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Dagnija Greste


Dagnija's extended family at her grave




The passing of Dagnija Greste (nee Zariņš)

Long time member of ALMA and the driving force behind the 2008 book Australian Latvian Artists, Dagnija Greste, passed away on 2 March 2009. She succumbed to inflammatory breast cancer, which had been diagnosed 18 months previously.

Dagnija was a member of ALMA since its formation. She was secretary from 1990 to 1998, during which time Dagnija produced a twice-yearly news letter about ALMA and related art activities that was circulated to members and supporters throughout Australia. She was a passionate supporter of Latvian art and Latvian artists and was instrumental in organising several exchange exhibitions between artists in Australia and Latvia. After her time as ALMA secretary, Dagnija remained in the ALMA executive and continued to organise and promote special projects. Through ALMA Dagnija raised money to help support other art projects, such as the World Latvian Youth Congress art exhibition in 1997, the Latvian Youth Festival art exhibition in 2005, and for visiting young artist Ilze Abika to take up residency at Bundanon, the Arthur Boyd property near Nowra in southern New South Wales in 2006. In order to raise money for publishing the Australian Latvian Artists book, Dagnija organized an artists masked ball in 2007 called An Unforgettable Night in Atlantis, a wonderful evocation of the Bohemian lifestyle.

Dagnija's biggest project was to coordinate publication of the book Australian Latvian Artists. The book was her initiative and she was the driving force behind it, acting as coordinator, editor-in-chief and helping the other book committee members to have faith that the large amount of money required for the design and printing could be found. Dagnija is featured in the book and also contributed an essay on the history of ALMA.

Dagnija passed away peacefully at home in the presence of her immediate family. Nearly 300 friends came to farwell Dagnija at her funeral on 6 March 2009. Her body was buried at Rookwood Cemetery in the Latvian Lutheran section.

Eulogy at Dagnija's funeral

Obituary published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 21 April 2009 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

Australian Latvian Artists book

Launch of the Australian Latvian Artists book

Dagnija's cancer journey (opens in new window)


Written by Sally Madgwick, Inga Madgwick, Gundega Zariņš and Ojārs Greste. Read by Sally Madgwick at Dagnija's funeral on 6 March 2009.

Dagnija loved a good funeral and would love that you are all here today to honour and pay your respects.

Mum was born on the 4th August, 1942, in Riga, the capital of the Latvian Republic, which was created at the end of the First World War, and occupied by the Soviet Union in the Second World War. To avoid life under communism, Aleksandrs and Olita left their homeland after Dagnija turned two. The young family spent 5 years in Germany in various Displaced Persons’ camps where her brother Kristaps was born, until migrating to Sydney, Australia, in May, 1949. The early years in Australia were spent in Bathurst and Greta Migrant Camps before moving to the family home at 16 Ferntree Rd, Engadine.

Engadine was then a new suburb, surrounded by abundant native bush trees, flowers and rocky walks along the pipeline to the Woronora river. Our grandmother, Omi told me that Mum would gather clay and pigments and mix her own paints from the backyard bush: there exists one painting still from that era, a landscape. Dagnija was first and foremost an artist, her naturally driven talent influenced every facet of her entire life. She was influential at a young age, and bucked the system early when she won with her radical design of a school uniform for the new Heathcote High School. The blouse was to reflect the bush earth, a taupey cream, that she and Omi dyed with tea and the skirt colours inspired by her backyards native reds, browns and greens with a fashionable design for a skirt that pleated at the front, never before seen in that context. This uniform would be proudly worn by her sister Gundega.

Dagnija’s last years of high school included studying life drawing with Professor Bissietta in the city. It was the beginning of a pattern of travelling and reading on the train in the mornings and late at night during her student days, where she would eventually meet her first husband Rodney Madgwick. Mum talked fondly of her years in between the obligatory drawing, painting and essay-writing for Sydney University and East Sydney Tech, a time of stimulating her intellectual thirst for films, plays, Spanish music, jazz concerts and a myriad of exhibition openings. A turning point in her artistic development was meeting the artist Ian Fairweather during a hitch-hiking trip to Queensland with her friend Irena Pauliukonis-Sibley. His dirt-floor workplace in the bush on Bribie Island was filled with tins of commercial plastic paint and paintings on masonite sheets. It was not the bohemian studio expected of an artist. It made her evaluate her four years of diverse experiences, and lack of focus at art school.

Dagnija’s life as an art student changed over the next ten years to that of teacher, wife, mother, and community activist. After a period in Melbourne in the mid-60s she had married Rodney Madgwick and moved to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea where her daughters Inga and Sally were born in 1968 and 1970, respectively. After separating from Rodney in 1970 she purchased 12 Dock Rd, Birchgrove, as a single mother during which time she completed her Diploma of Art Education at Sydney Teachers college and taught at various schools. Dock Rd, is remembered fondly by Inga as a "girls house", helped with support and rent from Mary Page, who would become one of her life long best friends and Lija, who became Sallys godmother, her sister Gundega and many days and nights of fun, dressing ups, excitement, glamour and a fabulous independence of feminine spirit. Later, working with a challenging group of artists at the John Ogburn Studio and intellectualising about painting, gave her a vocabulary about art and seeing.

Mum saw life as one big possibilitiy, believing that reaching for the stars was important, and like Opi, her father, that perserverence and belief in something meant not giving up after the first attempt and that sacrificing for things that are important was a key to achieving most anything that a heart or mind was set on.

In working towards a goal mum could enlist and motivate teams to achieve her aims. With her young daughters and Ojārs Greste who had by 1973 moved into Dock Rd, they worked, scrimped and saved in order to travel for a six-month overseas trip during the late 1970s. This included a road journey West to East across the USA in a Ford LTD, then on to Paris, London with Inga and Sally, meeting back up with Ojārs in Spain, travelling on to Stockholm, Leningrad and Riga, enabling her to look at paintings with a deeper approach to meaning. Visiting Latvia at this time and experiencing the repression there, changed her attitude towards her ethnic background. It contributed to her re-orientation towards the Latvian community in Sydney and a commitment to a relationship with Ojārs Greste who shared this similar background. The remainder of the 70’s, was spent teaching at Riverside Girls High School, Punchbowl Boys High School, and working at stage design, book illustration, and curating art exhibitions.

Dagnija and Ojārs Greste married on 8th November, 1980 here in this Church. Mum held a fascination with religious iconograophy, symbolism and all faiths that valued the experience of the life force. Edgars, their son was born just after her 39th birthday on the 6th August 1981. The challenge of re-discovering the Latvian language, through study and teaching it to an infant son became the motivation behind a new involvement in various community organisations.

It was to be a ten-year period of intense politicisation and focusing on the homeland’s struggle for freedom and was rewarded by a second visit in 1991 to a Latvia on the brink of independence. The wish to introduce Latvian culture to a wider public led her to produce the first ever Latvian compact disc featuring the chamber choir Versija, assisted by Ojārs' nephew Martins Koskins, organising a national choral concert tour in Australia and facilitated the involvement of that group to perform at the Sydney Festival in 1994.

Dagnija believed it was important to encourage alternative international networking for artists. Her achievements with her involvement of the Australian Latvian Artist Association was a number of reciprocal art exhibitions. In 2008, she co-ordinated the submissions by 15 Australian Latvian artists, including a landscape of her own from the balcony of her Dock Rd home, to a permanent collection of Latvian Diaspora art in Valmiera, Latvia. In August of last year she travelled to the opening to be present at this key moment of her cultural pursuits. As Australian culture goes forth into the world, Dagnija’s vision was that it will advance positions created for it by its ethnic connections in every corner of the globe. This vision of hers manifested itself in the book Latvian Artists in Australia, the production of which she was the driving force, and which was launched on 27th December, 2008 during the Australian Latvian Arts Festival in Sydney. (Available for sale at the wake!).

Mum was fortunate enough to have four grand daughters Tahlija, Savannah, Jet and Scout who brought her much joy and pride and will be part of her living legacy. Mum wanted to live to be 101 and to drive with her girlfriends in a Bentley back up the road she took with Irena, and to have a studio where she would paint with Ojārs and share the space. It is only these two goals that remain unfinished as she passed away on Monday, 35 years too early.

Dagnija was daring, often accepting that rules were made to be broken, she dreamed and dared to do things that most people would not dare to do. This courage she showed as she faced terminal breast cancer by doing all that she could to heal. Surgery was not possible with the diffuse nature of the disease and she underwent both conventional medical therapies of chemo and radio therapy, alternate therapies and a dramatic change in lifestyle and diet but the physical effects of the cancer overcame her.

Mum passed away peacefully at home, conscious in the presence of her close family.


Eulogy readings

Written by Baiba Metuzāle-Kangere on the occasion of Dagnija's passing.
Read by Edgars Greste.

Dagnijai aizejot...

Tu teici vasarā, ka zieds visskaistākais
ir mirkli īsu pirms tam jānovīst

Zieds saulei uzsmaidot tik spožā krāšņumā
par veltēm pateicas ko tā tam devusi

Zieds it kā veldzi vēl sev meklēt grasītos
bet mirkļa ilgums tomēr ir saules nosacīts

Un saulei jāseko ir šim, ir visiem ziediem.
Tik krāšņais mirklis tavs lai mūsos paliek vēl


Author unknown
Read by Inga Madgwick

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there, I do not sleep

I am a thousand winds that blow
I am the diamond glints on snow

I am the sunlight on ripened grain
I am the gentle autumn rain

When you awaken in the mornings hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush of quiet birds in circled flight
I am the soft stars that shine at night
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there, I do not sleep

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