Artist-in-residence reflective essays

Between Bark and Breath by Jennifer Kemarre Martiniello

I began this residency with the intention to research, collect, process and experiment with the native plant fibres used by the traditional Aboriginal peoples belonging to this place to make fish, bird and moth nets. Ngunnawal, Ngambri, Ngarigo, Woollaballoo, Yuin and other First Nations breathed the air of this place, Namadgi, spoke languages in vowels and consonants formed by the shapes, sounds and seasons of this place, and came together here to share story, ceremony, hunt, dance, law, knowledges and sovereign practices and more. This place named Gudgenby in Namadgi shapes people too, as it has me during the 3 weeks of residency.

Before I left, friend and fellow Aboriginal poet, Yvette Holt, told me to remember the three Rs of Residency – Retreat, Reflect and Rejoice, and so I did. I gave myself over to the rhythms and cycles of the valley, allowed myself to be absorbed by it, relearned the principle of the conservation of energy from our ever-present kin, the kangaroos. I quietly, slowly gathered not just native fibres and split and twined them, but recorded the natural time of the valley in photographs of shadow-shifting trees, rocks like sacred edifices and shrines, river and reeds, and the stark and beautiful fire scarred mountains and their emphatic rejuvenation. Always was, always will be…

In making terms, I followed the valley’s calling and returned to the basic materials of my Ancestors, although I am Arrernte and not from this country, but our primary resources are much the same. I made mark-making tools from sticks and plant stems, collected, bones, stones, ochres and charcoal to create with. I split fibres, boiled them on the fire, made samples of twined cordage for net making, collected barks filigreed by larvae and insects, played with fallen fence wires, and charted how I might render the colours of native flora and landscapes in Gaffer colour bar for future hot blown glass works.

In listening for the ancient wisdom of this place, I heard its languages of birdwing, river, creek, wind, frog, birdsong and crow, reed, dry and green seeds, grasses and gully, each with its own syntax and song to feel in the solar plexus, enter into with the heart and embrace with the mind.

In reflection, Namadgi has gifted me with a great deal – new artworks for decades to come, re-discovered ancient techniques, slower and deeper ways of seeing, I will never look at grasses with the same eyes again, a joyful and guiltless adherence to kangaroo time, and the realisation that Namadgi and being are the same – both like the sea and the wind that wash over, encompass, move the small things in the shallows but somehow still part around them, move on and then retreat again – a ceaseless coming to and encountering and going around and holding and releasing, always changing, always remaining the same. Always was, always will be …

Eventually I will make woven fish, bird and moth nets in glass and I am about to embark on that journey using some materials I have not used before. Until then, the works in this exhibition are the evidence and promise of transformation.


Reflective essay by Sharon Peoples

It is 6.30 in the morning and I am sitting on a striped canvas fold-up stool recording the dawn birdsong in a small, densely forested area of Namadgi National Park. I open a voice memo app on my phone to record the sounds. It is more than sheer pleasure to listen.

Enchantment. Chant is a song. To be enchanted is to enter with the singer into the song (Ingold 2018). Unable to tear my attention away from the patterns in sound, I am immobile.

Here, two aural experiences are adjacent: the birdsong and the gurgling water from the Gudgenby River. Determining the optimal site for sound is a new register for me. Walking up and down this section of the road, back and forth, wandering and wondering.

The prevailing bias in the crafts is to read the world through visual metaphors. Sight rather than sound is my mode of operating. My ears working hard, measuring the relationship between acoustics and vision in this small theatre along the sensory pathway. During this residency, hearing becomes the prime sense. While sitting facing this aural curtain, I try to peer through, connecting specific birds to their individual sound. For the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea, every bird is its song (Feld 1991). The sound here is prodigious.

On pressing the record button, I imagine perhaps a ‘sound’ person shutting their eyes, absorbing the sound waves. For me, the aural is penetrating directly into the hole in my ears, mingling with something more than my physical body.

I sit watching.

Birds are darting in and out of trees and dense bushes. A group of five blue wrens dash around on lower branches, while above in branches higher up, honey eaters, thornbills, treecreepers and pardalotes race. Glossy black cockatoos can be heard in the middle distance, while kookaburras laugh further away. So many birds I cannot determine by sight or sound, contribute to the frenzy of song.

I follow the recommendations in The Art of Mindful Birdwatching which suggests sitting for at least 30 minutes for the birds to accommodate you being in their space.  However, to “… notice the silence between the sounds …” is impossible. The mixture of songs, companion calls, territorial aggression and alarm calls is explosive.

What was I to do with these recordings? Perhaps this was the wrong question – what do they evoke? My pack was full of drawing and painting materials, yet no line or drawing could convey the sensations of the sound. The pack remained unopened. Yet, I understood that the birds and their song would help make sense of this place.

Residencies away from home mean improvising with materials at hand. Back at the cottage, I unpacked a very large reel of thick red string, a gift from another artist, my niece who is a chef. As chefs know, in the kitchen it is the mixing and combining of ingredients that transform the ordinary – redirecting the flow towards what might emerge. I had no predetermined idea about what I would do with the string.

The cottage, surrounded by a wire fence, is a boundary where we watch snakes pass through, birds fly over, seeds blow across on the wind. A territorial Willie wagtail sits upon the fence, using its vantage point to call from and to catch insects. Blue wrens use it to demonstrate their mating potential. Tiny silvereyes use the wire as a resting point as they fly between the bushes and trees. It was not the ‘vitality’ of the fence wire, but as the birds demonstrated, its ‘thinging’.

For the rest of the morning, looking at the fence, I reach up to my ‘kitchen shelf’ to peruse and perhaps open other containers, not so much for ‘things’ like the red string, but something else that allows for improvisatorial making. On my tiptoes, at the back of the shelf was another type of drawing learned in childhood that might be useful, that of musical notation. This was learned contemporaneously with my stitching skills which has become a lifetime of ‘intimate gestural and sensory engagement’ (Ingold 2011).

Opening up to and following the material properties of the red string, like an alchemist I struggled to combine to bring forward the magic of birdsong. Playing at the fence, ‘stitching’ into the hexagonal spaces of the wire, I made the connection with a form of lace known as punto in aria, drawing in air, a Venetian lace, familiar in Elizabethan ruffs.

In the afternoon as musical notes became apparent, and staves were woven, a bird began its mating call practice. The sound transported me immediately to childhood holidays at our beach house, knowing immediately the sound was a butcher bird. Kindly repeating and perfecting its call, I began to draw the melody. Again, enchantment took over.

Images: Work in progress at Ready-Cut Cottage, Namadgi National Park. Photos: 5 Foot Photography