The word “muse” is a loaded one. It often feels like rhetorical innuendo that elevates a woman while dismissing her, frequently obscuring the muse’s own accomplishments in the process. Artist, dancer, and environmentalist Vali Myers is one such muse whose remarkable life took her from a sleepy Australian upbringing to the Bohemian cafes of post-World War II Paris and the wild beauty of an Italian nature preserve. A colorful character in both literal and figurative senses, this flame-haired creative spirit would leave her mark on some of the most prominent artists of the 20th Century, including Tennessee Williams, Jean Cocteau, and Patti Smith.
Born in 1930 and raised in a tiny village on the east coast of Australia, Vali’s creative spirit meshed poorly with traditional schooling. Sensing that she was cut out for a different kind of life, she left home as a young teenager, earning a living by working odd jobs while honing her artistic skills. She was an outstanding dancer. and at age 17, she became a lead in the Melbourne Modern Ballet Company. Although she had found remarkable artistic success at a young age, Vali continued to chafe against conservative Australian culture. Yearning to expand her horizons, she left home on a months-long boat trip to France in 1949.
The reality of postwar Paris was shocking to Vali. Far from the glittering, artistic refuge she’d imagined, she found a city in the grips of economic depression that offered few paying opportunities to advance her dancing career. The cafes of Paris’ Left Bank became Vali’s home, a world where artists, wartime refugees, and members of the criminal demimonde coexisted in an atmosphere thick with smoky intrigue. She continued to dance and draw, carrying her growing portfolio of artwork with her since she had no fixed address. It was during this period in her life that Vali was immortalized by Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken in his photo essay, “Love on the Left Bank.” Depicting her in the role of a semi-fictionalized character named “Ann,” van der Elsken’s images capture the city’s gritty but exhilarating Beat Generation.
Risking deportation for her homelessness (and her associations with shady underworld figures), Vali opted to get married in order to stay in Europe legally. Following a period of wandering alongside her husband Rudi Rappold, Vali returned to Paris, finding the city newly invigorated by an infusion of American intellectuals and the currency they brought with them. A combination of her raw talent, eccentric personality, and haunting gaze attracted the attention of these latest creative émigrés. Tennessee Williams based a character in his 1957 play Orpheus Descending on Vali and George Plimpton, founder of the highly influential literary magazine The Paris Review, was one of the earliest supporters of her artwork. Plimpton was the first to share Vali’s art with the world, publishing her images in his magazine. Several of the elements of Vali’s style are present in these early drawings: the wide-eyed self portraits and characteristic line work are rendered in simple black and white, giving no hint of the vivid, warm tones that would later infuse her compositions.
Late nights in bars are often accompanied by an excess of alcohol and drugs, and Vali was not immune to this kind of chemical escapism. During this period of restless, bohemian living, Vali’s use of opium developed into a dependency. The drug left her exhausted and subject to episodes of withdrawal, and she yearned for a place where she could settle and regain her health. A new phase in her life began in the valley of Il Porto, an almost impossibly beautiful town on the southwest coast of Italy. Surrounded by greenery and wildlife, Vali was spiritually renewed. Her personal style became more eclectic, shifting from beatnik style to richly-hued velvets, piles of exotic jewelry, and voluminous fur trim that prefigured the hippie style by nearly a decade. This potpourri aesthetic was reflected in her artwork, which evolved into colorful, psychedelic portraits employing swirling shapes and saturated colors, steeped in mystical nature imagery. She also collected tattoos, including a series of swirls and dots on her face that evoke the features drawn in her portraits.
Though she drew and painted in isolation, Vali made frequent journeys to Manhattan’s legendary Chelsea Hotel, where she would sell her work to her admirers. One such fan was Patti Smith, who Vali tattooed during one of her visits. These trips to the epicenter of New York City’s counterculture scene once again brought Vali into the limelight, allowing her to meet such luminaries as Mick Jagger (who purchased her artwork) and Andy Warhol (who recommended that she sell reproductions of her work and price her painstakingly created, rare originals accordingly).
Life in Il Porto was rustic and, at times, stressful. Vali shared her tiny cottage with her husband was later joined by her lover, artist Gianni Menichetti. Her marriage to Rudi ultimately ended, but Gianni would stay with Vali, working beside her to transform the property into an officially recognized wildlife sanctuary and caring for the homestead during her travels. The cottage where they lived had no electricity, but Vali preferred to work by gaslight. More eccentric still was the fact that she drew and painted while inhabiting a specially built cage alongside her beloved pet vixen, Foxy. The artist’s process was slow and meticulous, with drawings gradually taking shape out of carefully applied pen marks over the course of months and sometimes years. Life at Il Porto was recorded in a 1965 documentary titled Vali: The Witch of Positano, which captures Vali dancing, caring for her animals, and casting love spells.
Perhaps surprisingly, Vali found herself drawn back to Australia in later years. Her plan to visit Melbourne in 1993 turned into a love affair with the city, where she reconnected with her Australian roots. She would spend the remainder of her life splitting her time between the cottage in Il Porto and her studio gallery in Melbourne. At the time of her death from cancer in 2003, she expressed contentment with having lived a full life. As a final gesture of gratitude to the city she came to call home, she bequeathed her artwork to the state of Victoria.
Today, Vali’s legend is carried on by a new generation of artists and designers who find inspiration from her unique personality, striking appearance, and beautiful artwork. To some, she is the vagabond beatnik dancer of the early 50s; to others, she is a witch, communing with nature and beguiling men while tattooed with intricate designs and wrapped in brightly colored caftans. Vali the person may be getting more distant as the years go on, but the beauty of her spirit has made an everlasting impression on the world.