River cottage: The artistic results of deep immersion in Namadgi

It’s a sight that would likely have had our ACT rangers in stitches - or slightly terrified - had they accidentally happened upon it.

Two Canberra artists, deep in Namadgi National Park scrub, dressed in replica 1950s space suits, breathing heavily, walking as though weightless, and collecting items very slowly - meticulously even - from the earth for study.

It was April 2019, about 10 months before Namadgi would succumb to the roaring flames of the early 2020 bushfires, and the people inside the astronaut suits were Queanbeyan-based jewellery designer Sabine Pagan and her husband Rohan Nicol, a metalsmith.

The husband and wife artists were two of five selected for Craft ACT’s Artist-in-Residence program in 2019, an annual collaboration with ACT Parks and Conservation, with research support from our national institutions. The residency was born from the ashes of the 2003 Canberra fires, when Craft ACT approached ACT Parks and Conservation and asked “how can we help with the healing process?”

The residency places artists deep in the heart of Namadgi at the Gudgenby Ready-Cut Cottage, a prefabricated or ‘ready cut’ cottage built in the 1920s and located on the banks of the Gudgenby River.

The artists stay in the cottage for up to 14 days on their own, distilling ideas, making, reflecting, concepting - whatever they like - off the back of an intensive period of research on a specific theme. Last year’s theme was the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. This year, artists-in-residence will undertake research on the National Historical Collection (housed at the National Museum of Australia), with a focus on the cultural and emotional aspects of the Anthropocene.

While most artists venture outside the cottage during the sunshine hours of their stay, touching and exploring nature, and taking objects back home to “think on” at night, Sabine Pagan says she and husband Rohan made their time at the ready-cut cottage “more performative.”

The 99-year-old cottage became a vessel; their version of the Apollo, and they stayed indoors for eight days, three hours and 18 minutes - the exact length of time the first men on the moon were in the spacecraft during their 1969 mission.

“We had a textile artist design and construct our ‘Gudgenaut’ attire,” Sabine says.

“Students in the school of engineering at ANU made us Bento trays, a woodworker made our chopsticks, we collaborated a lot to bring our space experience to life.

“We kind of hunkered down in our vessel and we couldn’t go out. We did have a moon walk of just over two hours and we went somewhere very particular and found all sorts of things.

“In our story, as artists, we tell the tale that Rohan and I were unqualified to fly.

“So we nominated the Gudgenauts - because it's in the Gudgenby region - Gudgenaut Jack and Jill to go on the mission on our behalf. So our whole piece of work is performative, it has part truth, part ‘who knows’, but it's our story.”

The couple’s eight day experience at Gudgenby was the stimulus for months of ideas and creative work. Some content filmed on location at the hut will form part of the Terra Celestial exhibition (now online at craftact.org.au), and the beautiful jewellery Sabine designed in response to her residency, including necklaces made of tektites and a ring with a stone whose face looks like shooting stars, will also be a highlight.

As well as Sabine and Rohan’s work, Terra Celestial includes the work of fellow 2019 artists-in-residence Megan Watson, Michelle Hallinan and Sean Booth.

“Keep in mind it is five artists responding to the moon landing theme,” Sabine says.

“So what we decided to do in this instance was to present our exhibition a bit like what you would see in a museum - we took a different approach.

“Normally exhibitions can speak for themselves, but this time we went in the opposite direction. We thought it was really important to lead the audience to look at the exhibition in a particular way - through the launch and the moon and the life on board, then the moon walk, then the splashdown.

“There’s an order to our exhibition and you can expect text, video, images, artefacts, jewellery and even our NASA suits and dog tags.”

(The Craft ACT gallery is closed to the public during the COVID-19 measures but the 2019 Artist-in-Residency exhibition, Terra Celestial, is now showing online. Plans are already underway for a second venue to host the exhibition in early 2021.)

‘Self isolation’ was not a common term when textile artist Sharon Peoples was announced as a 2020 artist-in-residence in November, along with glass artist Jenni Kemarre Martiniello. But since then it’s become both common vernacular and behaviour as the world desperately tries to halt the Coronavirus in its tracks.

Sharon - a rare talent whose skills include both machine and hand embroidery - was looking forward to two weeks of “absolute quiet time” at the ready-cut cottage, and still is.

“I’m looking forward to the cold, being refreshed, and being immersed in the Gudgenby area,” she says.

“It’s a chance to distill my thinking, away from domestic life, and things going on in Canberra and the entire world.”

The residency will go ahead later than planned now that social distancing measures are in place. Sharon and co-artist Jenni will spend time at the cottage later this year or early next year, after a period of research at the National Museum of Australia. Sharon’s most looking forward to going deep within the NMA’s National Historical Collection to study animal specimens; she’s interested in Australian native birds at the moment, and in particular the romantic beauty of specimens in jars.

But she also expects she’ll do an “about-face” on the ideas she’s already harbouring for the residency.

“The last two residencies I did, I went with ideas of what I thought I was doing, and the work that came out of it was absolutely totally different,” she says.

“But I’m happy and relaxed about that.”

Terra Celestial may well have been the final residency at Gudgenby Ready-Cut Cottage had the fires of early 2020 had their way.

The cottage came under direct threat of the bushfires that swept through Namadgi National Park in January, but park manager Brett McNamara told fire crews there was “no way we were losing it”.

“I stood there with the crew and said boys, this house has been standing since 1920 and there is no way I am going to let it go in 2020,” Brett says.

He’s a huge fan of the Craft ACT and ACT Parks and Conservation artist residencies.

“It’s a remarkable little relationship and it really came out of the ashes of 2003, all those years ago,” Brett says.

“We were in post-fire recovery as we are now - there’s a sense of dejavu - and we were approached by Craft ACT. They were keen to try to help in terms of the recovery process and what recovery meant.

“So they ran a couple of workshops out at the park and from a very simple conversation, the Artist-in-Residence Program was born.”

While Brett himself has the special task of introducing new artists to the cottage each year - “I’ve met woodturners, basket weavers, silversmiths” - it’s also great for his rangers to see how others interpret the nature around them.

“Within parks, rangers do ranger-guided activities and they interpret; they explain the natural environment to park visitors,” he says.

“What Craft ACT offers is an alternative way of actually interpreting and explaining natural processes.

“The big advantage for us is that it brings a whole new audience to the park. It’s wonderful.”

Terra Celestial is now showing online. It features an online catalogue, photos, artist reflections and videos, and many of the beautiful works created for the residency are available to purchase.

The acclaimed Craft ACT residency takes place annually in partnership with ACT Parks and Conservation.

Top image: 2019 artists-in-residence, Sean Booth, Sabine Pagan, Rohan Nicol, Michelle Hallinan and Megan Watson with Namadgi Park Rangers at open day at Ready-Cut Cottage, Namadgi National Park. Photo: 5 Foot Photography 
Cover image: Sabine Pagan and Rohan Nicol, Looking back at earth. Photo: Lee Grant