A woman of unselfconscious elegance, impeccable taste and consummate style, Dorothy Herel, who died in Melbourne on June 11 this year, possessed a natural grace, warmth and an endearing lack of pretentiousness. Perhaps this latter quality can be attributed to a marvellous sense of humour and an entirely ‘grounded’, pragmatic and idiosyncratic way of being in the world – attributes which endeared her to her friends. Her laughter was infectious, her ‘eye’ infallible.
Mindful of both detail and ‘the big picture’, everything she laid her hands to – whether it was designing exquisite but bold garments for dance or exhibition, or fashioning individual garments and undertaking interior design work either commissioned or for herself and friends – she did with inventiveness, great practicality, accomplishment and perfection. And though she could chide one for some lapse in standards, we all knew her judgment was infallible. She acquired the status of an oracle: if one was in doubt it was to Dorothy we went for the final word.
Dorothy Catherine Herel (née Davis) was born in Melbourne in 1939. After a conventionally middle class childhood and adolescence, she studied Graphic Art and Design at Swinburne Institute of Technology, and, being something of a tear-away, encountered Melbourne’s Bohemian art world (including the Moras and the Heide circle). Seeking broader horizons than those of a largely white Anglo-Saxon Australian culture, like so many other talented young Australians in the late fifties and early sixties, she embarked for Europe at the age of twenty-one. Following a brief stint in London she travelled to Rome where she worked for two years before settling in Paris where she found work creating designs for tapestry weavers. Perhaps her life-long involvement with textiles found true inspiration there. Certainly her immersion in European life during this formative decade was seminal. France especially, with its cosmopolitanism, understated style and refined aesthetic cultivated those attributes in her; and, though she was to return to Australia with her Czech artist husband in 1973, she retained a very cultivated and European sensibility which resonated with that of her husband, the artist Petr Herel, whom she had met in Paris in 1970. French was their lingua franca– and has remained so within their family. Their marriage fostered a richly creative output from both of them.
Following the births in Melbourne of their daughters Sophie in 1974 and Emilie some sixteen months later, in 1976, the Herels returned to live in France. In Dijon, where Petr was teaching, they formed a strong friendship with Thierry Bouchard, a distinguished typographer and publisher of livres d’artiste , with whom Petr was later to form the Labyrinth Press. An offer to Petr to establish a department devoted to the production of artists’ books at the Canberra School of Art occasioned their permanent return to Australia in 1979. It was to prove the beginning of a highly creative evolution in Dorothy’s life. Working with the Canberra based dance companies, she designed costumes for the Human Veins Dance Theatre (Under the Skin, 1980, Illusions, and Maya, 1985) and then with the Meryl Tankard Company (Banshee, 1989).
Simultaneously, throughout the 1980s Dorothy Herel was also making exquisite and original clothing for many of her friends and for a number of public figures. While these much-acclaimed items existed in a realm between haute couture and nouvelle vague, her creativity found its most inventive expression in garments that transcend the boundaries between art and clothing. Collaborating with other Canberra-based textile artists and papermakers, in true European spirit, she made no distinction between the applied arts and so-called ‘pure art’.
Following numerous commissions for contemporary dance, often utilising moulded paper and sculptural in their articulation and adornment of the human body in motion, she was awarded an Australia Council Research Grant in 1991 to further explore papermaking in collaboration with the French papermaker Michel Guet. Working initially with typographer Thierry Bouchard in France, she produced a series of innovative and award winning ‘garments’ during the 1990s, beginning with the Text Vest – Jabberwocky, 1991, which was included in a number of both group and solo exhibitions in Adelaide, Melbourne and Canberra. This initiated an imaginative body of work utilising paper and printed text (including transposed ancestral writings), transparent and opaque fabrics, stitching and riveting – all of which embody elements that simultaneously evoke ritual and ceremonial garments and create a resonant poetic intimacy. In 1997, she wrote of this search: ‘On the one hand I am interested in the idea of a universal garment – the concept of a truly modern garment, utilitarian and detached from the futile pursuit of fashion and slavery to consumerism. On the other, I am concerned with the loss of ritual in the art of dressing which reflects the celebration of life and acknowledges the continuity of generations.’
Her work has been exhibited in the National Gallery of Australia and is held in a number of collections, both public and private, including the National Library, Canberra. She leaves a substantial and distinctive body of work behind. Equally she will be remembered for her loyalty to her friends, which was enduring, as was her thoughtfulness and generosity. Dorothy was an entirely original and endearing individual. We will remember the courage, dignity and singular grace with which she faced her approaching death. She leaves a big gap in our lives. She is survived by her husband of 44 years, the distinguished artist Petr Herel, their daughters, Sophie and Emilie, and their husbands, Markus and Steven, and three grandchildren, Amy, Samuel and Jana.