I often longed to return to my bedroom to draw, sometimes paint, because the artificial light could further my real illusions. All students harbour the glamour of potential success and make light of it in conversations concluding with ‘when I am famous’. It is only after time and much waiting that the expectation of success becomes changed into something more modest and the caprice revealed as a false motivation. The real virtue lies in the pursuit of excellence, the acknowledgement of which belongs with those unconnected to the life of the art’s invention; this is in turn a subjective judgement with a whole raft of contributing influences. At this point, you realise that art is not about something you do, it’s about something you are, and that if you want to be an artist, then you must work with all your strength earnestly and without pause, so that in time you may achieve a proficiency and skill sufficient to enable you to render your impressions in a heartfelt and fervent manner.
This duet composition was written mid way through 1993 intended as a contribution to developing simple scores for workshop situations. This remains its only solo performance, painted on the floor of my Canterbury bedroom. My main preoccupation was a total absorption with my studies in 1993, and determined to make my final year a success I approached the task with determination and vigour. As a result I made significant advancements in my technique and understanding of aesthetics, and found a new maturity in my ability to investigate a subject through paint. My subject became my immediate environment and I immersed myself in the streets and front yard facades that had been all I had known as home. My first task was to become an observer of, rather than a participant in suburban life. This strange self-conscious appraisal engenders new perspectives, and greater insight into things previously taken for granted. The process of stepping outside had a more literal connotation as well. Beginning with pen and paper, then drawing pad, I began to walk the streets of Canterbury and beyond, and build up a considerable body of sketches, notes and ideas that were to form a foundation from which art works were derived. These ‘Working Walks’ were crucial as a study technique, and method in which to imbue art works with real experience and the authenticity that comes with painting about the things you know. I instinctively chose to walk at night when a transformation occurred under the glow of streetlights. There existed wildness at this time, energy divorced from functionality, almost as if nature had crept back in under cover of darkness to reclaim lost territory. A tree becomes a dark sentinel, a car a formation sprouting from the nature strip like a boulder on an outcrop; gates and fences a playground for the creatures of the night and suburban Denison’s. In the following year I became increasingly aware of ornamental ironwork, which seemed to be like a secret language, speaking of the underlying motivations and social aspirations of those who lived behind the walls. The spiral emblems and decorative motifs are one of the few structural elements, which are not defined by functionality. I liked to use them as a lineal overlay, much like a theme, which bound everything together in a neat and rhythmical manner.
The final stage of this study then revealed a new emphasis on fragmentation and symbolic abstraction, using a bolder line and a more frenetic approach to mark making and paint application. These works tried to show the suburban environment as confronting, powerful and emblematic; an absolute show of strength, wealth and permanence. My houses became monolithic chambers; their ornamentation like aggressive grills to guard against trespasser’s and protect against intrusion in the safety house zone. The transformed appearance of these works both intrigues me and disturbs me, for they are definitely not pretty pictures. I wanted these paintings to be rather sardonic, sometimes witty and reminiscent of the paradox of the everyday human ritual. They formed the basis for my first one man show held at Tog’s Other Place Gallery in April 1995, coincidentally, in the same space that had been Jan’s Lyttleton Gallery back in 1987 in Castlemaine.
While I received my first distinctions from my lecturers during my final year at Caulfield, Philip continued to hold sporadic workshops in the back yard, involving children. But Extended Vision had effectively lapsed into a dormant state that was to last a further sixteen years. This was cemented by the decision by my mother to sell up our Canterbury home, leave her job, and escape the pressures of city life. It was a desperate attempt to hold the family together, and gain the momentum of a fresh start. Spending time together was only causing rifts to deepen, and much growing, independently, needed to take place.
The move to Newstead, a small township cradled between Ballarat and Bendigo in the central Victorian gold fields in September 1993 was to have an immense impact on my life as an artist. The journey began following stoically the removalist van deep into the country side. The old Ford station wagon that had lugged our performance gear for so long now carrying an assortment of carry-alls full of our most precious possessions – including two rather bewildered dogs, unsure as to where the trip would lead to and the life that was to unfold, a little at a time amidst the flurry of moving and camping in our as yet unfitted house. It was really just a weekender, with windows dulled by continuous smoke puffed from previous owners and the residue of kerosene lanterns. Without grid electricity and mains water, it felt like more of a home for the mice, in plague proportions that first season, than for its new and confused residents, colloquially known by the local community as “blow ins”. With just an existing rickety solar set-up that failed in the first weeks, and an old generator that nearly caused me to pull my arm out of its socket trying to start it, tribulations abounded. We quickly realised the impressive collection of kerosene lights the previous owners had gathered were not just for show as they had intimated! I spent many evenings drawing by flickering light pretending to emulate the feats of artists from a previous era. Initially, all the notions we brought with us, dreamily espoused, found a niche along-side the wrens in the eaves laying tiny blue eggs and pig face clinging to the gardens edges thriving on the dryness. I was still full of first urges, and the excitement of discovery and could not imagine ever losing those feelings and in many ways, I never did. The discovery became more internalised in time, and less connected to the physical reality of the environment.
The enormity of the task ahead was all-consuming and coupled with the sense of loss and separation, especially for my Mother who had retired from her job as a permissions editor at Longman Cheshire upon moving, it took time to regain a sense of belonging. Many trips back and forth from Canterbury which had been bought by my sister Micheala and her husband Mark Cannon continued, as much for solace as for practical tying up of loose ends. I was yet to complete my studies and so had established my studio/ bedroom in the workshop at Canterbury, just as Philip had done years earlier, where I continued to primarily reside in between visits to the new home. Sensing prudence in keeping separation for a time, Philip and I took turns to play a support role and pioneer in darkest Newstead, helping my mother establish the place.
The upheaval was quite exhilarating, and I carried around for the longest time a sense of freedom that being on extended holiday might evoke. But also there was great confusion and disorientation, strange feelings lingering in the silence of the night before being shattered by an anxious dog screaming off down the drive way after the shadow of a rabbit. Six acres of hungry country adjacent to an enormous sheep run, still owned by the relatives of the original squattocracy. My mother would walk around the fence line marking the border of our block in what she referred to as ‘the park’, just to get a sense of the place. It took her several weeks to become acquainted with the nearest neighbours buried behind bushland. Everyone along Pound Lane knew all about the new arrivals of course, shyly refraining from pushy inquiries, waiting for the right moment for greetings. Having taken a tiny offering of fruit cake, the only suitable thing she had and returned from a warm reception with arms full of organically grown fruit and veggies, a feeling of welcome had at last emerged. The New Year was heralded in by the crow of our rather scruffy rooster and other unfamiliar bird songs, along with the beep of a new solar system and the comforting crackle of the chip heater at dawn. Newstead in time became a place of healing and of enterprise for my family, and it was here that I commenced a new body of work based around the landscape and its casualties as well as continuing to pursue an experimental agenda with my Notation exercises.
In time I formed a deep affinity with the central Victorian landscape as both a subject to paint and a place to belong. Beginning with a set of black and white ink drawings, and then gradually introducing colour and methods to depict the complex tangle of twigs and leaf litter, wallaby grass and the patterned yellow box trunks and stumps that dominate the landscape, art works emerged, and again I found myself walking with a sketch pad and camera. With each step deeper into the paddocks, a certain strangeness creeps in, a sense that the world remains foreign and irreducible in its complexity – a rock; a branch, a collection of wool and bones. The dead sheep came to represent the fragility of our relationship with the land, a powerful symbol for just how it resists the changes we bring to it. I found many stopping places in my wanderings. Dam’s, reflecting the skyline in upside down darkness boarded by the fire of sunset where I could sit for an eternity listening to the persistent music of insects, like metal on metal and one call reminiscent of Aboriginal rhythm sticks. I would return my akubra bearing a sweat ring and my eyes shining out from beneath its brim like sparks in a 5 day growth. On one side the straggly remnant box iron bark forest bordering a vast paddock dotted with tree stumps, sweeping up toward a hill peaked with sheep silhouettes in convoy. On the other, tufts of wallaby grass springing out of the green aches and spinney’s of saplings crowned with the pale blue grey gum tips that had emerged in the absence of live stock. One evening I returned having walked straight through a muddy dam, an intoxicated Bunyip, now resembling the colour of the place. I had hoped to be absorbed, to become indistinguishable from, the yellow curtain of summer grasses and the blue grey hair do’s of the tall gums. Philip turned to me and said, ‘What the bloody hell happened to you?” I just shrugged and grinned in a way that alluded to the ridiculous.
It is hungry country, dead trees reaching skyward as if begging for moisture. When the rains do arrive, the banks of the Loddon River would be breached and low-lying roads washed away. The water would run off the surface, headed for troughs and valleys scarcely seeping two inches into the hard crust of the ground. In the wooded areas a poppet head might loom out of the scraggly wilderness, the ghost of a thing of beauty, no tree older than the last great clearing. My father’s ancestors had lived in Redcastle, a small township north of Heathcote, also a mining area associated with the Costerfield district that had been settled in the 1860’s. A whole host of reefs were opened up in with names like Mary Jane, Guiding Star and Beautiful Venus, formed along fault lines. It was a time when populations rapidly swelled and alluvial minors made a good living. Stephen Mitchell my great great grandfather had opened up reefs in 1859 that by the early 20th century saw Cyanide works set up to extract gold from tailings. As a family we had under taken a pilgrimage of sorts to what was left of the town in the early 1980’s, just the occasional scattering of handmade bricks, and iron work around the quartz in the cemetery. It was little more than a dot on the map, still listed in homage to its earlier significance. Away from the main site of the graveyard was a fence line along which some 50 Chinamen were reportedly buried. This link to the area gave credence to our decision to shift and make it our home.