July 3 - 16, 2022: Issue 545
A lady known for the stories told about her should also have occasion to speak for herself. Quick to laugh, a champion of women, Gretel’s stride over Sydney has become the stuff of legends despite an assertion that she has always been ‘vastly underestimated’.
In recent weeks Gretel has taken forward steps in a long-held project to develop The Kirk in Surry Hills into a vibrant community centre with a new design for a café, bar and boarding house, with drawings by architect Kim Jones of JSA Studio, passing council. The design has a 'dragon motif' in its copper shingle and bronze mesh exteriors shaped like reptilian scales.
Gretel bought the property in 1986 and has since rented it out for functions.
The name puzzles as this is a Scottish word and research indicates 'The Kirk' was originally a Wesleyan Chapel erected in 1879 on land first granted to Edward Smith Hall in 1822, which had the present Cleveland St as its southern boundary. Smith Hall subdivided the land, and in 1836 Ruben Uther bought 1.5 acres. Mr. Uther later sold the portion that The Kirk stands on to the Wesleyan Church and a wooden structure was that first built in 1874, opening that same year:
... the annual district meetings. The erection of a wooden church in Cleveland- street, in the Bourke-street circuit, and of a brick church at Smithfield, in the Parramatta circuit, was reported. There is a church in course of erection at Stanmore, in the Newtown circuit, to cost £1800. A large church at Paddington, in the Waverley circuit, is about to be commenced at an estimated cost of £3500. WESLEYAN METHODIST CHURCH. (1874, October 31). The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1871 - 1912), p. 563. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article162479785
The Kirk, as is, is a brick and rendered masonry church in the Victorian Gothic style.
The Chapel became part of the Uniting Church in 1977, but with a dwindling congregation, was put on the market in the 1980s.
The Kirk, Cleveland Street, Surry Hills, Sydney. Photo: Sardaka
In meeting and interviewing Gretel Pinniger, Pittwater resident for decades, an intelligent, energetic, warm, friendly and generous soul with a boundless enthusiasm for life is what you encounter, that and a pursuit of Art in many of its mediums.
An Archibald finalist in 1993 and 1994 for her portraits Andrew Stevenson, Lawyer and The Enlightened Educator - Dr Bruce Carter, Headmaster of Cranbrook, with his son Nick and the artist's son Sigi.
Gretel is not only very talented but also very passionate about her Art. When not painting from dawn until midnight in her studio in what was once the attic of Florida House, Gretel is called on to ‘perform’ in festivals, shows and the like due to an inherent eloquence. In 2013 she was invited to attend a writers festival in Asia to deliver what has become a trademark monologue.
Gretel is also a fierce defender of, and builder of community through connections - the lady was one of those who stood and spoke to save Barrenjoey Headland being excised into inappropriate developments for just a 'little bit of money' in 2013's Barrenjoey Rally.
Gretel is also about having fun though - her New Years Eve parties have become the stuff of legend locally and there have been a few events at The Kirk that have become folklore as well.
This Issue, while many are in 'time-out' holiday mode, a reprise of one of our most revisited Profiles, from 2012, and one of our most iconic Pittwaterians:
How have you been Gretel?
Last week I was at the Kings Cross Festival (21-25 November, 2012) to do my monologue; there were four writers and myself. They had to speak and I had to do my monologue and four costume changes in 10 minutes. It’s fascinating you know, people find me interesting.
Florida House looks great Gretel - such a historic home - nice to live in?
I remember years ago when we opened the house and let the National Trust run a day here; they had more people turn up then they ever had had. I was out of the country and they pumped about 500 people through in two hours or something like that.
Unfortunately an older lady tripped on the spiral staircase and smashed her nose and teeth and had to get these fixed, which all cost money of course, and that ruined our relationship with the National Trust. Their insurers wanted to push the blame onto me, even though I was out of the country at the time.
Those spiral stairs, you can easily fall when you have space around you and they had hundreds of people here, it wasn’t the best outcome for all really. Hopefully if they ever come back they will rope those areas off.
Where were you born Gretel?
I was born in Sydney of parents who had met on a ship on the way to the Middle East when the war started (WWII). My father had jumped from Victoria to New South Wales because he’d heard they were going earlier and my mum was in the first contingent as well. They were sent to the Middle East. She was a physiotherapist, and she was a Lieutenant and he started out as a Captain at 30 years of age. He went on to be a Major and distinguished himself in the war. There’s a lot of stories about my father being shot through both knees and telling the stretcher bearers to carry him forward, not to hospital.
Where did you grow up?
For the first five years I lived in Melbourne. My parents weren’t suited to the domestic life. They met in romantic circumstances in the Middle East and I think nothing after that quite measured up; having a couple of kids in nappies. Mum got thrown over for somebody who fitted my father’s ambitions a little more then she did. She didn’t have the backing of her family who were up in New South Wales and also the Pinnigers were from what they considered superior stock.
My grandfather was the Surveyor General of Victoria. He’d been imported out as a new Australian. He’d married a Catholic woman but refused to bring his children up as Catholics in the Catholic faith. My grandmother, I was the first grandchild and furthermore the first girl Pinniger in about a hundred years so while young I was very much spoilt by my dear grandmother. I remember her well.
When I was 16 I went to a convent in Tara and I went to an art school in the Christmas holidays at Armidale University.
My mother got this letter saying “in view of Gretel’s failure at mathematics we consider she should attempt English Honours next year.” My mother said “What?! What’s one got to do with the other?”
We were living in Parramatta by then, my mum was working as a physiotherapist, and she had this nun from the Sisters of Mercy there at that stage…
Did she revert to her maiden name?
Oh no, she never looked at another man. She adored my father. He was the reality of Errol Flynn; he looked like him and carried on like him. Mum was always gorgeous too.
So you were an artist from an early age then?
I always had natural abilities. I think I may have been Leonardo in a previous life. I’ve painted a number of Mona Lisa’s and it’s pretty uncanny how they appear. On Saturdays mum would send me to a bloke called Raymond de Cusack who had all these housewives painting backgrounds from postcards and he’d show graduations of colour in the sky and how you can make it look very realistic. All that did have an effect on me. Then when I went to Wesley Penberthy who I modelled for when I first went down to University as an artist’s model. He knew the methods and I was the model. I was always really jealous of the class to be able to learn the techniques of the old masters from him. I vowed that one day I would learn at least the Leonardo technique.
Quite a few years later when I found suddenly at 44 that I could be a fulltime artist I sought, and I was about 20 when I was modelling for him, and found him in Yamba. I rang him up and was invited to come and stay with him and learn the Leonardo technique. I painted this Mona Lisa in his technique. The hands… I had this amazing feeling of channelling him; I painted the hands in three hours. They were totally transparent and you could see every vein much to everybody’s horror. I have now painted over this painting as I have many others but I know what’s coming up, out of the paint, is going to be just as wonderful if not more so and what’s more three dimensional.
I’m after the big list, the people of whom You go; ‘roll over Beethoven, Pollock and Picasso’.
Which University did you go to?
I went to both Sydney and Melbourne universities. I was an education junkie. I also did two years tertiary education as a dress design student and two years as an art student. The National Gallery school down in Melbourne always claims I was a student there but I never got there because I was swept into the world of artists and modelling, wild bohemians and parties. So really, the only times I ever got there was when I was modelling; they accepted me three years running and I never turned up for a class. It was probably all for the best though in light of what has developed with 4D.
What did you do when you graduated?
Well, I haven’t graduated. I worked as a clerk for a solicitor, … Thomas, who employed girls. I had taken out actions against newspapers who had trashed my name due to my stage acts. If you have a look at that DVD now available you’ll see…
How long have you been going on stage?
I feel like I’m always on stage; ‘All the world’s my stage’, and everywhere I went I took myself and my abilities and packed bags.
So you have been overseas a fair bit?
I have, especially in the past, and I do hope these travel days will come again. But I have been hooked by what I am doing here and amazed that I am the first person to do what I am doing here with the 4D and it’s happening to me, something so amazing as this happening to me. Hold on… we’re putting a bit of skin tone on this painting at this point because we want to move this painting around at this point… it’s getting exciting now… so I know more about what happens to colour then anyone other then scientists in doing this… I never leave home now, I’m too busy doing this…unless it’s the opera.
What’s your favourite opera?
I’m a Siegfried girl… so Wagner. Brünnhilde is an immortal who disobeyed her father and is sent down to earth to live as a mortal…
You seem to have a great sense of your own immortal qualities Gretel…
Oh yes, and doing this work (spoken while painting) makes it more so. Let me give you my manifesto on art and you shall see it clearer;
I believe that True Art comes only from the highest source within ourselves, which we must seek and find by a process involving Faith, Focus, Discipline and constant Practice. For me this is so exhilarating, blissful and such fun, my dedicated wish is to share my views with as many people as possible.
I look to the example of the Greatest Masters of Art and Music to find what I seek to bring to the practice of Art. In company with them, I am concerned with only the most exalted subjects, usually themselves musicians and artists of all kinds whom I regard as being well advanced along the path of human enlightenment. I celebrate their art and personal qualities with my own abilities in the belief that I will leave behind me a work and works that will give pleasure to many generations through contemplating what I do. I hope that others may always know this person or this state as I do, through my art. Therefore for me 'art' concerned with misery, squalor and inhumanity, or portraits of unenlightened people or losers, suicides or murderers are not for me.
Although I have been painting for over thirty years, with a new focus in the last twenty years, I have never sold so far, and hardly ever parted with, any of my paintings. They are painted form the pure delight of doing so and my belief that that painting should exist. I intend that my works should be placed only in major public places where they will live after me. For example, opera houses and galleries. The others stay with me and are to be incorporated into my larger works in progress, the Kirk at Surry Hills and Florida House, Florida Road Palm Beach; both of these being large old stone buildings now being transformed into living art works where I seek to attract under my roof the energies of any and all like-minded and ardent fun lovers on the basis of "The better you look, the better I look, the better we all look".
I wrote that in 1993, lived it to the letter and spirit, for every waking moment of my artists life. It’s true for me.
Where did you meet Sigi’s father?
I met Dieter….I had just split up with someone and met him and we married instantly, ten days later, on the rebound. I did it for genetic reasons; you can see how beautiful he is. My relationship with this other chap, who was an old Etonian and Welsh guardsman called Guy, and he was very gorgeous, had just ended. He was identical to me. He had the same mad personality and thought the same as John Cleese. He was an exact double for it, you would mistake him for John Cleese; Guy would say and sound the same because he went to Eton, he was a guardsman and he’s been around and seen it all too. He was plummeted into supporting, as a twenty something year old Captain... he was stationed at Egypt and fell in love with this Swiss woman, six years older, with twins, a boy and a girl, by what turned out to be, unbeknownst to her, a bigamist. At the time Guy met her he was a young spunk and she was a rich woman who could show him a good time. He had the landed parents who lived in the Isle of Jersey. His father had been a guardsman stationed in Spain and when he was a young man, 35, he was stricken with polio while there and they treated him with the only medicines or perhaps presumptions of guardsmen then…they treated him for syphilis; so that didn’t work very well, as you can understand. Poor man.
So you met Dieter…
I was working on clothes and costumes for an Australian film called ‘Finding Anna’ and Chris Haywood was one of the actors in it and he told everyone to come to his place. I was telling my friend Lou about the breakup with Guy as we went to Chris’ place and had just said ‘what I need is to meet another man’ and we knocked on the door and it opened and there was Dieter! Ziggy didn’t come until seven years later. Dieter only had the hull of a boat, a single man yacht, that he’d spent the last few years building and sold for four grand and had about two hundred dollars in the bank and eventually he could buy a ring. He had no relatives in Australia. He couldn’t support a family; I had to wait. We married and Ziggy came later.
If you could be any other creature for a day, furred, finned of feathered, what would be and what would you do?
It would have to be a mythical creature because, I’m sorry, I’m just crazy about my human consciousness. I’m not ready to sacrifice for even one day what I celebrate most about myself, my humanity, and this is something no other animal has arrived at yet. It would have to be a unicorn or a seraphim or I suppose a winged human; that would be the go.
So an angel?
What would you do?
I’d save the world by opening their eyes. I hope that on the 21st of December, at the end of the Mayan Calendar, what’s really going to happen is the guys in space are going to land the ships full of angels and say ‘come into our spaceship you party people’. I heard today that we’re lucky to be here today as during the fifties the Americans wanted to detonate the moon with an atomic bomb just to show the Russians who’s boss! How mad is that? Do we deserve our planet?! Manifestly I would like out for a better being, but while we are here I am trying to cut a path to the best we can be and help others to get there; let’s make the very most of the opportunities of being alive; let’s live this life as if it’s the only one we’ve got!
What is your favourite place in Pittwater and why?
Here, Florida House. My home is where my heart is. I have to break through a forcefield to leave this house. I go without sustenance or even a drink while painting. All my visitors enjoy the beach but I’m up here painting; it’s because I’ve been in the grips of 4D. I am feeling like an enormous weight is being lifted off me because after 16 years of painting and belief in 4D, despite the lack of belief of each and every person I knew and loved, it’s been the loneliest trip for a social being that there can ever be!
I’m not really that social; I’m naturally an introvert. The personas for me have been more a case of dress up and I’ve tried to explain that but no one listens to me; they were characters to perform by.
What is your favourite character of those you’ve created?
Madame Lash! Madame Lash is my chance to Miss Bossy Boots. She’s my alter ego. She is an invention of mine except that I pulled the name and the look from the King’s Cross Whisperer on the back page. I was already using this name for my stage show then. I learnt my act from a drag queen called ‘Marquise De Sade’ who did something similar in a bikie outfit and didn’t look the way I made it look. I made it my own. I feel and think this whole ‘stage life’ was all fated, it’s part of a journey, just like 4D is now a journey. The fact that I was apprehended as being altogether different from my real nature, which is much more like the character the Immaculate Lash, a cross between Madame Lash and Mary McKillop; when I was at school I wanted to be a nun. I fell in love with Mary McKillop years ago now.
Do you think Kings Cross has changed much since then?
Oh yes; there was the Yellow House first time round and just amazing things happening. There isn’t that culture now. It was similar to living the student life; there were Drama Societies and debate societies.
I remember going to Melbourne University 30 years after I had first been there; I had been part of a charity event for a Cambodian kindergarten and had promised to return the musical equipment to the place in the University that had lent it to us in Tin Pan Alley; which as I remembered it went through the middle of the university. Now there were all these One Way signs and I had to ask ten students how to get to Tin Pan Alley.
What is 4D about Gretel?
The paint is following the path of the light rays round the surfaces of my subjects. As substantial paint follows the path of insubstantial light rays over a dimensional surface a hologrammatic representation of the subject is occurring by extra dimensional channelled means to which I am party. So you see how the space is casting.
This is the Holy Grail of artists, to find three dimensions on a flat surface. I’ve got the law of it; everything we see is parabolas and rainbows.
When this is finished it will prove it. Virtual reality will have gone forward in circles all the way around everything I painted. You wouldn’t want to miss this; it’s indescribable except that you can say that it is doing exactly what she said, I suppose that’s really all you can say about it.
There’s going to have to be some other words people will have to find, it’s phenomenal, it’s the future, a mystery and a wonder. It’s from the Source and it’s making me young while I do it.
Huge displacements of space are taking place. So you will see the relationship between these circles; the vortex changes as the brush goes around them because it has got the memory of what has happened prior to now. What we have got here is the view you can’t see through the trees but can see from the studio of the landforms and the beach. Here we have the lighthouse and we’re turning this lump of retaining wall into the island and the lighthouse. This is the centre of it all; the lighthouse; you can walk around this as though you were walking around the headland because we have killed this corner and made it in the round. That is my discovery for which I will be placed on that list of people who are remembered a long time from now.
Downstairs outside artwork: I was never interested in 15 minutes of fame or the A list, I want to be on the list of people who history remembers a hundred years from now. I am the Madame Curie of paint and bringing in the law of three dimensions on a flat surface. This one is very easy to do compared to the paintings upstairs because we started with a dimensional background. So it goes around like nobody’s business. This one has been going for just over a year, where as some of those paintings in the studio, which are only just up to this stage, have been going for many years. In the case of me and Sigi, possibly 12 or 13 years have gone into it and the subject beneath is just beginning to emerge now.
Here we have the space changing so we will have a 180 degree view. There’s great spaciousness to this. That’s the view over here and it goes into Pittwater over here… This whole concrete bunker over here is being turned into a sphinx. The subject of the sphinx is myself in a couchant position. So in changing the space we’re turning this into a lovely curvy plastic thing instead of a concrete bunker. This wall is an image my son had painted on a white wall of a tattoo I wanted to give myself for my 66th birthday, I’m now 67 so I took too long. Fortunately I don’t have to use reference ever for my work; it’s all stored here (points to forehead).
Here you can see three faces of the queen of hearts; it becomes three dimensional. It’s a world first, all my paintings are a world first. Back to the other examples of 4D; come up to the studio.
So this painting, look at how the paint grew on that! That is a portrait of my niece; I was going to enter that in the Wynne prize for sculpture, because it is painted sculpture. The others are holograms, this is a full on sculpture. That’s the mystery and wonder of 4d; look at this, how the the brush runs across it now, as if it is easy, which it is not.
What is your ‘motto for life’ or a favourite phrase you try to live by?
Let’s live this life as if it was our last.