The Archibald in Bega

The Archibald prize is awarded annually for a portrait by an artist living in Australia. The subject is usually someone prominent in the arts, science or politics: the founder (the Archibald was established in 1921) would probably be startled to find chefs in this celebrity mix. As well as the main prize of $AUD100 000, there is a much more modest packing room prize, and a people’s choice prize. I realise again what a rich life I can live in country Australia when I discover that the 2016 finalists in this prestigious exhibition are on show in the Bega Regional Gallery, a mere hundred kilometres from home.

I’m interested in portraiture, how it reveals a person, and what it might tell me about writing portraits and biography.  I head off down the familiar coast road, past the site of the Four Winds festival, stopping for a walk along Cuttagee Beach.

The gallery is small and spacious. There aren’t too many people around, and there’s a comfortable bench in each room for seated contemplation. With each painting there’s an illuminating artist’s statement, telling the story of both subject and painting process; and a question for children, asking them to look at something specific. To cater for the other end of the age demographic, the artist statements are available in a large-print booklet. On the Archibald website a short video in sign language accompanies each painting.

I prowl around, following the empty spaces in front of paintings. I note the ones I’m drawn to, and also that there’s no pattern, except that I prefer complexity over simplification. I notice how much of the body is shown: head only, head and shoulders, to the waist or just below, the whole figure. I notice backgrounds: mere and not-so-mere paint, detailed setting, a blurry landscape. I also find myself oddly drawn to conceptual paintings: two that I categorise thus are self portraits.

How can I curate my impressions? Maybe I’ll take a hint from pop song charts and work my way from least liked to favourites.

This lot have faces too blank for my liking, or is it too artificial? I don’t have the urge to meet the subjects, or to look deeper into the paintings.

Kate Benton “Claudia”; Belinda Henry “Louise Olsen”; Sally Ross “Roslyn”; Carla Fletcher “Twin souls”

The next four all appeal to me because they create a powerful context for their subjects. Troy Grant is a NSW politician and former policeman who wanted to be represented in the place he loves best. He’s dressed in clothes that reflect the palette of harvested fields. His policeman’s cap and rosary are a reminder that as a policeman he led an attack on child sexual assault in the church. This prompted me to wonder what symbols subjects of my portraits, written or photographed, might hold to capture an essence of themselves: indeed what I myself might hold.

Mark Horton “Troy” – acrylic on canvas

These two women, Pamela Easton and Lydia Pearson, are fashion designers in partnership, and they are enfolded in their textiles, a real gift for an artist who often paints vibrant detailed patterns.

Monica Rohan “Easton Pearson” – oil on board

Sam Harris is a fashion model from the Bundjalung people, traditional owners of land in north-eastern NSW. The artist arranges her studio with things that speak of Harris’s interests, and then inserts her into the set after only two sittings. She borrows the pose from Manet’s “Olympia”.

Zoe Young “Sam Harris” – acrylic on canvas

A businessman and generous arts patron, Pat Corrigan is shown rising from his desk, in front of part of his impressive art collection. The colours of his hands and face look bizarre close up, but create a person full of character and echo the colours in the background paintings.

Alan Jones “Pat” – acrylic on board: collage on 151 pieces of wood

The composition of this one is what takes my fancy, a half figure and negative space. I’m also amused by the setting: the chef holding a toilet roll and sitting on the loo, which is the ultimate destination of all her hard work.

Daniel Butterworth “Annie Smithers” – acrylic on board

I find myself drawn to two paintings because of the concept as much as the artistry. McWillams portrays species who have destroyed the Australian landscape, including man, represented by a self portrait in the style of the 16th century Italian Renaissance painter, Giuseppe Arcimboldo. The animals are beautifully painted: the artist wanted to show their innocence, despite their depredations in an environment not theirs and not of their choosing.

Michael McWilliams “The usurpers” – acrylic on linen

I’ve encountered Imant Tillers many times and have always been a bit puzzled by his art. This time, he provides a gateway in. He calls this painting a visual poem, and explains that it came about when he finally had to acknowledge that he exists as a “self”. Suddenly it becomes accessible, and I wonder whether I could construct a similar account of my “self”, making use of photography. I immediately acknowledge that such an attempt would be guaranteed to show me just how complex “Double reality” is.

Imants Tillers “Double reality (self portrait)” – acrylic and gouache on 64 canvas boards

The paintwork in “Terry Serio” is glorious, thick and textured: the palette elegant: the subject relaxed and perfectly placed against a geometry of horizontal and vertical lines: 

Clara Adolph “Terry Serio” – oil on canvas

Maybe my delight in “Lucy and fans” is the result of imprinting because it’s the first painting I see as I enter the gallery: it doesn’t hurt that these birds have been rescued from a future as animal food at Mogo Zoo. The perspective from above allows the birds to show off their characteristic fans, and portrays Lucy surrounded by creatures she loves.

Lucy Culliton “Lucy and fans” – oil on canvas

The two paintings I keep coming back to are both portraits of anguish.

“The cost” portrays Craig Campbell who intervened in a violent mob attack on a train during the infamous Cronulla race riots in 2005. He now suffers chronic PTSD and needs a carer. The colours, the downturned eyes, the wrinkled ravages of his face convey the damage he suffers from his act of courage.

Abdul Abdullah “The cost” – oil and resin on board

Garry McDonald is an Australian comedian who suffers from  anxiety and depression. This painting captures the pain and inwardness in which he lives during dark episodes: the stillness, the greyness, the unreachability, the isolation, intensified by stormy grey cloud-like background.

Kirsty Neilson “There’s no humour in darkness” – oil and spray paint on canvas

The winner? Go back to the first photo of the gallery. That small one against a black background is it: Louise Hearman’s “Barry”, a portrait of Barry Humphries in oil on masonite.

The packing room winner is hidden around a corner and hard to photograph.

Begin Fauves-Ogden “George Calombaris, Masterchef” – oil on linen

The people’s choice is almost impossible to see whole, overlaid as it is by reflections in the glass. Deng is a former child soldier in the Sudan, a refugee and now a human rights lawyer. He is depicted almost photographically against a plain background, from the shoulders up, wearing a white shirt.

Nick Stathopoulos “Deng” – acrylic and oil on linen

You’ll probably notice that I’m a sucker for a story. I wonder how much of my pleasure comes from story and how much from artistry.

RegularRandom: Five minutes with a currawong



Birds have been one of the joys of my return home. This currawong, unlike the brown pigeon who likes my front deck, wasn’t at all perturbed when I stepped out the door. He was pecking away at the water on the table, and then hopped up onto the railing to scrutinise the pink sheet I was desperately trying to get dry between showers. Eventually he was joined by three mates in the bottlebrush, who tilted their heads sideways, looked knowingly at me, sang their beautiful song, and flew away. My son tells me they sometimes go into his room to steal the dog food.

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For currawong song, listen to this. Not my video, but absolutely my experience the day of the RegularRandom shoot.

My inspiration for this post is DesleyJane’s weekly challenge, RegularRandom. She asks you to spend five minutes with one subject and photograph it in as many ways as possible. For far more expert and technical takes on this challenge have a look here. I haven’t been very experimental – it was enough of a challenge to find a willing avian subject.


Every twenty steps: a celebration of the earth


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I want to be in the bush, I don’t want to drive far, I’m fearful that closeby familiar bush won’t offer me anything. I’ve had that fear before, and it’s never justified. I decide to stop every twenty steps and photograph whatever offers itself. I’m astonished at the results. OK! So I don’t obey my own rules absolutely: sometimes I go a few paces back or forwards. Sometimes I’m forced to stop before the regulation 20 by something irresistible. Whenever I look around and think “Rats: just more dead leaves”, I find a couple of small hakeas, a mushroom shoving up the dead leaves, black resin which looks like a skeleton, a curl of bark around a stick. Always something. Old acquaintances: bark, flowers, fungi, desiccated leaves, traces, tracks, spotted gums. And new subjects: bush layers; landscape seen through a veil of foliage; grasses and fern. I even manage to catch birds at play in a string of mud pools.

Here’s the haul from my first “every 20 steps” photo shoot. And no. It is NOT the beginning of a series! Maybe the beginning of a habit, but not a series. Definitely not a series.

Latin spirit


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When I was in Warsaw, one of the things I missed was performances at Four Winds, a wonderful site near Bermagui, with a soundshell and a pavilion in a bushland setting. The Four Winds Easter offering is Latin spirit, music with a Latin American flavour, with workshops in flamenco, tango and Latin rhythm in the weeks leading up to the fiesta. I pack my lunch and my low folding chair and arrive in time to watch the preparations: arranging the stage, testing sound levels, and preliminary performer chat.

The first set is a surprise: a meeting of Hindustani music and flamenco, played by Rasa Duende on tabla, sarod and flamenco guitar.

Three men sit,

Between reflecting pool and lagoon.

They talk, companionably,

Their voices tabla, sarod, flamenco guitar,

Eyes and subtle nods conduct their improvising.

Orange flags balloon behind them,

My arm hairs rise in gentle breeze.

Sun warms the skins of drum and sarod.

A pause, and they converse again


After a break, for champagne, oysters, empanadas and ice cream (none of which I sample), the second set …

… featuring a flamenco dancer. She sits on stage with her Bandaluzia musicians – a percussionist with an instrument that looks like a speaker box, which he sits on nonchalantly, and two flamenco guitarists – frilled in red flamenco garb, clicking her fingers till it’s time to dance. Which she does with grace and vigorous snicking of flamenco heels. She changes into sleek black with a white bolero for her second dance.

Then there’s a final set, starring Opera Australia baritone José Carbó, accompanied by a group consisting of piano accordion, (played by James Crabb who is also the current artistic director of Four Winds), pianist, violinist, guitar, and double bass. My last encounter with an accordion was in the old town square in Warsaw, where it was played by a man with a fierce face and a bristling moustache.

The afternoon of music ends with a festive sunset over the water as I drive home into darkness and silence.


For the movie see a separate post.

The fruits of idleness


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In a fit of idleness, I find myself flicking through the arts section of Australian ABC iView, amongst a series of short documentaries about artists who paint outside and big. I’ve always been intrigued by murals and their scale. My first encounter with a mural was a trompe d’oeil window on the living room wall of an artist friend who’d just liberated herself from an obnoxious and controlling husband. More recently, I’ve been relishing the street art icelandpenny uncovers and keeps uncovering in Canada.

So I am ready for the artists featured in the segments of ArtBites called “The wanderers.” There I meet a number of young Australian artists who ramble around the world painting on walls and other large public surfaces, and bonding with communities. My favourites all paint in Australian country towns, familiar landscapes to me, where they talk to the locals to get a feel for place and story.

Guido Van Helten has left his mark in many countries. In Manildra in central western NSW, population about 500, his chosen canvas is the side of freight trains carrying flour from the biggest flour mill in the southern hemisphere. He chooses local faces, photographs them and then reduces them to eyes, because “whole faces aren’t the right shape for a railway carriage”. He attracts an audience as he works, locals intrigued by seeing people they know emerge from the steel. 

Nowra is one of the destinations of the train: it’s also the station where I change from bus to train when I travel to Sydney, so who knows? If I miss out there, he has also painted in my daughter’s work-town of Stanthorpe. When I visit in the middle of the year, I’ll definitely be able to see one of his pieces in person.

(Photos from Google images)

Georgia Hill is an unlikely mural artist at first sight. Her art is precise, black and white, and features lettering. She goes to Tarraleah, a small isolated hydro electricity town in Tasmania, expecting to be drawn to the Art Deco buildings and other structures but instead finds herself attracted to the stories of people. Her painting has to be done in a hurry to beat the weather, and she paints for two days from 8am to 1am.

(The photo is a screen dump from the documentary.)

Amok Island travels to the Heron Island research facility on the Great Barrier Reef and nearby Yeppoon for his segment of “The wanderers”, exploring underwater for his images. He works very precisely, designing on the computer and aiming for realism abstracted, mathematics with heart. He’s a keen underwater photographer and says that tracking down a hard-to-find underwater creature satisfies him in the same way that placing his graffiti in a spot that was really hard to reach did when he was a graffiti artist. His Barrier Reef images he paints on walls, but the link takes you to banksias on silos and other images he has left all over the world on a variety of surfaces.

(Photos are screen dumps from the documentary)

The other artists featured in The Wanderers series are Elliott Routledge, DabsMyla, and Rone.

Eurobodalla beaches: McKenzie Beach



Warning: If you don’t share my passion for patterns on rock faces, you might like to give this post a miss. I’m probably guilty of the imitative fallacy in attempting to create in my reader sighs of ecstasy to mirror my experience.

I’m back on the job with a series which has been languishing since December 2015. McKenzie is my 26th Eurobodalla beach: I’ve now visited about a third of the beaches my shire has to offer.  The last time I visited McKenzie was probably 30 years ago, on December 25th, the inaugural “Just a vegemite sandwich for Christmas lunch, as long as there’s a surf” celebration.

This morning the sun is bright and the sky blue, with just a few clouds and initially a slight crispness to the air. It’s a small beach and exactly as I remember it, enclosed in a hug between two headlands. One end is sunny, the other in the shade. I opt for the shady end first, mainly because the other end is overlooked by a couple of houses. I crunch through deep shell grit, popping the occasional seaweed bubble. You could easily forget that the coast road swoops past just behind the sand as you become mesmerised by the patterns on the rocks. I find myself muttering ecstatically every time I turned my eyes in a different direction – not only rocks but rockpools, the blue sea, the green weed, and that Australian autumn air on my skin. I’m wary near the cliffs: the tumble of rocks is a warning.

The south end of the beach isn’t as dramatic in its patternings, maybe because sun bleaches colour, maybe because my appetite for visual wonders is sated. As I walk across the sand, I see remnants – the inside and the broken shell of a sea urchin; the curling track of a shell-creature; and an operculum, once doorway to the home of another shell-creature. By the time I leave the beach to buy a stove, pick up twin portraits from the framer, price carpet to protect against dog-grime, and acquire touch-up paint for the mini-scratches on the car’s paintwork, the sea and the beach are both occupied by pleasure seekers. Lads lie on their boards, waiting for a wave and children sit at the waterline collecting shells. I’m leaving the beach in good hands.

RegularRandom: Five minutes with a tibouchina



My tibouchina nuzzles the corner of my back deck. It’s just beginning its explosion into purple: when it’s completely out I’m bathed in a purple haze. It seems almost wicked to play around with black and white, but I was startled by the definition such playing gave to the leaves. My son desanding his feet after a surf adds a human dimension.

My inspiration for this post is Desley’s weekly challenge, RegularRandom. She asks you to spend five minutes with one subject and photograph it in as many ways as possible. For far more expert and technical takes on this challenge have a look here.

I can’t resist breaking rules – little ones of course. So my final photo was taken the next day, well outside the five minutes allowed, against an irresistible blue sky. Although, now I come to think of it the five minutes don’t have to be sequential – do they? Four minutes one day: one the next? I’m obviously a practitioner of casuistry.