Tribute: the late Joy Warren

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By Judith Crispin

THE sparkly-eyed matriarch of Canberra’s arts scene, has celebrated her last New Year’s Eve. Solander Gallery’s Joy Warren passed away before dawn on Saturday January 3. She leaves two sons, an extended family and a wide circle of friends.

Joy Warren, photo Judith Crispin
Joy Warren, photo by Judith Crispin

Most Canberrans knew Joy as the long serving owner-curator of Solander Gallery, launched in 1974 with an exhibition of rare Indonesian Art. In almost no time, Joy’s gallery had become a hub of fine art in the capital. David Boyd was sometimes glimpsed leaning on his stick by Solander’s front door as people arrived for openings, always greeted by Joy and pressed into her ample bosom “So lovely to see you darling!”Joy remembered everyone’s names but art lovers were always “darling” to her. And before long, anyone who was anyone in Australian painting had hung their work at Solander– Brett Whiteley, Arthur Boyd, Judy Cassab, Sidney Nolan, Frank Hodgkinson, Roy Churcher, Margaret Woodward, Michael Taylor, Mandy Martin, Robert Boynes, Imants Tillers and John Firth-Smith, to name just a few.

Joy was a larger than life public figure: draped in myriad colours, enormous pendant at her throat and always with her signature red lipstick (“darling,” she once told me, “I will leave this world wearing bright red lipstick with a whisky in my hand”). She established her gallery with the same theatrical spirit she had once brought to the stage in her famous Lady Macbeth role with Canberra Repertory. A great talker, Joy rarely kept her views to herself. In her declining years, she dismissed carer after carer “because they understood absolutely whatsoever nothing about art!” And over a glass or two “of something sinful”, Joy would tell anyone present that only Sasha Grishin and Helen Musa had stopped Canberra’s art scene going totally to the dogs. As vocal with her appreciation as criticism–everyone always knew where they stood with Joy.

But there was also a private Joy, a gentle and generous person who championed others and never drew attention to her kindness. Ngunnawal and Ngambri artists have never forgotten that in the 1970s Solander was the first commercial gallery to bring Aboriginal art from the Western Desert and Arnhem Land to Canberra. Joy treated her visiting Aboriginal artists as real VIPs, even arranging to serve witchetty grubs as hors d’oeuvres at the opening. Unlike many past, and even present, galleries Joy made sure that the artists received most of the profits from the sale of their work, taking only enough commission to cover costs. It was during this exhibition that Joy befriended Ngambri elder Matilda House, a friendship that endured for her whole life. When Joy got sick last year she told me that when she died she hoped that someone would hold a smoking ceremony for her. She had come to think of herself as a woman from two worlds, the capital’s glamorous art scene and the mysterious natural realm glimpsed through the art and stories of her aboriginal friends.

Joy Warren enjoys a joke with Sebastian Clark, photo Judith Crispin
Joy Warren enjoys a joke with Sebastian Clark, photo Judith Crispin

The many art aficionados who tramped through Solander’s openings, champagne in hand, might never have guessed that their hostess was a deeply spiritual woman. The garden Buddha may have provided a clue, but few people knew how often Joy meditated, even into her old age. Before her Solander years, Joy spent time teaching meditation and yoga to housewives across the Middle East, a simple kindness which slowly became a passion for women’s freedoms. Years later, she would proudly claim to have been the first woman to sail a yacht, without a man, on Lake Burley Griffin.

Joy’s spiritual life was never austere, never dogmatic, but always a joyful affirmation of the world she lived in. She disliked churches and no convent would ever have accepted her. As she often told her friends, “there’s hardly a single man in the arts that hasn’t been in love with me!”

In her last years, Joy penned a bold (and still unpublished) autobiography. To her son’s horror, she devoted an entire chapter to listing her past lovers by name, according to how good they were in bed.

Always badly behaved, Joy was irreverent, she drank, danced, swore and broke the hearts of many unsuspecting men. She remained unapologetic to the end. And Joy was also a miraculous friend to all artists. Generous, creative, passionate and utterly unpredictable, she was the very embodiment of the arts. Many artists working today were given their first break in Joy’s gallery. She was a light in the darkness, overstepping all professional boundaries to make sure her artists were emotionally and financially ok. No matter how miserable a person felt, Joy would have them in fits of laughter with some raucous anecdote about a past fling or a spontaneous parody of Macbeth’s “out, out” soliloquy. Joy made Australian artists laugh for a very long time — last Saturday was the only time she ever made them cry.

Joyce Dorothy Warren, d. January 3, 2015.


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