Tag Archives: Art

The greening of Deepwater Country

“Artists sometimes whisper to one another about the new palette that emerges when the rains stay away”

I TEND to blend into the landscape wherever I am living. The hues of the Blue Mountains were wrought on my vision for three decades, and I lived on Moreton Bay long enough for its marine palette to become second nature; but I was born in the New England, this vast cluster of upland valleys known as ‘tablelands’ after the plateaus and mesas that rise in their midst.

The Blue Mountains are draped with scrub and fern. Moreton Bay might be at sea level, but its islands are the leftover pinnacles of ridges and peaks that once rose above river valleys, their crowns layered with red earth and sand. The New England’s surface is blanketed with remnant wood- and grass-lands, now tucked in by pastures as varied as patchwork quilts.

DELUNGRA DAZE: The head of the driveway where I waited for the school bus

My first view from our settler’s homestead was of the distant chalky-blue hills running north from Bingara to Warialda, sometimes lit like rich strips of indigo against the gold of crops. The shapes of these tree-studded hills, mottled with dusty greens, came leaping out of me in a series of works I executed within months of returning to live in the Deepwater region in 2017.

The green ridges of Tenterfield, stooped under mist, became a theme in early 2018. By the time I was throwing paint around on canvas regularly, some of the high country around Glen Innes had started to brown off. We assumed it was the usual wintering of grass crisped by frosts, but when the spring rain drizzled instead of pelted, the ‘D-word’ crept into conversation.

It is harsh, there’s no arguing with the reality, but even drought doesn’t dampen the creative spirit. Artists sometimes whisper to one another about the new palette that emerges when the rains stay away… the pinks, yellows and apricots keep the landscape alive while the crops and cattle fail.

It’s not something to crow about, but as my brush kept at it though 2018, I noticed how the perennial blue of the sky started to offset land gilded by drought. 

The result was a small collection of works that told the story of local woman Ada Bezzant, who drowned herself in the Deepwater River in 1927.

The Choices of Ada Bezzant

Her reasons seemed as clear as Virginia Woolf’s, to me: a decade of loss that started with a young son blown apart on the Western Front, and ended with an ailing husband dead in faraway Newcastle.

Ada and her family ran a sawmill further along the road that still bears their name, situated just metres from the river she chose to end her life in.

CHOICES: ‘Ada and the Dam’ (oil on canvas by Michael Burge, 2018. Private collection)

Creating art about suicide encouraged me to make works of sufficient beauty that the pain of loss runs seamlessly into the landscape, so it was gratifying when a judge at the 2018 Frost Over Barraba Art Show commented in his notes that awarded ‘Ada and the Dam’ a painting prize, that the bittersweet feeling of loss and regret shone through.

DROUGHT: ‘Drowning Without Water’ (oil on canvas by Michael Burge, 2018. Private collection)

‘Drowning Without Water’ is the work that told me I was capturing the colours of a parched landscape. Perhaps that’s why I wanted to express the presence of water in the title and the blatant droplets of paint? Here is Ada, her clothes rightly just out of style for 1927, walking to an unseen river.

I spent a year thinking of her, even found her grave off to the to the side at Deepwater’s cemetery. I understand the challenges of country living, how they can wreak havoc on families when death makes its inevitable call. With apologies to Ada’s surviving relatives, some of whom we have met since moving here, I borrowed her tale for a while for this series of ‘New England Gothic’.

Creative Juices

By 2019 even my brushed dried up… bushfires are hardly inspiring, and adrenalin drains creative juices almost completely.

GREENING: ‘Torrington Plateau from Deepwater’ (pastel on paper by Michael Burge, 2020)

Almost… when the green tinge returned I could barely contain my desire to capture it, and a series of works emerged with greens so impossible that no-one would believe such bright hues, captured not with liquid paint but dirt-dry chalk pastels.

The drought is not over for everyone, but the rains have stayed for us, and the Deepwater River is flowing again. I saw the plain of Dundee so water-soaked the pools reflected rays of light. I saw hillsides with verdant green at their feet, while the seed heads of the grasslands tinged the sloped with a new dry gold. I saw weather where for so long there had really been nothing but dry skies. I saw change that seemed like it was never going to come again.

GOLD: ‘Hill above Yoongan Creek, Deepwater’ (oil on canvas by Michael Burge, 2020)

The Deepwater Country collection bleeds from greens and greys, to a fool’s gold, and then back to a surreal burst of colour that I’ve heard some locals confess to being desperate for. I know I was.

Deepwater Country runs until the end of August at The Makers Shed.

Capturing the colours of Ngarabal country

“It was the myriad of colours of semi-rural landscapes that captured my imagination.”

THIS writer and artist has been neglecting his blog. I’ve got a decent excuse, however: I’ve moved.

After five years living on Coochiemudlo Island in South East Queensland, my husband and I have returned to live in the NSW Northern Tablelands.

This place is border country, a series of high-altitude tablelands just south of the notional line on the map that separates Queensland from NSW.

COUNTRY COLOURS The views between Deepwater and Tenterfield in the NSW Northern Tablelands.

While living on an island in Queensland’s Moreton Bay, we met many of the Quandamooka people, particularly artists. Here, in Ngarabal country, we’re aware of living close to one of the largest Koori language groups in this state: the Kamilaroi, and it’s been great meeting Kamilaroi people and their neighbours in nearby Ngarabal traditional lands.

Two years ago we attended the Myall Creek Massacre memorial, which commemorates one of the worst atrocities against Indigenous Australians.

That trip back to the place I was born inspired, in part, our recent move. The taste of the high country inspired several other trips, which became property and house-hunting expeditions from the Granite Belt to the New England region.

We saw some incredible landscapes, often bursting with wildlife. We encountered places where some big dreams had been broken over the years, and where people have found opportunities to make homes in all kinds of situations, many of them quite unconventional.

Often, I was reminded of Germaine Greer’s reforestation of a former dairy farm, also in the border country.

British novelist E. M. Forster’s sense of place often crossed my mind, also, particularly his unexpected acquisition of a woodland adjacent to his home at Abinger Hammer, not far from London.

VIEWS FOREVER Country west of Stanthorpe in Queensland.

We considered buying a five-acre block of forest so close to the border you could throw a stone interstate. We got very serious about an 80-acre lot of land in the western slopes, where emu walked on the horizon and people had come looking for gold, but found nothing.

The day we extended our search into the upland valley of Deepwater in NSW was crisp. It was July and there was frost on the car when we left the motel at Tenterfield to head into the old tin mining country of Stannum. A property we were shown there had character, but with all its living spaces on the shady south side, it was not a wise choice for life at a thousand metres above sea level.

Before lunch we found our way into the open land south of the Deepwater River, where an old railway property had been on the market for a couple of years. A former gatekeeper’s cottage, this 1885 double-brick dwelling had been lovingly restored and extended in the decades since the railway service north of Armidale had ceased.

GOING DEEP The Deepwater River in Ngarabal Country.

The nearby New England Highway had long since been rerouted, leaving this place and all its secrets in a world of its own, nestled between state habitat reserve and grazing property.

We loved it before we even stepped through the door, where the passive solar nature of brick houses meant the place was warm without even having the fire on.

Within weeks of arrival I was inspired to paint. The broad vistas of Moreton Bay were left far behind, and it was the myriad of colours of semi-rural landscapes that captured my imagination.

I’d spent a significant proportion of my childhood absorbing these lands, and after spending time driving between Tablelands’ towns, the work flowed as quickly as paint blended with water on canvas.

It’s sometimes confronting being back. My family left this place on the back of several broken dreams of our own, but the landscape of this place is an incredible consolation.

Check out my online gallery.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

 

Branching out into new trees

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LESS IS MORETON View from Coochiemudlo Island to Stradbroke, between bloodwoods (oil on hardwood by Michael Burge).

I DON’T know about other artists, but I find foliage extremely challenging to paint.

In art classes at school, our teacher explained the effect of aerial perspective, which requires the fine detail of a canopy of leaves to be rendered as a solid wash, not a mass of lines capturing individual leaves.

Although in reality, capturing foliage is a combination of both techniques, and the fine line between them holds the key to successful treescapes.

In the sclerophyll forests of the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, I grew up observing the dry, reddish-green hues of the eucalypt trees that eventually saw the region World Heritage listed.

When people in the northern hemisphere asked me what the place was like, I’d often say: “Think the Grand Canyon, with foliage”. It’s quite true: remove the dense green blanket that covers the Blue Mountains and we’d be left with a stony, gold and pink landscape akin to Arizona, traversed by the creeks and rivers that shaped the canyons.

Here in my new subtropical home, the riparian landscape relates more to the ebb and flow of water.

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NOT TOUCHING Here on Coochie, tree trunks often stand apart in rows.

It’s taken me a few years to tackle this new landscape’s foliage, with its wetlands, woodlands and mangroves that give onto Moreton Bay views, stretching to peaks and mountains from which the rivers carve their way to the sea.

Fooled by the lack of four definite seasons in my first year here, I thought a nut tree at the end of our street was dying when it lost its leaves in winter.

The trees seem to stand differently than they do on the ridges of the Blue Mountains. It’s common to see them growing in stands where the trunks do not superimpose, like well-behaved children holding themselves to attention. Perhaps they are old planted rows,  or maybe the effect is entirely natural?

Coochiemudlo Island’s Melaleuca Wetlands receive much of the focus of the island’s conservation measures, but there are significant pockets of vegetation beyond their 19 hectares.

Cypress Pines,
TALL TIMBERS Cypress Pines, Coochiemudlo Island (mixed media, by Michael Burge).

Throughout the foreshore, native Cypress Pines (Callitris) claim their place with far more right than the dominant exotic Monterey Pines that dot the upper Blue Mountains, the result of attempts to recreate English gardens over a century ago.

But both have the same cooling impact, with their deep emerald shade. Under various local names – including Bribie Island Pine and Gold Coast Pine – they rise to extraordinary heights before seeming to rest against one another. Take even the shortest walk around the island and you’ll see them, just inside the island’s perimeter.

Paperbarks (Melaleuca) abound in the island’s wetlands, where their soft forms are composed so differently to gum trees, with stocky, short trunks and heavy arms, shrouded in layers like puff pastry.

Old growth gum trees (Eucalypts) and bloodwoods (Corymbia) stand at incredible heights in some places, providing important habitat for birds, particularly the island’s parrots. Standing at many island street junctions, these soaring columns are unmissable during a walk through the island’s interior.

And the most alien of them all, the mangroves, like trees with two canopies – one skyward, the other pushing its way into the earth in a skeletal framework of roots, sometimes underwater, sometimes high and dry.

The best way to see the mangroves is to take a kayak around the western edge of the island on a rising tide. Here, you’ll be able to safely ‘fly’ between mangrove branches and over their underwater ramparts. In winter, when the water is clearest, it makes for an unmissable experience.

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LIGHT TOUCH The striations of light hitting paperbarks, Stradbroke Island showing across Moreton Bay (oil on canvas by Michael Burge).

Walking through the island woodlands at the end of the day, with the sun split by hundreds of trees, light falls in a myriad of colours on trunks and branches, tinting them with a glow that shines so brightly it almost seems unreal.

Tree trunks appear as though they’re striped with an impossible apricot and pink glow, while the deep blue-green of the bay and distant islands are unaffected by the play of sunlight.

And foliage is transformed into clouds of iridescent green. I daren’t render a single line to capture it.

Check out my online gallery.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.