A Serious Girl is the story of a Whanganui gymnast, Millie, who after finishing secondary school is preparing to leave for further gymnastics training on an overseas scholarship at the end of 2017. When the series was being shot Millie was house-bound with an injury – meaning that the site of the photographs was not the active space of a gymnasium but instead the recovery room of her home in the seaside suburb of Castlecliff.
The photographs are not only studies of a young gymnast’s extraordinary physicality and dexterity but also a record of a moment in a journey. For professional sports-people physical fitness and well-being is critical to success; the possibility of injury is always near. The body – a vessel through which sport is undertaken – is key to all sports, however in the art of gymnastics there is no bat or bicycle as a companion.
“Lovely weather so far; I don’t know how long it will last, but I’m not afraid of storms, for Im learning how to sail my ship”.
‘Amy’ from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women pub. 1868
Whanganui’s Sarjeant Gallery Curator, Greg Donson, writes: If we consider the body as a boat being a metaphor for travelling through life, then the subject of this work is not only on a physical journey relocating to another place, but also to another chapter of her book. Like many people her age this departure is the beginning of a journey to a new frontier. This is not a story of endings and beginnings but more so a study of a moment or moments in time – the theatre of the sea, the stretch of a limb, sweat on a brow, dahlias in the arc of full bloom, gravity. Rest.
A Serious Girl takes its title from a painting by pioneering Whanganui artist, Edith Collier (1885-1964). In 1913 Collier travelled to study in London where her work flourished in a milieu that included fellow expats Frances Hodgkins and Margaret Preston. She returned in 1922 with a significant body of innovative modernist painting, but the work was a shock to Collier’s conservative community. Ashamed, her father burned much of her best work. She would never paint seriously again.
A Serious Girl was created during Roberta Thornley’s 2015 Tylee Cottage Residency in Whanganui.
Photography: Kallan MacLeod