Larger than life – sculptor Margel Hinder carved light and shape and left a legacy



Many years ago, my daily pleasure was walking past a Margel Hinder masterpiece, the Civic Park Fountain in Newcastle. If the water sprayed in rhythmic patterns, it would put a smile on my face because of its beauty, the way the streams caught the light.

Wells cannot of course be moved for an exhibition, but Hinders Civic Park Fountain and their unfortunately disused Northpoint Fountain from 1975 were digitally simulated by Andrew Yip for Margel Hinder: Modern in Motion, a joint project of the Heide Museum of Modern Art and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

In the 1960s and 70s, Hinder was commissioned to create sculptures for public spaces in Australia, including the Reserve Bank in Sydney, Woden Town Square in Canberra and the Telecommunications Building in Adelaide. So her work has hardly remained hidden from the public eye.

But the dominant book on Australian art for many years was Bernard Smith’s Australian Painting. As a result, artists are less well known in other media than they deserve to be.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales began collecting her work in 1949. Nevertheless, the range of sculptures in the current exhibition is still surprising. With mostly small works, this is sculpture in its most intimate form – it welcomes the viewer into a world in which asymmetrical forms prevail.

Sunlight plays with the water in Margel Hinders Civic Park fountain in Newcastle.

American by birth

Margel Ina Harris was born in New York, grew up in Buffalo and lived in Boston with a family who fostered creativity.

In 1929, at the age of 23, she attended a summer school in New York State to work with the modernist artist Emil Bisttram. There she met the young Australian artist and designer Frank Hinder. They married in 1930 and daughter Enid was born the following year.

In 1933, in the middle of the Great Depression, the Hinders traveled to New Mexico to work with Bisstram again. Margel fed on the dry, sculptural mesa landscapes of Taos – and watched the rhythms and the Pueblo women go about their daily business. Her approach to shape began to change from modeling to carving.

Woman makes big wooden sculpture
Margel Hinder works on mother and child, around 1939.
Heath / AGNSW

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On the family’s subsequent slow sea voyage from the United States to Sydney, she carved her first wooden relief sculpture, Taos Women. Upon arriving in Sydney, she carved Pueblo Indian, a simplified solid shape that protrudes from the wood.

Sydney’s art business was downright conservative. Even so, the Hinders soon made friends with a small group of modernist painters and thinkers, including Grace Crowley, Ralph Balson, Eleonore Lange, and Rah Fizelle.

In Gerald Lewers, Margel found a sculptor colleague who understood her exploration of wood as form. She later wrote that Gerald Lewers was “the most developed sculptor here in Sydney”.

In 1939 she did Mother and Child, a work that was less about the subject and more about appreciating the material from which it is made.

Light enters

Their methods changed again during and after World War II. The Hinders moved to Canberra, where Frank worked on camouflage projects for the Department of Home Security and Margel made small wooden models.

After the war they returned to Gordon in Sydney and a house that was behind the bush. Birds came there to eat in the elaborate sculpture Frank had made for them. Margel worked in her studio, surrounded by the lights and sounds of the bush.

Your work became more constructive. And a new element entered – light. Sometimes she used hand-colored plexiglass to create special effects.

modernist sculpture
Wire and plexiglass abstract, c.1955, Newcastle Art Gallery, New South Wales.
Heath / AGNSW

She shaped and soldered wire to cast shadows. Revolving Random Dots (1953) rotates with a rotating mechanism, while in other designs the movement is aided by a carefully placed fan.

Many of her small sculptures were first exhibited at the NSW Contemporary Art Society, the only modern art exhibition space.

At the same time, Hinder took part in public sculpting competitions. Most of these were local events associated with the post-war construction boom. In 1953, however, she received the third prize of 3502 submissions in an international competition for a memorial to the unknown political prisoner. Her entry shows an abstract embrace of an ethereal form. Together with the work of the other finalists, her maquette was exhibited in the Tate in London.

Construction, c.1954, also known as a revolving ball.

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Becomes big

Hinder’s growing reputation led to her first public commission for a large sculpture in Sydney’s newly built Western Assurance Company building.

The sculptures for public spaces are bolder and more confident than their smaller private sculptures. This is art that withstands the elements, but also bold statements that disrupt the straightforwardness of the corporate architecture.

The fate of Western Assurance’s work is a reminder that sculptors face an additional risk in preserving their art. In the 1980s, the building and sculpture were demolished. Fortunately, a passer-by alerted the hinders who were able to save the pieces. The work was eventually rebuilt at the Technical University, where it can be seen constantly.

Hinder was determined never to define herself by gender or as wife and mother. This was evident not only in her single-minded pursuit of art, but also in her frequent advice to young women that they should persist in their profession and not give up art after having children. Talent, she believed, should not be wasted.

In the 1950s and 60s there was significant cultural pressure on Australian women to restrict themselves to domesticity. Hinder’s remarkable career was supported every step of the way by Frank, who at times (literally) did the heavy lifting in creating her larger works.

Their proximity could be a reason why previous overview exhibitions in Newcastle, Bathurst and the Art Gallery of NSW presented their work together. Now is the time for her art to stand on its own.

Outdoor sculpture
Sculptured Form (1969) from Woden, ACT.
Flickr / ArchivesACT, CC BY-NC

Margel Hinder: Modern in Motion can be seen at the Museum für Moderne Kunst Heide until February 6, 2022.



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