Australian sculptor Bronwyn Joy Oliver (née Gooda) 22 February 1959 – 11 July 2006) was born at Gum Flat, west of Inverell, Her parents were Milton, a farmer turned greenkeeper, and Wendy, who worked in a pharmacy. As a child, she attended weekend art classes in Inverell run by Ian Howard. Howard went on to become dean of Alexander Mackie College of Advanced Education, now the University of New South Wales College of Fine Arts, where Oliver would later study and would become her mentor.
As dux of her school, her parents expected her to go on to university. However, Oliver wished to pursue a creative career. When she told her parents of her plans, her mother replied, "Darling, your father and I are very pleased you're going to art school, but if you'd been a son, I think we'd be a little disappointed.! A rift subsequently developed between her and her family that resulted in her having no contact with them for 25 years.
Graduating from Alexander Mackie, Oliver won a New South Wales Travelling Art Scholarship in 1981, completing a Masters degree at Chelsea School of Art in 1983. Her work was influenced by Richard Deacon, Antony Gormley and Martin Puryear under whom she studied while in England. In 1984 she won a Moet & Chandon Australian Art Fellowship, then In 1988 she was granted a period as artist-in-residence in the city of Brest on the coast of Brittany, where she studied Celtic metalworking techniques.
A sculptor for her entire artistic career, Oliver used paper, cane or fibreglass for her early works. However, she found "fibreglass hazardous and paper too impermanent", and for most of her career she worked in metal.
The metals used for her creations varied: the monumental Vine, a 16.5-metre-high sculpture in the Sydney Hilton (photo), was fabricated in aluminium, as was the Brisbane sculpture Big Feathers; however most, such as Palm and the 2002 sculpture Lock, were crafted in copper. All 25 works included in the 1995 publication, Bronwyn Oliver: mnemonic chords, were made in copper, though a handful also utilised other materials such as bronze, lead or, in one case, fibreglass.
Oliver was always preoccupied with "what materials will do". Fink observed that "[f]rom the beginning, Oliver has been interested in things that are made from the inside out, and her works often give cryptic evidence of their manufacture". That evidence of manufacture was not confined to the works themselves: friends and art critics observed the injuries and marks she carried as a result of working with such unforgiving material.
Oliver's sculptures are admired for their tactile nature, their aesthetics, and the technical skills demonstrated in their production. In her later career, most of her pieces were commissions, both public and private. Recognition of her work included selection as a finalist in the inaugural Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award in 2000, inclusion in the National Gallery of Australia's 2002 National Sculpture Prize exhibition, and being shortlisted for the 2006 Clemenger Contemporary Art Award. Her works are held in major Australian collections, including the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Oliver did not intellectualise her creativity: she preferred to talk about the process of creating her artworks rather than their meanings. Asked about how she approached her art, she stated:
My work is about structure and order. It is a pursuit of a kind of logic: a formal, sculptural logic and poetic logic. It is a conceptual and physical process of building and taking away at the same time. I set out to strip the ideas and associations down to (physically and metaphorically) just the bones, exposing the life still held inside.
While Oliver was reluctant to discuss meaning in her works, critics have identified recurring themes. Hannah Fink, like art critic John McDonald, noted that there is a pattern to the shapes and structures in Oliver's work. Fink described this as "a consistent vocabulary of elemental forms – the spiral, meander, loop and sphere – in a repertoire of signature archetypes", while McDonald referred to them as organisms, or their remains.
Ideas were often first sketched by Oliver, before she moved to construction in three dimensions. When preparing commissions, she would draw on the ideas of clients or the nature of the site. For large works she created maquettes (or models), sometimes in plasticine, on other occasions using copper wire or, in the case of her 2002 sculpture Globe, wood and metal.
Major pieces were created at Crawfords Casting foundry in Enfield in Sydney's inner western suburbs. Although the foundry would fabricate the elements of the sculptures, Oliver would still undertake the initial stages, training foundry staff and supervising their activity. Some of the pieces assembled to create the sculptures were made using copper rod, while others were formed using the lost-wax casting technique. Individual pieces would take up to two months to complete.
Oliver would produce the more delicate works herself. Many were created by crafting and joining wire to create abstract forms. These were built around moulds, twisting the metal into place with pliers, before severing it with wirecutters. Joins were soldered or brazed (though in some pieces, the wire was woven). In Web (2002), copper pieces were sewn together using wire.
In her early twenties, Bronwyn Gooda married fellow sculptor and film maker Leslie Oliver. The marriage ended in what Oliver would describe as a “ a distressing divorce". Later she established a long term relationship with wine writer Huon Hooke.
Oliver was sometimes characterised as reclusive in both the artistic and social worlds. Her teacher and long-time associate Professor Ian Howard described her as having "an underlying and at times painful distrust of the relationships that are part of our everyday lives". In the last period of her life she seems to have experienced increasing personal difficulties, becoming "reclusive, obsessive, anxious" as well as "difficult and impatient, and completely obsessed with her diet."
Bronwyn committed suicide on 11 July 2006. Trying to understand, Ian Howard ended her obituary in this way:
Perhaps I go too far in the writing of an obituary. But you must understand, Bronwyn was one of COFA's own, one of our very best. And much earlier, she was the brilliant little 10 year-old kid I taught in Saturday morning art classes in rural NSW, already clearly destined for great successes, but not this singular failure.
In 2011, it was announced that a sculpture gallery at the College would be named after her.
Note on sources
This piece draws very heavily from the Wikipedia article on Bronwyn. Other sources are individually identified.