Mirka Mora: The teacher

By Meg Hill

Mirka Mora was one of the city’s most famous artists. Her career tracked with Melbourne’s development – her murals and studios appearing in key locations at prime moments.

She moved into Collins St’s Grosvenor Chambers in 1951 as Melbourne’s bohemian moment began. She then opened Exhibition St’s Mirka Café a few years later, where Joy Hester had her first major exhibition. 

This was followed by moves to East Melbourne, St Kilda, back to the city and Richmond and the development of Melbourne’s subculture seemed to follow her.

And for 23 years of that career she also taught at the Centre for Adult Education (CAE) on Flinders Lane.

Mirka passed away last year aged 90. CAE and the City Library celebrated Mirka’s life this August with an exhibition, a talk and a walking tour. 

Mirka was born in Paris in 1928. She narrowly escaped the Holocaust with her family while in transit to concentration. After the war she moved to Melbourne with her husband George.

After a short stint in the south-east they moved to Grosvenor Chambers on Collins St – Australia’s first custom-built artist studio complex. She had exhibitions in their living room.

“Her exhibitions there would open with a three-day party,” said Isabel Simpson, who ran CAE’s talk and walking tour. 

“Nobody ever bought anything, but celebrities like Anthony Perkins, Katharine Hepburn and Stanley Kramer would arrive between 11 and midnight.”

Apparently, Fred Williams would arrive with drawing ink in his pocket and sketch Mirka, her children and her cat Napoleon. 

Mirka moved to St Kilda in the late ’60s, where she opened the Tolarno Hotel. Her murals are still scattered around the suburb in restaurants and by the foreshore. 

In 1978 she moved back to the city into an apartment studio on Rankins Lane. That same year she was one of the artists chosen to pioneer Melbourne’s first art tram project. 

The tram – coloured a rich red and white scheme and covered in Mirka motifs like moths, serpents and flowers – operated through the streets of Melbourne before being auctioned in 1986.

The exhibition at the City Library was compiled from Mirka’s and her students’ art. The centrepiece was a mural also from 1978 – Mirka and 300 people.

Mirka collaborated with 300 of her CAE students to make the mural’s six panels – each at a different station that the “CAE art train” stopped at on the way to Castlemaine.

A note from a student, Edith White, read: “During my first CAE painting course with Mirka, I accidentally spilled paint onto the picture I was creating, but Mirka cried out ‘Quick! Capture that into your painting!’ which was a lesson to me on how one could deal with a ‘disaster’ creatively”.

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