I TEND to blend into the landscape wherever I am living. The hues of the Blue Mountains were wrought on my vision for three decades, and I lived on Moreton Bay long enough for its marine palette to become second nature; but I was born in the New England, this vast cluster of upland valleys known as ‘tablelands’ after the plateaus and mesas that rise in their midst.
The Blue Mountains are draped with scrub and fern. Moreton Bay might be at sea level, but its islands are the leftover pinnacles of ridges and peaks that once rose above river valleys, their crowns layered with red earth and sand. The New England’s surface is blanketed with remnant wood- and grass-lands, now tucked in by pastures as varied as patchwork quilts.
My first view from our settler’s homestead was of the distant chalky-blue hills running north from Bingara to Warialda, sometimes lit like rich strips of indigo against the gold of crops. The shapes of these tree-studded hills, mottled with dusty greens, came leaping out of me in a series of works I executed within months of returning to live in the Deepwater region in 2017.
The green ridges of Tenterfield, stooped under mist, became a theme in early 2018. By the time I was throwing paint around on canvas regularly, some of the high country around Glen Innes had started to brown off. We assumed it was the usual wintering of grass crisped by frosts, but when the spring rain drizzled instead of pelted, the ‘D-word’ crept into conversation.
It is harsh, there’s no arguing with the reality, but even drought doesn’t dampen the creative spirit. Artists sometimes whisper to one another about the new palette that emerges when the rains stay away… the pinks, yellows and apricots keep the landscape alive while the crops and cattle fail.
It’s not something to crow about, but as my brush kept at it though 2018, I noticed how the perennial blue of the sky started to offset land gilded by drought.
The result was a small collection of works that told the story of local woman Ada Bezzant, who drowned herself in the Deepwater River in 1927.
The Choices of Ada Bezzant
Her reasons seemed as clear as Virginia Woolf’s, to me: a decade of loss that started with a young son blown apart on the Western Front, and ended with an ailing husband dead in faraway Newcastle.
Ada and her family ran a sawmill further along the road that still bears their name, situated just metres from the river she chose to end her life in.
Creating art about suicide encouraged me to make works of sufficient beauty that the pain of loss runs seamlessly into the landscape, so it was gratifying when a judge at the 2018 Frost Over Barraba Art Show commented in his notes that awarded ‘Ada and the Dam’ a painting prize, that the bittersweet feeling of loss and regret shone through.
‘Drowning Without Water’ is the work that told me I was capturing the colours of a parched landscape. Perhaps that’s why I wanted to express the presence of water in the title and the blatant droplets of paint? Here is Ada, her clothes rightly just out of style for 1927, walking to an unseen river.
I spent a year thinking of her, even found her grave off to the to the side at Deepwater’s cemetery. I understand the challenges of country living, how they can wreak havoc on families when death makes its inevitable call. With apologies to Ada’s surviving relatives, some of whom we have met since moving here, I borrowed her tale for a while for this series of ‘New England Gothic’.
By 2019 even my brushed dried up… bushfires are hardly inspiring, and adrenalin drains creative juices almost completely.
Almost… when the green tinge returned I could barely contain my desire to capture it, and a series of works emerged with greens so impossible that no-one would believe such bright hues, captured not with liquid paint but dirt-dry chalk pastels.
The drought is not over for everyone, but the rains have stayed for us, and the Deepwater River is flowing again. I saw the plain of Dundee so water-soaked the pools reflected rays of light. I saw hillsides with verdant green at their feet, while the seed heads of the grasslands tinged the sloped with a new dry gold. I saw weather where for so long there had really been nothing but dry skies. I saw change that seemed like it was never going to come again.
The Deepwater Country collection bleeds from greens and greys, to a fool’s gold, and then back to a surreal burst of colour that I’ve heard some locals confess to being desperate for. I know I was.
Deepwater Country runs until the end of August at The Makers Shed.
Journalist - Michael Burge Media
Michael Burge is a journalist, artist, author, designer, digital publisher and mentor who lives at Deepwater in the New England region of NSW. He curates The Makers Shed, a high-street marketplace for artisans at Glen Innes; co-manages the High Country Writers Festival which takes place annually in October; and mentors emerging writers, journalists, artists and events.