Category Archives: Artists

Meeting Mittigar

COUNTRY CUSTODIAN A man of the Darug Nation (Photo: David Walsh).
COUNTRY CUSTODIAN A man of the Darug Nation (Photo: Kevin Welsh).

A writer’s encounter with the Darug Nation.

Writing for Blue Mountains Life magazine brought plenty of insights into the region’s finest homes, yet whenever an early property’s history was explored, a constant theme arose – the indigenous heritage of the Hawkesbury and Penrith Valleys.

Ever since the area was earmarked for land grants and agriculture in the colony, European settlers and their descendants encountered the traditional owners of the lands adjacent to Deerubbin, the Darug name for the Hawkesbury River.

There’s also the matter of warfare between the settlers and the Darug, a subject rarely spoken or written of, yet an unavoidable part of the Hawkesbury’s history. This article was published in the Aug-Sep 2011 edition.

Custodians of country

Learning pathways at Muru Mittigar.

Researchers, community members and tourists are able to share a brilliant resource in Muru Mittigar. Meaning ‘pathway to friends’ in the Darug language, this cultural centre, adjacent to the Penrith Lakes, has reached out with a message of reconciliation and learning since its establishment in 1998.

The day I visit, Wayne Krause shows me through the newly renovated shop and the cultural centre itself, where a timeline, a map of Australia’s Aboriginal territories, and interpretive signage illustrate the journey of Australia’s Aboriginal people, with a focus on the place of the Darug Nation.

It becomes clear very quickly that this is not a museum in the European tradition – it comes to life only with the guides, who interpret Muru Mittigar’s displays for visitors.

“‘Art’ is European terminology,” Ngemba man Peter Williams explains, as he interprets a painting on Darug law. “This picture is telling the story in the old way, what you can and can’t do, where you can and can’t go, in relation to Darug Country”.

“The hands done in red are those of men who have done law. The hands in yellow are those of women who have done law. The black and white hands are those men and women who have not yet done law.”

Symbols of islands in the Hawkesbury-Nepean river, of land bridges, of nets for catching animals, of bush turkeys, quolls, possums and other food sources in the region are easier for me to interpret than the concentric circles – “They represent the law itself,” Peter says, also showing me the spirits figures in the work.

Peter and Wayne explain in turns how Darug culture fits into the whole of Australia’s Aboriginal landscape, often ribbing one another on points of learning and territory, yet it’s clear these men, despite being of different nations (Wayne is of the Kalara people of the Wiradjuri language group), are brothers.

“We’re all one,” Wayne says, “but there is a diversity of culture in New South Wales”.

I arrived with a basic understanding about who was a famous Darug warrior, and who was of a neighbouring nation, but both Peter and Wayne are quick to explain how warriors like Pemulwuy (featured in a near life-sized image at Muru Mittigar) are considered brothers of the many Aboriginal nations of Australia’s east coast.

“It’s not about skin colour,” Wayne says, “it’s about spirit. All the mobs have relations with others. Our dreaming coincides. Clan groups and skin groups travel, and you encounter the same stories, and the stories never stop.

“In this country, there are more sites – art sites and camp sites – than anywhere else in NSW. It’s been estimated that there are 27 sites per square kilometre.”

When I ask Wayne if it’s Muru Mittigar’s role to preserve these, he says: “It’s our job to ensure Aboriginal culture is practiced, not preserved. Aboriginal culture is alive. The challenge is now to make sure our Mother, our country, survives.”

“Muru was a necessity,” Peter adds, “to set up a permanent base for teaching. I needed to be taught Darug language, and now we have fluent speakers.”

“One of our dreams is to develop courses for people to learn about culture,” Wayne says, and Peter quickly adds: “It’s a slow process, bringing mobs together, teaching people to be one again. The law has been lost, and respect. The settlement turned everything topsy-turvy. The money system became greater than the law.”

“It’s time to come back, to take away the power struggle that money brings. It’s not ‘mine, mine, mine’, we are all custodians,” Wayne explains.

Looking over a map of Australia’s Aboriginal nations, Wayne and Peter demonstrate something about how Aboriginal interconnection works.

“If you know your clan, family, blood, animals (totems, or ‘meat’), your scarring and your teeth,” Wayne says, “you could travel across this country and the people will know where you fit into the system”.

“It’s not about which clan had which land,” Peter adds. “You can walk and sing your way through country”.

PROUD WARRIOR Peter Williams interprets a portrait of Pemulwuy.
PROUD WARRIOR Peter Williams interprets a portrait of Pemulwuy.

“Which you can’t do by flying across it in a plane,” Wayne is quick to point out.

When it comes time to ask about the wars between settlers and the Darug in the Hawkesbury, both men are clear that conflict was secondary to settlement.

“Many of the settlers were starving, and the indigenous people showed them how to survive, what to eat,” Wayne explains. “The wars happened when the indigenous peoples’ source of food was taken away. When Bennelong went to London, he saw what was coming and he knew there was no way it could be stopped, but by the time he came back, there was full-scale war.”

Looking again at Pemulwuy’s image, Peter explains how the warrior’s family scars are similar to his own: “But if you were at the same camp fire as him, you’d sit still and be respectful otherwise he’d be able to-” and he slaps a fist into himself.

Peter also notes how none of Pemulwuy’s teeth are missing, another symbol Aboriginal people look for to interpret another brother or sister’s place in the community.

I ask Peter and Wayne where they learnt about their country and their law, and they name the three uncles who, twenty years ago, ensured the next generation learned what they needed to.

“Learning breaks down barriers that don’t need to be there,” Wayne says. “It’s not about blame, it’s about teaching others to look after Mother Earth.”

“Muru encourages our people into higher education. Not just the training but employment too, in tourism, hospitality, woodwork and other industries. As an Aboriginal not-for-profit corporation, Muru Mittigar has a high amount of employees.”

“The Darug were pretty-much decimated,” Peter says. “There were diseases we had no resistance to, and we were blended into the community as a whole. We’re never going to know the full story until the law comes back, but people learn culture on many levels. and we teach what we know.”

The effects of the Hawkesbury’s settlement by Europeans is just one part of Muru Mittigar’s story – I leave with my preconceived ideas replaced by a growing understanding of the land that we share, and the feeling that the Darug nation is in very good hands.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Bill Moseley, Genevieve Carroll & the creative type

ARTISTS' END Genevieve Carroll and Bill Moseley of Hill End Press (Photo: Martyn Thompson, Vogue Living).
ARTISTS’ HILL Genevieve Carroll and Bill Moseley of Hill End Press.

A Writer’s encounter with Artists in residence.

ONE of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever done involved a journey to Hill End, hub of the NSW Gold Rush, to meet a pair of artists who’d taken on an unwanted printing press and set up their own print floor.

Bill and Genevieve are a creative powerhouse, artists each in their own right and in collaboration. Their responses to the textures, cultural heritage and ‘feel’ of Hill End rank amongst the finest in the Hill End Artists in Residence program, because they not only ‘do’ art in Hill End, they live it.

Their devotion to an old printing press, furthering the distribution of the written word, makes these two honorary writers in my book.

This article was published in Blue Mountains Life magazine in October-November 2010.

Artist’s print

Bill Moseley and Genevieve Carroll on the ‘unlimited addition’ to their Hill End studio.

On the day Julia Gillard became Australia’s first female Prime Minister, I drove to Hill End, catching radio reports on the leadership change at various high points across the ranges, further from the reach of mass media with every bend in the road. It struck me that I might have an old-fashioned ‘scoop’ on my hands for Hill End.

I was indeed the one to break the news to Genevieve Carroll and Bill Moseley of Hill End Press, an arts destination which very recently acquired that vintage tool of the print media – a letterpress printer.

Art and artists have been the staple industry in Hill End for long enough to rival the town’s first boom: gold.

Bill and Genevieve have lived and worked here for the past six years, exploring a variety of media, which, as is the case with many artists, is hard to define. It’s obvious after only minutes that their art extends from photography and textiles through to making great coffee and cakes in a building which is at once a studio and a cafe.

Genevieve is a mixed-media practitioner whose work in textiles, painting, drawing and sculpture touch on the theatrical at every turn. Hers is an exploration of how texture, design and form dominate the fabric and tools of our entire lives.

She generously shows me a large textile work (in preparation for a Bathurst Regional Art Gallery Exhibition in 2011) laying like a map of fields on her work bench, golds and yellows achieved through her own dyeing process. “This will just keep growing until it’s as large as the wall behind me,” she says.

Bill’s black and white photographs grace the entire wall of another work room – surreal, often comic studies whose subjects range from unsettling horror to mesmerising beauty. Many are created using a pinhole camera, a time-consuming process requiring exposures of 45-minutes instead of a split second, a medium which will be employed in his own 2011 show at BRAG. In addition, he’s a shipwright, a training-ground which, “equipped me for life,” Bill says.

“Bill’s also our master printer,” Genevieve adds, leading us into the printing room inside a classic Hill End shopfront which once belonged to Bernard Holtermann, the man who discovered the world’s largest gold nugget nearby in 1872.

The room has an immediate feeling of industry – shelves of ink and trays of movable type dominate a work bench surrounded by a variety of printing presses.

FAST HANDS An operational platen printing press makes like work of print runs.
FAST HANDS An operational platen printing press makes light work of print runs.

Genevieve and Bill are largely self-taught printers. “We’re very low tech,” Genevieve confirms. “You can’t learn to use a letterpress anymore, even at TAFE, mainly due to OHS concerns,” Bill adds, “but we’ve learnt a lot from other letterpress printers online.”

In the corner by the door is Bill and Genevieve’s Gordon Platen Press. Like a larger-than-life treadle sewing-machine it has the mechanical brilliance of an era long-gone, the kind of machinery transported in pieces to remote areas during the industrial revolution.

When no-one else wanted it, Bill and Genevieve were given this press by an auction house in Waterloo and transported it to Hill End in a box trailer. “It once belonged to Clement Meadmore,” Genevieve says. When I suggest the artist known for his large-scale metal work owned a printing press because it had a sculptural quality regardless of its use, Genevieve says: “that’s why we thought we’d accept it. We had no idea we’d eventually know how to use it,” she says, laughing.

“There would have been one of these presses in every town. In the old papers you see plenty of advertisements for ‘letter press feeders’,” Bill explains.

“They’d have to be someone very quick with their hands,” Genevieve adds. “My job is to stand in the background when Bill’s printing and say: ‘hand out, hand out’ at the right time. There’s an old saying about printers ‘coming-a-cropper’ which was to do with getting their hands caught in the presses.”

We choose some brightly coloured rubber ink and set about printing Hill End Press business cards. Bill uses a spatula to scrape a line of ink onto the large circular plate, and pumps the pedal to get the rollers spreading it evenly. The sound is a well-oiled melody akin to the pistons of a steam train. En masse on an old printing floor it must have been deafening.

Beautiful Italian ‘Fabriano’ stock made from 100 percent cotton is loaded and pressed against the inked ‘platen’. After only a moment Bill retrieves our first print, saying, “Gutenberg would have known how to use this,” of the man who invented the printing press in the 15th Century.

The impression on the paper is firm and sharp, and the satisfactory first sample is left on broad wire drying racks to the side. Achieved with little more speed than placing an original on a photocopier and pressing a button, the finished product has a three-dimensional quality which no photocopier seems capable of producing. “You can do a print run of 100 in a pretty quick time,” Bill adds.

MOVEABLE TYPE A plate of type prepared for print.
MOVEABLE TYPE A plate of type prepared for print.

“There were pieces missing when we got it which you can’t buy anymore,” Bill outlines, “and certain tools which we needed to either make or have made, like the roller gauge which you use to ensure the rollers are at the right type-height. Without that you get furry or streaky print quality”.

“We had help from skilled friends to complete the press, but we also had to be quite self-sufficient, to persist and find ways to make it work. It took about 8 or 9 months to get it to print,” Bill adds.

Graduates of the National Art School, “we had an art-school romance”, Genevieve says of the life partnership which was a result of their meeting. Their individual art practices are startlingly different, but what they now have in common is the press.

“We’re inspired by Leonard and Virginia Woolf,” Genevieve relates. “They set up their own publishing house – Hogarth Press – and would have had a very similar press to ours. It gave them the ability to print and publish their own work, and that of others, and that’s what we want to do,” she explains.

PRESSED FOR TIME The Hill End Press rabbit is a recurring symbol of the place.
PRESSED FOR TIME The Hill End Press rabbit is a recurring symbol of the place.

Hill End Press’ first venture into publishing has seen them create a range of gift cards which are available from Bathurst Regional Gallery and a number of Sydney outlets.

The cafe is open “whenever we’re here” Genevieve laughs. It’s the opposite of a cafe with art on the walls – the walls are art, and every inch is filled with expression.

Genevieve’s suspended papier-mâché creations get mistaken for gold nuggets, “they are wattle” she explains of the ‘clouds’.

When Holtermann got rich from his gold nugget, he poured his time and money into a unique photographic record of the goldfields of his day. That a building associated with him continues to thrive as a destination replete with art, photography and now printmaking seems quite apt.

And the Hill End Press symbol of the rabbit above the door? “That’s easy to answer” Bill says, smiling, “they’re like us and our press – all about mass reproduction.”

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

The Writer of little things

GETTING GRITTY From small irritations, beauty is born.
GETTING GRITTY From small irritations, beauty is born.

Starting small.

I pride myself on being a wordsmith who could write on just about any subject, but such surety comes after over two decades’ experience. When I started out, I really had no idea what I was capable of.

So, a when a good friend got a job as a magazine editor, and called in a panic about not knowing what a “drop-cap”,  and other editing terms, referred to, I talked her away from the edge by looking everything up online with her on the other end of the phone. We both learned much from those sessions, without her boss having to know she (and me) were playing journo-school catch-up.

Eventually Eden asked more than unstinting support in a time of need, and commissioned me to write a feature about the history of beads. My late partner Jono had traded in semi-precious stones, and created jewellery out of them, so I knew my away around a bead shop, but a feature was a different matter. I just dived in, did my research, and came up with the goods, and they even used my headline! A new career was born in the process …

PORTABLE STYLE Beads have been strung, trades and prized for millennia.
PORTABLE STYLE Beads have been strung, traded and prized for millennia.

Little Treasures

A brief history of beading

In 21st century Australia we do not generally cook over fires with hand-crafted earthenware pots, read by the light of handmade candles, or make our own writing paper, but at the very centre of our culture is something as ancient as all these things: beads.

Most of us wear and use beads every day as functional items like buttons.

They are durable, attractive little examples of a living archaeology; museum pieces we wear, touch and treasure in our daily lives.

A brief look at the history of beads is not really history at all, because the manufacture of beads has not dramatically changed in thousands of years. It does not require very sophisticated technology to string small perforated objects onto a length of twine or wire. Five thousand years ago, artisans were capable of much the same techniques we use today in beading. Their work is often the only evidence of vast civilisations.

Probably the earliest gem like materials collected were those that were most apparent, such as amber and pearls.

The amber pieces which regularly wash up on the Baltic shores and the east coast of Britain are an attractive and highly prized adornment traded for millennia. Likewise, the pearls of equatorial climates, gifted out of the mouths of oysters, have long been considered things of great mystery and beauty, worn and exchanged over great distances.

Shell, bone, wood and stone appear in all ancient civilisations as far back as 30,000 BC.

By around 2,500 BC, most continents saw complex religious and political cultures spring up in fertile river valleys, from Mesopotamia, Egypt and India, and beyond into Asia and Africa. These location yielded excellent agriculture, but also the raw materials for bead making, and the environment for excavating precious metals.

Beads are evidence of an international trade in these materials, created by the demands of royal and aristocratic lineage, and the artisans they patronised.

Egypt still remains one of the most influential beading cultures of all time. Within the borders of the Nile river valley were all the raw materials to produce beads from a time long before the pyramids were built until the era of Cleopatra, over two thousand years later.

LAPIS OF THE GODS Tutankhamun's death mask is unarguably the prime example of Egyptian cultures love of lapis lazuli beads.
LAPIS OF THE GODS Tutankhamun’s death mask is unarguably the prime example of the Egyptian culture’s love of lapis lazuli beads.

Egyptian gold, turquoise and carnelian were crafted into the enduring Egyptian jewellery styles, most notably their iconic collars. The only material the Egyptians were forced to import was their beloved deep blue lapis lazuli, which was traded from ancient Afghanistan.

Perhaps Egypt’s greatest gift to the world of beads was their development of glassmaking techniques. The application of heat to sand and colouring agents created an early synthetic material called faience, which, over time, was improved to what we know as glass.

Because of its cheap production process, it was possible for most people in Egyptian society to buy and wear synthetic stone, or replicas of more precious materials.

Most of the known Western world was absorbed into the culture of the Roman Empire by the time of Julius Caesar in the first century BC. The Romans manufactured and traded glass on a grand scale, influencing beading from Britain to India.

CANDY CANE Glass bead being formed while viscous.
CANDY CANE Glass bead being formed while viscous.

Glassmaking began much like the process of candy makers – long ‘canes’ of hot coloured resins were stretched and sliced, then cooled into various sized beads. Mixing colour into an array of patterns was a common practice, and the further each cane was stretched, with the same patterns and colours running though it, the more matching beads were able to be sliced from it. Each bead could be perforated with hot metal rods while the glass was still viscous, creating a hole for stringing.

During this time, the Anglo-Saxon language gave us the word “bede”, meaning “prayer”, showing that the religious association of beads was always strong. The major religions borne of this period – Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism – all adopted the use of prayer beads in rituals which are still practiced today.

Rome’s far reaching influence took European traders into Africa, and European beads appeared as far afield as South East Asia, impacting the beading styles of those regions, which held ancient beading traditions of their own.

BEADED BRIDE Complex stone beading became a wedding tradition in India.
BEADED BRIDE Complex stone beading became a wedding tradition in India.

India had developed vast industries of stone beads, such as carnelian and agate, formed into detailed adornments such as the highly prized bridal collars. Thereafter, stone beads became a major Indian export.

African cultures had ancient jewellery traditions using organic materials such as seed, bone and tusk, and some of the richest sources of gold, which was exported back to Europe and beyond. The exaggerated animistic style of African beading impacted the later Roman and Byzantine decorative arts.

Glass remained the most widespread material for beading, and as the Roman Empire collapsed, the processes of glassmaking were kept alive by artisans in Phoenicia and the vast Islamic empires.

In the eastern regions of Arabia and Persia, the manufacture and trade of beads during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance saw new styles develop at a time when art and culture in western Europe diminished.

The Renaissance, from around 1400 AD, saw the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman cultures, including their beads. This was the era when Venetian glass influenced the decorative arts, and glass beads enjoyed a revival. The brightly coloured and textured Chevron bead was first created in Venice c.1500 AD and exported across the known world.

Exploration to the Americas took glass beads to the New World. It could be said that gifting large numbers of glass beads became something of an invasion technique, employed by explorers from Christopher Columbus to the conquistadors in South America.

The Native American and South American cultures had an impact in return. The Mayans and Aztecs prized Guatemalan jade over gold, and developed some of the most sophisticated techniques for drilling very long tubular beads. American Indians created detailed beading techniques to adorn everyday clothing.

Archaeology had a major impact on beading styles in the 20th century. The best example was the 1920s excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun, the young Egyptian Pharaoh who was buried with unarguably the richest and most varied collection of decorative arts, which took modern minds back to the everyday items of New Kingdom Egypt.

Fashion in the 1920s, and certainly 20th century jewellery, were influenced by this major discovery. The highly intricate collars adorning Tutankhamun’s body were replicated by jewellers worldwide.

Beads often affected modern economies. For thousands of years it was impossible to produce spherical pearls, a process hidden inside the hard shell of oysters, but, in 1913, when businessman Mikimoto Kōkichi pioneered the mass production of perfectly spherical cultured pearls in Japan, the sudden influx of affordable yet perfect pearls sent jewellers worldwide into a spin.

Here in Australia we have Western beading styles in a setting which bridges South East Asia and the South Pacific, with the growing influence of Aboriginal Australian art, and it is not uncommon to see all these influences at work in contemporary Australian jewellery.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.