Island to Outback

Island to Outback is an exhibition by Kangaroo Island artists Ria Byass, Quentin Chester, Gethin Creagh, Prue Coulls, David Foreman, Ruth de la Lande, Wendy Haylock, Janine Mackintosh, Nicholas Burness Pike, Deborah Sleeman, Maggie Welz and Kenita Williamson, curated by Eleanor Scicchitano. It is the creative outcome of the artists residency at Coward Springs, a desert landscape on the edge of the mound spring system and the Old Ghan Line. This is my essay accompanying the exhibition.

In time

At Coward Springs it seems that you can see forever.

The Kangaroo Island artists who ventured to that campground 829 km north from the tip of the island at Penneshaw all saw something new, in the landscape, in their artistic companions and in themselves.

Here is a landscape vast and open and dry and endless and beyond words. It sits over the continent’s largest inland sea which perforates the land through mound springs. These founts of water, each one unique, bubble, seep and run with ancient water endowing life to this land. It is a place of deep weathering time, of beauty and brutal conditions.

The Fount

Photo: The Fount by Quentin Chester

For Prue, this desert place is her home for half the year; for Wendy, Deb, Ria, Ruth and Dave it is a very familiar place where they have visited their friend over many years; for the rest it was new. Yet everyone who came together for ten days in July–August 2018 yielded to an adventurousness, born of the time and permission to devote to art practice, and a place apart from ‘normal life’. That was what they were there for, a serious purpose, no distractions. As a place of deep time, it forced artists to go a bit deeper. For some, their artwork in this exhibition is entirely new practice, after years of sticking to a tried and true approach.

There was plenty of time to be on your own and work your own way – to touch and feel the landscape, to absorb it and to express it in art. The pottery bench was a place to learn about ceramics and also about each other – chatting while moulding and forming. The front verandah of the house was a place of respite from the wind, but only if you had a fly net; in the museum the net could also go. Bliss. The night camp fires were a warm and friendly wind down after a rewarding day. The storm – well that was just bloody rude.

At Lake Eyre you can see forever.

Arabunna elder Reg Dodd shared the precious gift of Lake Eyre, once the ocean bed, once a lush forest, now after a long drying time a white, shiny, crusty, salty, awesome vastness. This exposure to one of the world’s most magnificent sights was the heart of the experience. It brought a new mood, a more thoughtful, contemplative, overawed need to somehow process what we had seen. How is salt, the scourge of agriculture on Kangaroo Island, such a delicious thing in this setting?

On Kangaroo Island in 2013 the low-lying lagoons of Magillivray and Haines joined into inland seas when a massive downpour ran down to that lowest point. Without an outlet, the water sat and salinated for almost two years. Now, after two drought years it is a salty dry barren wasteland. There is little beauty, yet this area might become a lake of joy and wonder. If it gets there the process will be much more rapid than the 30,000 years for Lake Eyre. Mankind is seeing to that.

At Kangaroo Island you can now see what forever could be.

On 9 January 2020, islanders were brutally reminded of what an island means, as the fires swept from the west. The coast that had always been an avenue to a rich marine world became a barrier to escape. Half of a landscape that has always been notable for its vegetation is now black sticks and ash. Mallee, she-oak, sugar gum and river red gum hundreds of years old – many now gone, burnt or slaughtered in the aftermath. The field of vision has expanded alarmingly. Now the tourists who complain that they can’t see the view blocked by roadside vegetation have their wish. And those who wish to be rid of that ‘ugly scrub’ have an argument.

Islanders, born or made, are different. They are individuals, often excessively so. They are windswept yet hugged by the sea. They are torn between being independent and demanding to be helped, often at perverse times. People in the outback are similar, creating a world within a world.

The people of Kangaroo Island arrived in different waves over the last 200 years. The soldier settlers, after World War II, established houses and farms in a foreign place with skills hastily acquired. Once that was done, the women got together to build an inner and more social life. They took themselves off to art camps at scenic places on the island – spoilt for choice of course – for a long weekend or a week.

The artists camp at Coward Springs was built on such attributes and traditions but it was more. Taking off for a world apart where so many things were different, yet so many things were not-so-gentle reminders of home. Take the wind, please.

At Coward Springs the sea is underneath everything, on Kangaroo Island it surrounds. But in both cases there are limits. We know the Great Artesian Basin and its mound springs are inexorably losing their life force, seeping into extractors’ pockets. We know our marine waters are being depleted of life.

Some might hanker for simpler times but they are gone. The world is a very complicated place and our artists have a place in telling this complicated story of life. They can show the present and ponder the future. Will our grey, heartbreakingly dry lagoons become white wonderlands? Will our recovery from the fires bring more rapacious development to our island?

In the centre, there were no straight lines until the railway, fences and roads pushed straight through, and bores went down and water towers went up. We, people, changed the landscape forever.

We should know now the world is not infinite. And this is on our watch.

We are all different because of the Coward Springs artists camp. And we are all different because of the fires that raged across half the island and threatened it all. But we all, more than ever, know Kangaroo Island is our home.

Kathie Stove

February 2020

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