EARLY YEARS Jane Ann Cooper Bennett was born at Manly on Sydney’s northern beaches in 1960. She was named after her great-grandmother who had been born ninety nine years earlier in Premnay, Aberdeenshire, Scotland.
William and Jane Cooper, Bennett’s great-grandparents, had emigrated to Australia in the first decade of the twentieth century. After World War I the family income was primarily derived from its commercial activities in Manly. In 1919 William opened a small kiosk selling umbrellas and he gradually expanded this business until it was a significant department store which traded as William Cooper and Sons. By the 1930s 'Coopers of the Corso’ was an icon of the Sydney retail shopping scene. William died in 1939 but the business continued to flourish under the management of Bennett’s grandfather, Douglas. After 46 years of trading, however, it was sold in 1965, a victim of the new retail trend characterised by American-style shopping malls.
Bennett’s parents married in 1959 but divorced prior to her birth and her father played no further role in her life. She was raised by her mother and grandparents in the family home at Seaforth which was situated on a steep hill known as The Bluff. The house commanded sweeping views of Middle Harbour and possessed terraced gardens carved into the landscape. A particular feature of the house was its large library crowded from floor to ceiling and on all four walls with books on subjects as diverse as art, astronomy, mythology, humour, poetry and ancient history as well as detective stories and classic fiction.
As a member of a family of insatiable readers, Bennett approached adulthood with the clear knowledge that art did not exist in isolation but was inextricably intertwined with all other topics of study and fields of endeavour.
STUDY Bennett has always possessed a deep love of art and her creative passion was evident from a very early age. There was never any doubt that she would become an artist.
She attended Mackellar Girls High School at Manly Vale from 1973 to 1976. Despite the certainty of her future as an artist she did not study art as a subject. Bennett dismissed the curriculum at Mackellar as useless and typified by plaster of Paris and masonite works daubed with bold 1970s colour. She decided to study History instead, which at least provided context to some of the information she would subsequently need to know.
Her final two years of secondary education were at Ku-ring-gai High School at North Turramurra. In 1996 permission was sought, and later granted, for it to become a selective school for students of the creative arts but even when Bennett attended from 1977 to 1978 it had a reputation for encouraging creativity in its students. Unfortunately the brand of creativity at that time was mostly confined to ceramics and weaving, both of which Jane loathed intensely. She battled with the art teachers for permission to submit a painting as her Higher School Certificate major work as there was then a commonly held belief that paintings were too common to achieve the best possible marks.
In 1979 she enrolled at the Alexander Mackie College of Advanced Education attaining a Diploma of Fine Arts in 1982 followed by a Graduate Diploma in Art Studies the following year. The School of Art at Alexander Mackie was renamed City Art Institute in 1983, and was eventually reborn as College of Fine Arts (COFA) in 1990.
EMPLOYMENT Initially Bennett accepted teaching positions in community centres and colleges such as Waverley Art Centre and Hornsby Evening College. Throughout the 1980s she also taught art classes at Macquarie University and briefly at Seaforth TAFE .
Teaching encouraged her to become more analytical in respect of her own art, rather than merely drawing and painting instinctively. Whilst not wishing to diminish the importance of instinct and spontaneity Bennett appreciated that professional artists also needed to experiment, develop technique and gain mastery of colour, perspective and composition.
Her penchant for plein air painting often resulted in much time and energy being devoted to talking to the public. Teaching classes after painting began to be too exhausting so by 1992 she ceased teaching to concentrate on full-time art creation.
PLEINAIR PAINTING 'Plein air’ is a French term meaning 'open air’. Its usage in the art world refers to the practise of painting outdoors.
Although artists have always painted outdoors, in 1824 John Constable, an English landscape painter, exhibited a series of works at the Salon in Paris. These paintings depicted rural scenes in natural light; nature as the focus not merely the background. Such plein air works are generally credited as influencing the Barbizon school painters of the mid nineteenth century in France who in turn were influential in the development of Impressionism.
In Australia the Heidelberg School art movement of the late nineteenth century was to influence much of the Australian art that followed. The artists associated with the movement painted plein air in the impressionist tradition and were inspired by the beauty and light of the bush landscapes in Melbourne’s north-eastern suburbs and the Yarra River which flowed through them.
Bennett does not paint in a studio from sketches and photographs but has always preferred painting from life. Her ability to glimpse the underlying spirit of a subject and to convey senses beyond just sight, require her to experience these first hand before they can be captured on paper or canvas. In a career spanning more than 30 years she has become artistically adaptive and learned to conquer the logistical challenges of painting in wet, windy or dangerous environments. Such challenges still motivate and stimulate Bennett today.
INDUSTRIALANDMARITIME HERITAGE Bennett is best known for her work recording Sydney’s disappearing industrial and maritime heritage. She has built a significant body of work portraying iconic sites, structures and vessels.
The scale and bulk of her subjects are impressive and are frequently combined with a majestic but melancholy stillness. When Bennett does paint movement it is generally slow, even and measured. She really nails the sad solitude of disuse whether it’s a brewery, hotel, rail yard, silo, power station, wharf or ship and whether it’s at dawn or dusk or under a vibrant blue sky.