I’ve long admired Anna Schwartz and Zahava Elenberg; from a young age, I visited Anna Schwartz Gallery with my Dad (he often worked with her artists), and remember my senior school art teacher introducing us to Bill Henson’s work via his portrait of Zahava, who went onto embody something of a beacon in terms of conjuring your own career path. Since becoming a mother myself, I’ve frankly marvelled at their capacity to live, work, and parent on their own terms.
Today we talk family with the formidably creative – and incredibly close – mother and daughter, living proof that a relationship based on love, recognition, and respect is life-lasting.
Zahava, you grew up in an incredibly creative home; there were always interesting people around, and you were very much incorporated into your parents’ ‘big world.’ Looking back, how do you think your early years informed who you are – and your own approach to parenthood?
I don’t remember my childhood as a continuous narrative, more salient moments comprised of photographs, stories, and memories. When I join them together, I have a part-factual, part-fictional history of myself. Learning to ride a bike under the Moreton Bay figs in Lavender Bay; chiselling marble with my Dad at our house in Northcote; travelling with my Mum and living in Italy. I remember the winding streets of the village where we lived, accidentally setting fire to the studio, and painting murals on the walls – but also moments of sadness and loss.
I want to give my children the same big experiences connected with big ideas. We travel, we camp, we muck around – our lives are inextricably linked to the world around us. I don’t believe in a separate childhood; life is now, and it’s all part of a storyline. The irony is that, as a parent, you want to protect your children from loss and pain, but sometimes, in the end, those are the very things that define you.
Anna, you chose the pioneering progressive school Preshil for Zahava, who’s gone on to send Lilith, Boaz and Hephzibah there, and served for a time as Director of the school’s Council and Foundation. Can you both tell us a bit about your commitment to alternative education – as the mother of a young child, it feels like options for this are dwindling.
Anna: I consider it important for children to have happy, respectful relationships – not only with children, but adults who are involved with their education. I think creativity and curiosity are important, and am not a big fan of authority, so Preshil was a natural choice.
Zahava: I’m a huge advocate for progressive and independent education, or educational democracy that teaches children how to learn, empathise, think creatively and take risks – and frees them to be kids for as long as they need to be. There are only a handful of truly progressive schools in Australia, where philosophy and implementation are actually aligned. Preshil is a marvellous example of such a place; free and expressive, but adaptive to each child’s needs. Learning should be fun.
Zahava, you won the Telstra Young Businesswoman of the Year award in 2003, after designing your first apartment building in your last year of university and founding an architecture practice with Callum Fraser aged 24. How much did Anna’s ‘never take no for an answer’ example guide your own career?
I was encouraged to believe I could achieve anything I set my mind to, and was lucky enough to be given the platform to do so. Plus I knew I’d be a terrible employee, so I had no choice but to forge a professional life on my own terms.
I have many interests and have never want to be connected with just one thing. Elenberg Fraser was the first phase of my career, and now I’m focused on my furniture fit-out business, Move-in, which provides FF&E (furniture, fixtures and equipment) for student accommodation, serviced apartments, and hotels.
I’m also on the Board of the Melbourne International Film Festival, I’ve a lifelong interest in film and writing. I try to follow paths that interest me – and wherever that takes me is fine.
You’ve both excelled in your chosen fields as working mothers, which is no mean feat – how were you supported in this, and is there ever such a thing as balance?
Anna: I think it’s natural to work in life, and have a family if you so desire. People usually have capacities far greater than they use.
Zahava: There is no magic balance – just a nebulous and unpredictable mix of obligation, hard work, frustration, and joy. I came across a line a poem recently that said, ‘a year is more than that, and less’ – that’s how I see my life.
My Mum and Morry have always supported me in every choice I’ve made. We are a very close family, I speak with my Mum every day – it’s a 40-year-long conversation, with no beginning and end.
Zahava, can you give us a glimpse into how your days start and end with Lilith, Boaz, and Hephzibah? Anna, how do you most enjoy spending time with them?
Zahava: Our days are messy; my children are extremely independent, and everyone has their own interests. Lilith is doing her final year at school – she loves science and all things gory, and wants to be a doctor (I find sutured fruit all over the house). Boaz is 13 and has his own skateboard brand called Kosher Boards; he designs and produces decks, then sells them via Instagram. Hephzibah is a magician, she can make anything into a work of art, and is forever imagining and causing chaos.
As an only child, sometimes I find the mayhem difficult; I can crave solitude and clean, empty space. But I also love the busyness. We have chickens, rabbits and dogs, and there’s a constant stream of people through the house – our door is always open and the kitchen busy, but I love to cook so don’t mind at all.
As they get older, I find we don’t do as much all together anymore – apart from eating! I enjoy having individual relationships with each of them. Boaz and I have amazing hiking adventures, including ice climbing in Antarctica; Lilith and I have travelled Europe with my Mum; and Hephzibah and I rock climb on weekends.
Anna: I like to be part of their school lives when possible, and travelling together – I often taken one of them overseas when I need to go. I love walking in the bush and skiing with my grandchildren – though they’re close to surpassing me.
Moving across time, what kind of adults might you like your children to grow into, Zahava? How would you both like to be remembered by them?
Zahava: I want my kids to have fulfilling and meaningful lives; to contribute to the world; be adventurous and curious, kind and empathetic, idiosyncratic and inventive; and never stop exploring. They can remember me however they like – hopefully, as a positive influence.
Anna: I would like to be valued as a holder of values which they consider and remember – and for my cooking.