Drawing feeling: Joy Hester and the power of expression
Brimming with wrought expression, Joy Hester’s drawings are personal and mysterious renderings of internal states. Her subject matter—love, sex, birth and death— are universal, yet the manner in which she depicts them is particular. These qualities speak to a time when women’s art that comes from a private and raw realm is accepted as serious and valid; however, Hester was not lauded in her heyday, with critics deeming her first show in the 1950s as “too personal and too obscure”.
“Hester was showing female experience and personal and emotional states of being. It was too much for audiences at the time,” says senior curator at Heide, Kendrah Morgan. The only female member of the Angry Penguins, Hester was not just overlooked due to her subject matter and gender, but also because she chose drawing as her medium, which was generally considered a primary exercise to aid painting and sculpture. She drew because of its immediacy: “It presented no barrier to her inner vision,” says the curator. “Hester also wrote in a letter to Sunday Reed that drawing could ‘capture a kind of split flash of a moment’.”
Hester’s work depicted motherhood, lovers blending into each other, and portraits where the eye motif is centred. Diagnosed with cancer in 1947, illness informs some of her most powerful works. In her Incredible Night Dreams series, nude female torsos subsist in alternating states of tension and repose. These works are likely drawn from the night sweats she experienced before her cancer diagnosis. “They really give you a sense of what it feels like to inhabit the body,” says Morgan. “You don’t know whether those figures are in states of oblivion or oppression. And I think that’s why they’re so strong. It’s unsettling.”