Monday, January 18, 2010

Unforgettable Part 1: Vali Myers

With flame red hair, heavily kohled eyes and tattoos curling around her lip, Vali Myers cut a striking figure. Born in 1930 to a violinist mother and marine officer father Vali displayed a talent for art at an early age. The family moved to Melbourne from Sydney, Australia in 1941 and Vali left home at 14. After working in factories she became immersed in dance and later became the leading dancer for the Melbourne Modern Ballet Company.

She travelled to Paris at the age of 19 to follow her dream of dancing for a living. She had not anticipated a city completely ravaged by war. The stark poverty of Paris in 1949 was a shock, money was scarce and jobs were almost impossible to find. Vali began living in the Latin Quarter of Saint Germain des Pres on the Left Bank with the rest of the displaced. She lived on the street, survived on bread and milk and carried a knife for protection.

"It was a rough and tough time...there was nothing romantic about it. We didn't hang out in the cafes because it was hip - we didn't have anywhere else to go...dancing kept me alive. I saw so many of my friends die"

Her dancing and haunting face became well known in the city amongst the bohemian set. Photographer Ed van der Elsken made Vali the main subject of a series of photographs, documenting bohemian life in Paris and featuring some of her art that was published in 'Love on the Left Bank' in 1958. Van der Elsken said "Vali, the incredible super freak lives a funny life. We all know that she was the most far out bohemian, hippie, yippie, smokey the bear. She was Vali de St.German-des-Pres; inspiration and companion of artists, eggheads, tramps and travellers. Beautiful, way out, painted like a Papua, dressed like a Gypsy, always in absolutely perfect taste."

Vali was eventually expelled from Paris in 1952 after years of constant harassment over visa papers. Authorities were trying to clear Paris of refugees and unwanted foreigners and after numerous spells in prison for vagrancy she left Paris and travelled around France, Italy, Britain, Brussels and Austria.

It was in the winter of 1952 in Vienna that Vali met Rudi Rappold, the son of a Hungarian gypsy who shared Vali's wanderlust. For three years they travelled and in an effort to keep Vali legally in Europe, they married and returned to Paris. By now Paris was an draw for a lot of artists, bohemians and Vali became friendly with philosophers and writers like Jean Paul Sartre, Jean Cocteau , Tennessee Williams and Jean Genet. It was also during this period that she became heavily addicted to opium. In an effort to kick the addiction that was slowly killing her, she left Paris for the final time.

Months later Vali and Rudi came upon the wild green valley of 'Il Porto' in Positano, Southern Italy. Positano is a small town on the Amalfi coast and the main part of the city sits in an enclave in the hills. John Steinbeck wrote that "Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone."

Vali felt inspired and ''Il Porto' became her home. Protected by 1,000-foot cliffs, the lush and often impenetrable valley opened to the sea and wild animals roamed the hills. One animal in particular made a huge impact on her. A young vixen was found starving after her mother had been shot. Vali cared for the fox who she name Foxy and created an amazing bond with this wild creature over the next 15 years. Vali's distinctive artwork had Indian, Irish and Celtic-Pagan influences and her creativity flourished in the small moorish electricity free pavilion.

"Working under my gaslight at night when all the animals are asleep excepting Foxy and the mice - my inspiration spinning from Irish Monks to Vikings and the Never Never Land - the small fine pen nib placed on a goose feather for lightness in my hand touching the soft white paper...the silence of the great valley... my nights - a harpooned whale turns toward the sun."

The valley eventually became home to her lover Italian artist Gianni Menichetti and together they created art and cared for animals that came to the retreat. Over the years they built up a menagerie of over one hundred. It took years of battling with local police and government bureaucracy but Vali finally obtained permission to turn the valley into a wildlife sanctuary under the protection of the World Wildlife Fund and dedicated all of her money, time and energy into it's preservation.

"They wanted to get rid of me, to use the areas as a source of building materials. The Mafia are honorable gentlemen compared to the police. But I kept fighting - you have to fight for what you believe in. We have a beautiful valley - the largest owl population in Southern Italy. All of the wild animals are returning."

In 1970 she was running low on funds and in an effort to look after herself and her beloved animals, Vali travelled to New York to sell her artwork. One of the first to champion her work was Abbie Hoffman who introduced her to the Chelsea Hotel and its strange mix of inhabitants. Shortly after this Andy Warhol advised Vali to print reproductions of her work and not sell the originals. Given that each piece took her between 6 months and 2 years to complete; she was reluctant to sell her work for less than it was worth. Dali praised the quality of her work and urged her to exhibit formally. It was because of his recommendation in 1972 Vali held the first of her exhibitions in Amsterdam .

"I work on each painting for a long time, some take almost two years, so I remember them all. Most of my work uses the finest English water-color and gold leaf, but now I just work with Chinese ink and a goose feather pen nib. I'm self taught - I naturally use fine technique. I go deep into myself to be distinctive - I gave up using drugs after my youth. The art just comes out. When I feel happy I dance, when I'm sad I paint. I don't justify these feelings - I'm not a thinker. My art has a lot of pain but I'm not afraid of anything - I need to be creative. If there wasn't spirit in life, you'd be a zombie." .

In 1991 Vali suffered a series of seizures. She recovered and it was a catalyst for her returning to her native Australia in 1993. Gianni continued to care for the animals whilst she was away and she made the occasional trip back. After returning to Melbourne she opened a studio in the Nicholas building and continued to make art.

She was diagnosed with terminal cancer and true to form she faced death with the same flair that she lived life. In her final interview with 'The Age' she said "I've had 72 absolutely flaming years. It doesn't bother me at all, because, you know love, when you've lived like I have, you've done it all. I put all my effort into living; any dope can drop dead. I'm in the hospital now and I guess I'll kick the bucket here. Every beetle does it, every bird, everybody. You come into world and then you go."

Vali Myers died from cancer on 12 February 2003. Gianni continues to live in 'Il Porto' where he is fending off developers from taking over the valley.

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