Connect with Your Nature: artist in residence

8 April – 14 May 2016

Ruth Hingston and Jodie Hatcher

Ruth Hingston, Housewives Protest City Water, Hand embroidery on found linen doilies, found object, 2016, Image: Tim Brook

 

What we make of nature by Dr Mary Hutchison

Looking south-west over Commonwealth Avenue Bridge the serried mountains that frame Canberra are in full view.  They are the backdrop to Walter Burley Griffin’s design for a 20th century national capital in which democratic ideals are expressed through urban forms in harmony with nature[i].  High in the mountains, rock art created by Aboriginal Australians, describes millennia of a different connection with the natural environment of this place.

Craft ACT’s annual Artists-in-Residence program takes place in the mountains, in Namadgi National Park, in partnership with ACT Parks and Conservation.  Since its beginnings in 2004 it has demonstrated the capacity of the arts to ‘create dialogue and new ways of thinking’ about the environment which supports and surrounds us[ii].  Like each of its predecessors, the 2015 residency has taken a fresh exploratory approach to this project.  Its theme, ‘connect with your nature’, is nicely provocative and elusive.  What does it mean?  Whose or what nature?  Of me or beyond me?  The sort of questions that lead to others about how we see and use our natural environment, about what it means to us and how we express it, about how we change it and how it changes us … In many ways these questions revolve around the double-edged question of what people make of nature.  For artists this is an invitation to a material making.

Driving towards Namadgi to research this essay, l keep track of a sort of personal geography.  The mountains, today covered in a haze like a sheer curtain; the plum tree that marks the back door of what was once the Murray’s farmhouse just near the turn off to the Monaro Highway.  The earth-covered mountain disguising an enormous pile of rubbish at Mugga Lane Tip.  Hill Station shouldered aside by showrooms and colorbond sheds. The old Tuggeranong railway siding hidden by trees somewhere on the left past Rose Cottage where the highway climbs and bends. Then the road falls and sweeps towards the foot of Tuggeranong Hill.  If you’d been ploughing a paddock here would you have felt that movement of the land differently?  And if you’d been hunting kangaroo or gathering seeds and fruit in the open grasslands, would it have felt different again?

Namadgi National Park is in the Brindabella Mountains, the high country to the west of Canberra which embraces the city from north to south.  It is part of a network of national parks in the Australian Alps and covers about a third of the Territory carved out of New South Wales for the national capital.  It borders sheep and cattle pasture and its gateway visitors’ centre is a few minutes’ drive from the rural township of Tharwa which in turn is a few stone throws from suburban Canberra.  Alongside millions of years of geological formation, the land, flora and fauna of Namadgi have been shaped and marked by people and their purposes - 20,000 years of Aboriginal occupation, 200 years of European pastoral and farming activities, 100 years of use as a significant water catchment for the city of Canberra, and around 30 years as a national park[iii].

The regular site of the Craft ACT residency is the ready-cut cottage on the Gudgenby pastoral property, originally built in 1927 for the owners to use during the summer months of intense farming work[iv].  The cottage is 29 kilometres of steep winding road, mostly sealed, from the Visitors’ Centre.

At Tharwa Bridge the Murrumbidgee River is a series of pools lolling against gritty sand banks.  At this time of year it’s an easy crossing into the mountains.  A good place for a gathering place or a campsite on the way to collect and feast on Bogong Moths.  A good place to water the horses and cattle on the way to summer pastures.  In my geographical dictionary, it’s Black Harry Williams’ country. Suddenly the mountains are no longer a view.  They’re right next to me, crowding against Naas Road and the artists’ studios around Cuppacumbalong Homestead.  The scatters of granite boulders thicken and broaden, become walls and tors.  The shield of clouds gathers closer.  Large summer drops of rain. 

The work created by the two artists in response to Namadgi is shaped by their individual backgrounds and interests, and by the materials and forms of their different, though interestingly connected, art practices.  Jodie Hatcher is a metal work designer-maker from the north of England with a long interest in textiles.  She treats metal as fibre in work that is characterised by an intense interest in texture, pattern and colour. Ruth Hingston is a textile artist from Canberra whose work is also shaped by the interplay of other forms.  Finely observed drawings of her environment fill her artist’s books and provide the basis for her embroideries which are also informed by an eye for narrative. Her work often contemplates the way contemporary Australians shape their landscape. 

Before taking up residency at the Gudgenby cottage, in keeping with a recent development for the residency to include research at a national cultural institution, Jodie and Ruth each spent a fortnight at the National Archives of Australia where they investigated Commonwealth Government records about Namadgi.  Jodie found that survey maps, plans for the city including Marion Mahoney Griffin’s luminous water colour interpretations of the city she and her husband envisaged, images recording aspects of Aboriginal life, and promotional material for tourism, prepared her for understanding the changing uses of Namadgi.  Ruth’s investigation focused on documents concerning the administration and management of what are now the Park’s lands. She found that water and rabbits have been under constant discussion.

After the Archives, Jodie and Ruth spent a fortnight each, alone, at the Gudgenby cottage.  Over this time they found their own rhythms for living and working in the cold mountain springtime.  Days shaped by morning light and evening dusk, by sunshine, cloud, wind, frost and the warmth of the fire; by visits from the rangers and kangaroos; by sights, sounds, walks, food and cups of tea.  Part of their work was absorbing this experience of place.  Another part of it was documenting what they observed using the tools of their respective practices and following what intrigued and captured them about the place. 

Jodie brought the eyes of a stranger to her work.  The question that animated her research was what might be overlooked by those more familiar with the environment.  The varying and vibrant detail of colours and patterns on the bark of eucalypts was something she returned to again and again through the lens of her camera and in her colour palette.  The surface of granite boulders offered a completely different patina.  Remnants of fencing wire provided the material for her first exploratory pieces in response to these natural elements.  For Jodie, the experience of a completely new environment was an inspiration to explore new techniques. In her work the depth and beauty of typical sights in Namadgi are illuminated through her re-imagination of them in a form that itself challenges the properties of natural and constructed materials.

At the cottage Ruth watched and drew the local mob of kangaroos until their shapes came easily from her pencil.  She became aware of the frogs, the migratory birds, and the flow of streams. Ultimately it was water and that most determined and destructive of pests in Australia, the European rabbit, which followed her from the Archives to Namadgi and into the making of her embroidery and installation pieces.  In her hands the large things you might say about the contradictions in humanity’s relationship with the natural world are contained in deceptively tender fragments and details of the preoccupations of suburban life.  Her doilies tell a story of how Canberra women’s concern for the quality of their tea revealed the impact of the pine forests planted in the mountain water catchment.  Her large embroidery, combining the long tradition of embroidered maps with topographical survey maps, reveals the suburban life of rabbits.  Who, we might ask is the real pest here?

In Namadgi I drive further than the cottage through the weave and fold of different geographies: pastures and fences, bushwalking trails, homesteads, granite shelters, the space station sites at Honeysuckle Creek and Orroral Valley, native and introduced species.  A landscape shaped by changing fire regimes and land management practices. National Park, Aboriginal, settler and urban histories; competing interests, common ground.  At Hospital Hill lookout I tread on the soft understory of grasses, brush against the narrow leaves of bushes damp with rain.  On the other side of a deep valley, Yankee Hat and its companions are close and dark.  Searching for words to say something about how these natural features touch me, I draw them briefly into my human world.

Dr Mary Hutchinson, Visiting Fellow, Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies, Research School of Humanities and the Arts

[i] The Walter Burley Griffin Society provides an introduction to Griffin’s architectural philosophy. http://www.griffinsociety.org/Introducing_the_Griffins/wbg.html

 

[ii] Barbara McConchie 2009, ‘Venturing Past an Idea’, Artists in Place: Gudgenby Ready-Cut Cottage Residency, Canberra: Craft ACT: Craft and Design Centre,  pp 3 -5

 

[iii] For an introduction to Namadgi National Park, see the Brief Guide to Namadgi. http://www.tams.act.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0012/518988/Namadgi-Brief-Guidev22013.pdf

 

[iv] For a history of Gudgenby ready-cut cottage see http://www.tams.act.gov.au/parks-conservation/parks-and-reserves/find-a-park/namadgi-national-park/gudgenby-ready-cut-cottage