In 1985 the camp consisted of Karen Knight-Mudie, John Rigby, Robert Jacks, Victor Majzner, Sally Robinson, Patrick Hockey and Frank, with George Chaloupka, Wendy Flynn, Allan Howard and I paying periodic visits as work permitted, to ensure that all was well, the victuals adequate and that withdrawal symptoms had not set in. ...There has never been any suggestion that the artists should be induced, either directly or indirectly by manipulating location, to produce work of a particular kind or respond to the environment in a particular way. Consequently, work which has been produced has been varied in the extreme.
Indeed, one might be tempted to describe them as wildly different.
This is, I believe, particularly to the good, revealing the many images of the country, its character and spirit, reflected in the varied mirrors of these artists' minds and artistic expression. Colin Jack-Hinton, Director Museums and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory.
I was born in Bourke in western N.S.W. My home was on a property where the earth was red, the sky blue and the trees grey. The terrain was flat, dotted with hills of ancient rocks and crossed by a mostly dry creek-bed that crawled across the land like a great snake.
The silence was immense and the heat projected shimmers of things on the horizon; things that moved and took form to enter your consciousness as only such things can. Some folk called them ‘mirages’. I had no name for them but I could feel them enter my soul.
I remember marveling at bravery and courage of men and animals in stories my dad told us kids and the pictures he drew for us. Sometimes we were even the heroes and that was great and I suppose our ponies and dogs also liked being heroes. Then when bad, bad Banskia men terrified me in dreams Dad told me of mimi lights that frightened animals when droving to Bourke. He said there was one spot where lights blinked in the sky after dark so stock had to be settled and camp made well away from the spot. No one said where the term ‘mimi’ came from but it stuck in my mind.
Stories, tales and yarns grew well in the outback. And in the growing they changed, repeated, distorted and even contradicted themselves.
Since then I have lived in many different places both in Australia and overseas including several years in Vanuatu (then The New Hebrides) where the terrain was mountainous, the sky water laden and the trees vivid green. The beating of drums and slit gongs heralded certain rituals and a sense of spirits permeated the atmosphere.
And so stories, images and spirits became part of my life.
At university I studied English Literature. It became a type of ‘treasure hunt’ to find links and references where poets and writers would salute an idea from another, not with obvious acclaim but with sincere ingestion. Such ingestion enriched the new work itself with silent homage that subsequent readers might or might not recognize. If such reference was noticed the new work offered layers of meaning. Thus layers of meaning can be found if one has prior knowledge and understanding that facilitates linking old with new so that stories, written and visual, blossom anew in the telling - to continue a ‘living tradition’ as T.S. Eliot once said, by drawing on 'the humus of the past' and external phenomenon to create something.
Another thing we beings do is embrace heroes and I became a fan of Eliot and read whatever of his I could get my hands on. Then there was Milton and his epic poem Paradise Lost when I was painting in Kakadu in 1985. At that time I was studying Milton's work and I remember how much his images of the cosmos affected me. In fact I used to read at night to fellow artists as we sat around drinking and talking after a day in the field painting, drawing or simply wandering. Maybe they were too polite to tell me to stop or maybe they were amused by my obsession. Whatever the case I read Milton and his image of a great spirit that “… from the first Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast abyss And mad’st it pregnant:” (1973: Hollander and Kermode p. 760) affected me deeply and continued to haunt me during my time in Kakadu.
It wasn’t a bad haunting but I became very aware of presence, of life form and ‘other’ in the environment. I remembered my dad’s stories of the ‘mimi’ lights and I again felt the enormity of the land and yet a feeling of being at home as I had when a child. As I said earlier, ‘mirages’ and silence were part of my growing up.
So, alone at whatever site, I’d talk to the land and it’s inhabitants in my head. The latter were busy as spirit images on the rock faces and I could imagine them getting on with daily life and so I wondered how to let them do this. Dad's stories of 'mimi' lights later mingled with talk of 'mimi spirits' over a beer at Cooinda Pub with fellow artists and traditional owners of Kakadu, Nipper Kaparigi and George Namingum in 1985. When I had mentioned the western 'mimi' lights I was told that 'mimi spirits' were 'cheeky fellas' and I'd felt an immediate connection to such mischievous spirits.
Still, I had no idea, no plan for their release.
But a great brown snake started the process for me.
Allan Howard, a staff member of MAGNT, was acting as our driver and daily he would drop each of us at whatever site we were independently working at and then collect us before dusk. I had spent the day painting at Obiri rock. It had been a hard day for me. Using watercolour as my medium and perched beside the rock had been a battle with wind, heat and ants. A wash would dry before I had time to apply the pigment; the wind blew my paper and ants bit by backside. In all it was a war with the elements that left me exhausted by the time Allan picked me up. But I had done a painting. Not in my usual style of using veils of colour but more like a ramshackle construction using planks of paint.
At the time I was relieved to have done anything and, not yet dry, the painting was laid carefully on the floor in the back of the van. Allan, John and I squeezed into the front seats and we headed back along the red earth track to our camp at Cooinda.
But suddenly Allan jarred us to a stop as a very long, thick brown snake languidly slid across the road in front of us. We got out to admire and watch the majesty of the great reptile that seemed not to notice us as it continued on its way. Like insignificant specks we got back in the van and continued on our way more subdued and thoughtful.
Unloading the gear at camp I found my painting bleeding over the floor of the van with an empty water container lying across it. I was devastated.
Weeks later at home in Queensland I looked at the mess on the page. I’d already done a few paintings trying to capture the simultaneous vastness and minute detail of the landscape I’d experienced in Kakadu. I was quite happy with the works in which I used loose washes of earth colours to evoke the landscape and then inserted zoom in detailed views of specific fauna and flora. But I was missing something – the shimmering things, the sound of silence and the sounds of life.
I took the wrecked painting outside, hung it on the clothesline and turned the hose on full force. Pigment slid off like clotted blood leaving a clean skin behind – a skin of stains, clear veins and soft veils. I saw a mirage, I felt the silence and I could hear the sounds of life.
I thanked the brown snake. My heart sang and my mind felt free as spirits floated out of the rock stained on the page.
From then on my paintings changed direction and I spent many hours reading and trying to gain more awareness of Aboriginal connection with the land and its spirits. I make no claims of immersion or deep understanding into another’s belief system or way of life. I can only try to explain my own. For me the Australian landscape, the vastness, the silence, the shimmering things and the creak and clatter of life in the bush are part of me. For my part I try to be reasonably informed about things so that I can feel at home in my head if that’s possible and within my grasp.
Having visited Nourlangie, Ubirr, Jim Jim Falls, Barramundi Gorge, Deaf Adder Gorge and some of the Cadell River area in 1985 I found Eric Brandl’s book, Australian Aboriginal Paintings (1973 rpt:1982:AIAS) an invaluable help. I was able to look at detailed text and figures in the book and cross-reference with my sketches, personal photographs and a four page unreferenced guide, The Art Sites Of Nourlangie Rock. In this way I was able to build up a personal interpretation of my experience of being alone at sites in Kakadu. Hence a body of images evolved in which I allowed spirits to float across and above the landscape.
As Dr Colin Jack-Hinton (then Director, MAGNT) said at the Retrospective Opening in June, 2000 : 'Represented here is a collection of works by artists whose dedication to their art is spiritually and intellectually profound, and who found themselves inspired by a remarkable country.'
Indeed, I was inspired by the country and deeply grateful for so many things. For being invited by Colin Jack-Hinton; for being made welcome by traditional owners of Kakadu, Nipper Kaparigi, George Namingum and others; for having the honour of painting alongside Frank Hodgkinson and artists of repute; for having Allan Howard to drive me around (see maps drawn by Colin) and for the incredible hospitality of MAGNT staff and all Territorians I met. In particular, I thank the great brown snake for starting the bleeding death of my 'planks of paint' and thus freeing the spirits. Bet they're having a good laugh.
From that time my work developed more and more along lines of referencing and linking history to the present in a way of passing on traditions so that we can dream of being special in some way. As artist/author I can never own the story or image because that possession would kill it.
The special thing for me is sifting through and handing on ideas as the story passes.