Kids/Reviews/Visual Art

Artist’s vivid imagination still appeals

16 September 2020

National pride, colonialism and cuteness mingle in May Gibbs’ meticulous practice. Miranda Johnson and junior reviewer Saskia Haluszkiewicz review the AWESOME Festival exhibition.

‘May Gibbs – Gumnut Babies’, AWESOME Festival ·
State Library of Western Australia ·
Miranda Johnson ·

May Gibbs was one of the first artists to draw children’s picture book illustrations that were set in the Australian bush. The “May Gibbs – Gumnut Babies” exhibition displays reproductions, original drawings and prints by the artist, whose work, and particularly the characters of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, are firmly embedded in the Australian consciousness and is still beloved by children today. I grew up reading the Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, and the exhibition certainly brought back enjoyable memories of the antics of the gumnut and gum-blossom babies drawn nestled in gum trees with little gumnut hats, surrounded by gentle golden wattles, or frolicking through fantastical worlds filled with sea-dragons and a host of other characters. It’s a lovely exhibition and certainly not just for children – I watched people of all ages taking delight in the works whilst I was in the exhibition, admiring the intricacy of Gibbs’ drawings and the meticulousness of her practice.

It’s clear how influential her works were, and how they helped to solidify a national identity of Australia as separate to the United Kingdom. This is particularly so at a time of great crisis, as Gibbs’ work was used not only for children’s entertainment, but also to narrate the story of Australians travelling to Europe after enlisting in World War One. Here, she uses the iconography of the gumnut babies to drive home a sense of duty and national pride. In this sense it’s impossible not to consider the inherent colonialism to her works – despite her obvious love of the Australian native flora and fauna, there are some troubling associations in her characterisations. I thought the placement of Noongar artist Yabini Kickett’s mural at the end of the exhibition was an excellent closing note to the day – a reminder of the history of this country and the people who have been its caretakers for many thousands of years.

‘May Gibbs – Gumnut Babies’, AWESOME Festival ·
State Library of Western Australia ·
Junior review by Saskia Haluszkiewicz aged 10 ·

‘Christmas Bell Babies’, Cover illustration for ‘Flannel Flowers and other Bush Babies’, 1917 by May Gibbs. Photo supplied

May Gibbs was an artist and a writer who was born in England but came to WA in 1885 aged eight. The family lived in Harvey and then settled in South Perth where May grew up. She always loved the bush and used to tell her younger brother stories about the bush creatures.

The exhibition was about the gumnut babies. May first created the characters Snugglepot and Cuddlepie in 1918 and invented stories about them to go with her illustrations.

I found it a good experience to see the original paintings and prints in the exhibition, not just as pictures in books. The paintings show a world like ours but in gumnut terms. One picture shows gumnut babies in a live art class, with one gumnut baby as the model in a funny pose. All the paintings they were making were on leaves.

I love the different hats and how every baby has a different flower hat from their trees. I love the wattle babies with their yellow pom-pom skirts, they are so cute. Children can learn a lot about the bush from May’s works. And like indigenous culture, the gumnut babies have ceremonies and dance and celebrate the bush.

My favourite character is Ragged Blossom. All of the bush creatures are friendly, apart from Mr Lizard and the Bad Banksia Men, so even the spider is very cute with big eyes and long eyelashes. It’s like May still had the vivid imagination of a child even into adult life.

In the exhibition there are four drafts of one painting showing gumnut babies dancing in the air. Behind them are clouds, and in the last two drafts May has seen the shape of the clouds she has painted are like an elephant and has then incorporated them into the image.

An interesting artefact in the exhibition is a postcard May designed in World War 1. She made them for people to send to the troops overseas to remind them of home. The picture has a gumnut baby hiding behind a leaf and says “Dear Old Sport, How Are You?”

May was one of the first writers to make stories about the Australian bush for children. Before that all books for children came from England. May Gibbs has been well loved by children from many generations, and so it’s nice to have an exhibition of her works here where she grew up. The exhibition also makes a good introduction to The Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie which will be performed by the West Australian Ballet as part of AWESOME Festival.

May Gibbs’ Gumnut Baby Exhibition continues until 1 November as part of AWESOME Festival.

Pictured top: ‘Gum-Nut Babies’ cover image 1916, by May Gibbs. Photo supplied.

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Author —
Miranda Johnson

Miranda Johnson is a curator and writer who has worked for various contemporary arts institutions, co-founded Cool Change Contemporary and co-hosts Fem Book Club at the Centre for Stories. Miranda’s favourite aspect of the playground is getting the chance to meet as many dogs as possible.

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