Munich, 1950 – four-year-old Giselle Antmann had been asked to get coal from the cellar for her weekly bath. Giselle hated baths. She would rather go live with her friends, the gypsies. “They would never put up with this kind of stuff,” she thought, as she looked at a painting in the living room. The painting was small and quite sentimental. It showed a little girl sitting on a chair crying. She had bare feet.
Giselle’s mother came into the room.
“Why do you think the little girl is crying?” she asked.
“Because she has no shoes, and she is cold,” Giselle said.
Fast forward 60 years. Today, Giselle Antmann, 64, is a Sydney artist and art educator who has exhibited her paintings, drawings and sculptures from London to the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney and the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.
And children in need are still very much on her mind.
Recently she released her charity art project Landscape and Beyond on the Internet. She is selling paintings from the last 15 years and plans to donate 90 percent of the proceeds to three children’s charities. The charities all focus on education.
“It’s just one person’s attempt to try to give something back and try to repair some of the horrors of the world,” she says.
It is not that Giselle Antmann is a saint – “I have been pretty wild in my life, actually and I won’t tell you all of my stories!”. She has her reasons for wanting to do good and give something back. When she arrived in Australia as a nine-year-old in 1955 with her mother, there was little money to spare. However, two scholarships enabled her to study at Sydney University and, at the same time, develop her art – two things she is eternally grateful for today.
Living and working in Australia also enabled her to travel extensively to places such as India, Africa and South-East Asia. There she experienced first-hand how much education means to children.
“They are all dreaming about lifting themselves out of poverty. It is not just money, it’s about having dreams and realising them. Education is the only way out of the poverty trap – and they all know that,” she says.
On one occasion in northern India, Giselle met a man who was selling masala chai, a spiced tea, in the streets. His daughter was an exceptional student, but she was not allowed into secondary school because she was from the lowest cast.
“They failed her so she couldn’t go on,” Giselle says and makes a brief pause, “Things like that, I take very personally.”
The slight quiver in her voice reveals that there is more to Giselle Antmann than meets the eye. Underneath the precise, dark red lipstick and the tortoise-shell rimmed glasses of the art teacher is an emotional and sensitive artist. The combination of strength, independence and vulnerability may very well be connected to her childhood years in Germany.
Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the German Alps, winter 1951. All the little children were looking out through the windows and the icicles hanging down from the roof. The trough outside the boarding school had been filled with apple and potato peels, and a deer was coming through the snow towards it. It was a beautiful sight, five-year-old Giselle Antmann thought. Yet, despite the beauties of nature and the wild strawberries in the summer, most of all, Giselle just wanted to go home. Her parents had sent her here against her will, and they never came to visit. She did not even know if they were still in Munich, her home city 90 kilometers to the north. She felt that she had been abandoned.
Giselle’s parents had been in the Polish resistance, and were left with only one brother each after the war. The Germans had murdered everyone else in their families. They were very young when Giselle was born in 1946. When the marriage collapsed four years later, Giselle’s father moved to Australia, and her mother stayed with Giselle in Munich. As beautiful as Ingrid Bergman, Giselle’s mother was trying to make it at the theatre. There was no family so that’s how Giselle ended up in the boarding school for two years.
“That is a reason I feel so strongly for children who are abandoned. Because I was abandoned myself,” she says as she sits in her breezy apartment surrounded by wooden statues of the Hindu deities Rama and Sita, African masks and books on everything from the brain to sacred activism and compassion.
“It’s been a very scarring experience for me, but as horrible as it sounds, I can understand it now. My mother was just 22, and I can understand that desire to go out there and have some enjoyment after the horrors of the war.”
Later in life, Giselle’s mother got Alzheimer’s. “When she got ill, and she needed my help, we dropped all that,” Giselle says, with reference to their difficult past. She forgave her mother and took care of her. “I am very glad I did it. I learned a lot about myself and my capacity as a human being.”
Giselle Antmann has realised that a lot of her interest in social justice and her drive to do good stem from her family history.
“It’s a desire not to see evil in the world, to try to focus on the healing aspect – healing through art, healing through teaching, healing through trying to be a decent human being,” she says, adding. “Despite the fact that I think I’ve had a very difficult life, I also think I’ve had an incredibly privileged one. My work with the art charity is about trying to make meaning out of my own life and about giving something back.”
Experience Landscape and Beyond on www.giselleantmann.com.au