Jutta Feddersen, who has died peacefully at the age of 90, belonged to a generation whose lives were permanently shaped and scarred by the Second World War. Born in 1931, in a German town called Briesen that is now part of Poland, Jutta Schley enjoyed an idyllic rural childhood. One of five children, she was brought up on a prosperous farm, and lived in a large, elegant house.
During the war, this charmed existence was shattered when her father was sent to serve at the Russian front, and her mother contracted a fatal illness, dying in 1943. By June the following year there were no more letters from her father who was pronounced missing in action, presumed dead. Within two years, the children had become orphans, left under the care of their aunt, Dora Wedding. As the Russians closed in, the family was forced to flee, taking whatever belongings they could carry.
Substance of Shadows (2010). The things she saw and experienced were imprinted on her mind with such vividness they unfold like a horror movie. When the family finally made it back to their house they found themselves at the mercy of one of their father’s former employees, a communist, who declared himself lord and master of the estate. For three years, the children worked as virtual slaves on their own farm, hiding whenever bands of drunken soldiers came around.
Between 1943-47, Feddersen’s story is so harrowing, so relentlessly brutal, one wonders how she survived, let alone became the impressive, confident person I would meet almost forty years later. Her life testifies to the truth of Nietzsche’s famous axiom: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Writers such as Primo Levi have given graphic accounts of the camps and the holocaust, but Feddersen’s book reveals the cruel impact of the war on German civilians whose only desire was to live their lives in peace.
It wasn’t until September 1947, after a bout of imprisonment, typhoid, and another hair-raising escape, that Feddersen was able to join her relatives in West Germany. “From this time onwards,” she wrote, “I aways felt and still do that I never really belong anywhere.”
Life began again at age 16, in Bremen, where Feddersen trained to be a weaver and went to work for a local firm. To the amazement of her relatives she applied for a post teaching handweaving at Sturt College, part of the Frensham School in Mittagong, and was accepted. She would leave Germany in December, 1956, for a two year visit that would leave her with positive impressions of Australia, and many new friends, including a young German engineer named Lorenz Feddersen.
After finishing up at Frensham, Feddersen returned to Germany for six months but realised that she really wanted to be in Australia, with Lorenz, whom she would marry at the end of 1959. With this second and permanent relocation she found work in factories and as an occupational therapist at Concord Repatriation Hospital. Her first daughter, Kirstin, would be born in 1963; a second, Melanie, would follow in 1969.
Living at Elanora Heights, Feddersen bought two looms, and began to make ties, curtains, carpets and dresses, which were sold through shops. In 1972, she travelled to Santa Teresa Mission, 150 kms from Alice Springs, to teach weaving skills to the local indigenous people. Her next excursion would be to Africa in 1974, to research textiles. She gives a long account of this journey in her autobiography, and also of the aftermath, when she returned to Australia suffering from a tropical disease. The next shock came when Lorenz left her for another woman, although the split remained amicable.
By this stage Feddersen was making weavings as works of art and exhibiting with Bonython Galleries. She was in demand as a teacher, at one time simultaneously holding jobs at Newcastle University, Willoughby Arts Centre and Alexander Mackie College. In 1982 she would accept a full-time position at Newcastle, but continued to commute from Sydney on the train.
In 1976 the Crafts Board asked Feddersen to look after visiting Polish artist, Magdalena Abakanowicz, a figure of international repute, who would become a close friend. The two women would visit New Guinea together, a trip that would have a deep influence on Feddersen’s work. Further travels would follow, to places such as Germany and Japan, usually in company with groups of students. Many of these students found Feddersen to be an inspirational teacher, and would become life-long friends.
In 1994 she published the book, Soft Sculpture and Beyond: An International Perspective (1993), which remains an essential work on this subject. In the foreword she laid out a personal credo: “All artists need courage, not only to realise their creative concepts, but also to struggle for the freedom to be different.”
As an artist, Feddersen claimed her work was essentially environmental, inspired by the forms and processes of nature. “Simplicity, elegance, progression and repetition of forms are my trademarks,” she wrote. “My aim is always to surprise others, and myself.”
With a firm understanding of the techniques of weaving, she took a courageous, experimental approach, creating pieces that straddled the art/craft divide. Her chief sources of inspiration, aside from indigenous cultures, were artists such as Magdalena Abakanowicz, Christo, Joseph Beuys, Rebecca Horn and Louise Bourgeois.
Feddersen’s first exhibition was held at Kym Bonython’s Sydney gallery in 1970, in company with Brett Whiteley. Regular shows in Sydney and Melbourne would follow, as her large-scale weavings and wall hangings – which incorporated materials such as jute, linen, steel and rubber – were recognised as avant-garde sculptures. In 1973 she undertook a prestigious commission for the boardroom of the Sydney Opera House. The piece was restored in 2003, but is now in storage. Another massive commission was a red, wall-sized fibre installation, made for Westmead Hospital in 1979.
By 1987, in a show at Sydney’s Coventry Gallery called Early Man, Feddersen left the loom behind, making 90 white plaster figures. Another ambitious installation, The ailing world (Die grosse kranke welt) (1991) featured 22 large stones, along with steel, hessian and tar. The piece is now in the collection of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
In 1995, Feddersen showed an over-scaled white chair called Comfort versus Discomfort. At Coventry Gallery she placed 150 white candles on the seat, but when the work was reinstalled in that year’s Sculpture by the Sea, the candles were replaced by 140 white turkey feathers. The piece suggested a child’s eye view of the world, the wish for something as reassuring as a birthday cake, and the realisation that happiness is as insubstantial as a feather. In retrospect it was a revealing statement by a permanently displaced artist whose childhood had been stolen, leaving only memories both painful and cherished.
Jutta Feddersen is survived by her daughters, Melanie and Kirstin; her grandson, Oskar Feddersen; and her sisters, Karin Schley-Schmidt and Sabine O’Connell
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 8 February, 2022