Living the special connections between Rivers and Trees in the Clarence River Northern NSW and as Artist in Residence on the Georges River, Sydney.

Every day I look onto the Clarence River and see its ever-changing presence. I love its reflected rich greens and velvety purple greys in the stillness of the morning. These colours are a visual reminder to me of the rich, liminal zones where Tree and River merge. It is the Riparian habitat (Riparian relates to the banks of the river). This between space- is sometimes submerged and muddy, sometimes dry, cracked earth or it’s weed infested with the hope of several new native saplings- it is a place of possibilities.

I have lived and worked at Seelands about eleven years. I am situated upriver of Grafton where the Clarence River is part of Bunjalung and Gumbaynggirr Country. My deep heartfelt connection to this fragile, riparian environment is the intersection of my artmaking with my continued on-site bush regeneration and weeding. I see the two intertwined. I learn about the Trees and habitat during bush regeneration and weeding, or when I am knee deep in mud, both feeling and observing this habitat. My intention is that my studio-based research and bush regeneration is a practice of reciprocity with the River. A giving back to Country and a practice of care and respect, as First Nations teach us.

Living as Artist in Residence and forging new connections with the Georges River & Trees.

I was thrust by my own making and being lucky enough to be selected for the Georges River Council Artist in Residence Program with the Hurstville Museum & Gallery. I say thrust, as I joined what I felt was the chaotic and mad buzz of the city of Sydney not far from Hurstville, southwest of Sydney. I was on Bidjigal Country of the River Flat Clan, part of the Eora Nation, who are the traditional custodians and owners of this Country.

My studio and living space looked onto a most beautiful view of the Georges River with Pine trees dotted along the promenade in Carss Park. I was betwixt a river, a park, and a strip of bush reserve that ran behind me that contained, incredibly, several big old-growth trees. This area is hemmed in by the incessant flow of traffic from the Princes Hwy and the King Georges Road.

I am a sensitive soul, and my first challenge was dealing with the noise and people. I grew up in Sydney, yet I have spent over half of my life in Northern NSW, either along the coast and here in the rural and somewhat isolated area of Seelands, SW of Grafton. The residency emphasised to me how humans are noisy- if it’s not broadcasting personal information to gain attention, it’s in the props and ongoing drone of machinery. Not that there isn’t some form of machinery in rural areas, far from it!! It is countered by the variety of nature sounds particularly birdlife where I live, and I find this calming and soothing. I noticed for the more sensitive of the community including myself, headphones helped block out loud noises or others choose the distractions of their mobiles.

It took a great deal of effort in the first few days to settle and let go of my mind chatter, and truly appreciate and be a part of the many communities here. I walked, as I love to do and have done for all of my life and discovered during my walks lots of new sights and OLD Trees! (WOW in the city!!). I swam the Georges River, quite innocently until I was told it is polluted, (how sad) so I kept my head out of the water after rain and only swam at high tide.

Sharing passions and enthusiasms

I met the Oatley Flora and Fauna Conservation Society and they were a dedicated and lovely bunch of people that gave me lots of local information about the environment. I participated in a morning session of weeding and another session with a planting group where I learnt about STIF- Sydney Turpentine and Ironbark Forest, which is listed as critically endangered. The Oatley Group invited me for a walk at Oatley Park, which was brilliant as I loved that park. Opportunely, I found out about the Sydney Peppermint tree- OOPS! (I was drawing this Tree, not a Blackbutt). It was explained to me that the Blackbutt bark travels to the first layer of branches, whilst the Peppermint Tree travels further up tree limbs. There were many fine specimens of both Trees in Carss park to enjoy.

I hosted a community event in the form of a pop-up exhibition and meet and greet session. My ‘Special Kinships with Trees’ Open Day was held on 17th February, this year with the Georges River Community and was very successful with over forty people in attendance. My installation was of two large-scale Tree Portraits (2.5m and 4.5m) and two works in progress drawings (3m and 2.5m) undertaken during my Carss Park residency. I had several research examples of different bark dyes and displays of my journals and photos. Some feedback from the participants who attended the Open Day included comments such as ‘they felt inspired and learnt something new’ and ‘gained different perspectives on the information presented’. Several of them believe this program improved their professional or personal development. I appreciated their enthusiasm and willingness to learn.
In the last two weeks I discovered an old growth Scribbly Gum glittering in golden, dappled afternoon light and what a treasure to behold. She has endured for several human lifespans, evidenced in her many natural bulges and broken limbs. Her scarring included the natural scribbles of the moth larvae and several graffiti cuttings from unconscious humans.
The artist in residence was a place to reflect, be inspired and meet new people and to work at my art practice. It gave me time to learn from others who do good work in the community for biodiversity. I visited major exhibitions and contemporary galleries and artist-run spaces.

I have a lot to be grateful for and appreciate. This is a big shout out to the staff of the Hurstville Museum & Gallery and the Georges River Council for this opportunity. I would like to mention a special thanks to Susan Ghosn, who was a generous guide and tirelessly introduced me to some prime locations and is a dedicated member of this group. We had a shared interest in hating the weed growth, which was sending us barmy especially after lots of rain, and a shared passion for making art.

Many thanks, Rochelle x

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