Vale Margot Knox... a creative spirit

12-1-1931 ­ 11-4-2002

By Gwen Ford

Margot Knox, artist and gardener died at her Hawthorn home, The Mosaic Garden, on April 11, 2002.
Her life, like her work, is a kaleidoscope of experience.
Margot was born in Dandenong; she attended school at St Margaret's in Berwick.
Before leaving the country for the city, she spent a year at her old school as an assistant to the art mistress.
In one way or another, artistic expression has been the driv ing force in her life.
While studying at the RMIT, in the late 1940s, she met the sculptor Matcham Skipper and his wife Myra who drew her into the busy "salon" they organised in Grange Place, behind the old Russell Street police station.
Here she met people who would become lifelong friends and influences.
They included Alistair Knox, Tim and Betty Burstall, Justus Jorgensen, Leonard French, Helmut New ton, Win Roberts.
Later she was to work in the Boyd pot teries at Murrumbeena with Arthur and Yvonne Boyd, John and Mary Perceval and Neil Douglas.
She was young and energetic and prepared to dedicate herself to a pro ductive and creative life.
In time, many of the people Margot and Alistair met in Grange Place joined them in the flourishing creative com munity of Eltham.
Margot was twenty years old when she left the city for the bush to become the wife and partner of Alistair Knox.
At that point, he was working in a bank while designing and building in mud, the medium that led him to prominence as an environmental architect.
She was working for the land scape designer Ellis Stones in Ivanhoe, where she proved herself a gifted slate paver.
An extensive paving project she completed during this period was for the painters Guelda and Polly Pike at their Tem plestowe property.
Matcham Skipper recalls Margot as someone who always had a "decorator's eye".
"She was a beautiful pain ter and she loved the landscape.
She was unable to exist in a place which she could not improve ­ every thing she touched she gave character to.
She had a great sensitivity in the visual world; she could identify with what was needed in architecture both externally and internally.
She applied these gifts later when Alistair Knox began designing and building mud brick houses in Eltham." In the early 1970s the vast Knox house in Eltham was host to regular "Earth Days" where those interested in environmentally appropriate ways of building, and living, gathered to demonstrate or observe alternative pos sibilities.
On these days, the Knox kitchen was filled with the aroma of fresh coffee and bread in its various stages as Margot demonstrated simple bread making to hundreds of people.
Her bread was sym bolic of her hospitality ­ it was always there and always generously offered.
Recycling was encouraged as a way of life, both in waste manage ment and in the use of building materials.
Margot refused to let physical diffi culties get in the way of her creative activities.
She admit ted to being a resourceful fossicker all her life.
She loved the idea of creating a new object from a discarded one; perhaps in the dazzling knit ted garments she made or the entire walls of mosaic, which dominated her life in her six ties.
While raising five children in her bush environment, Margot was also a serious landscape painter.
She described herself as a tra ditionalist painter in the impressionist manner when she held her first show at The Australian Galleries in 1961.
Her early work included bush landscapes and seascapes at Williamstown or San Remo where she often worked with John Perceval.
She saw her immediate surroundings in Eltham as "a place with a dreamy, fairy-like atmosphere with a wonderful and unique colour combination".
She often placed people or horses in her paintings.
Her father had served as a horse man in an artillery unit in France and from him she inherited a lifelong love of horses.
She made regular trips to ride in the High Plains where she painted her very successful Wonnangatta series.
In 1979, the writer Alan Marshall, also a keen horseman, inscribed the fol lowing tribute to his friend, "To Margot, whose pictures say in paint, what I long to say in words." After leaving Eltham in 1985, Margot moved into the former Baptist Church Hall on the cor ner of Rathmines Road, Hawthorn.
Here she trans formed a concrete jungle into a visual feast, the highly regarded Mosaic Garden.
From broad acres to metres meant a considerable adjust ment in the way she would design her new garden in its modest space.
Rather than opt for the predictable small cot tage garden or a bonsai bush look, she began a process that would engage her for the rest of her life.
She left a legacy which the garden writer Anne Latreille refers to as "The best garden I have seen in Aus tralia".
With limited space for domestic planting, Margot worked on a local council allotment where she grew herbs, vegetables and flowers which contributed to the impression of festivity she maintained in the house.
The work of the great Brazilian landscape designer, Roberto Burle Marx was influ ential in Margot's garden design.
Like him, she used plants to create sculptural forms preferring shape and texture over colour.
He believed that "To create gardens is a marvellous art _ possibly one of the oldest manifestations of art." In her own work as in Burle Marx's, Margot believed that "we should always try to under stand the mutations and variations in nature and the light, sounds and perfumes that stir our emotions." When the distinguished English textile designer and artist, Kaffe Fassett visited Melbourne in 2000 he sought out the mosaic garden with which he was familiar through international books and jour nals.
The two artists warmed to each other immediately.
According to Margot, they were instant soul mates.
Kaffe Fassett invited her to stay with him in London, some thing she had planned to do in combination with a visit to her older sister June who has lived in England since the 1950s.
Inscribed in his latest book, the designer wrote: "In memory of the artist closest to my vision of the world." For Margot, it was the doing and the sharing that was always the most important aspect.
Her energy encouraged the enterprise of all people who met her.
At the heart of The Mosaic Garden was a continuing pro cess of innovative design, both in its creator's choice of foliage and her understanding of colour combinations, space and plants.
The mosaic garden enchanted the thou sands of people who visited over the years, through the Australian Open Garden Scheme.
She was most dis tressed to have to abandon her participation in the scheme this year, saddened by the idea that she might be letting people down.
Many visitors made annual pilgrim ages to observe the progress made by Margot and her chil dren who contributed various elements to the "bones" of the garden.
Everything about the entire property is harmonious, nothing is haphazard or indif ferent.
Like her husband, who died in 1986, Margot had a strong vision about the way things should look.
From a green leafy salad to a complex mosaic wall, she used her art ist's eye for detail to create beauty.
Always very much a "hands on" person with a very strong work ethic, she consist ently celebrated the achievement of others, always encouraging her children and her friends to fulfil their cre ative dreams.
Margot held her last solo exhibition at the Dickerson Gallery in 2001.
Gardens and gardeners dominated.
Before her illness, she had completed a series on Vita Sackville- West; the soft Eltham eucalypts of the early years replaced by stylised human forms at work.
Most of all, Margot had a full and enthusiastic appreci ation of family, of people generally and of the funda mental elements of living.
She understood the absurdities of life; as a rationalist she actively practised positive thinking.
The sound of laugh ter was always part of the pattern of life in the Knox house as was the preparation and presentation of good food.
Even while battling cancer, she rarely turned garden visi tors away when they arrived unexpectedly and unaware of her condition.
She showed them around, answered ques tions, always at ease and generous with infor mation.
Margot died peace fully at home, a painter in a painter's garden.
She is survived by her sister June, brother Jim, chil dren, Hamish, Macgregor, Alistair, Alex ander and Sophie; son -in-law Murray, daughters-in-law Adriane, Jacki, Belinda and Eliza and her five grandchildren, Lucy, Benita, Joseph, Boyd and Greer.

Gwen Ford is a gardener, writer and friend of the Knox family.


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