Meet the country writers boosting a festival’s word count

“It’s like living on a writer’s retreat and I love it.”

AUSTRALIA’S rural heartlands are renowned for cultivating works of literature, and in the northern NSW region of Glen Innes the second annual High Country Writers Festival is busy fostering wordsmiths ahead of its final sessions on Saturday October 24. It’s also getting help from plenty of country-born locals who are great with words.

International travel writer and blogger Amanda Woods has had her wings (slightly) clipped by the global COVID-19 pandemic, yet this New England born-and-bred journalist will be chatting at the High Country Writers Retreat with authors Mary Moody and Mary Garden (also renowned travel and adventure writers) about capturing the world on the page, especially at this time of ‘armchair travel’.

Glen Innes-based travel writer Amanda Woods

According to Amanda, being able to live and write in the country is “a gift”.

“The simple fact that I am woken up by the sounds of magpies rather than construction work, as I used to be in the city, allows me to start the day gently and slip into my writing with ease, rather than having to fight to centre myself and block out what’s happening around me.

“It’s like living on a writer’s retreat and I love it.”

A regular contributor to popular publication Escape, Amanda has also been published in Mindfood and Australian Traveller. She creates stories for her own site, Adventures All Around, and is currently working on a piece showcasing the New England region for The Telegraph UK.

“It’s such a great feeling to be a part of something special in my home town. I love the way the festival not only brings great authors to Glen Innes but also brings local people together to bond over books,” she said.

Call To Home

Deepwater-based writer Lucy Munro

Deepwater-based writer Lucy Munro will be chatting with Mary Moody about cool-climate kitchen gardening at The Makers Shed, and finds inspiration on her 45-minute commute into Glen Innes.

“Whole paragraphs sometimes appear to me somewhere along the New England Highway,” she said.

“The smallest and most uncomplicated day-to-day moments evoke so much creative feeling within me, and I regularly leave interactions with people with a fully-formed story in mind.

“I think this is because for the most part, country people – and country life too – is genuine and meaningful. What you see is what you get, and there is no greater stimulation for writing than that.”

Published in The Planthunter, Belle Magazine, and Smith Journal, Lucy is undertaking a Masters in Writing at the University of New England, and will have an essay ‘Call to Home’ included in Trisha Dixon’s new book Spirit of the Garden. She cites isolation and poor Wi-Fi as challenges for country writers.

“But time has taught me that these are elements that are precious and needed most for my writing. It also helps that I have an expanse of paddocks to wander and animals to ‘anthropomorphise’ when the disconnect is too much.”

“There is so much creative work happening in this region and around rural Australia. Writers festivals like this provide space for this community to connect and share ideas and stories. “

Author Walk

Inverell Shire-based writer D’Arcy Lloyd

Emerging author D’Arcy Lloyd is currently working on a series of short fiction works based on the story of Waterloo Station, home of the High Country Writers Retreat.  

Raised in the Inverell Shire and drawn back to it after four decades living in cities and coastal regions, she was inspired to revive her writing output as a result of the move.

“I started dabbling with fictional writing in the 1980s, but it wasn’t until I returned a few years ago that I realised the various book concepts and a number of draft short stories that had grown out of the sites, colours, sounds and smells of the New England.  

“Cosmopolitan inner-city living is thrilling and stimulating, and I miss it, but this region nourishes me, inescapably.  It’s like a vast emptiness pregnant with whatever we allow our dreams to make it.”

D’Arcy will be launching her website at the High Country Writers Retreat during an ‘author walk’ of Waterloo Station with co-owner Deborah Anderson, complete with heritage tales that are part of her new ‘Waterloo Series’ of micro fiction.

Box Seat

Deepwater-based author Michael Burge

The support of this team of local wordsmiths is wonderful. They’ll lead conversations with our visiting authors and get to the heart of some fabulous books and storytelling now available in this region. Every one of us grew up on a New England farm, or still farms today, and we all have a connection to this landscape and its ongoing stories.

My first novel (a coming-of-age crime story to be published by MidnightSun Publishing in 2021) is set in a mythical place, although the towns, locations, buildings, streetscapes and farmlands are unmistakably the uplands between Delungra and Bingara, the country I came from.

I’ll be joining Moree-based author Nicole Alexander for a chat about breathing life into historical fiction, which I’m probably looking forward to more than just about anyone else planning to attend the session!

Since moving to Deepwater in 2017 I’ve been working on two manuscripts set in the past, one of which revolves around the 19th century railway gatekeeper’s cottage I call home.

It’s a great privilege for me to be able to sit in the box seat and hear an acclaimed author like Nicole open the door on how she creates an historical novel.

The High Country Writers Festival & Retreat continues on Saturday October 24, 2020 in the Glen Innes Highlands.

 

 

Perseverance key to Powell’s pottery

THE natural environment of the New England region, and the mindfulness of daily work in the clay studio during the COVID-19 pandemic, were influential in a collection of new ceramic work by artist Max Powell of Glen Innes.

The exhibition ‘FormWork’ will fill The Makers Shed with an array of pieces throughout spring.

According to Max, daily practice and perseverance were key to this prolific period of creativity.

CERAMIC CURVES: New works by Glen Innes potter Max Powell

“I came to ceramics through art making and fell in love with the endless possibilities of this elemental and enduring material,” he says.

“There is always the element of the unexpected and surprise that keeps me asking ‘what next?’ Clay has become an obsession and a daily necessity as I explore different pathways and grow ideas.

“Spending time in the workshop honing skills and focusing on the evolving processes keeps me in the moment engaging body and mind in a holistic way that has kept me anchored through these turbulent times. 

“The perseverance we need today is a basic tool for the potter.”

Inspiration also comes from spending time in the bush observing the shapes, colours and surfaces found in nature, Max says.

“As well as the making processes involved in transforming this most basic elemental plastic material into expressive form.

“I like the end product to reveal the honesty of the materials by leaving some exposed clay body on show, along with the effects created by the alchemy of multiply firings building up different glaze layers.”

A range of large ‘water bowls’ that can be used outdoors as bird baths, and a selection of vases and platters will be on offer, but also a range of large-scale works that will form a unique centrepiece to any indoor design.

“Besides producing useful objects, clay can sometimes result in ceramic work that can satisfy not only the maker but also engages others and adds richness to their daily rituals,” Max says.

FINE FORM: Max Powell’s new exhibition runs until November 28 at Glen Innes

Beyond the surface

A graduate of the National Arts School, East Sydney Technical College, and Monash University, Max Powell came to ceramics through the art of glazing.

“Painting the surface has always been my focus and with these new works I have tried to develop stronger forms that compliment the surface but still make their own statement,” he says.

A Glen Innes-based secondary and TAFE art teacher, he has a longstanding reputation for high standards of artistic practice in the region.

“I love the sense of community,” he says, “and the open landscape that lets you escape to the nearby majestic national parks. I love the seasonal changes that shape our lives”.

“Inspiration is everywhere: moss, lichen, a rock, a piece of wood, the landscape and the rich history of ceramics and the many stories that get mixed into the clay.”

Powell cites artists like Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Lloyd Rees, Elizabeth Cummings and Angus Nivison as influences throughout his career, which started in arts education but quickly moved on to public art commissions and exhibitions throughout the New England region.

“I feel privileged that I have been able to spend my time making art, responding to the world around and engaging with like-minded people,” he says.

FormWork runs until November 28 at The Makers Shed, 123 Grey Street Glen Innes

Art and validation (and why they don’t mix)

WHEN I was fourteen living in the Blue Mountains of NSW, Australia, two life-changing things happened to me: I developed the ability to draw and paint well; and I realised I was gay.

“Capturing and generating emotion – not validation – is the real skill in all arts.”

One of these led me to years of study and training in visual, fine and applied arts, with others fostering my nascent skills. The other led me to fifteen years’ profound fear and confusion. It’s likely you’ve already worked out which is which.

Creative skills and homosexuality are traits I was born with. Although I had relatives who were artistic and same sex-attracted, both states came out of nowhere for this kid, who in the early 1980s had become quite accustomed to blending in with the furniture.

But when I sold my first artwork at the age of 14 and started receiving regular commissions, I was coaxed from behind the sofa. My single mother wouldn’t let me accept money, initially, but when I reached the age when others in my school year were earning pocket money pumping fuel or at the checkout, she shrugged and said that I should be paid for the work I was producing.

Exhibiting in group charity shows I earned a decent sum after the commission and framing was paid for. At the time, the Blue Mountains had a booming arts scene with prolific artists whose work was instantly recognisable, names like David Brayshaw, Robyn Collier, Fiona Craig and plenty more were sources of great inspiration for me.

It didn’t take long for people to open avenues for my artwork. One of the earliest was the encouragement from a teacher for me to enter the annual Gould League art awards, with a particular focus on the subject of birds. I entered several works and received three prizes.

‘Platypus’ (pen and ink on paper by Michael Burge, 1985)

There was a huge resurgence of wildlife art during the 1980s and despite my youth I rode the wave. Commercial prospects for my art opened wide when a school trip to New Zealand required a fundraising effort, and stationary was printed with a range of my wildlife studies. It sold like the proverbial hot cakes and suddenly my bespectacled, pimply demeanour had a creative context.

But to anyone paying close attention, I was entering an extremely dangerous phase.

Subtle poison

As the decade ended and I went off to tertiary studies that included a design diploma at Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art, I felt the creeping need for something to be done with my innate skills. Arts are defined as ‘fine’ or ‘applied’, after all, but my grasp on validation slipped during the post-recession era of the 1990s.

Validation… what a subtle poison it was for me, allowing one side of me to be singled out at the expense of the other. HIV/AIDS was tightening its terrible grip and while homosexuality had been decriminalised in NSW in 1984, any sign of it in my conservative community was treated with disdain.

I recall believing that if I could express myself in other places I might find true acceptance, and part of my journey to tertiary studies in Sydney and in the United Kingdom was an attempt to shuffle off the kid who could draw in order to find the adult in another art form altogether.

But it was harder than it should have been, and trying to manifest other skills and dreams led me down several blind alleys, because every one of them brought me face-to-face with myself, and, being deeply closeted, my basic composition was squeezed into a frame that left me looking and feeling terrible.

‘The Pursuit of Saint Valentine’ (ink on paper by Michael Burge 1995)

For years I didn’t paint or draw. Living in the United Kingdom and trying to earn a crust in the post-Thatcher economy, I eventually picked up the paintbrush and generated a portfolio that no-one I showed it to was the least bit interested in.

Art wasn’t enough. The talents of the kid meant nothing in Thatcher’s world, which also trampled on LGBTIQA+ rights at every opportunity.

Brushtrokes

So I came home, came out, and did something outrageous: I went and studied acting. I was determinedly playing catch-up and wasn’t content to replicate what I saw on canvas, I wanted to be the art, in every cell.

Life outside the closet got suddenly very tough when my partner Jono died in 2004. I struggled for creative direction for many years. It wasn’t until I found myself in a new relationship that I started, quite tentatively, to paint again.

‘Nocturnal Opening’ (oil on canvas by Michael Burge, 2007)

It was stop/start for a few years, and it took a while for others to get their heads around my artwork, which was often staunchly abstract instead of a replication of nature. I came to realise that my realistic works were not much more than the ability to keenly observe what I saw, and that capturing and generating emotion – not validation – is the real skill in all arts.

‘Emerald Screen’ (oil on board by Michael Burge, 2016)

In 2016, friend and artist Ellen Paxton gave me some paints and told me to just get going. She purchased the first work I executed and I have not stopped painting since.

The smell of oils when I squeeze colour onto my palette is a great motivator, because it calls to mind almost four decades of art as second nature. All those years of discipline in composition, perspective, colour theory, life drawing; all those exhibitions when work walked off the walls, and all those when it didn’t… every single part of the journey is a brushstroke on my psyche. I wouldn’t be without a single one.

Carelessly cut

This month, some of those 35-year-old Gould League-winning works came back to me. They arrived in a dangerously inadequate envelope with a miserly amount of postage, but thankfully the postie alerted me before delivering, saying he’d have had to fold it if I hadn’t been home.

When I opened the completely uninsured, unregistered correspondence, my past came rushing at me in these original sketches. I recall the hours spent solo in my childhood bedroom, every line of the Artline pen (I went through hundreds of the things in the 1980s); but also the loneliness, confusion and the desperate need to hide in that room.

CRUELLY CROPPED: The artworks returned to me this month.

Their appearance in my letterbox is a timely lesson in validation, because I have watched young, artistically-skilled people rise into the world in the decades since I did, and I have quietly reminded people – emotionally immature teachers and mentors, particularly – to take great care with them.

It’s hypocritical to validate someone for their innate skills, yet refuse to respect something equally as innate, such as their sexual orientation. In the case of the people who were gifted these artworks, returned to me after being carelessly cut from their frames, acceptance of my sexuality (and that of many others in our community) was painfully piecemeal.

But I’m very glad to have these precious early brainchildren of mine back. Considering the open-hearted manner in which I donated the reproductions to send clueless private school kids to New Zealand 35 years ago, then gave the originals to people who no longer value them, or me, they’re wonderful proof that I have always been much bigger creatively and emotionally than the narrow frame others envisaged for me.

Depths of acceptance

A decade ago, while paying for new tyres, the bloke who’d done the job read the name on my credit card and asked: “Are you Michael Burge, the artist?” and I nearly fell over. He described the pen-and-ink sketch of galahs that he and his wife had been gifted for their wedding and shook my hand with gratitude for a piece of art they love, another from my Gould League-winning collection.

‘Change Coming, Deepwater’ (oil on canvas by Michael Burge, 2020)

It was a pivotal year when more of my teenage works came to the surface, including my first work of non-fiction, which failed to launch because of jealous adults but came rushing at me while on assignment for a piece of journalism. “Could you please sign my copy of your book?” a guest at the same event asked. Again, the shock was profound since I’d lived for many years without the validation of such moments.

Validation… too many are unaware of just how much of it you relinquish when you come out, but I have lived long enough to learn how shallow it really is when compared with the depths that flow with just a little acceptance.

Coming on top of a self-determined life that includes the right to marry and the broadest equality rights Australian LGBTIQA+ have had in our history (despite there being much, much more to achieve), these days I treat validation as more of an incentive.

It’s a reminder to keep up the hard work and the difficult, vital process for creatives to put ourselves right out there in a way that very few who live within the safe walls of validation will ever understand.

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