I first visited Cataract Gorge in Launceston, Tasmania 2 years ago on a wet, cold, winters’ day and was captivated by the striking patterns within gorge. It seemed the passage of energy, over time had etched a graphic record into the rocks which was then garnished with moss and lichen forming kaleidoscope of pattern, texture and colour. At the time I had begun experimenting with the use of oxidised metallic powders and paint to interpret the abstract landscapes found upon rusted metal. I was keen to try to explore the patterns within the gorge using similar working methods and applied for a residency.
In May of 2017 I was honoured to be selected to be the Artist in Residence at Kings Bridge Cottage which overlooks the Cataract Gorge. The residency is managed by the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery on behalf of Launceston City Council and aims to provide artists with time away from their usual lives to create a body of work that is inspired by their surroundings.
I followed in the footsteps of great Australia artists like John Worsley, Colin Offord and poet Matt Simpson who have all been previous recipients of the residency.
Kings Bridge Cottage clings to the northern cliff side of Cataract Gorge and overlooks both the historic Kings Bridge and the South Esk River. Despite being located within walking distance of the Launceston, CBD, the gorge feels remote and wild. Each window frames a spectacular view of the ancient dolomite gorge. Echoes of Gondola land hanging in the mist. Below the veranda a well-used footpath fringes the partially tidal South Esk River which ebbs and flows below, setting a daily rhythm to life in the cottage.
The cottage was designed by renowned Launceston architect Alexander North and built in 1890 as a care takers residence. It was home to numerous families that collected entrance fees and carried out maintenance in the gorge. Each worn step is a reminder to the long history of the previous residents. It is hard to believe this small one bedroom cottage housed entire families. The cottage receives very little sun during winter and can be cold and draughty. From reading the history of the cottage I understand that the early residents kept the fire going pretty much year round in an effort to keep warm. I thought of those families each morning as I switched on the heating.
It took me a few days to come to terms with the landscape. Each facet of the gorge contained so much information. It was clear that I would need to expand my artistic vocabulary to be able to make sense of the myriad of complex shapes and patterns contained within. The muted colours were totally different from my usual palette of vibrant desert colours and I quickly found myself at the local art shop searching for new materials.
My early days were spent wandering the many paths through the gorge, taking photographs of patterns, doing sketches and experimenting with ways to represent the myriad of patterns using new materials.
Every walk revealed new layers of colour, texture, light and shadow. Part of the role of an artist is to share their unique ways of seeing with the world.
Rainy days bring the gorge to life. The wet accentuates the colours and highlights the patterns. Tourists huddle in the café with only a few hardy souls venturing out into the pelting rain. I enjoyed the silence and space to indulge in some quiet contemplation of the natural environment…albeit with a large umbrella and some weatherproof gear.
I tried to structure my work to emulate the art of nature by allowing my process to be random and organic. Every painting was a surprise…constructed layer upon layer over time….abstract works that evolved with reflection into realistic representations of the types of patterns I had seen and photographed on my walks.
These works focus on the small details and the abstract patterns in nature. Within a landscape as dramatic and spectacular as the gorge there are many microcosms…landscapes within landscapes. While my traditional landscape work focuses on the big picture I wanted to create artworks that provided insight into the plethora of individual areas of sublime beauty that populate our environment. My art parallels creation by using natural elements like sand, metals, acids, ochres and reconfiguring them into something that is unique and hopefully beautiful.
Whilst I was in residence I exhibited concurrently at the Basin Cottage which also doubles as the local tourist information centre. This allowed me to connect with visitors to the gorge as well as the scores of volunteers who help out at the gorge.
If the weather was wet and windy I painted at the Basin Cottage much to the interest of school groups and tourists. On days where the weather permitted, I ventured into the gorge with my easel and painted direct from the landscape itself. Nothing manages to draw a crowd of onlookers quite like an artist at an easel. Other days saw me seeking the solitude necessary to reflect and create in my cosy Kings Bridge Cottage studio.
One of the elements of this residency I really struggled with was connecting with the local arts community. A handful of local artists came to visit me or view the exhibition from my personal contacts. In the final days of my residency, I came across local artists Rod Gardner, Fred Fullarton and Alice painting under the bridge. They paint plein air each Friday morning. I introduced myself and enjoyed joining them to paint the Mill.
Dave Groves a local photographer contacted me because he wanted to photograph an artist working in the iconic cottage. It was a great opportunity for me to view the residency through the lens of fellow creative. In autumn, the only time the cottage receives any direct light is 7 am so we began our shoot with me painting the early morning light, on the veranda in the freezing cold. Dave captured some great images but we both agreed that it was hard to find an angle that encapsulated the whole experience. Thanks Dave Groves Photography for the wonderful shots. Some of these are included in this blog.
I learned during my residency that the gorge is much loved and well utilized by the Launceston locals. Scores of joggers and walkers traversed the path below, often unaware they were being observed from the cottage above. Occasionally those who happened to see me coming and going stopped to introduce themselves. It seems that the locals relished the chance to see the iconic cottage from the inside and find out more about the residency.
Conversely scores of tourists photographed the cottage from the bridge and the zig zag track. A few times a day the Cataract Gorge River Cruise would glide by and I would hear the loudspeaker announcing that the cottage was home to different Artists in Residence from around the world……if we were lucky we might even see one. At times I sheepishly waved…other times I heard the boat coming and ducked for cover.
As a huge wildlife fan I was always on the lookout. My first encounter was with the local possum who lives in the ceiling above the kitchen. According to the history of the cottage, his ancestors took up residence in 1890 so I guess he has some claim to the territory. Numerous waterbirds frequent the river and in the early hours of the morning I was surprised to see a seal frolicking among them. Apparently they are frequent visitors, coming in with the tide. My morning walks off the beaten track managed to startle a few wallabies and an echidna. The resident peacocks however where moulting, broody and failed to dazzle.
A visit to the Tasmanian Zoo and the Low Head Penguin Tours allowed me to get some fantastic reference photos for my quirky wildlife character work. I managed to paint a few of the characters I got acquainted with during my visits. Although I love to paint animals I don’t consider myself to be a wildlife artist. This work often anthropomorphizes animals and says more about our human characteristics than the animal itself.
Of course there was plenty of wildlife of the human variety hanging about the entrance to the gorge or taking cover under the bridge. At times this made me feel uncomfortable…especially when walking back to the cottage at night. I quickly worked out that a few homeless individuals live in and around the gorge. I cannot even begin to image what it must be like to be homeless…in winter….when it is wet and cold.
Tasmania is a place of contrasting lights and darks. I ventured into areas of the gorge that don’t receive any sunlight in winter and remain cold, wet and dark. I wondered through forests in the middle of the day where barely any light managed to penetrate the heavy tree canopy….these forests felt positively foreboding and threatening…areas where life exists constantly in deep shadow. In some ways I felt these contrasts of light and dark echo the violent history of Tasmania’s white settlement. It’s a wild place that you can get lost and found in.
Some days I craved sunshine and ventured further afield taking the time to explore the nearby Tamar Valley, Cradle Mountain and some of the smaller towns of Sheffield, Scottsdale, Bridport and Lilydale.
Tasmania in the autumn is truly magical. On sunny days the light streamed through the trees illuminating ever changing patterns of light and dark. In some ways I felt that nothing I could paint would do it justice. My plein air works were more about recording information and the mood of the environment.
Overall I was happy with the very differing artworks I produced while in residence. I will continue to mull over the concepts I grappled with away.
I would like to give thanks to the Launceston City Council and the Queen Victoria Museum and Gallery for hosting me and also to the myriad of locals who took the time to make me feel welcome and connected. A special thanks to Dave Groves, Carol Grey, Lorraine Woods, Paul Fyfe and Sherlee Quarrell who treated me like a friend and introduced me to the city of Launceston.