Essay by Kathryn Ruddick as part of Contextualising Practice course.
The ancient spirits are all around us. They awaken from their slumber when someone is willing to listen. They have many messages. To hear them, the student must be quiet in mind, body and spirit, for profound truth does not need to be yelled. In this sacred space of quiet whispers, reflection can take place and the earth breathes more easily. Paul Callaghan, 2022
My giant painting was hanging along the corridor in the School of Art, when a friend, standing in front of it, turned and asked the best question they could have asked: ‘what was your process and how did you arrive at this outcome?’. I proceeded to tell what turns out to be a very long story with many years of experiences and influences that guided what was to become a year-long project, resulting in a monumental artwork.
‘I painted a wetland scene when I was eighteen. It was not a place I had visited. It was a place I dreamed of visiting. It was a spiritual place. There was depth; ecosystems, life that went on below the lily-pads and grasses of the Yellow Water wetlands in Kakadu, ‘Nature conceal[ed] secrets to be prised out’ (Grishin, 2015 p. 253).
It was the start of a thirty-year circle that led to me painting wetlands all through the long lockdowns of Melbourne, 2020. I took inspiration and materials from the 30-year-old originals and I created, made, doodled, sketched and painted. Unlike Lee Krasner, tearing her drawings up in frustration and later using them in new work (Haxall, 2007 p.22), I meticulously cut my canvasses in pieces, revelling in the sound of the box-cutter tearing through the old layers of thick canvas and oil paint. I used the pieces in various ways. On my tiny trestle table in my tiny room, I painted new imaginary wetlands after the Kakadu originals.
The seasons changed; the lockdowns lifted. A new year commenced, and I discovered Kate Gorringe-Smith’s The Overwintering Project (2021). Suddenly I went from working on wetlands to focussing in on the migratory and shorebirds who flocked to the Australian coastline and who were in mortal danger of disappearing from this sad earth. I collected feathers and photos, sketches, driftwood, handmade paper as delicate as speckled eggshells, and empty nests. I felt myself emulating the wondrous John Wolseley, collecting ephemera as he wandered through the Whipstick Forest to meet a friend (Ormonde, 2017).
I researched taxonomy and Wunderkammer, hanging systems and display cases. I looked at cartography, timelines, patterns of avifauna migrations. I pinned things all over the walls. I experimented with sepia ink and rock salt on heavy watercolour paper to try to emulate the mudflats and estuaries, the speckles on the eggshells and the feathered breasts. I cut out silhouettes of the birds, wading and in full flight. I made cardboard cut outs with wire legs inspired by Walls of Wings (2021), the partner exhibition to The Overwintering Project.
My tutor suggested I get a long roll of paper and hang it over my studio divider draping down and rolled on the floor like a giant scroll half un-rolled and paint my collectibles onto it. I hesitated for a couple of weeks then splashed out on a 10-metre roll of Fabriano Accademia. I worked on it flat on the floor to start with. There were miles of white space that I wanted to quickly break into, so the sepia ink and rock salt were used widely and quickly.
Pools of muddy river flats were soon joined by puddles and swirls of sap green. I spent days pouring and dripping, splashing and smearing the ink and water all over the paper then sprinkling on the rock salt. Hardly sprinkling. Throwing it on liberally in the wettest places. My inspiration for this wet-on-wet, saturated colour work comes from Waanyi woman, Judy Watson. ‘To spend time with a Judy Watson painting is akin to looking into the depths of a natural pool,’ says Louise Martin-Chew (2009 p.20). While my paper roll laid flat on the floor, I tried to create the same puddled, immersive, watery pools of sometimes intense, sometimes whitewashed colour.
In some areas of my work, I used white oil pastel scribbles acting as a resist. Drawing squashed spheres that could be smooth river rocks on the bottom of a waterway, or they could be ripples in the water, circling out from the splash of some critter. Some imperceptible invertebrate taking a dive or a fish popping to the surface.
I scribbled and poured and brushed and splashed and spread salt. Eleven metres painted 1-2 metres at a time, over two to three weeks. I had no preconceived ideas about what I was making. It was just water. The very start of an eco-system. A landscape, a wetland. But not any particular wetland, no chosen site. No specific bird in mind, but all of them.
The far-eastern curlew
The hooded plover
The masked lapwing
The red-tailed black cockatoo of my sister’s country
The wedge-tailed eagle that kept showing up everywhere I ventured
None of them were on the roll of paper yet, but it was being prepared for their birth. I was making a space for them to come in and land. I had worked on the floor over several sessions. Down on my hands and knees, or crouching, leaning over to reach the middle. It was a dance, a ritual, and it was physically taxing.
I was concerned that as one section dried and I rolled it further along and worked on the next section, that I might be missing continuity and flow. I wanted the greens to match, I wanted the brush-marks and the oil pastel resist of each section to compliment each other. I knew in my subconscious that I wanted it to flow and not be a series of disjointed boxes that stood out from each other.
Even though I was the creator, standing up, looking down onto this map or this landscape that was my own creation, I didn’t feel that it necessarily belonged on the floor. I wanted to see it hanging up, I felt a need to see it from that different perspective – to hang it around the walls and be surrounded by it. With the help of the technicians and a laser leveling device, it was hung along the corridor. All eleven metres of it.
I stood back contemplating it, being awed by its size, drinking in its colour and contrast. Then I turned to the person standing next to me and I said, “what this needs up this end, is a giant wedge-tailed eagle – in full flight with wing tips reaching each edge of the roll, one and a half metres in height”. A life-sized wedgie with wings outstretched from the top to the bottom, right across the whole width of the paper. I sketched it out, an outline, a silhouette. I did not want to paint it as an eagle, but to create some sort of silhouetted image in contrast with, but connected to the dappled background.
I researched images of sedimentary rock, sketches and scientific data on how the landscapes of Melbourne and the Port Philip basin had formed over millions of years. Presland provides excellent resources in The Place for a Village (2012). I looked at photos of the road cuttings on the Eastern Freeway. I began to mark out the sedimentary patterns and rock layers to fill in the outline of the eagle.
I cut much smaller silhouettes of flying eagles and stencilled them with white gesso applied with a chunky sea sponge in a dabbing motion so areas of the brown or green ink still showed through. These were much smaller and apparently randomly spaced over the painting. As the one who placed them, I can categorically say they were not randomly spaced. I used them over the top of some of the darkest splotches of the ink to tone it down. To ground the big eagle and connect to the broader work. These images were added while the piece was hanging in the corridor.
For a week, I had eleven metres of river deltas and mud flats and overhanging plants and a giant sedimentary rock eagle and a half dozen small ‘ghost’ eagles subtly flying over the landscape. Then I joined RMIT Culture for Walkin’ Country, Walkin’ Birrarung tour, and a few days later I was standing in the corridor again in front of my work, contemplating where it was going next. And as I stood there, a lightbulb came on and I realised it was the river. It was Birrarung. And I immediately mixed some grey paint and got my sea sponge out again and found the very centre of the eleven-metre length. I sketched in some rough outlines then used the sea sponge to fill in the giant dimpled, volcanic boulders, the ‘rocky basalt ledge or waterfall at the site of today’s Queens Bridge’ (Eidelson, 2014 p. xv).
Right across the middle of my “painting” are the stepping-stones which were used by two thousand generations of people to cross the river, from the northern sclerophyll woodlands to the massive southern wetlands. Huge volcanic boulders depicted in dozens of historical, colonial paintings and surveyors’ sketches. Boulders which are no longer there because ‘not a word of protest appears to have been raised when the pretty waterfall was blasted out of existence’ (Flannery, 2002 p. 13), dynamited in 1883 to make way for the bridge. Two thousand generations of a people that used that natural crossing to access their seasonal food sources, to follow the abundance of the seasons, and it was blown to smithereens because white man couldn’t get his horse and cart over it or deal with the seasonal flooding which flushed out the whole river system and brought such abundance to the wetland basin.
I painted the rocks, sponged them onto my river.
And then bang! We were back in lockdown.
I quickly gathered all my belongings, every one of them. Unpinned my giant work, rolled it up, loaded it in my car and drove back to my suburban five-kilometre zone where for the next three to four months I worked on that one piece of work, alone, at home. On wet winter days I draped it over a table and worked on it in sections. On still, sunny winter days which were few and far between, I rolled it out down my driveway and worked on it all day, as quickly as I could, squeezing two weeks of work into a day.
Wade Davis (2009 p. 149) describes Aboriginal Songlines as becoming ‘part of the ongoing creation of the world’. Davis talks about songs emerging from the emptiness, creating vibrations that start to take shape, ‘dancing giving definition to forms’. These adjectives – ways of describing Aboriginal ritual made me understand that I had my own rituals in place as I made my work . Each time I was to work on it, I would start the day by listening to the Saraswati Mantra (2017) as I ritually prepared my materials. I would roll the work out down my driveway, securing it with pieces of wood so the winter breezes would not lift or damage it. I would take time to look at the work from all angles as I listened to the incantation and closed my mind off to the world outside my property. As I knelt on the ground to start applying the paints and inks, the local birdlife would serenade me with a mixed chorus that at times could be deafening. As my brushes danced over the paper, splashing and spreading ink, water and paint, forms would start to take shape.
I often had no idea or plan of what I wanted to create on the paper that day, only that with limited time and limited good weather to work outdoors, I needed to get as much colour onto the paper as I could. As Davis says, ‘[t]o walk on the land …’ or, in my case, to lay the artwork on the driveway with ink and brush in hand – to show up as the artist, ‘is to engage in a constant act of affirmation, an endless dance of creation’ (p.150).
I followed in the footsteps of John Wolseley, endeavouring ‘to bring together different systems of seeing and of recording a landscape’ (Grishin, 2015 p. 236). The work included maps and surveyor’s sketches, a timeline, birds, animals, fish, plants and historic etchings reworked into the puddled, watery background. Cannon (1991, p. 5) describes how ‘both banks of the river were densely covered with native tea-tree and wattle’ and ‘flocks of wild duck and wattlebirds rose into the air as Bunce’s boat glided up the river’. I try to emulate the abundant wildlife and verdant wetlands as I add more lines, marks and deeper colour to the work. I stick with my main colours, sepia, sap green, and a rich blue with turquoise blended through it for the water.
For months I listened to the cacophony of wattlebirds, blackbirds, cockatoos, magpies, spinebills and currawongs serenading me as I was down on my hands and knees on the cold hard concrete, splashing around ink and watercolour, adding layer upon layer of colour and images to the giant work. I recorded their chorus and played it back as I videoed the work from one end to the other, to share it with my tutors and classmates, in lockdown elsewhere in our city.
On the sunny days, I took inspiration from the blueness of the sky, and I looked again at images of the remarkable works by John Wolseley – the wetland paintings that formed part of the Heartland and Headwaters (2014) exhibition. I wanted to try to create the same amazingly rich blues and greens of the ephemeral swamps and sphagnum bogs that bring a burst of life, energy and fecundity to works like History of the Whipstick Forest with ephemeral swamps and gold bearing reef, 2011 and Natural history of a sphagnum bog, Lake Ina, 2013.
To this end, over the last few weeks of the semester, I painted mostly with blue watercolour. Adding layer upon layer, building up the pools and swirls of the river and the cascades over the falls. At some point, and as time for creating came to an end, I listened to the birdsong, and I looked down upon the work, stretched along the driveway, and I decided, enough.
Callaghan P, with Uncle Paul Gordon 2022, The Dreaming Path; Indigenous Thinking to Change Your LifeI, Pantera Press, Neutral Bay, Australia
Cannon, M 1991, Old Melbourne town before the gold rush, Loch Haven Books, Main Ridge, Australia
Davis, W 2009, The wayfinders : why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world, House of Anansi Press, Toronto, Canada
Eidelson, M 2014, Melbourne dreaming : a guide to important places of the past and the present (Second edition.), Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, Australia
Flannery, T 2002, The birth of Melbourne, Text Publishing, Melbourne, Australia
Gorringe-Smith, K 2021, The Overwintering Project, Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, Mornington, AUS https://www.theoverwinteringproject.com/
Gorringe-Smith, K 2021, Walls of Wings, Oakhill Gallery, Mornington, AUS https://oakhillgallery.com.au/2021/02/wall-of-wings-shorebirds-exhibition/
Grishin, S 2015, John Wolseley: Land Marks III, Rev edn, Thames & Hudson, Port Melbourne, AUS.
Haxall, D 2007, ‘Collage and the Nature of Order: Lee Krasner’s Pastoral Vision’, Woman’s Art Journal, vol 28(2), pp. 20–27.
Lawry, P 2019-20, Wall of Wings https://www.theoverwinteringproject.com/the-wall-of-wings.html
Ormonde, S 2017, ‘Dry Sand, Wet Mud, Moving Earth’, The Journal of Australian Ceramics, April
2017, pp. 70-75.
Presland, G 2009, The place for a village : how nature has shaped the city of Melbourne (2nd ed.), Museum Victoria Publishing, Melbourne, Australia
Presland, G 2001, Aboriginal Melbourne: the lost land of the Kulin people (Rev. and updated ed.), Harriland Press, Forest Hill, Australia
Sati Ethnica 2017, Saraswati Mantra, Media Land, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GL9g9iHwtoM
Watson, J & Martin-Chew, L 2009, Judy Watson: blood language, Melbourne University Publishing. Melbourne, Australia
Wolseley, John 2011, History of the Whipstick Forest with ephemeral swamps and gold bearing reefs, watercolour, charcoal and pencil on 2 sheets, 233.5 x 286.6 cm (overall), Australian Prints & Drawings, National Gallery of Victoria, Australia
Wolseley, J 2013, Natural history of a sphagnum bog, Lake Ina, Tasmania,watercolour on eight sheets 140 x 400cm, Private Collection, Melbourne Australia
Wolseley, J 2014, Heartland and Headwaters https://johnwolseley.net/exhibitions/john-wolseley-heartlands-and-headwaters