Celebrating women artists across NSW

The Meroogal Women’s Art Prize, now in its 19th year, was launched on 16 September 2022. Many of the artists who submitted artworks were in attendance, and there was a palpable buzz in the garden in anticipation of the announcement of the winners.

The art prize is open to women artists across NSW, and asks them to respond to the site, stories and collection of Meroogal using their preferred medium. First launched in 1998, this non-acquisitive award has evolved into a biennial exhibition with significant reputation and prizes, and has helped launch the career and boost the profile of many NSW-based contemporary women artists.

Meroogal was built in 1885 and first inhabited in 1886 by Jessie Thorburn and her daughters Annabella, Georgina and Jessie Catherine. Her fourth daughter, Tot, later passed the house down the female line to her nieces Mary, Margaret and Elgin Macgregor. It then passed to Margaret’s daughter June Wallace. We acquired the property in 1985 and it has operated as a house museum and a place to celebrate women’s history since that time. Meroogal is significant as it provides insights into the family and their circumstances through its intact collection – making its own special contribution to our social history. We were delighted to welcome June’s daughter, Margaret Wallace, to the exhibition opening and announcement.

We have a long tradition of collaborating with artists and inviting them into our houses and museums to generate creative, alternative, expansive, thought-provoking and often singular responses. The response this year was remarkably strong – of the 283 works submitted for the Meroogal Women’s Art Prize, 39 finalists were selected for the exhibition.

The distinguished panel of judges for this year’s prize comprised Rebecca Bushby, director of programming, production and audience for MHNSW; Bronwyn Coulston, manager of arts and culture for Shoalhaven City Council; Rachel Kent, chief executive officer of Bundanon; Boe-Lin Bastian, curator at Bundanon; and artist Janet Laurence.

In their selection of finalists, the judges looked for artworks that inspire a different way of looking at the stories of the women who lived at Meroogal, and the house’s rich and diverse collection. Many of the works evoke something of the spirit of the place.

The artworks selected as finalists are displayed within the house, among the Meroogal women’s furniture, furnishings, ornaments, paintings, recipe books, scrapbooks, kitchenalia, costumes, jewellery, diaries and other household ephemera.

It has been such a pleasure to wander through this enchanting house and see so many thoughtful, strong works that integrated so well with the Meroogal collection. The three winning works resonated with me strongly during the judging process.

Janet Laurence, artist and judge.

The works exhibited contemplate, celebrate and often elevate, in some way, the lives of the four generations of women who lived at Meroogal for nearly 100 years. Whether inspired by the recipe for Aunt Tot’s fruit cake, a hand-wrought wire bill holder, an elaborate hand-embroidered pillow sham, a garden planting, or the women’s approach to mending, repurposing or making do, each artwork invites the viewer to reconsider their preconceptions and invites further investigation about the way the women used, cared and live the house.

Prize winners

Prize money provided by the SLM Foundation.

1st prize: $7,000, a Bundanon artist-in-residence scholarship and a MHNSW membership.

Ebony Russell

Our manifold nature: loutrophoros for the new woman

A water carrier for a bride’s prenuptial bath or a funerary urn marking graves of the unwed, the Greek loutrophoros was manifold in both its use and meaning. This decorative urn sits upon a work by 19th-century feminist writer Sarah Grand, a copy of which can be found on the bookshelf at Meroogal. It was one the Thorburn sisters paid attention to. With this fancywork loutrophoros, I sought to commemorate the ‘New Women’ who lived at Meroogal and the legacy of their self-sufficient lives and practice.

2nd prize: $1,500, a solo exhibition at the Shoalhaven Regional Gallery, Nowra, including an opening event, and a MHNSW membership

Saskia Everingham

wood, embroidery thread, flashing, marble dust, beads, found items

The basic ingredients of Meroogal recipes – flour, sugar and salt – are a refrain to the quiet rhythm of ‘women’s work’. Things are made, consumed and cleared repeatedly, with few visible markers. Feeding, teaching and caring leave a small footprint, yet enable society to function smoothly. The mandala format of my work invites a deeper contemplation of the ephemerality of human activity: effort is made, things are created and disappear at the end. Yet the work is a celebration of existence.

Highly commended award: $1,500 and a MHNSW membership

Judy Panucci

Making do–moth and panel for Elgin
Plaster, paint, putty, sawdust, ink, feather

Elgin Macgregor devised a putty and sawdust mix to disguise termite damage. Other Meroogal women kept damaged pieces to mend and repurpose. They were resourceful conservators whose lives are reflected in theirhome. My work represents such aspects of conservation. The moth symbolises nature’s decay, and Elgin’s frugality. The found ceiling panel, with its patina of time, exemplifies the women’s penchant for reimagining decorative pieces. Combined, they honour the Meroogal women’s ‘make do’ spirit.

Judges statements

Bronwyn Coulston, Manager – Arts & Culture, Shoalhaven City Council

The Meroogal Women’s Art Prize continues to delight with a wide variety of artistic responses to the house, the people and the surrounding environment. Seeing these works within the historic fabric of this important house adds a new layer of interpretation and encourages us to see details that might otherwise be missed. Judging this year was difficult with a number of works exploring different aspects and presenting well resolved pieces across a number of techniques and media. Congratulations to all the finalists.

Rebecca Bushby, Director, Programming, Production & Audience, Museums of History NSW

Museums of History NSW is delighted to present the 19th Meroogal Women’s Art Prize. The diversity of the creative responses provides unique insights into the lives of the four generations of women who lived at Meroogal for nearly 100 years.

Hero image: Vita Cochran, Rendez-vous, nylon, polyester thread, wool fabric. Photo © Joshua Morris

Exterior of Meroogal with Jacaranda trees in bloom
Past exhibition

Meroogal Women’s Art Prize 2022

The Meroogal Women’s Art Prize celebrates the creativity and achievements of female artists across NSW

Our manifold nature: loutrophoros for the new woman by Ebony Russell (WINNER 2022 Meroogal Women's Art Prize)

In conversation with Ebony Russell

We sat down with the winner of the Meroogal Women’s Art Prize 2022

Published on 
Joanna Nicholas

Joanna Nicholas

Regional Coordinator

Joanna is the Regional Coordinator for MHNSW, the curator of the Meroogal Women’s Art Prize and coordinates the volunteer Soft Furnishings Group. Following degrees in Fine Arts (Hons) and Museum Studies at the University of Sydney, Joanna worked for the National Trust of Australia (NSW) and also lectured with the University of Sydney’s Museum Studies Unit. She is a reviewer for the Standards Program for Museums and Galleries NSW and a member of the Collections Committee for the National Trust. Prior to her current role, Joanna was a curator at SLM/HHT for over 20 years. Joanna’s current role sees her coordinating regional engagement and programming for MHNSW across NSW.