9 May 2023

Sculptor named to create lasting legacy of political trailblazer Susan Ryan

| James Coleman
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Susan Ryan was a pioneer over a long and distinguished career. Photo: ANU.

A bronze statue honouring one of the nation’s trailblazing politicians is a step closer to arriving in Canberra by the end of the year.

The ACT Government commissioned a piece of public artwork last year to commemorate ACT senator and minister in the Hawke government Susan Ryan.

After calling for expressions of interest from “female or non-binary artists” from around the country in August 2022, the government has selected Victorian sculptor Lis Johnson for the task.

Ms Johnson created the statues of Dame Dorothy Tangney and Dame Enid Lyons, unveiled outside the front of Old Parliament House in March. These were the first women elected to Federal Parliament, and their statues were the first of women in the Parliamentary Triangle.

She’s now excited to set to work to create a lasting legacy of a politician who, Ms Johnson says, “was in it for all the right reasons – to serve the community and achieve positive change”.

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Born in Camperdown, NSW, in 1942, Ms Ryan is remembered as a woman of firsts.

She left her teaching career to become the first senator for the ACT in 1975, with the slogan “A woman’s place is in the Senate”. When Bob Hawke’s federal Labor government was elected in March 1983, she became the first female appointed to a Labor frontbench.

During that time, she also introduced the Sex Discrimination Bill (later the Sex Discrimination Act), which made it illegal to discriminate against women in the workplace.

Susan Ryan

Susan Ryan and Bob Hawke in 1986. Photo: Museum of Australian Democracy.

She resigned from the Senate on 29 January 1988. She was awarded an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) medal two years later, on top of honorary doctorates from several universities, including the Australian National University (ANU) and University of Canberra (UC).

In 1999, Ms Ryan published her autobiography, Catching the Waves: life in and out of politics, but she had more to do.

In 2011, she was appointed Australia’s inaugural Age Discrimination Commissioner with the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Ms Ryan died on 27 September 2020 in Sydney, aged 77, prompting a flow of tributes from former prime ministers Paul Keating and Scott Morrison, and ACT Senator Katy Gallagher.

“To me, as a single mum wanting to get involved in politics, Susan Ryan showed me that not only could it be done but it must be done, that there was an expectation on us to get involved and that it was only by getting involved that change happened,” Ms Gallagher said in March 2023.

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In the 2021-22 Budget, the ACT Government committed $200,000 to “celebrate a significant woman” and “help address imbalance in gender representation” in the Territory’s public art. Susan Ryan was chosen as the subject soon afterwards.

ACT Arts Minister Tara Cheyne says Ms Johnson will “create a wonderful sense of relationship between the public and the sculpture”.

“Lis’s artistic approach is exceptional,” she says.

“She focuses on capturing the unique personality and accurate physical presence of her subject and is able to convey movement, character and the spirit of the subject through her work.”

Lis Johnson

Sculptor Lis Johnson, by her statues of Dame Dorothy Tangney and Dame Enid Lyons near Old Parliament House. Photo: James Coleman.

The design brief is still vague, and the location is still to be confirmed, but the ACT Government is working closely with Susan Ryan’s family and the National Capital Authority (NCA) on the project.

“A realistic bronze portrait statue, 20 per cent larger than life, is all we really have at the moment,” Ms Johnson says.

Ms Johnson will work closely with Ms Ryan’s family to capture her personality and character using photos, as well as family recollections and memories, to develop the artwork.

“There’s a lot of people who knew her and what she was like, and who will have an opinion on how she should be portrayed,” she says.

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She’ll also engage a model of similar height and weight and a fashion expert to guide her as she forms the clay model. This will be used to create a mould for the bronze casting.

“You fall in love with someone when you make a sculpture of them … because you live with them every day and you’re thinking about them and looking at their image all the time,” Ms Johnson says.

“The more you find out about them, the more you go, ‘Wow, they really were amazing and I see why someone wants a statue of them’.”

The statue is expected to be completed by November 2023.

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They could always melt down the sculpture of Al Grasby and reuse the bronze to make one of Susan.

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