[Oyster Fashion Magazine]
Whoosh! And there she is, full on, this Gypsy from Hell : defiant, enchanting, cajoling. Knowing you’re dying to find out who she is, she draws you in. But only so far. Her inner boundaries are fiercely protected. Kohl ringed, her eyes sparkle amidst a lacework of facial tattoos; her smile flashes golden teeth, worn with pride like a Gypsy’s dowry.
Everything about her swirls : her flowing robes, her pagan tattoos, her writing, her art. One interweaves with the other, and Vali, with a mane of screaming red hair, embodies them all. How did she get to be like that?
Born in 1930, Vali was brought up in the bush. Her father was a marine wireless operator. Her mother, a violinist with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra gave up her promising career to raise the family and in time her nerves ‘went to bits’. Vali saw her mother’s frustration and felt deeply for her. This had spurred her to develop her own creativity with fierce determination. Freedom is paramount to her. She won’t let men dominate her life and there has been no shortage of them. “Men always have women backing them up. But show me the bloke who back up his woman if she is an artist. They don’t like doing that, makes them feel like they’re sitting in the back seat. If a man is a real man, why does he need a woman to clean for him? He should look after himself, otherwise he should go back to his Mummy!”
She hated school, couldn’t learn how to read and write and preferred the company of animals to people. No barriers there. She still loves animals and gets angry when people make ignorant assumptions about them. She is passionate about brumbies, dingoes and foxes. “Foxes don’t attack people, they kill chickens, but then how many chickens do people kill? Humans are the biggest killers on the face of the earth. It’s people who are greedy and feral. They are the break-aways who lost the connection. The animals were here before us and the world was not made only for humans, but for all creatures. We should move over and make room for them.” Are there animals she fears? She answers that naturally she would be careful of taipans, but then again, “…you have to be careful of some people in the city too.”
Vali left home at fourteen and moved to Melbourne, working in factories to support herself. What irked her in those days was that “…as a young girl living alone, even if you paid your way you got called a ‘tramp’. You were supposed to do this ‘icky-bicky’ thing, like get married and settle down. No bloody way! I knew I was born an artist and needed to be free.” She loved dancing and became the leading dancer with the Melbourne Modern Ballet Company. “I’d jump in the air and stay there,” she chuckles. She was wild, dancing with the marines at St.Kilda’s Coconut Grove. “I could put away the drink, love. I’ve been drinking since the age of twelve, wearing make-up and running the streets like a dog.” Nobody was to ever tell her what to do. “I couldn’t have been weak. Even at school, if someone annoyed me I kicked them in the teeth! I have a spine like steel, mate. Inherited it from my father.”
She was certainly considered unconventional (especially after tattooing her face in affinity to some of her Maori ancestors), although she didn’t see it that way. “What I do is my own bloody business. I don’t put my nose into anybody else’s. Sometimes I come across a group of guys on the street who look at me and say: ‘Look at that Halloween’ and I say, ‘OK cocksucker, come and say that to my face’ and they back off so fast!…They know I’m a good street fighter.”
Melbourne was very conservative at the time, so in 1949 at the age of nineteen, Vali sailed to Paris, seeking recognition as a dancer.
“Paris was a bombed-out mess because of the war,” she recalls. ”I had no money and didn’t know a soul. There was no work.” She danced in cafes for tips and soon became a part of the bohemian, avant-garde scene. She met Jean Paul Sartre, mixed with Jean Cocteau and Jean Genet. She danced with the Gypsies (befriending the famous guitarist, Django Reinhart) and with the talented black American musicians (including Roy Aldrich who accompanied Billy Halliday) who were there at the time. “Those were wild days,” she remembers. “ I had many lovers”. But they were also dark days. For three years she lived on the streets of Paris with street kids, many of whom were the orphaned survivors of the WW II concentration camps. “Most of them didn’t make it. They lost the will to live.”
Her life at the time was captured by Dutch photographer, Ed van der Elsken, in a book, ‘Love on the Left Bank’ (1958). She also met George Plimpton, a well known New York writer and editor who became her patron. He published her work to critical acclaim in his literary journal, ‘Paris Review’. He portrayed her as an erotic dancer, a member of the opium-smoking fast- lane set, a life which led many to self destruction. What helped Vali survive was her pride as an artist and her need to draw.
She was arrested and imprisoned several times for being a vagabond and later for criminal association. Cocteau helped to release her, but she was put on an Interpol file, classified as ‘Undesirable’ and expelled from France in 1952.
In Vienna, she met and married a half Hungarian Gypsy architect, Rudi Rappold, with whom she spent the next fifteen years until his death. He was an intelligent, gentle man who knew she was wild but never ‘closed his hand’ on her. They travelled through Europe and eventually settled near the resort town of Positano on south Italy’s Amalfi coast. There in a great ravine called Il Porto, Rudi and Vali found an abandoned little cottage, once a nobleman’s pleasure garden, perched in a canyon below 300 meter high cliffs. She still lives there for part of the year. With the mayor’s permission, the couple moved in, but the locals were hostile to these weird foreigners. Once during their absence, some of Vali’s dogs were poisoned. She was devastated and had their names tattooed on her feet. “The moment I started to fight that’s when I came back to being Vali Myers again. I’m a street fighter, baby!” She clenches her fists. For thirty years she fought many battles to save the valley from speculators. The matter ended up in the Senate of Rome and Vali and Rudi won. Finally her wildlife sanctuary where she still keeps a hundred animals (dogs, donkeys, foxes, goats) and which boasts the largest owl population in southern Italy, was endorsed by the World Wildlife Foundation At last, Vali got to stay in her valley.
She often drew throughout the night, sitting in a cage which Rudi had built for her at a time when she needed to withdraw and recover from stress. Here she felt safe, cocooned, “like a heart beating in a rib cage”. Her soul mate, a vixen companion of fourteen years, kept her company in the wee small hours. “A fox is like a good woman - you never dominate her, you meet her half way,” says Vali.
In 1994, The Age critic, Dr.C.Heathcote described Vali’s work as unconventional ‘Outsider Art’. She had no formal training, but drew from an early age. Her pictures often depict a ghostly, thin, naked woman surrounded by cameos of animals. She uses the best English ink, water colours and pure gold leaf . Her work is fine and meticulously executed, using a nib set in a feather so it’s light in the hand. She may spent up to two years on a drawing, but “like a leaf growing on a tree” you can not hurry this process.
“The centre of life is female. We all come from our mothers,” she explains. There is much darkness in her drawings. “It’s the confrontation between women’s intuition and the force of men’s intellect. Women understand men, but it’s not always so the other way around.” She adds, “ Men always want to know, but you can not know. You must respect the mystery. You can be curious. Animals are curious, but they don’t go over the border.”
Though she loves dancing, it was her drawing which kept her going through the tough times . “When I feel joyous, I dance, and when I don’t, I draw,” she says. “ The feeling to draw is so strong, that if I had to go to prison, I’d see it as an opportunity to sit and create without any distraction.” After a moment, she adds, “I’ve been through a lot, but I’m not afraid of anything”.
In 1970, to support herself and the sanctuary, like ‘‘a good fox which hunts far from the burrow’’, Vali went to New York. Staying at the famed Chelsea Hotel, Vali set about selling her own work for the first time, fetching high prices. The money she made went to support the animals in the valley . Commuting to and from Italy, she lived in New York for twenty years where she met many celebrities. Salvador Dali admired her work, Andy Warhol offered her business advice and Tennessee Williams became a personal friend.
She wasn’t impressed with New York City. People often asked her if she liked the sky scrapers and she would retort, “You should see the cliffs in my valley!”
She didn’t like the gallery scene because the art people were pretentious and commanded exorbitant commissions. They said her work wouldn’t sell because it was too personal. But within a very short time she sold to Leo Castell, the owner of Camel cigarettes company. Other high profile purchasers followed.
In 1992, Vali suffered a triple aneurism. After a long convalescence, learning again how to walk and talk, Vali decided to return to Melbourne after 44 years’ absence. Arriving in 1993, she was delighted to see the changes to the city in which she had once lived. “Melbourne had done a flip-flop, it’s no longer conservative, but diverse and tolerant.. The people are easy going, but they’re not a push-over.”
Since her return, she has had three art exhibitions. Previous documentaries made about her life were screened at the Valhalla Cinema and on television : Ruth Cullen’s “Vali The Tightrope Dancer’(1990) and Ed Van der Elsken’s “Death in Port Jackson Hotel’ (1980). The first documentary, Sheldon Rochlin’s ‘Vali’ (1965) was awarded First Prize by Italian director, Bernardo Bertolucci at the 1965 Mannheim Film Festival in Germany. In January 2002, Ruth Cullen’s latest documentary will be screened on ABC TV.
What keeps this 71 year old spirit so young? “I feel totally alive and have no respect for death. There is no insurance on living. I know what it is to die and resurrect. I’m an artist, I know all about Hell and it doesn’t scare me at all. I feel more scared sleeping between white sheets like a corpse!” Instead, she prefers to sleep on a blanket on a floor, often in her clothes which are like fur to her.
“I’m happy when I wake up in the morning because with the damage to my brain, I could be gone in the night. But if I had to die, I would not have any regrets because I’ve lived right up to the hilt”.
She hates pity. “ The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. People think life should be easy and there should be no pain. What happened to courage and pride?”
She is not religious but on her studio door there is a plaque of Madonna del Arco, a pre-Christian, black Madonna of Naples. “This is a real Madonna, not the soap and water Madonna of the Roman Catholic Church. She is not related to Christ and she’s certainly no f…..g virgin!” If the Vatican tried to remove her, the whole of Naples would probably revolt. “The Mafia, the whores, the Gypsies and the poor go to her. She is enormously respected. The Mafia do a lot of business in front of her. She has authority more so than if it were put on paper. It’s a binding agreement and if you don’t keep your promise, you die. In tribute to her power, women and children are respected by the Mafia there. Anyone who touches a child or a woman is dead within 12 hours, they don’t bother to go to the police.”
She speaks with contempt about Christianity. “The Roman Catholic Church has a lot to answer for. They have a past which is very bloody. Why did they come down on Jews? Jesus wasn’t a blue eyed golden boy. He was probably dark with a hooked nose. He was a prophet but most prophets get killed. There is so much hypocrisy in Christianity. In the old days, if you were a bit unusual they burnt you to death. They even took away Mary’s sexuality. She was pregnant when she met Joseph. There was a custom that if men were impotent, their women would make love with the most perfect priests; that’s why their children were called the children of God. Jesus was not the only one!”
How is it that some women see themselves as victims? I asked. “Because they are sitting ducks,” Vali answers, “You don’t need a man to look after you. When I walk down the street I feel I have every right to be there and if someone corners me I’ll come out fighting.” The last thing she wanted to be was a doormat for her man. “People come to me because they know I’ve been somewhere they haven’t been. I’m courageous. I love diving down with the giant octopuses.” It’s the same with her art. She didn’t chase anyone. People knew about her because she danced wherever she went. “You couldn’t miss me. I wore more make-up than any one else. I had the dirtiest mouth in town and used it deliberately because I had to be strong.”
She was old enough at 14 to leave home and is young enough at 71 to dance, laugh and fight. With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes, Vali has music wherever she goes.