Linda Condon thought she would never be old enough to join U3A when she first heard about it ten or fifteen years ago.
But Linda was very impressed when Jan Harper set up a program called ‘Carbon Cops’, which, with access to the local council, helped the Mary Kehoe Centre become more environmentally sustainable. Linda thought of Jan as an extraordinary woman, and decided to think again about U3A. Also, through life drawing with Di Gameson, and another group of really competent artists at Gasworks, Linda heard more of U3A Port Phillip. “I was really pleased (to join) in the end because it was a really good way of connecting with people, particularly through COVID. And I was helping with another program by then working with Hannah Len running the climate change program.” Linda admitted that Hannah did most of the work, “but I was supporting her, giving her some climate knowledge as a result of my past work.”
When Linda first joined, five or six years ago, she was asked, “What can you do for U3A?” She thought WHAT! Then jokingly, she said, “I could teach watercolour… and U3A said ‘Could you?’” She hadn’t taught it anywhere else at that stage, and started off with one class, which was full from the beginning. There are still people who started with Linda five years ago, still painting with her. “It’s been lovely, just the nicest group of people you could ever meet. Supportive, kind, convivial, social, and I have made some good friends as a result of that class, and other courses I did as well.”
When someone at U3A suggested Linda give her classes by Zoom, she happily agreed to give it a go. But it was not really the same – “you can’t really critique other people’s work over Zoom – that’s a bit harsh,” she said. So she would do a demonstration and the class would talk about what they might do with it. Some people painted along with her while others recorded the lesson with notes and then they would do their painting later. Suddenly Linda had about 45 students.
Earlier this year they decided to return to face-to-face classes after two years of Zoom. “We had such a great camaraderie, which is a hard thing to maintain through Zoom. We had people living in Brighton, a young woman from Taylors Lakes, Malvern, Northcote.” These people had all joined the class and they preferred to do it on Zoom. So Linda now combines Zoom with face-to-face sessions and sends the link for anyone wanting to prepare for the next week’s work or see the last week’s work.
Linda plans a whole program covering two semesters (four terms) depending upon what people want. “And we are having a show on 18th November for three weeks this year, a sale, a proper art exhibition at the South Melbourne Community Centre.”
Linda was very thrilled with her recent exhibition at the Gasworks. “It was astonishing,” she said. “I didn’t want to come home with work – and most of it sold. 30 out of 34 paintings! But because so much of it sold – and I have talked to other artists about this – I felt as though I had lost a bit of myself. I love the fact that people liked the work and they actually wanted to buy it, but this then created a feeling of elation and joy mixed with a strange sense of loss. I think maybe it’s to do with my cancer as well, having shed something of myself. Is that crazy? I put 18 months of work into it. It was a good way to focus on other things. Yes, I was tired, but the hardest part is getting your work ready and framed, and then I discovered at the last minute, when the work was hanging up, that one work had two signatures on it! Fortunately it was an oil painting and the next day I was able to paint it out.”
Linda says that a lot of energy goes into painting and thinking about what you want to paint, what appeals to you. In the end it has to appeal to the artist. If it doesn’t appeal it is not going to come down onto the paper or canvas in the right way. It’s a form of meditation. It’s absolutely a mindfulness exercise. Totally. You are just in that space and it’s wonderful. “I have a little studio and I disappear for hours on end. You always worry when somebody asks you to paint something that is not going to be quite what they expected. But sometimes there is tremendous joy in seeing someone’s face when you produce something they like.”
Linda was born in Holland and she still has a little booklet her parents gave her when she was six years old. It is all in Dutch – how to draw a child – and quite a sophisticated little book. Even at the age of five or six she was drawing a lot with her parents’ encouragement. Her father was an industrial chemist and Linda had done all the sciences up to year 12, or Matriculation as it was in those days. Linda recalls her father saying, “You are not going to be a photographer; you are going to be a scientist.” In those days you did what your father wanted you to do, she surmises. “But, by this age we have pretty much chosen our own path. My confidence has grown through a group of artists I work with in Port Melbourne, under the stewardship of Anne Esposito, called The Artist Group Port Melbourne. I don’t have any qualifications in art – but I have always drawn.” She has now exhibited in the Camberwell Art Show, Kuringai Art Society (Sydney), Bayside Art Show, Gasworks Art Park and a few other smaller galleries.
Linda did a degree in Applied Science, majoring in biochemistry at RMIT and University of Melbourne, “sort of a combination of the two” and her first job was at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research – Australia’s oldest medical research institute – working with Gus Nossal and others. “He was an extraordinary man, really, you could hear him coming down the corridor hours before he arrived, he was so loud, a wonderful man, heart as big as gold, really an extraordinary person.” Linda suggested that was a good start for a young woman, especially as she left school when just 17. She started off in the “mouse room”. It sounds ridiculous, she mentioned, but anyone who started off as a research assistant at the Walter and Eliza Hall was cleaning out the mouse cages. And washing up bottles up and sterilising; really starting from the ground up. After that she worked at the Royal Women’s Hospital in the biochemistry department. Then she headed up the biochemistry department at Dr Dorevitch for seven or eight years in the late 70s.
Around that time Linda, with her husband and two daughters, went overseas before returning to work in Sydney, to the forefront of DNA. She was headhunted to help design the technique for DNA finger printing, forensics and paternity testing. “We were the first people to bring it to Australia.” But by then she didn’t really want to work in a laboratory anymore. “The hours were becoming terrible for people in laboratories – working 24/7 to get the results out. I didn’t want to do that.”
Fortunately, when the family moved back to Melbourne in 1995, a woman living across the road from Linda informed her that Swinburne University was looking for staff. And soon she was offered a part-time, three-days a week position, lecturing in biotechnology, bio-chemistry, zoology, anatomy, and physiology – “anything they could throw at you.” Linda had undertaken a Post Graduate Diploma in teaching at Macquarie University in Sydney. Then RMIT set up a global sustainable institute, and knowing the woman who had set it up, Linda became interested. “I thought it was a brilliant idea to set up something around sustainability.” The year was 2000, and Linda was just back from being overseas, when one of the directors at Swinburne suggested she write a two-page business plan and “we’ll see if we can set something up.” Two pages, literally, to seek funding for two years, and they agreed. “It was not because my business plan was particularly good,” said Linda, “but there was a growing interest in sustainability and the university was very keen to be at the forefront of issues – a great university for innovation.”
The two-page business plan was approved, Linda got two years of funding and a wonderful young woman, Kathryn, came to help set up the centre, and within three or so years they had thirty staff and were thriving. So it was the right time. It was called the National Centre for Sustainability and they had other partners around Victoria and eventually partners in Perth and Cairns and in Mildura as well. “It was terrific and the nicest thing about working in sustainability and climate change,” Linda reflected, “was working with people who were passionate and caring. An extraordinary group of young people, all in their thirties; terrific people to work with. I have never had a better work environment.”
She left that when she had a strong sense that if you are the innovator, after five or six years, you have got to let it go and give it over to someone else. She handed it across to a doctor who was known as a great researcher. She knew that with thirty staff you had to have a turnover of two or three million dollars and that was what they were managing with projects and grants and working with industry and communities and councils. “We did some great work.”
After that Linda worked with TAFE Directors Australia, with Pam Caven. Pam was the director for stakeholder engagement and policy development and Linda was the director for green skills network. “It was great working with Pam for a couple of years, and then I went out as a consultant and did some research work for various projects.”
Three years ago Linda decided she had had enough of all that and she would paint, fulltime. She had been painting all through her career although when she set up the centre at Swinburne she was working twelve hours a day. “I had no time for anything. I was at Swinburne for 17 years – the longest in one job. I started in 1995.”
“My father had said I would never ever make enough money to live as a photographer. I think I was logical enough to realise that it would have been a problem, but look, I liked science as well. There is a logical side to the brain and a more creative side and maybe I was lucky that I had the capacity to think logically – although I must say when I first really started painting and trying to be creative it was almost like my brain was hurting! Trying to get the right side of my brain activated after so many years of very logical thinking and writing research papers and doing the other things that we were doing, to suddenly being creative in art – I did struggle with the transition.” “But finally, I am doing what I have always wanted to do.”
“My time at U3A has been so rewarding and I recommend that anyone who is able to join should do so for the learning experience and the joy of being with interesting and caring people.”
Interviewed by Julie Butcher