April 2017

“Lucky to have been influenced by strong women”

Former Mount St Benedict College student, Julie Knutsen, now an academic, educator, researcher and artist, is hoping to introduce a program to Australia which improves children’s literacy through art.

BY Debra Vermeer

As a young girl, Julie Knutsen loved to paint, and now, decades later and with a PhD in financial planning under her belt and a career as a senior university lecturer in full swing, she has picked up the paintbrush again and become a successful artist.

“I’ve only been painting again for a few years, but I do feel as though I’m entering a new phase of my life with my academic career and my art, and the question is, how do I bring all this together?” she says.

Julie was born and bred in Sydney and is a former student of Mount St Benedict College in Pennant Hills, where she was taught by Sisters of the Good Samaritan who had a lasting impact on her.

“I’ve been lucky to have been influenced by strong women in my life, both in my family, particularly my grandmother, and at school with the Good Sams,” she says.

“Before I started primary school, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother who lived in Marrickville, right behind St Brigid’s Church. St Brigid’s was quite significant for me in my early years. Everything seemed to centre around it.”

Julie’s grandmother managed the local St Vincent de Paul shop, and passed on plenty of early lessons about commerce and running a business.

“While other kids were playing shop, I was actually in the shop,” she laughs. “I became very aware of how to run a shop and she gave me jobs to do like counting the money. It was a good education.”

Her primary school education was at Our Lady Help of Christians, Epping, where Julie says her first grade teacher, Mrs Smith, helped inspire her love of art.

“She taught me to see art in a way that showed me that the artist has powers of observation,” she says.

“She always had a beautiful picture up on the blackboard, using different coloured chalks and she would use black chalk to add shadowing. I remember looking at those drawings and I was always intrigued. When I look at a painting now, I look at it in the way I used to look at Mrs Smith’s artworks on the blackboard.”

This awakening to art came after Julie’s Mum had introduced her to painting as a way of helping her heal from a series of operations for osteomyelitis and eye problems in her childhood.

“Mum would take me to the bush after those surgeries, to paint,” Julie says. “We would do water paintings of the gum trees and the bush and I loved it.”

Julie’s aunty, Marie Lane, is a Sister of the Good Samaritan, so when the family moved to Epping in Sydney’s north, it was the obvious choice for Julie to attend the Good Sams’ newly established Mount St Benedict College.

“When I arrived at Mount St Benedict it had only been open for six years and so our senior girls were the school’s pioneers,” she says.

“And this was in the early 70s, so it was a time of huge social change, especially for women, and I really believe the Sisters of that time knew the privilege they had been given in shaping the women of the future.”

The two sisters who had the most impact on Julie were the principal, Sister Christopher Burrows, and Sister Hyacinth Roche.

“This point of shaping the women of the future was so strong in them, and I’m a product of their thinking. They were nuns, but they were also my first real examples of career women.

“They taught us the dogma and expected us to attend Mass and all of that, but they would always ask, ‘what does it mean to you?’ They were always trying to make it relevant for us, and that spirituality they gave us has been the anchor in my life when times have been tough.”

Julie also remembers the Sisters seeking to address the changing social standards of the day by bringing in the renowned etiquette and deportment expert, June Dally Watkins.

“I think they thought, well if these girls are going to be wearing make-up and short skirts all the time, we’ll show them how to do it well,” Julie laughs.

While she was still completing her HSC, Julie began catching the bus into the city for job interviews, securing a job as a junior assistant with Lloyds International, where she spent the next three years learning the ropes of the financial industry.

“It was good timing because personal computers were just starting to come in and because I was young, I kept getting the job of putting in data and testing these PCs. Of course, I had no idea at the time of the change computers were making to the workplace, but I learnt all about using them at a young age,” she says.

“One of my other jobs was filing, but instead of just filing the documents, I would read them as I went and before long there wasn’t much I didn’t know about the business.

“I now teach money, banking and finance at university and everything I did back then, I’m now teaching.”

Julie says she continued to grow and develop in the financial sector at a time of great change and challenge, with the deregulation of banking, and she also studied part-time, graduating with a Bachelor of Business.

After 15 years, having married and had a son, she moved into merchant banking and stockbroking, working for several years in London and New York, opening up offices of an Australian powerbroker in those cities.

While her marriage sadly ended, Julie says the period of living overseas with her son was “a fabulous experience for him and for me”.

When she returned home, Julie began working in the areas of corporate education and financial planning before moving into academia, earning an MBA, and a PhD in financial planning.

In an interesting twist, Julie’s PhD supervisor, Dr Robyn Cameron, was also a former student of the Good Samaritan Sisters, at St Scholastica’s College, Glebe.

“There was definitely a connection there because of our schooling, our work ethic, and the influence the Good Sams had on our lives,” Julie says. “She was huge in keeping me going.”

During all these years, Julie says her art had been latent and it was only in recent years that her desire to paint began to reassert itself.

“After school, I wanted to be an artist, but that wasn’t seen as a real job, and so I didn’t pick up a paintbrush again for 20 years, and then it was just dabbling and going to art school in my spare time,” she says.

“But during those years I did plenty of pilgrimages to see the great artworks, to galleries and museums like the Rijksmuseum [in Amsterdam] and to Paris and all those places.

“I remember seeing [Rembrandt’s] ‘The Nightwatch’ for the first time and I just burst into tears at the impact of it. I didn’t realise it was so big! I’d only ever seen it in books.”

While going from strength to strength in her business and academic career, Julie says she began to feel as though there was a piece of herself missing and that piece had something to do with art.

“I noticed my hands had started to get this tingling and I just felt that if I didn’t pick up a paintbrush I would’ve ended up with some physical condition of my hands,” she says.

So, Julie did pick up a paintbrush, and she hasn’t stopped painting since.

“I can’t describe the sense of freedom when I finally put art on canvas,” she says. “And now, the bigger the canvas, the greater freedom I feel. These days I also use a palette knife so I can make big, sweeping moves across the canvas. The bigger the better.”

To her delight, Julie says she is now not only exhibiting her artworks, but selling them, too.

“Just last year, I got my own art studio after 40 years of waiting. It’s just a shed, but I love it, and I’ve got plans for a gallery.”

Now living on the Gold Coast, but flying to Sydney a couple of days a week for her job as Senior Lecturer in Financial Planning on the Sydney campus of Central Queensland University, Julie is seeking ways of combining her art and academia.

She is exploring the idea of bringing to Australia a program from the Guggenheim Museum, where children explore literacy through art.

“Basically, they get kids to explore artworks and then read and write about it,” she says. “I would really like to bring that program to Australia.

“That would be the marriage of my life as an academic, an educator, a researcher and an artist and I think there’s a place for me there.

“It’s a legacy I’d like to leave, to improve children’s reading through art.”

Julie says her desire to open a gallery is coming closer to fruition, too.

“It feels like it’s getting close. I now have in my circle about eight women artists who I really love to work with. We have artist jams, where we get together and paint. It’s just great.

“So, it feels exciting, like I’m really starting to bring all the strands of my life together in some new way. I’m not sure where it will lead, but it is definitely an exciting new phase.”

Debra Vermeer

Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both Catholic and mainstream media.

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