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

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

 

 

 

 

Robert Hannaford retrospective

Robert Hannaford watches me as I walk down the stairs towards his retrospective at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

The artist is in larger-than-life video – at first I think it’s a photograph, he is so still. He is remarkably unselfconscious in meeting my gaze. But Hannaford, South Australia’s pre-eminent living painter and three-times people’s choice winner of the Archibald Prize, has had a lifetime of painting himself to get over himself.

How do we come to get a picture of ourselves?

Hannaford’s way is to draw himself. Many paintings in the retrospective are himself, revealed.

He seems to think he’s a bit of all right. He’s a posturing country boy full of bravado and irresistible charms but he’s also vulnerable, all too human.

These are no selfies – not the ‘where’, ‘when’ and ‘with whom’ spawned by the smartphone camera. They are the ‘who’.

The retrospective is of his figurative art only (when will we see the landscapes and still lifes?) – paintings, drawings, sketches and (not enough) sculptures. The banners at the front of the gallery, the video greeting and the publicity stills would lead us to belive that the entire exhibition is self-portrait gone mad.

But it is far more than Hannaford by Hannaford. Most of the paintings are of others: his wives, his children, his grandchildren, his father one hour after death, the famous, and an old man in a shabby coat with dog.

“I never set out to be a portrait painter. I just want to understand what’s around me through form and light.” (Robert Hannaford quote on the gallery wall)

The sketchbook drawings reveal that intent: hands, legs, arms, mouths, hands clasped in different arrangements, feet, whole bodies, facial expressions. Who would have thought that pencil could be such a versatile instrument: sharp, blurry; hard, soft; feathered, precise.

Early sketches take, and deserve, as much prominence as later paintings. At age 18 he had mastered the sophistication of a limited palette: he uses charcoal with white chalk highlights to arresting effect.

And, on a central plinth, a bronze sculpture of ‘Jack’ bowling with the vitality and movement of the real boy.

Painter Scott Hartshorne, who has had the “athletic experience” of drawing with Hannaford, admires Hannaford’s obsession with actualising what is in front of him. “I realised this when I saw [in a previous exhibition] a sketch of a transistor radio by a teenage Hannaford,” Hartshorne said.

“I drew a lot at that age but would never have drawn anything so mundane. I doodled and imagined.

“Hannaford drew to draw and practise drawing. From a very early age he observed and drew the everyday with an objective eye.”

Hartshorne said that Hannaford knows how to draw a likeness, how to map a face.

“He is rigorous about making the first marks – mapping where the hairline is, where the eyes are, where the opening of the mouth is. Lesser artists like me spend time on ‘getting’ the interesting bits of the hair, the eye, the mouth themselves.”

Videos in the exhibition show how Hannaford places the easel next to his subject and goes back to his exact marked point, looks at the face and painting side-by-side, then runs back to the easel to make the next mark.

No wonder his 71-year-old body remains taut and lithe, still good enough to paint.

The retrospective at the Art Gallery of South Australia, North Terrace Adelaide, continues until 9 October 2016.

Kangaroo Island artists make a fine book

Cover of Artists of The Art Part featuring Road through the Narrow Leaf by Michele Lane
Cover of Artists of The Art Part featuring Road through the Narrow Leaf by Michele Lane

The artists’ profiles I wrote for a monthly arts page in Kangaroo Island’s weekly newspaper, The Islander are now together in a self-published book, Artists of The Art Part.

The 60 page, full-colour book is available in hard and soft cover and can be mailed anywhere in the world.

It contains profiles of 27 island artists in 22 articles, written between 2007 and 2013, accompanied by a full-colour image of the artist’s work.

For more information and to order a book visit the book page.