International Women’s Day

Antonia Martina Cornelisse

A conversation about me

Dedicated to mum and dad

Hi! My name is Antonia Martina Cornelisse. I was born on 13 August 1959, in Devonport Tasmania, to Dutch immigrants, Adrian and Joan Cornelisse, who arrived in Australia in 1952. I have two brothers and three sisters and two children of my own.

My story is a conversation about memory and experience. How those memories and experiences affected my life and influenced a career. These are my thoughts …

Being born in an active feminist, equal rights era, it’s only now at age forty one years that I understand and practice the art of personal freedom and finally achieved self respect. Only now do I have the confidence to think for myself. Hurray!

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As a small child in the sixties, I strove to and became a ‘doer’. At age twelve, I was a confident hockey player, competent at drawing, marching and getting out of knee bending morning prayers. I moved out of the private catholic school system into the … as I see it now … aggressive survival years … public high school, life as a teenager in the seventies and four years of physical challenges. My goals were to maintain and upgrade the present skills level, which by chance gained me some popularity, without giving away my secret … struggling to keep up academically.

At an early age and until recently, communicating with other people, written or verbal, has been an all encompassing task. I can’t ever remember being read to by my parents or older brother of sisters. My father told stories instead, about nearly being shot by Germans in the Second World War and described his fear at hearing the first war planes flying over Holland. My parents often commented about how little we were being taught at school, confirmed to them when I couldn’t name any capital cities when asked … not one. My mother encouraged me to read my first novel at thirteen.

The eighties saw great happiness at raising my small family. I developed wonderful domestic skills, made a little money from home sewing, and studied art at TAFE of an evening. The relationship with my husband was happy and stable. So what went wrong? My family and friends sometimes indicated the changes they saw in me after I’d married and then at childbirth. After a decade or more self denial, I decided I needed help.

I’ve done the nineties style counselling, the flashbacks dealing with feelings and emotions … to truly believing in my own worth as a person. Learning to communicate effectively by expressing ideas and allowing my needs to be met did not come easily.

Throughout the personal challenges, my career was still progressing. My first love was for fabric and it began while watching my mother hour upon hour sewing clothes on an old treadle sewing machine. I could hardly wait for my turn … my turn at receiving a brand new dress. My mother helped me cut clothes for my very thin doll. I’d sew them up by hand. She did the finishing with press studs and seam securing stitches. My father drew designs on fabric … usually flowers, so that ‘us kids’ could embroider to our heart’s content and to fill in holiday times. This was a team effort … with all my other sisters encouraged to work on the same piece. My brother taught me how to knit … mostly plain stitch. I worked my first scarf when I was four. After I’d finished it my mother and father thought I’d certainly strangle during the night, because I wanted to wear it to bed.

I must have been eight when one of the nuns at the catholic school let us make an apron for our mothers. I sat waiting patiently, waiting for permission to choose a piece of fabric. I thought I was being perfectly still and quiet … sitting with clasped hands. I didn’t get to choose the fabric until the good stuff had gone. We sewed the special apron over a series of weeks and we were allowed to trim the garment with ric-rac braiding … quite an impressive feat I thought. Aaarh … my twin sister screamed one Wednesday sewing lesson. A long-legged huntsman spider had bitten her leg. It had fallen out from under the cloth, thread and trimming. It’s so funny how such an occasion sticks in your mind and becomes one of those memories that, I feel, causes personalities to be shaped. My twin sister loves spiders with a passion I’ve never seen in another person.

To make a petticoat, dresses and jacket were some of the challenges presented to me by the time I reached high school. I learned as much as I could from watching. Fascinated by nimble fingers, gathering, pinning and cutting. I always wanted to be good at something … because I couldn’t tell the time, do my tables, or read at all well. The first year I attended high school, I pushed myself to become the first person to finish ‘the white lawn petticoat’. It was a disaster. While working the embroidery, I accidentally cut my hand on my father’s old cigar tin that my mother had given me to store my thread and needles. I didn’t tell the teacher or my friends of the accidental bleeding. With the same garment … I persisted in putting the elastic in its casing without help. A seam was horridly facing the wrong way … I pushed and pushed … my trusty safety pin was doing all the work … then finally I could feel that a small hole had been made … eventually a large hole …

Despite the perceived disasters, I decided to follow up my interest in textiles by commencing a Diploma course. I have recently completed the course … some twenty years later. During the eighties, having studied Art, Painting and Drawing, I now enjoy exhibiting art works on a regular basis, have won several prizes and also work in contemporary textile art. Since leaving year ten high school, I have worked in the retail industry selling shoes, as an art tutor teaching painting and drawing and Diversional Therapist conducting art and craft programs. Today I make a living as a dressmaker, part-time artist, and very soon plan to show some textile pieces for the first time.

I have succeeded in overcoming difficult times experienced in the nineties. I continue to attend regular relationship counselling sessions and enjoy a slow and continuing recovery with family and friends. I feel contentment … having freed myself from the constant strain of social and economic expectation.

Story contributed by Antonia Martina Cornelisse.

A story from the Tapestry collection at the Jessie Street National Women's Library.