Is it all over?

Monday 6 August the pit was opened 24 hours after it was set alight and it worked!

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This is my last creative observation for the camp and a most satisfactory way to leave Coward Springs. I leave soon after, but some of the artists stay for another day (the gale forecast for Backstairs Passage means that Tuesday is not the day to be ferrying home).

I head off to two places I visited about 12 years ago, when I was fortunate to participate in a regional tour to the Flinders Ranges. Back then the state government organised trips by regional people to other regions so they could learn from them about business, community and tourism possibilities. It was a very rewarding experience and many ideas have stayed with me.

The first place I revisited was Old Beltana, a State Heritage town. On the regional trip we’d met young people who had a vision of rebuilding the town, which was almost empty. Now the permanent population is 35, and about 20 houses are inhabited – some are new but most have been restored. It was fantastic to see.

The other was Blinman, a most picturesque town. I stayed at the North Blinman Hotel, an extremely hospitable establishment. And dinner, of meatloaf and mash, was just the ticket.

What a beautiful experience the camp has been. It might seem that all the artists on Kangaroo Island would know each other well but it’s a big island and we are widespread, and all with our own lives to be getting on with. How fortunate we are to have this time to spend getting to know one another and one another’s art practice. It’s a shame more artists couldn’t be squeezed in.

Prue and Greg were the perfect hosts at Coward Springs Campground – so generous, so accommodating, so helpful. It’s been inspiring to be around two people who have transformed a desert ruin into a campground with character, and everything you could want for a stay-over. Thank you so much for everything.

And for anyone heading out on the Oodnadatta Track, call in and stay a night or two. And enjoy.

Island to Outback is supported by the Australian Government’s Regional Arts Fund through Country Arts SA

 

 

Firing up

Me: Deb and Kenita just drove out. Where would they be going?

Janine: They’ve gone to get cow shit.

Of course.

There’s a reason. Some of the pots that everyone has been diligently crafting for the past few days are ready to be pit fired. It’s a test, to see how they turn out, and the work that is not dry enough now will be fired later back on Kangaroo Island.

Deb says that pit firing is common in Central America, where she lived for quite some time and in India and Indonesia.

Deb and Kenita line the pit with cow dung and then place the pots on top. Deb adds in salt from Lake Eyre in one section, salt from around Coward Springs in another and some pots do not have any salt near them. One pot gets a dollop of salt inside. Maybe they will have different looks.

She makes a dome of cow dung around and over the pots. The largest pat makes the lid.

Then wood over the top of the dung and set it alight. Cow dung burns hot and long and so is perfect for a natural firing, when there’s no kiln.

Deb estimates it will burn for about 4 hours and be cool enough in 24 hours to see the results.

In the meantime Ria and Prue are down in the wetland by dawn. Prue records the bird sounds while they paint in silence.

Ria is a model of devotion to improving her practice. She draws and paints at every opportunity, even under the duress of the conditions – the short time we have here and the incessant wind, the flies, not to mention the unfamiliar living conditions. In the afternoon she works on in her room away from the wind and flies.

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Ria says she is here to paint and learn. ‘I want to be able to apply a colour once and it be the right one to capture what I am seeing.’

She looks to Nick’s technical skill which she says shows the hours and hours he has spent practising. ‘He knows exactly what the colour to use, and he has fine drafting skill.

But all is not rosy with Nick. His bad back has limited his painting output on this trip but is pleased he has captured many birds with his camera. He has two paintings on the go, one of the wetlands and one of the Coward Springs museum but that second one he is not happy with. He will start again.

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Island to Outback is supported by the Australian Government’s Regional Arts Fund through Country Arts SA

 

 

 

 

Capturing the spirit

Like the artists on the Island to Outback camp, Dave and Ruth are brimful of ideas for the type of film they can make to portray the creative endeavour. Or will it be films plural?

Ruth says she first envisaged a documentary of the camp in a fairly straight way but what we are now thinking is a film of the art camp, and an installation.

David, the cameraman, is thinking the installation would be shown on 2 monitors, each with its own moving image – maybe one shot evolving slowly and the other in contrast constantly changing. Playing with the concept of time and space.

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Ruth incognito, Dave on camera and Gethin getting down to capture the sound

As far as the documentary is concerned, he can see a Kangaroo Island environment set against the Coward Springs environment, using the artists as a vehicle for that. He intends to follow them up back on the island.

They are following a documentary narrative, keeping it as free as they can but they do need structure. The artists are insisting on being their own person in their own creative way. Ruth and Dave say that they do like that much of the time the artists wander off on their own even though it is hard to film them without being intrusive.

They know that they have to be ready for whatever is happening. ‘You roll the camera and then you find out what is going on,’ Dave says.

One artist goes to the same place every day; one constantly wanders to different places, for example to collect. One stands by their easel barely moving for hours; one flits from one thing to another, never working on one thing for too long. Some are natural in front of the camera; others aren’t.

Ruth, whose background is in costume design, says that on a film set she adheres to a strict schedule. Here, no one is in charge and the schedule is non-existent.

What they have seen is artists having a go at practices or media that they have never considered before and finding a way that they can make it their own.

Dave acknowledges what a blessing it has been to have Gethin bring his sound expertise to their filming.

I speak to them both during a break in reviewing the 9 hours of footage they have already shot. They are assessing what they have and what is missing. Dave thinks that they might capture at least another 2 hours and they might end up with up to 15 hours – which will have to be brought down to about 25 to 30 minutes.

Island to Outback is supported by the Australian Government’s Regional Arts Fund through Country Arts SA

 

 

 

Hunkering down

After a ferocious night and the wind still howling, we hunker down, mostly on the front veranda of the Coward Springs residence once the Station Master’s House when the Ghan passed this way. The sun shines on us and we are out of the wind.

Janine continues with her daily diary – a timeline of the camp in found objects, natural and made. ‘Things I see in the course of the day – linear things.’ The long strip of jute is reminiscent of the long horizon or the old railway track.

“It was a pre-planned exercise because I wanted to make something that was durable and transportable.’ But the value of the group dynamic revealed itself on the first day when Kenita suggested hat she pull jute threads from the strap to sew on the objects.

‘I choose things that appeal when I pick them up but I lay them out for contrast in colour and material.’

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The artists on the veranda seem to have a plant focus, perhaps concentrating on the small things to block out the larger all consuming wind.

Maggie is focused on space and her place in it. She first visited the wetlands but could not find space there. She certainly found it at Lake Eyre and is contemplating how to convey the scale – on the edge the enormous cracked plates and the corrugations, the expanse of blindingly white salt. Perhaps a vertical Japanese paper series. ‘With the vertical you feel like you go a long way. But with the horizontal …’ She and Deb discuss the possibilities and rummage through their sketchbooks. Deb is thinking about corrugated iron.

Whatever Maggie and Deb, realise, I have no doubt it will be evocative of the space we are all in for this short time. Each in her own way.

The day ends with a group meeting. Do we want an exhibition to come out of this camp? Yes we do.

 

Island to Outback is supported by the Australian Government’s Regional Arts Fund through Country Arts SA

Moving day

Was it the inspiration of Lake Eyre? Or was it just that the first few days of ‘what am I doing?’ what can I do?’ ‘I’ve hardly got any time to get anything done’ came to an end? Whatever, today was moving day.

Action sprung up all around. Quentin arriving in the dark at Coward Springs mound springs to grab the first light; Dave and Ruth filming in the earliest rays; Ria, Prue and Nick painting that morning glow of the wetlands.

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Ria and Prue at the wetlands

Two Brolgas came to visit as they do, and made a heron seem like a small bird.

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Not everyone rose that early but they awoke ready to make art. Deb’s clay class attracted a crowd  – some who had not worked clay before; some who revived the pleasure; some who continued on as they were. First-timer Janine said that she enjoyed it immensely. Maggie shared the bench and painted.

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Prue, Ria and Maggie at the potting bench

It was a busy day. I took four visits to brolga environs, begging them to come in closer (and envying Ria – they practically landed on top of her when they flew in). Sitting in on the clay moulding and watching imaginations run riot under Deb’s minimalist instruction. The conversation was instructive, illuminating even, though not necessarily about working clay.

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Kenita and Janine work that clay

The museum housed in the Engine Driver’s Cabin has been beautifully restored and curated by Greg and Prue. That was the location of my interview for Dave and Ruth’s film, with Gethin controlling the sound.

Quick off to the spa before the crowds descend for Ria and Deb.

Janine’s heading to the glass garden to make today’s collection for her linear diary of the Coward Springs camp. More on that tomorrow.

I jump in with Quentin and Dale for a trip to nearby Wabma Kadarbu Mound Springs Conservation Park and the Bubbler mound spring within. But The Bubbler is  not cooperating – bubbles schmubbles. The sun is setting. Quentin is not getting the photos he wants. Then a juvenile Brown Falcon settles on a prominent branch and proceeds to pose no matter how close Quentin gets and which angle he approaches from. There’s always something to capture with the camera.

A quick visit to the placid Blanche Cup and then off for a long walk to a new mound that does not meet expectations let alone exceed them. And we head back towards the thin strip of orange sky above the horizon while we can still see where the car is.

It’s wine o’clock. Buffer up against the mosquitoes.

My god, Lake Eyre

Work? What work? Today was about taking in more beauty and wonder and marvels than my brain and heart and soul could possibly digest.

But first our guide, Reg Dodd of Arabunna Tours, showed us an ex-Dead Finish tree near the roadside, which some person(?) had recently taken a chainsaw to for firewood. There are almost none of the small trees, like Dead Finish and Mulga, left on these plains. Surely they would have been a scattered feature of the landscape not too long ago. And seashells in their millions, interspersed with the occasional fish vertebra where an ancient seashore was to become a borrow pit for road works until the local people stopped that atrocity.

 

On to Lake Eyre south. Not the lookout far from the shoreline but into an area known to Reg, and a lucky few, right next to the shore.

 

Down the short cliff across a mottled salty plane we walked. Then gingerly across plates cracked from the salty layer  – some brittle, some firm – to the thicker crust of white, white salt extending, it seemed, forever.

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Travelling away, I could almost convince myself that the cracked plates were gentle waves and the salt behind was water rippling with a non-existent breeze.

How to top that off? How about some cooking mounds that would escape the western eye but were verified by ash underneath the gibber, and fossil bivalves and trees. Not quite but …

 

And the occasional flower (without my flora, a pelargonium and a chenopod)

 

Island to Outback is supported by the Australian Government’s Regional Arts Fund through Country Arts SA

 

 

Brand new day at Coward Springs

Waking up in the desert is an altogether different experience from your own familiar bed at home. It’s cold, the birds are yelling it’s a brand new day, and no household chores are niggling at you to be done. Sounds like a template for inspiration and creativity.

This is my first morning at the Island to Outback, Kangaroo Island artists’ camp at Coward Springs. The others woke here two mornings ago when I was just setting out from Kangaroo Island.

But here we all are now: Artists Deb Sleeman, Janine Mackintosh, Kenita Williamson, Maggie Welz, Nicholas Burness Pike, Quentin Chester, Ria Byass, Prue Coulls; filmmakers Dave Foreman and Ruth de La Lande; sound whizz Gethin Creagh; writer Kathie Stove; and supporters Dale Arnott, Holger Welz and Greg Emmett.

Island to Outback is supported by the Australian Government’s Regional Arts Fund through Country Arts SA

Trains, buses and planes, part 3

It’s a plane: Alice Springs to Brisbane without a camera. I love a window seat on a plane, as long as it’s not above the wing.

Lines of sand dunes with and without vegetation. It’s the Simpson Desert. It’s an Aboriginal dot painting. How do they see the landscape from the ground? No planes, satellites or virtual reality. Extraordinary. I’m reminded of Yami Lester at Mimili in 1979 when the flowers were blooming in abundance. He saw, he knew, despite his blind eyes.

Plains rutted and lined. It’s Channel Country. It’s a Maggie Welz ink drawing on paper. Which way do these streams run? It’s impossible to tell from up here.

All too soon, roads appear. They’re easy to see because they are straight and everything else is randomly curved and fluid. At first not many but then more and more they break up the landscape, along with paddocks defined by fences.

The dots reduce to just along the watercourses and then disappear altogether. Green circles created by centre pivots leap out of the landscape. It’s the Darling Downs. The bush reappears ordered into blocks, 5 acres maybe, each with an access road to a cleared area. They aren’t the dams I at first think; they are cleared house sites. They are like a grid across my window view.

The mountains reach towards the plane and then the announcement to prepare the cabin for landing as we pass Toowoomba.

Welcome to Brisbane, the building site.

Trains, buses and planes, Part 2

Group tours are not my usual choice when I’m travelling. I do like to take the solo route. But my recent visit to Uluru showed me that the group choice can be a good experience.
I travelled from Alice Springs to Ayres Rock Resort on the daily bus run by AAT-Kings.

I’d had an awful night at the Mercure Hotel where another guest had access to my room because the electronic lock failed. It was several hours before the lock was fixed. This unnerving experience was topped off by the table I’d booked for dinner not being allocated and when I was plonked next to a large group of tour guides getting training, I declined to stay.

But, back to the positive. The AAT-Kings bus driver from AS gave informed, interesting and appropriate commentary. Best of all he actually talked about the vegetation. Impressive.

I booked in at the Desert Gardens Hotels. Such good service, explanation of what was on offer by the trainee. The resort aims to have 40% indigenous employment soon and are working solidly towards that aim. The whole complex with accommodation from high-end to camping is cleverly set out and maintained. It has a town centre, supermarket, bank, and all the services you could need.

Encouraged by the trip to the resort, I booked a Valley of the Winds walking tour to Kata Tjuta with AAT-Kings. Jackpot.

Guide Geoff was terrific. Very clear on instructions, very knowledgeable but didn’t go on for too long about anything; kept us away from other groups so we didn’t feel crowded and could enjoy the majesty of the surrounds in peace and quiet. I was utterly fascinated by the diversity and abundance of the flowers. Geoff had the local field guide and a bit of knowledge of his own, and he encouraged me to take my time for photos. Alas no macro lens but plenty to see – probably more than 100 species in 4 days.


The next day, I took the resort bus to Uluru for dawn and a solitary walk around the base. Oh dear. Yes, the group of 10 were horrible people but the bus driver lost the plot. Get me out of here. And there’s no way to walk around the base alone. And Segways are for hire. Seriously? I now know they are remarkably noisy machines – and far too wide for parts of the path. Nonetheless a wonderful experience and plenty of places to be alone with the rock.

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Back to AAT-Kings for the return to Alice via Kings Canyon rim walk. We lucked out again with Geoff. I had no idea – spectacular scenery all round, cycads in the canyon floor, geology that seems to be mini-Bungle Bungle (but Geoff said is quite different) and cliffs that look like they are sliced crème caramel.


Back in Alice, the Mercure offered me, for my previous inconvenience, $6 off an overpriced breakfast. Wow, why don’t you try to insult me?
But not to finish a fabulous red centre experience on a sour note, I had just enough time before I hopped on my plane to Brisbane to take a quick scan of Desert Mob 2017 at the Araluen Regional Art Gallery. Not nearly enough time to do this excellent exhibition justice.

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Desert Mob 2017 at Araluen Regional Gallery Alice Springs