27 May 2014

Plein air experiment

I've hung up the paper cutting on the washing line outside. I want to see what happens to the Tyvek when it rains. It's windy and the rain clouds are gathering so I won't have to wait long to find out.

Trying out the exercise yard...

The exercise yard at the Lock Up is a calm and slightly surreal space, with those distressed walls and iron bars across the roof. You hear the hum of traffic and beating of pigeon wings outside, but it's very quiet otherwise. I hung my work up from the Heritage Listed iron bars and watched as it floated and swayed with the breeze. And considered the possibilities...

19 May 2014

Imprints, occupation, and drawing a very long bow.

What do you read when you do a residency? This is a surprisingly central question when you are isolated from your family and friends, focussing on your work and living in your own head, as you often end up when on residency (the only actual humans I spoke to over the weekend were shop assistants and baristas). What you read can colour the residency and your research, and the decision about whether to let this happen or not can be a tough call.

Elizabeth Gilbert has recently released a book about a Victorian era, female botanist and my friend Kate had suggested perhaps I should read that while on residency.  Despite other of her books being made into Julia Roberts films, apparently the lady can write. But as I stood with the book in my hand (at the airport, not very organised), I remembered how reading 'A Passage to India' while in Rajasthan really hurt my brain and sent me on a massive post-colonial guilt trip, which in retrospect I don't think was helpful. I put the volume back on the shelf and picked up my borrowed copy of volume 1 of Simon Schama's 'History of Britain'.
December Saints IV, 2005
It's no secret that I love British medieval history (see above) and Schama's wonderfully engaging book also introduced me to the even more fascinating stone age world of prehistoric Britain, in particular the ancient settlement of Skara Brae in Orkney.  And then, last night when I was forced to watch free-to-air television (having finished History of Britain, and watched all my Game of Thrones, Pride and Prejudice and 30 Rock), a documentary about the sacred places of Britain came onto SBS.
Skara Brae, image courtesy of orkney.com
Basically Britain is littered with remnants of ancient (read: thousands of years old) villages, structures devotional sites, including one field which was a collection of filled-in 12 metre deep flint mining pits (bizarre because there was plenty of flint at the surface and no need to go digging for it).  Some places are perhaps a mound in the countryside somewhere, which will be dug to up to reveal a tomb. Skara Brae, a Neolithic village abandoned as the climate worsened in Scotland about 2500BCE, was concealed beneath sand for millenia, until a massive storm uncovered it in 1851.  Revealed in the ruins of this village were layers of occupation, a forgotten society, inhabitants who had begun to shape and impose their beliefs on the land.
Long Man of Wilmington, image courtesy of Wikipedia
Humans mark the landscape. Sometimes it's really obvious through environmental degradation, building pyramids, damming a river. Sometimes its more subtle.
Despite a wide perception that moors are wild, naturally pristine places, many moors in Great Britain, such as those in the Penines, were the result of widespread tree-felling that occured in the Mesolithic era. Thanks to Wikipedia for the image, BBC World service for the story I heard yesterday about the ecology of moors!
Look at Ash Island.  The cattle grazing, industrial sites and wholesale land clearing have left the most obvious marks on the land, and the environment is the poorer for it.  There is little evidence beyond 2 palm trees (one of which is now dead) and the remnants of an old jetty to mark the Scott sisters' 20 years of occupation of Ash Island.  The majority of the island's pre-existing plants and trees were left untouched by the Scott family. Historians have noted the few discoveries of occupation of Aboriginal occupation, although an area has been designated where remains of middens and other evidence are probably buried.
Burke and Wills 'Dig Tree', image courtesy of National Library of Australia
Yet these more subtle occupations have shaped the occupants and the land.  The 20 years of sheltered life that the Scott sisters enjoyed, on an island that supports a huge variety of butterflies and other living things, allowed them to expand their knowledge and skills into professional careers, which sustained them long after their departure from the island.  Ok, sure, gender politics held them back from having the careers that their talents truly deserved, but by the standards of the day, their career fulfilment would have been unknown to most women.  They left their permanent mark in the form of their considerable body of work, some of which is still used by scientists today, even in the days of photography! And while their work can be seen as part of a wider process of colonisation through the classification of the environment, their legacy included a catalogue of local flora and fauna which is now used by the Kooragang Landcare group to restore the environment at Ash Island.
The Lone Palm, Ash Island
Ash Island's abundance of plants and wildlife sustained and nourished the Awakabal and Worrimi people for the many thousands of years of their occupation of the area.  While early European settlers liked to think that the Indigenous inhabitants had done almost nothing to shape the land, we know this is not true.  In particular, in such a fertile area, there would have been deliberate harvesting and cultivation of particular plant species for, among other things, food, medicine and weaving. It might have seemed like Captain Cook had stumbled on an untouched wilderness, but if you were to look with different eyes you would know the truth.
Detail from my Scott Sisters sample piece
I've been thinking about this for a week now, but watching the BBC documentary last night gelled it for me.   We mark the land, the land marks us. We are inextricably linked.  There are layers of occupation, of interaction, that are left on the land, if you know how and where to look.  The land tells stories. It conceals and reveals them. It reminds us of who we were, what we did, and what the land did to us.

So there you go, I took a book which I thought would be completely unrelated to the Scott sisters (I also thought about them while watching 30 Rock and Pride and Prejudice, which are after all created by women who have struggled with the realities of career and gender) and turned it into the central thesis of my residency. I wonder what would have happened if I'd picked, say, the History of Concrete???

Finally, the sample piece finished...

15 May 2014

It's in the little details

Newcastle is full of tiny little interesting things you have to look twice to see. Like these gorgeous and unusual windows. That's actually a dance studio, I saw some people doing ballet moves up there last night.

11 May 2014

Kooragang (Ash Island)

One of the highlights of the walk the artists did around the Ash Island area was having the insights of local artist Cherie Johnson.  Cherie is from the Gamilaroi language group, now living in Newcastle and participating as an active member of the local Aboriginal community.

Cherie was able to explain to us how various plants were cultivated, adapted and used for weaving and eating, how fish traps were set and what sort of wildlife would have lived on the island in the time of the Scott sisters.  She pointed out a sea eagle that was flying up and down the river and explained that the sea eagle is the totem animal for the area.  Apart from the insect populations documented by the Scott sisters, the area was a huge breeding ground for animals, fish, whales and birds. Huge crabs, the size of two men's handspans, were regularly caught and eaten. Much of that activity is now gone, and the environment is in need of rehabilitation (Belinda said 'no way you would eat a crab you caught here now').

Cherie also provided information, from contemporary sources, which indicated that at the time of the arrival of the second wave of settlers in the area in the mid-1820s there were at least 4,000 adult indigenous men, indicating a sizeable indigenous population.

It raised questions for us. What happened to these people? Where did they go? Who was the land taken from when AW Scott was given his land grant?

The knowledge that Cherie had about the land, the uses and significance of it and its relationship indicates just how much was lost when the local indigenous people were displaced from their lands. We are all the poorer for it.

The Scott sisters' time on Ash Island was the beginning of several incarnations for the island, including an orange grove grown by their father, and later on dairy farming and industrial uses.  There are almost no original trees left on this island; it would be unrecognizable to the Scott sisters today. Interestingly, the Scott sisters' painstaking documentation of the local flora and fauna, part of the Victorian mania for collecting (and when you think about it, a part of the colonisation process), is now invaluable to the Landcare group that is involved in rehabilitating the island.

It was interesting for me to have Cherie's perspective.  In my work for the last couple of years, I have considered the role of the 'colonisers 'and what the process meant for them, to have a hands-on, on-this-spot glimpse of what it meant to the people at the receiving end, and of course the land, was incredibly illuminating.

A walk with the artists around Ash Island

One living and one dead palm tree is all the remaining evidence of the Scott sisters' house at Ash Island

From left: Belinda Howden (curator), Nicola Hensel, Shan Turner-Carroll, Cherie Johnson
The revegetation project at Ash Island seeks to repair the damage wrought by dairy farming and land clearing
Beautiful and somewhat eery mangroves. The boardwalk through this area was fantastic.
New growth in the mangroves
Shan investigates some nature
Shan and Cherie explore the riverbank (and find a jellyfish)

10 May 2014

Helen and Harriet

So of course this exhibition is all about the work of the Scott sisters, who lived on Ash Island (now part of the larger Kooragang Island thanks to some ingenious 1960s island-linking and environment-trashing). These two sisters were an interesting pair.

Their dad was Alexander Walker (AW) Scott, a well-connected scientifically-minded gent from the mother country, who moved out to the colonies for some adventure.

And some tail. He hooked up with Harriet Calcott, a woman whose parents were emancipists (convicts who earned their freedom through service) who already had two daughters by two different posh military dads. Although social strata in the colonies were somewhat more blurry than 'back home' by this point, it must have been somewhat noteworthy a family arrangement in those days. I wonder what kind of foxy lady this Ms Calcott must have been. Certainly it was a fairly liberal-minded family.

Helena Scott

Harriet and Helena Scott were born from this relationship between AW and Harriet Calcott, and lived their early years into their mid-teens in Sydney. AW had all sorts of fingers in all sorts of pies, being an entrepreneur, local member and scientist over his career, among other things. In 1846 he made an honest woman of Harriet Calcott and took his Brady Bunch (Harriet and Helena being 14 and 16) to live on an island he'd received in a land grant, that is, Ash Island, near Newcastle. They lived and worked there for 20-odd years, in various business ventures and of course AW's etymology works.

As was very common for artists and illustrators, AW conscripted his progeny into the note-taking and illustration of his work. While his step-daughters were involved, by the time they moved to Ash Island, his natural daughters Harriet and Helena really stepped in and took to it with gusto. Their contribution to the 2 volume work, 'Australian Lepidoptera and their Transformations', as well as many others, built their reputation as the foremost botanical illustrators in the colony.

A-Dubs, Colonial Multi-Tasker and Baby Daddy

AW must have been quite the eccentric/enlightened individual. Taking full advantage of being on a fairly remote island paradise full of amazing entomological specimens and devoid of the usual mind-numbing young lady pursuits such as dancing, embroidery and corsetting one's internal organs into oblivion, his daughters trained under his guidance to become highly capable and skilled scientific illustrators.  Remarkably, he acknowledged their contribution at a time when women stayed in the background or even deliberately concealed their identities if they did 'professional' work (think Jane Austen, the Brontes and George Eliot, who all published under male pseudonyms). Through stint of his training and their abilities and hard work, Harriet and Helena, who had been born into ignominious (read: trashy) beginnings, were elevated to the status of noted botanical illustrators.  Their work was known here and in England at the highest levels, and they were granted honorary member status at the Entomological Society of New South Wales  (which they could not join as they were ladies).

All around the same time, 1866-ish, their rural idyl was shattered. AW became bankrupt and his wife Harriet died.  Helena married Edwarde Forde, a scientist, and they trooped off on a romantic scientific expedition to the desert together. Naturally, as this was the Victorian era, which seems to be just chock-a-block with sad tales of tragic illnesses, they both got fever and he died, leaving her a widow in her mid-30s. The family financial situation was so bad, her dad had to borrow money to get her home from the expedition.  She worked and to her middle-class-arriviste horror, received payment, until her final years to make ends meet and avoid working as a governess. Both sisters did a broad range of illustration work in this period for scientific and commercial commissions.  Harriet married at the age of 52 and didn't do much work after that. They both died in Sydney at a ripe old age between 1907-1910.

09 May 2014

My studio

I am sharing my studio with some bits and pieces from the Lock-Up Cultural Centre collection. Some beautiful police uniforms, and an amazing old map showing Captain Cook's voyages. What a lucky coincidence!

A monument to a champion of the workers, and the hypnotic sea

Empty arcade

Re the arcade I mentioned in my earlier post. So apparently, according to my wellspring of local knowledge Belinda Howden, there is a swimming pool underneath this arcade! It was supplied with saltwater with a pipeline from nearby Newcastle Beach and was apparently closed down as it encouraged 'immoral activity' (I guess it would be called a 'beat' today). It now lies empty and derelict like the arcade above.

08 May 2014

Intriguing snakes

Check out this souvenir from World War I. A beaded snake crafted by a Turkish prisoner of war, brought back to Australia by a returning soldier.

(c) Newcastle Museum

Helena Scott (later Helena Forde) also turned out some pretty amazing snakes when she illustrated in lifelike detail "The snakes of Australia : an illustrated and descriptive catalogue of all the known species" by Gerard Krefft.


I love the word 'Novocastria' and its variations, especially the word 'Novocastrian' to describe an inhabitant of Newcastle. And this upcoming exhibition about Novocastria at the Newcastle Art Gallery (NAG) is very exciting.


There are some beautiful and fascinating pieces, many of them dealing with issues of our colonial past, including an intriguing series by Rew Hanks (represented by Watters Gallery - have a look at some of his work: http://www.wattersgallery.com/artists/HANKS/2013/Hanks2013.html):

Rew Hanks 
The Hunter and Collector (left), Macquarie's Chair (2010) linocut on paper (both works)

A walk around Newcastle

The Lock-Up Cultural Centre (that's my studio window top-right)

Newcastle Beach

They have seabaths! This place must be incredible in the warmer months. The beaches are pretty much perfect. I saw people surfing. The water is apparently warm.

Hunter River, looking back towards the sea. Found by the English colonial folk when looking for some escaped convicts. The convicts had nabbed a boat and headed north (I remember reading that some escaping convicts were looking for China, bless them). Lieutenant Shortland must have lost his mind when he discovered this incredibly beautiful, naturally deep harbour (not to mention the coal). No mention on Wiki of him discovering the whereabouts of the convicts.

The Council offices, referred to locally as 'the Round House'. Reminds me of the Beehive in Wellington NZ by Sir Basil Spence. This isn't one of his but there is some brutalist architecture in Newcastle. Brutal indeed. But is it practical? How do you fit desks and whatnot in this thing?

Some impressive street art.

Art deco arcade. I love all the 'a's. 

The actual arcade shops were mostly empty.  Newcastle is in the throes of a push to renew the old Hunter Street Mall area and surrounds, as part of a larger renewal project called 'Renew Newcastle'.  There's an empty department store which now houses artists and designers and is called Emporium.  Even though results are mixed and clearly Newcastle is still finding its post-industrial feet, you can see that there is a great buzz of creativity and lots of energy and positivity. There's lots of good cafes, hipsters, crafty shops and bars, as well as absolutely enormous coal ships and industrial infrastructure.  

One great initiative I stumbled across this morning when wanting to purchase a needle to darn a hole in my only cardigan (I'd packed light) was a craft shop called Hand to Hand Craft.  It's run to provide training and employment to people with disabilities. Volunteers Carmel and Katrina provide managerial support and it was such a welcoming, beautiful place. Excitingly, they have an artistically inclined staff member Mitchell who hand-decorates all the shopping bags and I was lucky enough to score this beautiful sheep!

Another observation: EVERYTHING HERE IS NAMED HUNTER. The river was named after the then-governor of NSW and it is like Novocastrians just want everything to be called Hunter. Quite entertaining as my husband's name is Hunter. I think we should move up here, he can start a psych practice and just call it Dr Hunter.