WHILE you could reasonably expect an exhibition titled, ‘A Life’s Work’, would feature quite a lot of work (200 artworks actually, give or take), it’s perhaps the glimpses of Annemieke Mein’s life that gives her exhibition depth beyond the three-dimensional textiles.

Annemieke Mein: A Life’s Work – A Retrospective allows patrons to weave their way through the artist’s life, as though Annemieke herself has been stitched into the exhibition.

In fact, the swatches of Annemieke that contribute to this deeply personal exhibit offer just as much as the artworks themselves. The Dutch-born artist immigrated to Australia with her parents, arriving in Melbourne in 1951 as a child. Marrying her husband Phillip in 1968, the pair moved to Sale in 1971 to raise their family. April 15, marked her 80th birthday.

Annemieke’s history is present throughout the many glass-boxed educational showcases on display – black and white photographs of relatives, her great, great grandmother’s sewing box, an heirloom ivory letter opener, crochet baby booties. Silk floral embroideries, originally collected from Dutch cigar boxes, draw a tender smile from Annemieke.

“I have about 300 of them. My grandfather was a cigar smoker, and I used to play with them as a girl. He’d lie on the couch and I’d cover his whole body in them,” she said.

“One of my favourite toys. They’re so delicate, so intricate… aren’t they just beautiful?”

A nook in the gallery permanently reserved for Annemieke’s rotating display has been transformed into a replica of her studio, complete with her desk, chair and views of Sale Water Tower.

You can’t help but visualise Annemieke deep in thought at her desk, peering through her microscope and tilting a dragonfly specimen, observing the way the light reflects off the wing, before trialling layering sheer fabric over plastic to see if it captures the same shimmer.

Another wing of the gallery displays early works, including self-portraits, portraits of loved ones, her own wedding dress and bridal headpiece from 55 years ago and a maternity dress sewn with the foetal stages of her daughter, Joanne.

“Phillip makes all my frames – you’ll see that all my works have the same frame. He’s made them since 1972,” she proudly points out.

Even her later nature-inspired works offer glimpses into Annemieke, particularly her fondness for the place she (and other “little beasties”) call home – Gippsland.

“Everything I make is virtually from Gippsland – our High Plains, our rivers, our wetlands – it’s my passion. I live here. It’s the best place on Earth for me,” she beams.

Her care and passion to bring attention to the plight of even to the smallest insect extends to saving minute details from decades ago, including rough sketches, stitching trials, colour experiments and fibre samples for each piece, just so others can learn how she perfected the artistry of the stitch.

Her fondness for often overlooked fauna is contagious, and each piece has a story. Stopping in front of Face On (1992), Annemieke explains the subject is a female grass-blue butterfly, just hatched out of its casing.

Face On (1992) depicts a female grass-blue butterfly, just hatched from its casing.
Photos: Contributed

“She’s sitting there drying her wings before she takes off for flight,” she says.

“In the background are all the male butterflies, because when she hatches, she lets off a pheromone and every male for a kilometre around will want to mate her.”

A female blue grass butterfly specimen is displayed as part of the adjoining educational showcase.

“This butterfly is only a centimetre long, but I’ve made it 50 centimetres long,” Annemieke says.

“I have a microscope – I like to bring out all these little details like the eyes how they look almost crosshatched with little glittery points on them, and so under the microscope I can see the high detail and portray that. Everything I portray, I’ve seen in life. That means I can have empathy with it, I understand it.”

Gippsland Art Gallery Director, Simon Gregg, says the purpose of the blockbuster event is thanking Annemieke for everything she’s done for the gallery, across more than 40 years.

“As a fundraiser, as a donor as she’s donated many artworks, as a board member… she’s just been involved in so many levels and given so much of herself to the gallery, and really worked tirelessly on our behalf,” he gushes.

“She’s unstoppable.” – Simon gregg

Awarded an Order of Australia Medal in 1988 for Services to the Arts, Annemieke’s early works were often misunderstood and dismissed by the art directors as craft. Now, on her 80th birthday, an entire gallery is brimming with her world-renowned textiles works, paintings, watercolour drawings, sculptures and garments, and bringing in record crowds to see this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition.

“It’s been totally overwhelming. It’s almost surreal. Sometimes, I feel like I should pinch myself that I’m in a dream. Seeing work that I made 60 years ago and then to see work I’ve made in 2024… This is what is so surreal for me.”

Annemieke Mein: A Life’s Work – A Retrospective is on display at Gippsland Art Gallery until Sunday, May 26.

Annemieke Mein pictured in front of her artist’s studio, replicated from the one housed in her home attic.