National Art School director Steven Alderton said the mature-aged cohort were seeking another difficult challenge in life.
The school is based on a studio-based practice model of learning, which means the greatest part of a student’s 40-hour plus is spent on art making, under the guidance of established, practising artists.
“They want to achieve again,” he said. “They want life to be filled with happiness. They have arrived at a moment where they know what they want.
“It’s almost a zen-like understanding of their place in the universe.”
Yet this understanding often requires an abrupt convulsion in life to force them into action. A freedom arising from the realisation that they have nothing left to lose.
For Ms Lydiard, who became a Crown prosecutor, most notably in the 20-year parcel bomb case, the convulsion in life was retirement. For other mature-age students it can be a personal brush with mortality, the passing of a loved one or a redundancy.
A one-time teacher, Ms Lydiard took up legal studies via correspondence when her husband, Sandy McKenzie, a former federal member for Calare, was elected to Parliament in 1975. She studied for the bar when she moved from Orange to Sydney after her divorce, and she raised her three children. But she always drew. Now, she is finally gave herself permission to explore a new world.
“At 75 I thought I’d be too old,” she said. “But when I had my interview, I was told it was more of an advantage.”
Halfway into her first year of a Bachelor of Fine Art, she is finding the course intense and tiring but also peaceful, like a meditation.
“It’s a wonderful balance,” she said. “A number of people I’ve spoken to about it have said, ‘I’d love to do that’ and I say why not?”
Becoming an Artist
Virginia Lydiard – NSW Crown Prosecutor to painting
2019 First year of Bachelor of Fine Art
“I am able to say that my art practice has improved enormously since the commencement of the course- particularly in the area of drawing and painting. I do, however, regard myself as a novice and I look forward to the time when I can comfortably say I am ready to display my work. I am not an artist yet. I am a trainee artist.”
Margaret Dix – Macquarie Bank to painting
NAS BFA in Painting, 2016-18
“I wanted to come to NAS when I was 17 but university was the only option in my family – it took a while but I finally got there! All along the way I was making art. I prepared applications two or three times to go to NAS but I didn’t submit them realising I couldn’t commit to the extent I wanted. Then I had a year of illness with breast cancer. I was reminded of life’s fragility. The space opened up for me when my son finished school, so I allowed myself to go to NAS. It is such a unique place. When I make art I call it being unzipped because you allow people to look inside. I have not always been comfortable with this. It’s hard for people to get their head around it. But I’m proud to call myself an emerging artist, that’s a big deal for me.”
Justin Watson – Industrial chemist to print making
BFA 2015-17 print making, in the Masters program and will graduate in 2020
“I had a fantastic moment during one of the tours where we were looking into the vitrine of Darlinghurst Gaol prison equipment used to subdue and impose fear on inmates (the lash, the gag, strait jackets, solitary confinement) and the populace (public hangings). I thought out loud about how the people who now come to the site don’t have any fear, and how the inhabitants of the place have totally changed. Instead of walling the inmates in, the school walls out the negativity that creates the fear, uncertainty and doubt and instead encourages and helps foster the self-belief and confidence to act as visual artists and give it your utmost.”
Sarah Fitzgerald – Architect to site specific installations via painting
BFA painting major, 2011-2013; Honours in painting 2014; MFA (by research) 2015-2017
“I loved art and made art all my life and had always wanted to go to art school, but I never had the courage when I was younger. So I pursued what I thought would be a more stable career in architecture instead. I always grabbed moments to make art with courses and annual breaks. But I never thought I was good enough. When mum had cancer I realised life was so short, I felt it was time to do something. I came to NAS full-time and found my people. But it never hit me that was I was chasing was a career shift until I overheard one of my daughters say to her friend that I was an artist. I was so thrilled, so proud.”
Heath Gilmore is the Saturday Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.