“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Well, if you’re an independent Australian artist, probably not.
There is a simple reason for this, and it’s going to be hard for many commentators and readers to accept: for decades now, arts in Australia have been funded in a trickle-down manner that Margaret Thatcher would be proud of.
I’m an artist who practices several art forms. I am a fiction and non-fiction author, playwright and painter, and I’ve also worked as an actor, illustrator, designer and filmmaker.
Funding? Yeah, tried to get that many times, but I failed far, far more often than I succeeded. I genuinely wonder what it’s like to have public funds to practice my art. I imagine it’s a bit challenging, especially being accountable to the funding body (and the public), but I’ve never been in that right time at that right place to get my ticket to the top floor of Australia’s arts sector.
Although I haven’t let that stop me. Ever since graduating two decades ago, with two art diplomas, I’ve worked a string of day jobs to support myself while I practice my art. I thrive while telling stories, it’s in my DNA and I’ll never give it up; yet if I’d had to rely on the meagre income generated from my art, I would have given up long ago.
That’s not to say I subscribe to the notion that my output should have no currency just because it comes naturally. Far from it! Artists should be paid well for our skill and our time. The trouble is, creating a market for art in this country right now is almost impossible whether you’re funded or not.
The problem for independent artists is not funding, it’s access.
But artists are in it up to our eyeballs, already risking everything with the best of them. I innovate, particularly as an author. In the past two years I’ve been agile enough to teach myself how to publish quality books – my own – using the online tools that are at the fingertips of any burgeoning writer.
In many art forms, from literature to live performance, it’s now possible to create content and generate sales channels via the internet and social media. There’s a sense that artists harnessing these continually expanding innovations have no known boundaries, but unfortunately this is not the case. Audiences simply don’t know we’re there, and for artists, no audience equals no consumers (and therefore no income) for our art.
Anyone who’s self-published books will tell you how hard it is to interest the mainstream media in their titles. It simply doesn’t matter how excellent and innovative the product is, if it hasn’t been fostered by a major publishing house it’s unlikely to make it into the critical context of mainstream book reviews, literary festivals and awards.
This is no surprise. The major publishers created this critical mass decades ago to sell their titles within, and they don’t want competition from the thousands of writers who annually get rejected by mainstream publishing and turn to the DIY book revolution.
I’ve been selling my books into a market with no such protections for my work, as have countless other independent Australian writer-publishers. If authors supported by the Australian publishing industry are taking a hit, join the queue behind the rest of us! You’ll get a higher return per sale of every book if you self-publish, so what’s stopping you from going it alone?
That’s an easy one to answer: artsworkers – those employed to facilitate art. In the case of book publishing, these are the editors, designers, proofreaders, publicists and other professionals who put writers’ books together for the marketplace.
Some artsworkers are also artists (I’ve been known to cross over more than once), and they’ve been highly visible of late, expressing disappointment at funding cuts that will impact their bottom line and their forward estimates.
“It’s past time for getting real about arts access and distribution in Australia.”
In a sense, artsworkers have more to lose than artists, although many have framed these lean times as the contributing factor in employing less artists. I suspect many companies will cut art rather than cut artswork, at least initially, but many will simply run out of funds for both, and that is where the greatest shame lies in this debate. As a result, artists will have to learn to stop relying on artsworkers to develop our careers.
I abhor wholesale cuts to the arts, but we’ve been on the frontline of the blade for centuries, seen as a frivolous, non-essential extra. The argument against that definition is too obvious to construe here, but I encourage artists to do what we have always done: keep making art.
Artsworkers have a different challenge, and it’s past time for getting real about arts access and distribution in Australia. If our political leaders want innovation in the publishing sector, then a literary competition in this country need only launch an independent book-publishers’ award. The rest will follow.
But right now, literary awards have a snobbish, unnecessary block to independent authors making a decent splash in Australian publishing by locking us out of competition, publicity, exposure and opportunity.
Actor and playwright Kate Mulvany used multi-story metaphors this week when she urged major theatre companies to notice what is being amputated on the lower floors of an already struggling performing arts sector in Australia, and to do something about it by keeping the top floor open.
“We need to keep those voices on the ground floor and middle floors ringing out with Australian stories or our much-loved house will collapse beneath us,” she said. “If they’ve been evicted from the middle and ground floors, then invite them upstairs.”
Consumers of art could do a lot better too. If you are really outraged by arts funding cuts in this country, you should already be buying independent Australian art.
Have you ever purchased an independently published book, created by an author who has self-funded their entire enterprise? Do you buy from high-street shops or from independent Australian artisans who are innovating as best they can in a marketplace dominated by cheap imports?
Do you support independent Australian films at the box office? Are you aware of burgeoning independent theatre festivals in Australian cities?
Are you signing-up to The Arts Party to make your concerns heard in our parliament?
I’m all for innovation spreading new-wave tendrils into the arts sector – who would be foolish enough to attempt stemming the flow anyway?
But if politicians want to support the arts, while butchering funding for artists, ‘there’s never been a better time’ for them to make small budget-neutral changes with big impact by starting with opportunities at their fingertips.
I look forward to ‘having a go’ by entering an Innovation in Independent Publishing Award at the 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, personally guided into existence by whichever leader wins the next federal election. The state Premier’s literary awards will follow suit, of course, by creating categories that no major publishing house will be eligible to enter books into, and I can’t wait to buy every title on that shortlist.
Art happens regardless of politics, and Australian artists will never be silenced by cuts to funding. Many of us are already proving our durability in the independent sector… if you can’t hear us, you’re just not looking in the right places.