AKA: Irena Pauliukonis
Born: 1944 Lithuania
Irena was the older of two children born to Zenovas and Anele Pauliukonis. Together with her parents and brothers they arrived in Australia in 1949 and were sent to the notorious Bonegilla Migrant Camp near Albury/Wodonga. Luckily they didn't have to stay long. Zenovas had been offered a job caretaking a homestead on a property near Bathurst, NSW. That allowed for them to take stock of what they were going to do. Irena didn't go to school immediately and her father tutored her until such time as she did. She recalls his wonderful handwriting and drawing as well as his ability to make anything. Her mother had trained in embroidery and crocheting, for that matter anything to do with a needle.
A year later Irena's maternal grandparents came out and the extended family settled in Sydney. Irena started school at the age of 9. Zenovas, a cultured man, had played the violin in his younger days. The house was always filled with song, both Anele and her mother sang Lithuanian Folk songs. It was in this innovative and cultured environment that Irena grew up. Zenovas obtained work with the NSW Railways. Grandmother, a brilliant cook became a chef at a hospital and Grandfather took on cleaning in a factory.
The family had a strong commitment in making sure that Irena and her brothers would attend University and take on a profession.
Irena had always enjoyed drawing and in her first years at high school she came across the book "The Gold Of Their Bodies" which was about Paul Gauguin. She knew then she wanted to be an artist.
On sports day she would feign sickness and spend the time in sick bay drawing cartoons. She made up romances. Teachers and students alike would eagerly await the outcome of her latest episode. Everyone realized here sickness was a ploy, but a blind eye was turned.
To the dismay of her parents, Irena left high school and enrolled at the National Art School and was there for the next five years. She also undertook night classes under John Coburn and there met and befriended a nice man named Godfrey Miller. It wasn't until some time later that she realized it was THE Godfrey Miller.
In her first years, Herbert Flugelman was her Watercolour Teacher and he proclaimed Irena to be potentially his best watercolourist. Irena was influenced philosophically by the art critic of the "Sydney Morning Herald" Wallace Thornton and Robert Klippel.
She acknowledges the influence of John Olsen which she says is evident in a work she did called either "Once Upon A Bike" or "Bird On A Bike". (She can't recall which it is).
In 1963 whilst bunking down in John Molvig's Studio she met Andrew Sibley. That same year they hitchhiked to Queensland, breaking the trip to visit Ian Fairweather at Bribie Island and finally arriving in Innisfail where they stayed with the parents of John Coburn.
Andrew had been married and again Irena’s family despaired.
Irena graduated in Fine Arts in 1964. In August 1965 not long after her 21st they went to Victoria to house-sit Cliff Pughs "Dunmoochin", while he was in Mexico. They moved to Melbourne in 1966.
In 1967 she established the Art Department at Xavera Prep School (Melbourne) and has taught there on and off for thirteen years.
Andrew and Irena were married at the "Wayside Chapel" in Kings Cross in January of 1968 and ultimately Irena's parents came to respect her decision. Ben was born in 1969 and Jonathan in 1975.
Irena says that she didn't work artistically for fifteen years and didn't have the desire to do so but to have been teaching Art to children for at least thirteen years must have maintained some kind of impetus and interest.
Irena took Long Service Leave in 1974 and went to New York for six weeks, she had a marvellous time and when asked by people what she did for a living she said "a writer".
Arriving back in Australia that statement was fermenting in her mind and became a reality when Jonathan wanted a story told. Inspired by a coloured Rag Doll that Irena's Grandmother had given her sons whilst visiting Lithuania plus her own experiences as a migrant child became the basis for her story "Rainbow" which was published by Gryphon Books in 1980. It was selected Best Book of the Year (Children’s) by both the "Age" and the "Bulletin".
Irena does all the lino cuts for the illustrations and her European influences are evident.
In 1985 she produced another book "The Other Tansy", in 1989 "William The Wizard Who Wasn't", 1990 "When Herb's Mess Grew", 1992 "When The Sun Took The Colours Away".
Irena makes the most spectacular limited-edition Handmade Books. They are designed and made by her. Magnificent Leather Bound Books with designs and motifs both on the leather cover and throughout the contents. Irena also illustrates for other publications and does Christmas Cards.
Whenever Irena finishes a series of lino-cuts for a publication she has an exhibition of one work of each which she finds no trouble in selling. After that they are no longer available and can only be seen in her limited edition volumes.
I called to see Irena a second time and found her whittling away on a series of lino-cuts that had to be ready ASAP. One of the books I saw was "The Alphabet Of Australian Wildflowers" and it is stunning. For the past ten years Irena has taught art at the Junior School Sandringham Campus of "Firbank".
She has a full on commitment to publishing but as long as she's illustrating she's turning out wonderful small works of Art.
Irena Sibley's rare editions are now held in public collections in our State Libraries, and her rare lino-cut prints amongst the few.
Source: Interview Willi Carney 15th May 1992