Companion Planting

18 November - 17 December 2011

Julie Ryder

Julie RyderMe, Here, and You, There, 2011, wood, rose petals, thorns, hemp, silk threads dyed with plants from Murray's cottage. Photographer: Rob Little

Companion Planting by Sarah Gurich

But nearer and more tangible and realistic are the bowls of plums, apricots and figs from neighbours' trees, the varied salads from our own garden, the vista from our door of the avenue of trees in rich summery leaves leading to innumerable beautiful landscapes beyond: the house finished by our own hands, the table loaded with fruits of our own gathering. It seems so good and so honest. 
(The Diaries of Donald Friend, Volume 2, 5 February 1948, p. 574)

So wrote artist Donald Friend of the seemingly idyllic life he found in Hill End in the late 1940s. Seeking distance from the distractions of the Sydney scene, Friend and Russell Drysdale had famously 'rediscovered' the gold mining ghost town of Hill End in 1947.

In September that year, Friend and Donald Murray, his close companion, purchased a small holding on Beyers Avenue and began restoration of the wattle and daub cottage and its garden. Friend and Murray (a keen horticulturalist) followed the traditional garden design of the 1870s, featuring an axial path to the front door surrounded by ornamentals, and an orchard at the rear. A rockery containing succulents and bulbs foraged from abandoned gardens was a feature.

What started as an opportunity to create a simple life for both men soon became an existence fraught with tension. As Friend wrote in his diary in January 1948:

Murray for some reason appears to be rather angry with me for reasons of his own. He sulks sometimes for days when these bees nest in his bonnet. I suspect it's because he feels that I am lazy and indolent in the house, and do not do enough of the work. He cooks and launders and cleans the place up and of course looks after the garden. On the other hand, besides carpentering and building and a few odd jobs such as painting walls and fetching the meat and milk I do little else but make all the plans and pay the bills. 
(The Diaries of Donald Friend, Volume 2, 20 January 1948, p. 572)

Friend and Murray shared the cottage on and off for a decade between September 1947 and January 1957. During this time their relationship became one of bitterness and resentment, held together only by their shared passion for Hill End.

The cottage and garden that Friend, Murray and friends such as Russell Drysdale, Margaret Olley, Jeffrey Smart and David Strachan delighted in remain. Today, 'Murrays Cottage' as it is fondly known, is one of two studio cottages used for the Hill End Artists in Residence Program.

Over sixty years later, Australian artists are still being lured, inspired and intrigued by the landscape, history and people of Hill End.

Julie Ryder, who participated in the Hill End Artists in Residence Program in 2009, set out for Hill End with a car-full of art supplies, food for a week, and an open mind.

Her response to the experience of living in the home of Donald Friend and Donald Murray for a month was nothing short of profound. A keen gardener herself, Ryder became intrigued by the figure of Donald Murray, who lived in the cottage until his death in 1988. Seemingly eclipsed by the exploits of the charismatic Friend, Murray chose to live out his days in relative obscurity and isolation in Hill End.

It is that relationship, between the gregarious and often ascerbic Friend and the reclusive Murray, that fired Ryder's creative imagination during her residency.

Spending her days reading The Diaries of Donald Friend (written from when Friend was a boy until his death in 1989) and tending the cottage garden, Ryder began to wonder about their complex relationship, and to search for Donald Murray's voice.

In the manner of a detective, Ryder looked to Murray's garden - the only tangible remainder of his presence - for insight. Using cuttings of honeysuckle, grass, blackberry, rose, succulents and herbs, Ryder began an alchemical process: stripping, boiling and extracting the essence of the plants to create dyes to use as a base of the textile works presented in Companion Planting.

These textile pieces, such as the All my days follow all your nights - all your yesterdays are all my tomorrows series, form abstract landscapes, like an aerial map, to evoke the colours and textures of Murray's garden, and the subtle, shifting presence of the man himself.

Organic material such as rose petal, wood and thorn - also collected from the garden - form the base of Ryder's exquisite works on paper and sculptural pieces. Here Ryder has used chicken wishbones, collected over many years, to create works that echo the conflicting nature of the Friend/Murray relationship. In the Wishbones and Wished series, thorns from the garden are attached to each bone to form exquisitely delicate, yet inherently threatening symbols. The underlying message 'Be careful what you wish for' is a cautionary tale for all relationships, especially that of Friend and Murray.

Ryder's thorn assemblages, Hill End Conversations and Hill End Annotations, echo the diaries of Donald Friend. The rose thorns, placed in neat, linear rows, form a calligraphic rhythm, echoing the conversations and tones of Friend's writings. But they are also barbed - like the voice of Friend when he writes of Murray:

His destructiveness is moral destructiveness (like that of all Puritans) and derives directly from moral envy, his attacks on people are directed to destroy moral qualities such as faith. 
(The Diaries of Donald Friend, Volume 2, February 1949, p. 639)

Loaded with powerful symbolism, wry humour, and intelligent insight, Companion Planting is an intriguing exploration of the complex relationship between Donald Friend and Donald Murray, and a significant contribution to the body of work that Australian artists continue to create in response to Hill End.

Sarah Gurich, Curator, Bathurst Regional Art Gallery