Also known as
Ailsa Margaret Donaldson,
Ailsa Margaret O'Connor
Ailsa O'Connor was a painter, sculptor, print maker, author and teacher. She studied at both the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and Melbourne University and was politically active, joining the Communist Party of Australia in 1944. She later initiated the Asian Australian Child Art Exchange and represented Victoria at the World Congress of Women in Copenhagen in 1953.
painter, sculptor, printmaker, author and teacher, was born in Melbourne She spent her childhood at Heyfield and, later, at Portland. In 1936 she recollected:
'I left home at fifteen, was at school in Melbourne, and at sixteen commenced an art course at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology on a technical scholarship which paid an allowance of £7 a term plus fees. I used up two years of the four-year scholarship, managed to cram in a teaching course as well as a fine art course by going to classes every night, then a further year of teacher training, and at nineteen I was on the payroll in front of those large wartime classes of Brunswick boys, ousted from their classrooms by the needs of airforce trainees’.
Once embarked on her art course, O’Connor became involved in all the highly charged meetings of the period. She identified with the radical forces supporting modern art against Menzies’s push for an Academy and joined the Contemporary Art Society at its first meeting in 1938. She became increasingly politicised and was the only woman to exhibit in the 1942 Melbourne 'Anti-Fascist Exhibition’, where she showed 'crayon drawings’. That year also saw her marry fellow artist Vic O’Connor , whom she had met at the George Bell School’s Saturday classes. In 1945 she was awarded first prize for painting in the 'Women in Industry’ section of the 'Australia at War’ exhibition, but her political interests began to take precedence over her art. For the next nine years she became a political activist among women, having joined the Communist Party of Australia in 1944 after the birth of her first child, Megan: her second, Sean, was born in 1946. During the Cold War period she served as Victorian secretary of the Union of Australian Women (1950-55). In 1953 she was the Victorian delegate to the World Congress of Women in Copenhagen, a trip which also took her to Eastern Europe. That year she won first prize in the May Day Art competition and was an initiator of the Asian Australian Child Art Exchange. This effort to counter Cold War propaganda and anti-Asian sentiments lasted until 1956.
In 1955 domestic difficulties demanded a return to full-time teaching for the next 15 years. Yet, in spite of her various activities, O’Connor continued to paint. She exhibited regularly during the 1950s and early ’60s with the Realist Group, whose members included Noel Counihan , Mary Hammond and Vic O’Connor. She was one of 10 artists of the 'Melbourne Popular Art Group’ (including Counihan, Peter Miller et al.) who produced a folio of 14 linocuts Eureka 1854-1954 (Melbourne 1954) that paid tribute to 'the stand of the Ballarat miners in the Eureka Stockade (copy Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, et al). Ailsa O’Connor did no.7, Building the Stockade (and erecting the flag); Pat O’Connor did no.3 The Licence Hunt (a simplified story); no.13 Trampling the Flag is by Naomi Schipp and the last of the set, no.14 After the Battle (a mother mourning over her son’s dead body), is by Mary Zuvella.
In 1962 O’Connor was offered the opportunity to undertake a two-year retraining course at RMIT and chose sculpture, a medium in which she had always wanted to work. In 1965 she studied Fine Arts at Melbourne University. In 1979 her sculpture won the Caulfield City Council invitation Art Award. Throughout the 1970s she travelled, worked, exhibited, wrote and actively participated in the feminist movement. Until her death in 1980, she provided important leadership to a new generation interested in producing socially relevant art by bringing to bear her political, theoretical and historical perspectives on feminist and left wing debates.