Challenging the Boundaries between Art and Nature

There is something wonderful about having a sculpture exhibition in the area, and recently I went along to explore Sculpture at Scenic World at Katoomba. From mid-April to mid-May, 38 sculptures were on display along the winding boardwalk through the Jurassic forest. The location provides an amazing backdrop to some incredible sculptures, and the exhibition prides itself on having a 0% ecological footprint. There is much collaboration between the selected artists and Scenic World to manage the creation and installation of the works.

Access to the boardwalk is via the scenic railway, which was originally used for coal and shale exports. I had forgotten how steep the incline is (52 degrees – claimed to be the steepest passenger railway in the world) and it is a short but invigorating ride down into the valley. The layout of the exhibition along the boardwalk invites reflection and it was a delight to meander along and take in the wide variety of art installations.

One of the first pieces, Blind by Andrew Townsend and Suzie Bleach, is part of series using the figure of a horse to explore themes of the human condition. Forest Emoji by Aldo Bilotta explores the evolution of language. A number of the pieces resonate with the immensity of time and space. A recurring theme is sustainability and waste: several sculptures feature repurposed materials.

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One of the black cockatoos created by Barbara Hamilton as Casuarina Dreaming II

An example of this is Casuarina Dreaming II by Barbara Hamilton which features discarded umbrellas and recycled bottles fashioned into black cockatoos. Hamilton wanted to raise awareness of these endemic birds, who are relatively quiet when compared to the rowdy sulphur-crested cockatoos. The habitat for the glossy black cockatoos is under threat. I am fortunate to see them flying through the upper mountain skies with their distinctive, creaky calls.

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Close-up of some of the beautiful glass balloons featured in Up! by Kayo Yokoyama

One of the works which delighted me was Up! by Kayo Yokoyama. This was inspired by a desire to transform a temporary object into a semi-permanent one to capture a moment. And there is something joyous about balloons, associated with celebrations and happy times. For Yokoyama, sagging or deflated balloons remind her of sadness. There is a universality to the memories and emotions linked by balloons, and I loved this piece.

Humour is evident in some of the blurbs which accompany the sculptures. For example, the description of Mega Pixel Power Plant by Tom de Munk-Kerkmeer advises that the creation is a close relative of Instaneous Gratificaticus and that perhaps it originated from the Silicon Valley area. The fruit resembles the sweet and rather addictive Licorice Allsorts.

Environmental awareness and climate change are recurring themes. Overconsumption is displayed clearly in Freya Jobbins’ #OTT. The link between memory and sculpture is touched on through several of the works, including memories of lost forests in a ghost tree exhibit. There is a stunning nod to both nature and a community’s ability to recover and regenerate following bushfire in Anastasis by Caitlin Hughes.

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Choking Hazard by Rochelle Quantock: bright toy bricks bringing an element of playfulness to the serious issues of sustainability

A wide range of materials are used, including wood, plastic, light bulbs, ceramics, umbrellas, bumper bars, crocheted and woven plastic bags, stone, steel, bottle caps, glass, porcelain, sticks, souvenir koala bears and salvaged hard rubbish. Some of the sculptures used sounds or mirrors to offer different sensory viewpoints.

Sculpture at Scenic World is an amazing annual event, with several of the works staying in my mind for quite some time afterwards.

When was the last time sculpture snagged your imagination?

[Photo: a glimpse of the stuffed toy roof in #OTT by Freya Jobbins]

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Flash Fiction: Red Mood

She thinks of it as his red mood. Alcohol hurried it along but lately it had become so regular that it no longer needed a big drinking session to bring it about. That scared her more than she could say. In quieter moments, when she used to be able to knit as he watched tele of a night, she’d find her mind searching for a rhythm in his actions, a discernible pattern that she could learn regardless of the workings of his mind. Something that she could gauge with markers along the way so she could change tack and unpick the knots that only he could see.

He cried the first time. Huge bawling sobs which jarred her out of the fog of pain. She’d crawled across the kitchen floor, stockings slipping on the polished lino then sticking where her blood had sprayed. With a trembling hand, she’d reached out, unsure of how he would react. Everything that had been certain before was skewed. He’d grabbed her, holding her so tight that she winced which only made him cry more. His head in her lap, her fingers tight in his dark curls. The hair now is long gone with just soft wisps edging his scalp, leaving nothing to hold onto anymore.

Lately, after years of nothing more than a rough passing shove or a sly meanness in his words, the blows had started again. With the children gone, returning for ever briefer visits with her beautiful, bold grandchildren, she offered to volunteer in the town. She’d always helped out at the annual show and fundraisers, but with Theo spending more time at the pub or helping his friends with endless projects, she started working at the op shop.

The other women made her laugh. For years they’d admired her careful needlework and she was asked to show a couple of the younger women, still in their fifties, how to do it. There was coffee and cake and gossip. At first, Rita used to stiffen, feeling almost prudish as they spoke openly about their sex lives, their husbands, the joys and disappointments of their children. She kept quiet, realising that everything was fair game. It took her a while to catch the surreptitious glances cast her way when they spoke of the aggression of their men whose lives were winding down as their physicality faded in a town that had lost its livelihood. She felt relief, briefly, knowing that she wasn’t the only one. Then she realised that they knew.

Rita called in sick for her next shift, too shamefaced to return. But Theo heard her lie and had asked with rare interest what was stopping her from going. She nearly told him, and part of her wanted to yell and scream at the disgrace he had brought upon them both. All those years ago she had known at the moment of impact that he had broken more than her nose. But she hadn’t realised that the breakage would keep on splintering for the rest of her life.

At the next women’s gathering, during a rare lull in the conversation, Rita cleared her throat. She kept her eyes down, her voice so soft at first that it was like something she was whispering to herself. But slowly, she spoke a little louder, not daring to look up. The words took on a rhythmic flow. It was the story – her story – that she had carried for so long, a litany of her life with Theo.

They let her speak, even Marcie who constantly interrupted and talked over everyone. As Rita spoke, condensing decades of hurt, pain, and confusion into a few sentences, she began to feel lighter. The burden wasn’t gone, but it felt less all-encompassing than before.

When she’d said enough, there was still silence. Rita looked up, her cheeks aflame with a sense of disgrace that was never far away. Marcie reached over and took her hand, and Rita was startled to see the tears on her cheeks. ‘Stupid old bastard, that Theo.’ Then the room was alive with laughter and tears and she was no longer quite so alone.

Inspired by a call for pieces inspired by red and published recently in The Wild Goose Literary e-Journal in April 2018.

[Photo: smoke clouds billowing towards Katoomba]

Portland: Signs of Yesteryear

The above is dotted on signposts leading towards the town of Portland in central west NSW, and it is a case of accurate advertising. Portland, between Lithgow and Bathurst, has a population of 2,400 and a drive around its streets will result in many old-fashioned advertising signs being spotted along shopfronts, alleys and walkways throughout the town.

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Sunlight Soap is still around. The reward would have been a small fortune back in the day!

The signs advertise nostalgic brands. There are some products that are still around, and it is interesting to note that while some changes have inevitably taken place in the advertising world, some branding is still the same.

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Jaffas and Minties are still around too, even if ownership of the brands has changed.

Portland has an unusual history as it is one of a handful of company towns in Australia. Whilst people had been living in the area before the establishment of the cement works, it was the construction of the cement plant that resulted in the town’s development. There had been lime and quarry works in the area and in nearby towns prior to the commencement of the Commonwealth Portland Works, but the scale of the operation and its ongoing success was to dominate the identity and livelihood of the town for nearly a century.

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Uncle Tobys is still around. Interesting claim at the bottom!

In 1991 the cement works closed and the town began the slow adjustment to a life beyond the cement industry.

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A beautiful reproduction of a seed and bulb manual

A decade later, trade signwriter Ron Bidwell was joined by fellow signwriters known as ‘The Letterheads’. Together they recreated vintage signs from 1895 to 1945 and in doing so added significantly to the town’s aesthetic and tourist appeal.

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Some more wonderful signwriting work and in the bottom right hand corner, the artists have left their mark.

The signs are positioned throughout the town and encourage exploration on foot and an appreciation of the heritage shopfronts.

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One of the beautiful old shopfronts in Williwa Street, Portland

The signs featured here are a small sample of the many colourful reproductions of ‘signs of yesterday’. You can see more of them here.

 

Autumn: a short poem by Frida A Phillips

There’s blue in the sky, and there’s blue in the sea,
And a blue mist is veiling the mountains from me.
A blue wren is calling his mate from the bower,
And there is the butterfly over the flower.

Plumbago blue/zebra blue butterfly enjoying lavender flowers

Plumbago blue/zebra blue butterfly enjoying lavender flowers

There is gold in the sunshine and gold in the sand;
And gold is the poppy I have in my hand.
The golden-red leaves lie thick-strewn on the mould,
For Autumn has come with its blue and its gold.

Superb fairy wren (male)

Superb fairy wren (male)

Frida A. Phillips
Sydney Morning Herald, Sat 26 May 1928, page 13

[Photo: autumn leaves]

The Kindness of Strangers

Kindness can be expressed in a number of ways, and it can be particularly powerful when it is unexpected. Whilst you may not always be able to rely on the kindness of strangers, it can really make a difference when you experience such a moment.

I have never been bothered by heights. I like the vantage points offered from lookouts and tall towers offering panoramic views. But then I had a moment when I felt suddenly and inexplicably overwhelmed by vertigo.

I had wandered off to explore the Woodford Academy. This was my first visit and it happened to be on an open day when there was a guided tour featuring several artistic installations. Whilst this was interesting, I had wanted to get an idea of the history of the place, and so I left the gathering group and took myself up a rather steep flight of stairs to the first floor to view the old bedrooms. There was a sign on the staircase, which was effectively carved into a corner of the building, advising that the stairs were very steep. I trotted up, only noting as I turned for the second flight that there was no bannister or handrail on the upper section.

I had a good look around the first floor, enjoying the view looking over the garden and onto the highway. It was nice to daydream and imagine some of the scenes that would have passed by, from the days of the gold rush and the arrival of the railways, to men travelling to Sydney as part of the Cooee March.

I could hear the guided tour downstairs and took the opportunity to look closer at the furniture and displays providing insights into earlier times. The crowd moved on and I decided it was time to go. But when I approached the staircase I felt a wave of dizziness at the thought of winding my way down the steps, especially the top section without a handrail. I turned around and went back into one of the bedrooms, unsure as to what to do next. I could hardly call out for help, as the guided tour had moved on. And wasn’t it my fault anyway for not heeding the sign? I moved between the rooms, feeling a bit trapped. Then I heard footsteps on the stairs.

An older couple appeared and looked through the rooms. They said hello and continued talking between themselves about a similar staircase that they had come across, and how tricky it was to navigate. I said nothing, thinking that perhaps I could just follow them down the stairs.

As they were getting ready to go, I mentioned that I was feeling anxious about getting back to the ground floor and without any fuss, the husband offered to guide me. His wife led the way, then he took the stairs down to the corner adjacent to the handrail and reached his hand out to me. It was a simple gesture which eased my panic. He made sure I arrived safely on the ground floor before nodding at my thanks and heading off.

When was the last time you experienced the kindness of a stranger? Or perhaps you were the kind stranger?

[Photo: The Company of Trees by Ro Murray and Mandy Burgess spotted at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, Katoomba]

Writing Prompt: The Seed

It was all he had left of his old life. The only tangible object, separate to himself. When he looked in the mirror there were faint glimpses of what he had been. The sharp lines of his cheekbones, the clarity of his brow, the deceptive softness of his lips, all of these had faded. It seemed impossible that the image in the mirror was the man he’d become.

It had become a morning ritual. Get up (this step was harder than he thought it ought to be), wash and dress. Turn to the mirror to make sure the shirt buttons were aligned with their correct holes, then shuffle over to the armchair in the generously named living area. He’d cadenza down into the chair and gaze at the husk of the once succulent fruit and lose himself for a while in thoughts of earlier times. Back to when his body was taut, muscled and capable of anything that he put his mind to. His life had seemed overripe with possibilities.

Some mornings he frowned, adding additional wrinkles to his furrowed brow, trying to identify the turning point, that precise moment in time when equilibrium shifted, when his seemingly limitless strength started to trickle away. He was yet to identify that moment but he knew that the decline was quick and relentless. It took him too long to realise that he was waning, that all that was strong and sure was gone. His memories of home seemed to leach away too, and all that he had left was the dried husk of a pomegranate.

It had travelled with him across the world. His mother had pressed it into his hands in her last act of benevolence. He hadn’t been able to eat it and had wanted even then to keep it with him. A vague plan formed of growing new life from its seeds when he found somewhere that would hold his heart. But somehow he never found that place. It puzzled him and yet there was peace in knowing that the pomegranate was still with him, a spent force perhaps, but with the promise of warmth and sunshine, of life.

[Photo: pomegranates]

This story was inspired by a dried pomegranate, one of several props in a writing group exercise.

Lithgow Blast Furnace

Nestled at the base of the Blue Mountains with rich veins of coal, Lithgow has been an industrial town for many decades. It also played a part in the development of the nascent Australian steel industry and one of the defining images of Lithgow is of the ruins of the Blast Furnace Park, located on the Coal Stage Hill.

Blast Furnace Park

The remains of the Ferranti generator house (left) and Davy engine house (right) are now accessible with walkways throughout and around the ruins and signage providing additional information.

This wasn’t the first blast furnace erected in Lithgow. Iron smelting had commenced in Lithgow in late 1875 at the Esk Bank Ironworks, and the following year a blast furnace was providing over 100 tonnes of pig iron per week. The operation wasn’t financially viable at the time as iron was being imported cheaply as ballast for ships, although the venture continued on for a while as a cooperative.

The operation was taken over by William Sandford in 1886, and Sandford ended up buying the estate and expanding the ironworks. In 1900 he built the first steelmaking plant in Australia, and in 1907 he opened the Blast Furnace site. Sandford had been awarded a contract to supply the NSW Government’s iron and steel requirements. The new blast furnace was built to meet capacity, but Sandford was experiencing financial difficulties and the bank foreclosed on the loan. Operations passed to G & C Hoskins Pty Ltd, and Charles Hoskins oversaw the continued development and modernisation of the site.

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Some of the ruins on the Blast Furnace site

From 1908 until 1932, Lithgow produced thousands of tonnes of steel, including steel for the trans-Australian railway. The Blast Furnace was a major employer and producer, and it relied upon local resources including limestone from Ben Bullen and coke from Carcoar. Local coal production and established railway networks were also contributing factors to the success of the enterprise.

But the future lay elsewhere. In 1915, BHP had opened up a new steelworks in Newcastle and in 1921 Hoskins negotiated the purchase of a large industrial site at Port Kembla. By 1926, construction had commenced on a 300,000 tonne per year site there. From 1928 onwards, all usable buildings and machinery were moved from Lithgow to Port Kembla. The Hoskins Iron and Steel Works closed in 1932. Various factors contributed to the closure including increased railway freight charges, supply issues with good quality ore and the Great Depression.

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Looking through the Davy Engine House ruins with ‘Bosh iron skull’ in the background

The importance of the site was recognised by the town and it has been largely preserved in the decades since it fell silent. In recent months there has been considerable work completed to improve the access and information around the site. It has long been a popular photographic backdrop, and is particularly striking at sunrise and sunset.

This clip provides a tour of the site using a mixture of photos and video footage.

Lithgow lead the way in producing steel, laying the foundations for the steel industry in Newcastle and Port Kembla. While the finishing touches are still being put in place following the site redevelopment, it is great to see the effort put into acknowledging an integral part of Australia’s industrial heritage.

[Photo: signage at the Blast Furnace Park, Lithgow]

A Creative Hero: Carmel Bird

Hero is a term that is easily thrown about these days. Skilled sporting stars are named heroes, as are people who complete an extraordinary act in an otherwise ordinary life. It is a badge that I’m a little bit wary of, yet I like the idea of a creative hero.

For me a creative hero is someone who is versatile in their field, passionate not only about the act of writing but the craft of it – being willing and generous in their sharing of knowledge. They would be able to write in various styles and genres, from poetry to prose, non-fiction to fantasy, offering a breadth of approaches and worlds for their readers to enjoy.

A creative hero would have an impact on readers and writers alike, perhaps have a wider profile than many writers, and be advocates for the power of creativity.

There are many eligible candidates out there, both living and otherwise, but if I was put on the spot I would have to say Carmel Bird is an Australian contender for my creative hero. I came across Bird’s fiction years ago with a mystery novel Open for Inspection, and have read many of her short stories in various compilations.

Her contribution to the craft of writing is extensive, through workshops, classes, and author talks. My introduction to the world of writing via Bird’s viewpoint was through a chance finding of a second-hand copy of Dear Writer. I found it in the wonderful book town of Clunes in Victoria, and enjoyed reading through the correspondence between an aspiring writer and their patient and wise tutor. The warmth and humour made it stand apart from many of the books that I’ve scoured over the years, and I was pleased when it was re-released a couple of years ago with some updates as Dear Writer Revisited. There is a review on the NSW Writers Centre site here.

There is an extensive interview with Bird on the Sydney Review of Books site written by Rachel Morley. This provides insights into Bird’s creative process and practice, including travelling with a small paper notebook and capturing three good things from each day, from simple moments to more complex events. Bird also outlines the importance of observation for a writer, of how the act of writing is a way of making sense of aspects of life.

For me a creative hero is someone who I admire, with work I respect and enjoy, who is prolific and inventive and has an evident joy in the act and art of creation.

Who is your creative hero?

[Photo: detail from stained glass door in Hydro Majestic Hotel, Medlow Bath]

John Clarke on Nature and Walking

I think one of the useful things about an interest in nature and in walking and looking is a loss of the self. To completely lose yourself is a great pleasure especially if what you do for a living is put yourself up in some way which is psychically tiring. One of the principal joys of birdwatching is that you are being responsive to the world, you’re just another creature. You are the tool of the world. You are not mastering it, or moulding it to your image or any such piffle, you are reminded of what a pipsqueak you are.

John Clarke 1948-2017

There is a link here which shares some of John’s amazing photos. Also check out this link to his website.

When was the last time you lost yourself in the natural world?

[Photo: superb blue wren spotted in Canberra]

Three Moments

There are times when it is easy to get caught up in the challenges and dramas swirling around in our lives. During these periods, I feel like I spend a lot of time in my head, thinking through problems or planning ahead to avoid obstacles. This sometimes means I forget to pay attention to what is around me, until a moment of something ordinary yet beautiful shakes me back into the present.

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A small grove of trees

This is one of the sections of a walk I take occasionally in my village. It is located on a long road, and I tend to walk it of a weekend when there is time to dawdle about and really enjoy the sights and sounds. It might look like a grove of trees, but for me it is a reminder to enjoy moments of serenity and to take in what is around me.

Over the summer there have been flocks of Gang-gang cockatoos swooping through the upper Blue Mountains. A couple of years ago I wasn’t even aware of their existence, but then I saw a great photo at an exhibition at Everglades. The bird in the photo was a shade of lilac blue with a bright red head and it reminded me of a woman in a dressing gown somehow! It has been a delight to see these cockatoos in the area, and my first sighting of them was a flock in some tall gum trees. It took me a moment to work out what they were, and since then I have listened out for their cries and watched them move around the neighbourhood. I spotted these up the road whilst walking my dog (male on the left, female on the right). They weren’t bothered by the pesky human with a small camera finding delight in their everyday actions, and it made me smile for a long time.

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Tea tree blossom after the rain

It is hard to resist a pretty bloom, regardless of how distracted you might be, but paying more attention contributes to my growing appreciation of the natural world. During a walk I spotted this tea-tree in flower, close to a banksia tree. It was just after a morning shower and the blooms were almost luminous.

Have you been surprised by small moments lately?

[Photo: tea tree blossom]