May 2005

Arts & Letters

Game Dame in a Doona

By Clare Barker

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Most people are familiar with the concepts of the Yummy Mummy – the gym-toned career woman with child who manages to stay fanciable – and the Glamorous Grandmother, a vast cross-section of mature lipsticked women whose most prominent member is Lady Sonia McMahon, wife of former prime minister Billy, photoshoped to within an inch of her adolescence during last year’s ad campaign for fashion label Charlie Brown. How, though, do you categorise Mary Shackman? A white-haired textile designer, painter, mother and grandmother, Shackman posed for the cover of Sunday Life magazine last year clad in nothing but an eiderdown. She looked marvellous – kooky, but marvellous.

“I always like a challenge,” says Shackman, an unwitting pin-up for the 60-plus set. At the time of her debut with doona Roger Michell’s provocative film The Mother was screening in cinemas, causing a furore with its frank depiction of a mature woman bedding a much younger man. “It was quite good,” says Shackman. “I’d seen it.” So when she was asked to do some modelling for a story on mature women and sexuality, she said yes. “Then they decided to interview me, sounding like a great champion for older women having sex. I didn’t mind. Am I brave? Well, I’m game.”

The fashion world favours youth and a certain kind of Stay-Press beauty. Eccentric dowager types such as Italian Vogue’s venerable fashion editor Anna Piaggi – who looks like a cross between the poet Edith Sitwell and a kabuki player – are embraced. Less theatrically styled older women are shunted aside in favour of leggy Latvian models barely out of nappies. In this context, Shackman is an extraordinary exception. She is content not only to live in her own Botox-free skin but to have it photographed in the looks of the new season. For her latest trick, she modelled an outfit by Akira Isogawa in Shop Til You Drop magazine’s September issue.

Today she is working on canvases for her upcoming exhibition, inspired by the pixelated faces of crime victims on the news. She looks studiedly casual in skinny denim jeans, Converse sneakers and a doodle-covered T-shirt by Wild & Lethal Trash, a Belgian streetwear label. Her long hair is swept up in a girlish ponytail, revealing dangly earrings and cheekbones worthy of 1960s model Veruschka. “I remember someone at a party once talking about America, saying they’d keep seeing these women with gorgeous long hair, good figures and all that from the back, then the woman turns round and … ahhhh my God – they’re so old! So I tried short hair but I loathed it. Then I thought bugger it. It’s so boring.”

Shackman was born in San Francisco, where her American airman father was based. Alexander Shackman fell for Mary’s mother, also Mary, while on leave in Brisbane, and for the first eight years of their marriage they travelled back and forth between Sydney and the US. It sounds suitably bohemian, except that Mr and Mrs Shackman were “terribly normal. Dad was an engineer and I had quite a regular upbringing, apart from the fact that I moved schools a lot. When we finally settled down in Double Bay I could barely read and write – but I knew all about eating in restaurants.”

Last month Shackman – in a hand-painted, multicoloured dress and a lot of zany, architectural jewellery – threw a birthday party in her stately Paddington house. It was attended by her 30-year-old son Josh and a throng of Sydney art-world players, plus some much younger fashion people. “I think the young designers are so interesting,” she says. “Anyway, everyone my age is probably retiring.” Adorning the invitation was a picture of Shackman in the 1970s, sporting a giant fur coat, micro mini and sunglasses worthy of Elton John.

Back then, she designed textiles to make a buck. She had landed at the National Art School in Darlinghurst in 1960 after a stint at Miss Hale’s secretarial school failed to light her fire. She’d spent her teens at a private boarding establishment in Bowral and was “useless at everything” except painting. “Then I got to college and embraced this new crowd. I remember the art teacher telling us: ‘Don’t worry if you see girls in plastic raincoats with nothing underneath.’ He meant the life-drawing models, of course, but at the time it seemed very exciting and adventurous.”

In 1967 Shackman and another student started making fabrics and selling them. She claims they were hopeless amateurs: “Having only printed one-offs for art projects, we didn’t have a clue about how to set out a formal print for fabric. We just painted on the screen with a lacquer as though it was nail polish.” Soon they were stocking the fabric departments of all the big stores. They supplied Carla Zampatti and Melbourne’s The House of Merivale and Mr John boutiques – once the place for office girls to pick up bell-bottoms. For Jenny Kee, she of the kitsch Australiana prints, Shackman re-interpreted Aboriginal crocodile paintings in bright colours “until everybody realised it was politically incorrect”. By the mid-’70s she was “up to my ears in fabric”, painting T-shirts for Sportsgirl and flogging the extras off at Paddington Markets. Australian Vogue’s Nancy Pilcher was a customer and gladly spruiked Shackman’s wares overseas. By now she was entrenched in the rag trade. Secretly, though, she hankered after a gallery presence.

One day she painted a bunch of old chairs that were collecting dust in her studio, then some screens and tables. Once she’d painted all her furniture with her now signature candy-coloured grids – think Bridget Riley, but looser-limbed after a slew of martinis – she finally went back to canvas. And these days she rarely paints a bolt of cloth.

The fashion world, however, refuses to retreat. “I still love fashion people.” She points to a small pink and apple-green painting on her kitchen wall. “That was inspired by Michelle Jank’s hair,” she explains, referring to the 28-year-old Australian designer who until recently sported a pastel pink mop. Last year Shackman painted silk for a line of handbags by London accessories designer Anya Hindmarch. She painted a frock that Delta Goodrem wore on her last tour. “It looked fantastic,” she says. “You have to keep yourself busy doing different things. I couldn’t bear to retire; I’d be terribly bored. And boredom isn’t really me, is it?”

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue

Grace Tame running in the 2023 Bruny Island Ultra Marathon

Running out of trouble

How long-distance running changed the life of the former Australian of the Year (and earnt her a record win in an ultramarathon)

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Might as well face it

Lively discussions take place around the country every week on ethical non-monogamy, love addiction and how much sex is too much

In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Zero Millimetres in Tooleybuc

Mission Unthinkable

'Paradise Now'

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Comment

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Uncle Malcolm


More in Arts & Letters

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pictures of you

The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions

Jordan Wolfson, ‘Body Sculpture’ (detail), 2023

Call to arms: Jordan Wolfson’s ‘Body Sculpture’

The NGA’s newest acquisition, a controversial American artist’s animatronic steel cube, fuses abstraction with classical figure sculpture

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue

McKenzie Wark

Novel gazing: McKenzie Wark’s ‘Love and Money, Sex and Death’

The expat writer and scholar’s memoir is an inquiry into “what it means to experience the self as both an intimate and a stranger”


More in The Nation Reviewed

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Serving time (after time)

Australian citizens are being held in supervised facilities after they have served their prison sentence, amounting to indefinite detention

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Might as well face it

Lively discussions take place around the country every week on ethical non-monogamy, love addiction and how much sex is too much

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

The curtain falls

Vale Michael Blakemore, whose rivalry with the National Theatre’s Peter Hall led them both to become giants of the stage

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Mars attracts

Reviving the Viking mission’s experiments may yet find life as we know it on Mars, but the best outcome would be something truly alien


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality