate Coolahan



(b. Sydney, 1929). Painter, printmaker and teacher. STUDIES: Sydney, East Sydney Technical College, 1945-50. She migrated to N.Z. in 1952. REPRESENTED: Australian National Gallery; Canberra; Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launcestown.
[Alan McCulloch, Encyclopedia of Australian Art (Volume One). Victoria: Hutchison Group, 1984, p.235.]

Kate Coolahan was born in 1929, in Sydney.(1) Coolahan's father, Roderick Castle, was a printer, a specialist in colour, who worked for Warwick Fairfax, with whom he had served in the First World War. Her mother, Dorothy Vera Evans, was a housewife, the first generation of working class women who didn't go out to work.

Coolahan attended Middle Harbour kindergarten and primary school, and then Neutral Bay Girls Junior High, from which she graduated at the age of 14. After being told by her father that the family could not afford to support her through tertiary education, Coolahan settled on a five year illustration course at the East Sydney Technical College. In 1945 the East Sydney Technical College was a thriving institution, affected firstly by the influx of Jewish refugees who fled to Sydney before the war, bringing European modernism with them; and secondly by the return of soldiers from World War Two, many of whom attended East Sydney as part of their rehabilitation. As The Encyclopedia of Australian Art notes, 'with the decline of Julian Ashton's school in the 1930s, [East Sydney] became the leading art school in New South Wales, with a long list of distinguished artist teachers consolidating its prestige for nearly four decades.'(2)

Kate Coolahan, The Orongorongo
River Bed
c. 1970
Black-and-white photograph

Against the backdrop of her five-year Associate course, which covered all aspects of the arts, and from which she graduated with honours,(3) Coolahan was exposed to a wide variety of artistic philosophies and shifting social mores. Bauhaus teachings were part of the school's curriculum, taught by Bauhaus graduates like Peter Kaisler, while Coolahan remembers talking with older students like the artist Roy Dalgamo about communism, and Einsteinian physics. There was a sudden awareness of the worldwide culture of humanity. Returned servicemen, such as her soon-to-be husband, Max Coolahan, exposed the female students of the school to marginalised and off-limit spaces such as brothels, the wharves, and bars. The evidence, as Coolahan saw it, of the psychological and physical damage of World War Two, was played out against the back-drop of shifting attitudes towards the roles of women, effectively set in place by wartime conditions, and the new opportunities this created.

Artists such as Sydney Nolan, Tony Tuckson, William Dobel, Fred Williams, and various members of the Boyd family, were connected with East Sydney Technical College as students and staff, but it was James Cook (Rita Angus's brother-in-law), the art history lecturer, who introduced Coolahan to the Sydney University theatre, for whom she painted backdrops, and the Contemporary Art Society, with whom she exhibited.(4) It was Cook again who introduced her to the Notanda Gallery, a modernist dealer gallery where Coolahan worked for a time, becoming further involved in the Sydney contemporary art scene. Coolahan's first sale was an 'Antipodean' painting combining native plant life and European fruit. Banksia and Lemons (c. 1949) was bought by Prime Minister Evatt from the Contemporary Art Society for the Australian Embassy in Washington.

Kate Coolahan
(third from right, back row) with the
Drawing Class,
East Sydney Technical College 1943


Shortly after graduating, Kate married a fellow student (a returned serviceman) and worked to support him while he completed his training. Kate laughs now as she recalls how unusual it was then for a woman to support her husband when 'a woman's place is in the home' was the unquestionable tradition.

Kate worked for a time in a Sydney gallery, doing graphics, fashion and promotional work, then in 1952 she saw an advertisement for a three month, fares-paid, job in New Zealand. Kate and her husband saw the job as an opportunity for her to have a holiday and she took it. After living in cosmopolitan Sydney, New Zealand was astounding; the scenery here won Kate's heart; she sent a telegram to her husband, telling him to sell everything and come over, and they made their home in Wellington.

The art-field in New Zealand at that time was not as 'avant-garde' as she had been accustomed to, but Kate was working for a firm which hired her in order to change the standard of work and she remembers that as a real struggle. Kate was the only woman in the studio and at this stage she found men more helpful than otherwise: 'Perhaps they didn't consider me a threat then.'(5)

Coolahan graduated from East Sydney Technical College in 1950, and began working as an illustrator for Farmers and Company in Sydney. More like Kirkcaldie and Stains in Wellington than Farmers Trading Company here, Coolahan marketed designer goods to the luxury Australian market, and was specifically responsible for fashion, children's hairdressing, and the in-house Blaxland Galleries. Coolahan did not simply produce illustrations, but developed themed campaigns for newspapers, as well as the luxury catalogue Farmers published annually. Coolahan also created catalogues and advertising for the Blaxland Galleries, which exhibited European modernists such as Pablo Picasso. Objects that became available in Wellington in the 1950s through retail outlets such as Stocktons in Woodward Street (British and Japanese studio pottery; Scandinavian design) had been available in Australia through outlets like Farmers for 20 years, and Coolahan developed an appreciation for modernist design that supplemented her knowledge of contemporary Australian art.

Advertising brought Coolahan to New Zealand. In 1952 she was offered a job by J. Inglis Wright and, because of her husband's health problems, she decided to take it, capitalising on Wellington's more relaxed lifestyle. Inglis Wright intended to utilise Coolahan's knowledge of the high-end luxury market to draw business away from Carlton Carruthers de Chateau and King, who cornered the fashion advertising market in this country. Arriving for a three-month trial period, which was then extended to a permanent contract, Coolahan was met by the managing director of J. Inglis Wright, Frederick Page from Victoria University, and Geoff Datson from the Architectural Centre Gallery, then the foremost modernist exhibition venue in Wellington.

Trevally c. 1965
Synthesic polymer paint,
575 x 875 mm.
(Mona Edgar Collection,
Hocken Library, Dunedin)

It's easy to see Coolahan as yet another artist coming from a sophisticated milieu to a provincial backwater, something I've written about in relation to the artist Helen Stewart as a kind of stock myth.(6) It is true that Coolahan experienced significant differences between Sydney and Wellington, and that Australia represented an advanced option in learning about modernism over New Zealand - this is indeed why artists such as Stewart went there. Coolahan met a lot of these artists through James and Ruth Cook, who were well-connected in the New Zealand scene - along with Stewart, Coolahan remembers Alison Pickmere and Rita Angus passing through Sydney. Another example of this trans-Tasman trade is Avis Higgs, who also brought a radical consciousness back with her that was out of place in the climate of 1950s Wellington.(7) But it is also true that Wellington in the 1950s did offer a number of venues and groups through which an artist could express modernist tendencies, even if these tendencies didn't match what was occurring internationally or even across the Tasman.

Coolahan's knowledge of modernism didn't get expressed through the making of art. A working woman, Coolahan had no time to produce her own work during this decade; and her sophisticated illustration and advertising work, while grounded in her knowledge of European modernism gleaned from East Sydney Tech, didn't have any impact on the art world. Coolahan's main contribution to avant-garde circles in Wellington during the 1950s was through her work with the Architectural Centre Gallery. In 1957, for example, Coolahan organised an exhibition of Maori art at the Architectural Centre Gallery, a project that sprung from her work with the Dominion Museum, and the ethnologist Terrence Barrow.(8) In 1958, the Auckland City Art Gallery-sponsored British Abstract Painting exhibition, which was rejected by the National Art Gallery, was displayed at the Architectural Centre Gallery, and because the show was too big to display at once, additional paintings were stored at Coolahan's house, and rotated every few days. It was on such intellectual levels that Coolahan's engagement with avant-garde ideas picked up during her education and experiences in Australia were expressed, and this curatorial work, rather than art production, marks the continuity between her contact with the Contemporary Art Society in Sydney, and her involvement with modernist ideals and philosophies in New Zealand.


In 1964 and 1965 Coolahan was included in the Contemporary New Zealand Painting exhibitions organised by the Auckland City Art Gallery. The 1965 exhibition catalogue, for example, records that she showed two acrylic on hardboard paintings titled Tree Tomato and Trevally.(9) The early 1960s were characterised by an increasing amount of creative activity from Coolahan, as the pressures of career shifted direction somewhat, and her work as a designer for companies like James Smiths and Carlton Carruthers Chateau and King gave way in favour of teaching at the Wellington Polytechnic School of Design. Her inclusion in the Contemporary New Zealand Painting exhibitions, or her status as a finalist in the 1968 Benson and Hedges award reveal Coolahan's increasing reputation as an artist. As the surviving paintings from this period illustrate, Coolahan's work was concerned with the wide interest of the period in abstracted landscape, and the discovery of what was for most people 'New Zealand identity' in art, and for Coolahan, with her Australian background, an interest in the Pacific - the colours, and later, the conditions (pyschological and social and economic) of populations and cultures that inhabit islands like ours.

Greek Bread in the Pacific
(from Status series) 1975
Photo etching and aquatint
on paper with deckle edges
Image 245 x 315 mm,
support 492 x 695 mm.
(Collection of Te Papa Tongarewa
The Museum of New Zealand)

It is not as a painter, though, that Coolahan became best known. Rather, her career development was closely tied to the emergence of printmaking in the 1960s, and to its subsequent shift in status. Anne Kirker has written:
The sophistication which we now expect from the practice of printmaking arrived with the opening years of the 1960s. This was the period when a spectacular development of interest in the various media occurred internationally and the debate of what constituted an original print began in earnest. Print biennials became an established event in centres as diverse as Lljubliana and Tokyo. Throughout the world, attitudes of artists and their public towards printmaking changed radically. In New Zealand overseas exhibitions filtered through, bringing examples of modern European and Japanese prints; individual shows of Paul Wunderlich and Helmut Grieshaber; Picasso linocuts and a selection of images from Editions Alecto in London. These exhibitions helped to dispel the traditionally private experience of prints and made them challenge the same wall-space as painting.(10)

For Coolahan, the interest in printmaking was a natural one, spurred on by previous and current experiences and career choices. As an illustrator and designer, an awareness of printing techniques was essential, and Coolahan was constantly in touch with technological developments in the industry. In a larger sense, Coolahan's career was shifting in the 1960s, away from the retail (James Smiths) and wholesale (Carlton Carruthers) aspects of industry, towards the production and training (Wellington Polytechnic) required to enhance the graphic and industrial design skill base available to industry in this country. In 1962, Coolahan was asked to take night classes in anatomy and drawing at the Wellington Polytechnic School of Design. In 1966, she joined the full-time staff, where she remained until 1971, teaching basic design, creative processes, visual communication and drawing.

Anima 1993-94
Photoetching, collograph
and chine colle
Image 444 x 697 mm,
support 570 x 757 mm.
(Collection of Te Papa Tongarewa
The Museum of New Zealand)

Coolahan began printmaking through her relationship with Don Ramage, who taught lithography at the Wellington Polytechnic. While her first experiments depended on the access to equipment provided by the poly tech, she later made her own printing press from a converted clothes wringer - the technical advice on how to proceed was provided by Kees Hos, the Auckland printmaker and owner of New Vision Gallery. Throughout the 1960s Coolahan developed her commitment to printmaking, learning etching from John Drawbridge, as well as experimenting with a variety of new media (the plastic printmaking technique, with its use of beeswax and rubber moulds is a good example) - a direct link to her work at the polytechnic, in which experimentation and research were key aspects of the teaching process. As Peter Cape wrote in 1974, Coolahan 'has also shown herself capable of developing new approaches to graphics and printmaking which have nothing at all to do with the traditional. . . techniques. . . An artist may train on Art School equipment, but once he (or she) has gone out into the world, ingenious methods have to be discovered in order that the artist can keep going within the medium.'(11)

See-Perceive 1973
Two paintings,
a truck windowshield & rope,
1380 x 1200 mm.
(Collection of the artist)

While Coolahan's work fits most easily within the discipline and critical discourse of printmaking, her eclectic use of various media continued to grow. The shortage of quality papers caused by the enforced cessation of paper making worldwide, due to the pollution of waterways through the use of bleaches, led to Coolahan's interest in 'washi' (Japanese paper- making techniques), which she first encountered at the National Library, Wellington, and then studied during a Cultural Exchange to Japan in 1976.(12) The three-dimensional explorations of the late 1970s and 1980s - what Elva Bett described in 1986 as 'the kites and environmental sculptures [that] have enlivened many shows' - were a direct result of new issues that emerged from the production of her own materials.(13)


1972 Received Q.E.ll Arts Council grant
1975 Attended British Council course on Art in Education, U.K.
1976 Visited Japan on Japanese Cultural Exchange programme
1984 Received Q.E.ll Arts Council grant
Has exhibited extensively in N.Z. and participated in many international group shows, including 36th International Venice Biennale, 1972; most recently a prize winner in Premi Internazionale Biella, Italy 1984. Her work is represented in public and private collections.
[Anne Kirker, Contemporary New Zealand Prints, National Art Gallery, Wellington 1984, unpaginated.]

Exhibitions include: Victoria University, Wellington (1974, 1978); University of Canterbury, Christchurch (1974); New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, Wellington (1974); Gingko Gallery, Christchurch (1982); Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt (1984, a retrospective exhibition including prints, plastics and paperworks, toured nationally). Exhibitions almost annually in New Zealand since 1964 and internationally since 1970. Jill McIntosh (ed.), Contemporary New Zealand Prints, Port Nicholson Press and Allen & Unwin, Wellington 1989, p. 30.]

Social concerns such as communication and immigration have featured in Coolahan's work ('Immigrant Women in the Wairarapa', 1979, 'Victoria in the Pacific', 1976), as have complexities of modes of perception in a number of works on the theme of filters: 'Filters' 1974, an assemblage work combining found objects with imagery painted by the artist, is an example. This work was exhibited in the Wellington 1974 conceptual sculpture exhibition In Mind, probably the first exhibition of its kind in New Zealand.
(Elizabeth Eastmond and Merimeri Penfold, Women and the Arts in New Zealand - Forty Works: 1936-86. Auckland: Penguin Books, 1986, unpaginated. )

Coolahan's art is centrally concerned with questions of identity. A continuing preoccupation is the ways in which status, territory and environment are perceived and owned by the societies that inhabit the South Pacific. Many of her works have explicitly tackled the systems of control, oppression and alienation that structure women's identity and roles in settler societies like Australia and New Zealand (and, in a wider sense, around the world, as gender formations have been increasingly scrutinised). In order to give primacy to themes and issues, Coolahan has refused to pursue a single-media approach, allowing shifts in materials, processes and technology, and the values these embody, to playa key role in her exploration of society.

In an interview with Anne Kirker, published on the occasion of her retrospective exhibition at the Dowse Art Museum, Coolahan suggests that her work is characterised by 'eclecticism', which 'is not about not being able to make up your mind, it's about acknowledging different needs and finding a way for them to co-exist.'(14) Later, at the end of the interview, Kirker asks 'What would you like to be remembered for as an artist?'. Coolahan replies: I would like to be remembered for portraying certain sorts of sensibility that were real during my lifetime, and it is only the creative area that can communicate that. What I can give people can only be what I am, where I am, at the time that I am. My work won't touch a lot of people but it may touch others in a similar situation at a later date.

1. This article is based on a number of interviews conducted with Kate Coolahan over the past five years, which have been deposited in the archives of Te Papa, Wellington. The artist has also read the text, and approved it as a fair and accurate representation of her biography, as well as contributing additional details.
2. Alan & Susan McCulloch, The Encyclopedia of Australian Art [3rd ed] Allen & Unwin, New South Wales 1994, p. 866.
3. Gordon McLaughlan (ed.), The Illustrated Encyclopedia of New Zealand, David Bateman, Auckland 1989, p. 248.
4. The Contemporary Art Society in Sydney was established in 1939, as part of an Australian-wide movement (following the model of the CAS in London). The CAS was particularly active from 1960 onwards. (McCulloch, p. 177.)
5. Juliana Jarvis, 'Printmakers', Broadsheet, 22 September 1974, p. 3.
6. Damian Skinner, 'Making Modernism: Helen Stewart and the Wellington Art Scene 1946-1960', Art New Zealand 96, pp.102-106.
7. For an account of Higgs' career, see Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins, Avis Higgs: Joie de Vivre. Napier: Hawkes Bay Museum, 2000.
8. 'Australian Commercial Artist Organises Maori Art Exhibition', unsourced & undated newspaper clipping, Coolahan Artist File, Te Aka Matua, Te Papa.
9. Hamish Keith, New Zealand Painting 1965, Auckland City Art Gallery, Auckland 1965, unpaginated.
10. Anne Kirker, Contemporary New Zealand Prints, National Art Gallery, Wellington 1984, unpaginated.
11. Peter Cape, Prints and Printmakers in New Zealand, Collins, Auckland 1974, p.62.
12. Anne Kirker, unpaginated.
13. Elva Bett, New Zealand Art: A Modern Perspective, Reed Methuen, Auckland 1986, p.21.
14. Anne Kirker, Kate Coolahan: Communicating Across Cultures, printed booklet in Kate Coolahan: A Survey. Wellington: Dowse Art Museum, 1984.