The artists venture into the landscape to make sense of its rugged hills, vast skies and piercing light. As each day unfolds they rise to the challenge of rendering this unique environment in all its harsh beauty using paint, charcoal, clay and a variety of other media.
After breakfast, the artists radiate outwards to different perches on the property. You can find them installed on ridgelines, creekbeds, next to water tanks, on the edge of dams. A brave few even get up in the winter cold before sunrise, capturing the first touches of dawn’s palette across the land and still make it back in time for a hearty breakfast. Around the communal table it is clear that some have not slept so well, kept awake by the incessant scuttling of a mice plague in full swing, or simply not yet coping with the close confinement of dormitory life. There are other faunal challenges in the landscape too; Steve Lopes replays his morning battle, covered by inquisitive Apostle Birds as he jostles with boards and easel in a pre-dawn tilt to get a fix on first light.
The only way to really get to know the subtleties of this slice of country is to walk through it. Loose rocks and angry, thorny bushes force you to look closely at the compositional elements – often simply an act of preservation lest you stumble and fall. Marks of erosion run ragged through this wilderness, over evolutionary millennia only the hardiest plants survive. Following the undulations of stratified sediment down the dry watercourse near the main dam of the property, the age of this land is revealed in the cutaway banks. Purple-tinged eucalypts fringe a touch-dry clay bed, whiteoverlaying sticky browns, through which kangaroos have shuffled, the pores of their paw prints preserved in marvellous relief.
Ceramicist Merran Esson, the only non-painter in the group, is fascinated by this local supply cache. She digs out the clay and takes impressions of these macropod marks, another textured imprint to add to the ones she has been taking from rocks and trees to collage together into a series of conglomerate vessels. Some of her fellow art travellers have commented on how Merran’s examination of the space is more focused down at the earth, while others are concentrating on the grand vistas. It is aneat contrast within the overall group’s creative coverage. Similarly, Elisabeth Cummings frankly admits she is more comfortable with the close than the broad expanse. At the same time she is a great believer that the interior landscape is part of how many artists interpret the exterior reality. In her own way, she just likes to ‘be’, sat down in the landscape, so that the surrounds begin to reveal themselves slowly. With her roving eye connected to well practised sweeps of brushwork, she feels for the dynamic twists of form in the trees, picking up patterns in the dense foliage to use as building blocks, simplifying the complex into a connected whole.
Making sense of this internal/external dichotomy seems to be a common theme amongst most of the troupe. Guy Warren talks of how he has come to realise over his many decades of experience that artists, or more correctly society at large, should not see a separation between human existence and the landscape – we are, in fact, all part of it. At the same time, depicting that connection without intellectualising the process is the greatest challenge of all – and even at the venerable age of 90, Warren is fearlessly tramping around the bush, pushing himself to confront the expanse before him. Without the vertical density of his beloved tropical forests, he finds the flatness a challenge, and after the rains, there is much less red dirt than he expected. Yet he is still pursuing a mix of risk and experiment, combining memories and imagination with documentary marks in an effort to create something inspirational.
That tension to remain true to the muse is evident as Ross Laurie works. Three ridgelines intersect towards the northern horizon inthe expanse that unfolds before him. Searching for the spirit of this place, he moves in a complex rhythm to hold back his brain from over-thinking how he is reading the lay of the land. He likens his process to a jazz improvisation, bringing together a multiplicity of perspectives and colour while improvising on a theme. He works the riff hard, a dynamic range of bass and treble arcing across his paintboards in the piercing afternoon light, satisfied only when the individual piece comes to conclusion in some kind of kinetic balance.
Making sense of this landscape, picking up the subtleties of undulation, light and shade, components of colour, can take several iterations. This is where the skill of these professionals becomes clear, particularly the knowledge of their materials and individual routines. There is also a sense of shared challenge in moving out of the studio-bound comfort zone and away from the familiar. The group dynamic brings with it a palpable competitiveness, understated at times, but emerging day by day – never more apparent than each evening when the fresh works are lined up along the corridor, raw and unresolved for all to see.
Rocky outcrops mark the hilltops around Fowlers Gap. Gnarled trees and shrubs cling to whatever soil is available to hold them steady in the face of the persistent wind. The groundcover is dominated by grasses and succulents, some native, many invasive according to the locals. At some points, the land drops away sharply, giving new elevation to the updrafts of wind surging from the valley floor – the perfect assistance to the occasional Wedgetail Eagle hovering on the lookout for errant prey.
Euan Macleod stands as he paints. Perched over his pre-primed canvas, he measures the mid-morning creep of the shadows as they shorten with the sun’s rise above the scalloped ridge. He likes to get his basic palette ready and just go for it – for him a lot of the mixing of colour happens on the canvas itself. He scrapes back what he sees, a cluttered and thick section of oils as a bit of dark morning blue touches the leeside of the hills. That act of evisceration immediately transforms the foreground and throws new space into this particular piece.
Amid this wandering herd, there are those who seek a solitary post to get their mojo working. Alan Jones, the youngest of the crew, has found himself a spot with barely enough shade to last out the day. But still, he has his 10-gallon straw hat for extra coverage in this improvised plein air studio. Jones works from a series of sketches to the point where he is ready to paint. But he too is a long way from his normal set-up – using acrylics instead of oils, outside instead of in, and trying to make sense of this alien landscape so far from the coast. He takes it a step further by introducing a collage element to his construction. Ripping up a series of pre-coloured pages of paper he brought with him from the city, he adds them as strips to punctuate gullies into a dirty orange foreground.
In a dry creek bed, Amanda Penrose Hart plants herself in the sand with three white, pre-primed planks, each a couple of metres wide and only 15cm or so deep. She positions the boards in parallel, the second serving as the palette for the first. The length of the plank becomes a panoramic width as she deftly works away at blobs of oil with her palette knife, sliding colour and line together to describe the vision in her mind’s eye. Jamming in the height is a challenge for her, but she feels that the essence of a landscape is always in the middle band of the traditional rectangle, so by eliminating the fill of the top and bottom, she focuses on what she sees as most important.
The wind scours consistently from the south-west, three days of cloud casting shadows across the dirt until Saturday brings an absolutely blue sky day, so big and horizons so wide that you can feel the curvature of the heavens. At night, the expedition is blessed with an amazing star-filled sky, the sparkling arrays punctuating inky blue-black expanses and the drift of clouds.
A shuffle in the dirt gives away the attempts of Jennifer Keeler-Milne to capture this nightlight on her iPhone. Her normally studio-bound explorations of illumination have been extended into this natural amphitheatre. Working away with charcoal on specially selected, textured, French paper, she builds up a thick black ground around what begins as a line sketch. She turns a Cotton Saltbush, a blue-grey plant that pushes up from the shallow soil washed down with the rains, into a delicate almost coral-like formation. She massages on the charcoal deep black, rubs it back, and then looks to redefine the outline of what is essentially a ‘negative’ image of her subject. The eventual result is an out of focus edge, picking up the shimmering glare of this outback laboratory, stripping away the colour to find her own way into the landscape – a subject alien to her daily practice.
Spectral luminescence in the night sky has also caught the imagination of Margaret Ackland. So far removed from her normal workspace, she sits under the moon and paints with water-based inks. The crepuscular blue–black gradients give a different feel to this place, as do her roadkill studies – a Pacific Barn Owl and a crow, their feathered lustre still preserved by this dry environment. A selection of small works – oils, charcoal sketches, ink on paper and gouache – comprise her visual diary of a week in the bush, along with a fascination with period photographs of the early 20th Century inhabitants of Fowlers Gap station.
Just before dawn, as the near full moon sets into the western flatlands, a rare alignment of planets is visible above the eastern horizon. Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter cluster together, a remarkable grouping that won’t be repeated for another 29 years. There are some parallels to this artistic juncture, a unique permutation of innocence and experience, brought together by a shared vision to create something memorable out of what many people would see as a barren expanse of nothingness.
Not The Way Home: Figures in The Landscape by James Compton, photograph by Sean O’Brien reproduced courtesy of Artist’s Profile magazine, Artist’s Profile, April 2012 pp62-67