Sweet Country

Glasgow Film Festival, 21 February – 4 March 2018

Director Warwick Thornton’s debut feature Samson and Delilah was described on release as “the first Australian film” and for this ex-pat living in Scotland, that’s exactly what it felt like. This was a side of Australia that many of my fellow audience members had never seen before, an intensely subtle, silently emotive film of lives blighted by racism, poverty and dispossession. It is also a compelling love story, the kind that offers the possibility of hope, regardless of whether the world within and out-with the film permits it. Unusually on screen, the depiction of life for two indigenous teenagers in “the lucky country” was one I recognised. Far from the projection of a carefree sun-drenched paradise of plenty, Thornton’s depiction of a harsh, unforgiving and increasingly unequal society, separated from the land and clinging to the very edges of it, was a welcome dose of reality. The film had an enormous impact on me when I first saw it previewed at the Inverness Film Festival in 2009. Afterwards I felt a combination of deep sadness, hope and relief, that finally an essential process of re-evaluation had begun in a country founded on the lie of “Terra Nullius”.

Like many white Australians of my generation, I grew up in middle-class suburbia, surrounded by blatant racism. It was a divisive domestic environment of hostility and paranoia, boarded with reticulated lawns. Fortunately, being drawn to Art from a very young age taught me other ways to see. The beauty and freedom of Art/ Cinema is connection-imagining and creating a different state of being and sharing that vision. No matter how oppressive the environment, we can think and project ourselves beyond circumstances, even if in the here and now, it is only in our dreams.

By the time I was a teenager in the mid 1980’s, Australia was starting to wake up. In 1992, a result of the landmark High Court Mabo vs Queensland decision, native title was recognised for the first time by the Australian government. A year later, when Prime Minister Paul Keating made an official statement denouncing the “convenient fiction” our country was founded on, it was a conceptual turning point. The idea that when our white, pioneering forefathers first arrived, Australia was uninhabited, a “land of no one” was no longer sanctioned as truth. Our untaught history of systematic exploitation and genocide has always been there, you just have to dig- and not very far beneath the skin. However, as Warwick Thornton commented after the GFF screening of his latest film Sweet Country, “most people just don’t dig.” The myth of an empty land, “Terra Nullius”, newly discovered, turns conquest into heroic entitlement with no conscience, regret or apology required.

You must lance and drain an infected wound before it will heal – that is how I have always felt about the country I was born and raised in. That excavation is essentially painful, finding out who you are and where you come from, so that self-determination becomes a possibility. Sweet Country digs right into the flesh and consciousness of the country in ways that no other director/ cinematographer could. Written by Steven McGregor and David Tranter, the film is an incredibly powerful statement, part of a vital process of re-evaluation and creative renewal. Thornton is a director who embraces the complexity of being human head on, illuminating this on screen to kick start the national conversation and initiate perceptive change. Sweet Country is a remarkable film, as a damning indictment of racism and injustice- and one that wholly succeeds in not alienating audiences. To his credit, Thornton’s vision is big enough not to.  Although this is a deeply personal story of his people, based on true events and filmed on location in the Northern Territory, with the emotional investment of local/non-professional and professional actors, it also transcends its location.

Hamilton Morris in Sweet Country, Bunya Productions.

Though many people in the UK will find this hidden history shocking and confrontational in terms of outback Romanticism imploded, Thornton’s baseline is always expansively compassionate. It’s an indigenous vision of the world that denies nothing. Although packaged as a Western, this isn’t a story of reductive “black and white” morality, with good and bad cowboys, an epic chase and a conventional shootout delivering frontier justice. Instead the Western genre is meshed beautifully with a rhythm of storytelling that will be less consciously familiar to audiences, moving in and out of time. In an Aboriginal context, The Dreaming, or Dreamtime, is omnipresent, encompassing all time-past, present and future, so this is a very natural mode of storytelling. Despite the ravages of colonialism, the spiritual core of the country survives in the way the story is told visually.

Set in the 1920’s, when vast tracks of land were being claimed and worked as cattle stations, the story of an Aboriginal stockman Sam Kelly, played with quiet reserve and immense dignity by Hamilton Morris, brings conditions of the past resoundingly into the present. Sam and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) live and work on a homestead owned by Fred Smith (Sam Neill), a Christian Preacher. There is a degree of safety for them in conversion and service, compared to life in the surrounding countryside, as we see in the brutal treatment of a young boy, Philomac (played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan) and an elderly stockman, Archie (Gibson John). Worn down by systematic abuse, both gradually succumb to a state of complicity to survive.

We see in Philomac the conflict of the next generation growing up in the shadow of a white father who shapes him into “a man” through punishment. Philomac is part of a lost generation. It’s clear he will never be accepted as part of his white father’s line, nor is he able to return to his people and ancestral land. Like Archie, he has been taken from his home as a young boy and forced to work on the station. The vulnerability of this character is felt acutely in violent outbursts of self-loathing projected onto the son by his biological father. This enforced judgement of worth becomes an inherited cycle of deprivation and dispossession, infecting every character on screen in one form or another.

Natassia Gorey Furber and Hamilton Morris in Sweet Country, Bunya Productions.

As the central protagonist, Sam Kelly is a complex figure of gravitas, self-possession and grace. Sam has learned to avoid conflict by turning the other cheek, until forced into an extreme position of self-defence. His relationship with his wife Lizzie is tender and trusting, revealed not so much in words, but the intuitive expressions and body language of two people at ease with each other. Sam is an everyman, who quietly absorbs the world around him, but like all the characters in the unfolding drama, he too is capable of judgement. When Lizzie reveals that she’s pregnant, the result of rape, he judges her. The underlying theme of what it is to be a man and what happens when the status quo of masculine power (black or white) is threatened comes to the fore. Sam is equally generous and compassionate, saving the life of Sargent Fletcher (Brian Brown) who relentlessly pursues him across the desert. With or without Christian influence, we feel the presence of a deeply sensitive man with a good soul. There’s gentleness and sense of underlying respect between Sam and the preacher Fred Smith, however this relationship isn’t quite friendship.

Smith is a kind man who practices the compassion he preaches, seeing everyone as “equal in the eyes of the lord” and asking Sam not to call him “boss”. However, his relationship with Sam and Lizzie is based on cultural loss and denial of existing lore, a well-meaning and subtle betrayal of identity that “saves” and obliterates with the same soft hand. Smith’s humorous out of tune rendition of “Jesus Loves me, this I know, for the bible tells me so” is a moment laced with genuine belief, missionary zeal and ineptitude. Literally and metaphorically Sam is unable to have children, implying generational loss of life, culture and human potential in conversion. Even in this, the film resists black and White judgement. Human beings and the histories we weave are much more complex- this is the truth, reality and sincerity of the film and its maker.

The arrival of neighbouring landowner Harry March (Ewen Leslie), wanting to use the “black stock” on Smith’s homestead to work his own land, is an explosive catalyst revealing the true nature of racism as self-hatred, heightened by emasculation. March is a man defined by hate and brutality, having returned from WWI and survived its horrors, only to inflict a rule of violence on others. It is a moment of great sensitivity and insight when Sam identifies that March “is ashamed”, testifying at his outdoor trial just prior to the judgement which saves and condemns him. Although March is a vile character, the nature of his actions can’t be dismissed as madness or evil. Thornton places the viewer in a much more essential position, where we are unable to place the character beyond our own conscience as “other” by simply demonising him.

The insidiousness of racial abuse is a respectable uniform and a base need for power, absent in everyday life. In the lead up to a scene of sexual violence, perpetrated in the dark with only sound used to orientate the audience, we see March calmly closing all the doors and windows, barring light and any means of escape. The horror of this scene is that it isn’t in any way irrational, but highly controlled. We understand from March’s calm composure that he’s done this before and as a white man has no fear of justice. It is dispossession of multiple aspects of self, creeping into everything, twisting human behaviour into something monstrous and oppressive. The choice of this historical era, parallel to Weimar Germany and the rise of Nazism, reflects forces at work in our own turbulent age, making the story culturally specific and completely universal. Very uncomfortably at times, we are unable to relegate what we see on screen to the comforting distance of history, because it is so urgently relevant today.

Warwick Thornton awarded the Special Jury Prize at the 2017 Venice Film Festival.

Sweet Country is a gear change for Thornton, a more viscerally direct statement which never loses its humanity, standing very confidently on a world stage. The director’s creative evolution and artistic leadership is thoroughly inspiring. Australia is a country which so often seeks cultural validation outside itself, a quality that Thornton spoke about in his post screening discussion. Media attention at international film festivals and multiple awards including Best Film at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, the Platform Prize at Toronto International Film Festival and Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival have enabled greater recognition on home soil. As the film is distributed more widely, my hope is that this creative and political momentum will grow, changing how and what we’re taught about ourselves. I have no doubt that Sweet Country will generate healthy scrutiny and essential debate wherever it is screened. As Thornton stated in a recent Guardian interview (Jan 2018) “Australia is ready for films like this.” Thornton’s empowering work in cinema thus far makes me incredibly hopeful, not just for Australia, but in the humane, global reach of his work.

To respond hopefully to Sweet Country might seem strange, given what we bear witness to on screen, however this is clearly framed as a man-made environment. The opening sequence in closeup of a seething, almost molasses thick concentration of boiling billy tea, with a handful of white sugar dissolving into darkness, is accompanied by the sound of racist abuse depicting the violence off screen. It is such a powerful image of confinement in a world of overheated testosterone, imminent threat and negative masculinity about to boil over. Throughout the film, tension is prophetically heightened by flashforwards, giving us glimpses of characters and their potential fates, placing the audience emotively and psychologically on the edge of their seats. The combination of sound, images and editing, with no music, delivers a knockout punch of emotional intelligence. We’re not told what to think or feel, but are free to interpret the flow between past, present and future. The story is held in imaginative spaces of light and shadow in the mind of the viewer, an ultimate form of realism aligned with ancient traditions of storytelling and the birth of Cinema.

Ned Kelly’s last stand, from The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) Directed by Charles Tait.

Thornton reclaims this cinematic inheritance in a brief clip from The Story of the Kelly Gang, premiered in 1906 and at the time the world’s longest feature film, seen on a makeshift screen as part of a travelling Picture Show. This isn’t just hat tipping though. The subject on screen is national legend, the Irish Bushranger and folk hero Ned Kelly, an underdog fighting against corrupt authority and instantly recognisable to most Australians with his tin helmet. Immortalised on film, in literature, song and in the iconic silhouette of Sidney Nolan’s Kelly series of paintings, this mythic figure of resistance is subverted and transformed in the heat haze of a salt plain. During his Director’s Q&A, Thornton spoke about Aboriginal resistance to colonisation and massacres at the time, completely written out of history. Whilst Australians readily embrace the Irish outlaw/ bushranger as a heroic figure with the odds and justice tragically stacked against him, in stark contrast Aboriginal resistance to genocide has barely entered public consciousness.

The Western is a genre that naturally confronts audiences with the impacts of institutional racism and colonisation, right on the edge of human behaviour. There’s intense cruelty and enduring beauty in that whole landscape of memory, even more so in the Outback Western. This frontier of lawlessness is permeated with cultural references to masculine honour, fighting “for Queen and Country”, “the last post” reference to ANZAC bravery and sacrifice at Gallipoli, Sargent Fletcher’s belief in the ultimate authority of his uniform and the unhinged discipline of March’s rifle drills on the homestead porch.  There’s an absence of blame and positive alignment with accountability in understanding what drives the characters.

Sadly, the underlying nature of their predicament is as relevant today as it ever was. However, the eyes behind the camera (Thornton and his son Dylan River) bring with dark recognition a stark light which is uniquely Australian. When the question is asked at the end of the film, whether change is even possible in the country, Nature answers with an enormous rainbow. There is an overwhelming sense of ancient forces greater and more enduring than humanity in this final sequence, as the preacher turns his back and walks away towards the horizon carrying his disillusionment and doubt. Above his head the sky he cannot see speaks its truth, and what a gift it is that Thornton captures that shining, undeniable projection of hope for all the world to see.


From The Forest To The Sea-Emily Carr in British Columbia.

1st November 2014 – 15th March 2015. Dulwich Picture Gallery

When I had discovered my subject, I sat before it some while before I touched the brush, feeling my way into it. Asking myself these questions, what attracted you to this particular subject? Why do you want to paint it, what is its core, the thing you are trying to express?  

Emily Carr

Photo of Emily Carr

Harold Mortimer-Lamb, Emily Carr in Her Studio, 1939, silver gelatin print, Promised Gift to the Vancouver Art Gallery from Claudia Beck and Andrew Gruft. Image courtesy of Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Whenever I arrive in a new place I look for artists of all disciplines, historic and contemporary, to really come to grips with the ground I’m standing on. In 1995 I had just arrived in British Columbia on a Canadian working holiday and exploring downtown, found my way to the Vancouver Art Gallery. Noting an artist’s name in my guidebook whose work I had never seen and a floor devoted to her on the gallery map, I ventured upstairs. The moment the lift doors opened I was confronted by a face I have never forgotten, an enlarged detail from Harold Mortimer Lamb’s 1939 photographic portrait of Emily Carr in Her Studio. What struck me immediately was the artist’s powerful, resolute stare; an aged face framed by swirling brushwork, Sunshine and Tumult, the still eye of a storm raging against the intrusion of the camera. In defiance of time and gender this was a woman unapologetically direct in vision and action, arching eyebrows and steadfast, penetrating gaze forever fixed on the photographer and confronting the soul of the viewer.  As I entered the first room I felt elated at the sight of Forest, British Columbia (1931-1932, Oil on Canvas), astounded by the depth and energy of Carr’s paintings and amazed that a degree in Art History had not introduced me to her work. It was a discovery that shaped my consequent journeys through Canada; to Carr’s home and final resting place in Victoria, the Dallas Road cliffs, Beacon Hill Park and Esquimalt where she walked and sketched outdoors, to Ucluelet on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, Northern BC, Alert Bay (Cormorant Island), Haida Gwaii (The Queen Charlotte Islands) and Alaska .I sought out her work in collections across Canada, her writings in second hand bookstores; Klee Wyck (1941), The Book of Small (1942), The House of All Sorts (1944), Growing Pains: An Autobiography (1946) The Heart of a Peacock (1953),Pause, An Emily Carr Sketchbook(1953), Hundreds and Thousands, The Journals of an Artist (1966) and spent countless hours in museums, libraries and archives trying to understand the extraordinary artist behind that formidable gaze.

I think what I also felt, but did not begin to understand until I had experienced the land, sea and forest of British Columbia for myself, was Carr’s profound affinity with Nature and her indigenous understanding of landscape. Contemporary scholars have been critical of Carr’s appropriation of Aboriginal Art and Design in her early work, reading it as part of a condescending colonial narrative of vanishing cultures. But to frame her entire output in this way is to miss something vital which was alive in her work from the beginning. All her life she strove, often at great personal cost, to understand- both as an artist and a human being in spite of her Victorian/ British colonial upbringing. There is respect and reverence in her mature work, in creating a visual language of her own, which shares a kinship with indigenous understanding of nature, environment and spirituality as a living tradition of seeing / being in the landscape. As she wrote in Klee Wyck in contemplation of Zunoqua, the wild woman of the woods; “The power that I felt was not in the thing itself but in some tremendous force behind it that the carver believed in.” This life force which Carr explored through Christianity, Theosophy and Pacific North West Coast Aboriginal beliefs is the defining characteristic and ultimate trajectory of her Art.

For Carr the forest was the Feminine personified; aspects of self, untamed, sometimes threatening, endlessly fertile and Divine. The affirmation of her palette and paint handling in this context is undeniable and although the myth of Carr looms large, her work is also a means of addressing the innate complexity of identity and belonging, particularly in a post-colonial New World environment. Throughout her life she was considered an eccentric outsider, a woman who unconventionally chose not to marry and have children, who travelled to aboriginal communities throughout the Pacific North West coast from the early 1900’s and to San Francisco, Britain and France to gain an Art education.  Until aligned with the all-male Group of Seven in Eastern Canada, Carr remained unappreciated as an artist until later life, emerging as a unique voice from the West, a Modernist way ahead of her time. Today she is embraced, though not without controversy, as a national treasure and the current exhibition of her work at the Dulwich Picture Gallery will no doubt be revelatory to many as the first dedicated exhibition of her work in the UK.

The curatorial vision of the exhibition moves consciously from “darkness to light”; deep forest to sky, revealing the evolution of Carr’s thinking in relation to her Art and the world around her. Juxtaposed with Carr’s drawings and paintings are First Nations sacred objects; Art of ritual and everyday life, which affirm a way of seeing and being in the landscape in terms of reverence, respect , understanding in the use of natural materials and continuity of ancient beliefs and traditions. Many of the objects on display are associated with the Potlatch; a North West Coast ceremonial gathering of families to announce births, give names, inherit rights and privileges,  conduct marriages  and mourn the dead. Dances, feasting and the distribution of gifts such as blankets, carved cedar boxes, food, coppers and canoes maintained relationships between clans, established rank in society and were part of an economy of giving.The Potlatch was banned by the Canadian government from 1885-1951, throughout Carr’s lifetime (1871-1945) and within the display of First Nations Art there is a tension between the intention of appreciation; the beauty and exquisite craftsmanship of this work, its complex social/spiritual/cultural meanings and the knowledge that many objects like these were confiscated by government agents or stolen, becoming part of museum collections on foreign shores, including our own.

 Emily Carr sketching on the beach

Emily Carr sketching on the beach at Tanu, Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands), 1912. Image F-00254, courtesy of the Royal BC Museum, BC Archives. Image courtesy of Dulwich Picture Gallery.

A 19th century Haida Raven Grease Bowl (Wood. 10.5x 25.5 x 13cm. Horniman Museum, London.) is functional, mysterious and exquisite ,with its beautifully seamless flow of carved ovoid forms and transformative masks within the body of a bird associated with all Creation. Seeing Carr’s 1931 painting Tree Trunk (Oil on Canvas) nearby immediately communicates something beyond the pictorial; a depth of purple, curtained ultramarine and vivid green; the red cedar like a human figure becoming part of the hallowed earth in bands of fluid colour and light. Like all of Carr’s mature work it conceals and reveals the great mysteries of life and being. She is not a landscape painter of trees or scenic views but grapples with creative forces within and without, going out to meet them in the forest with her “whole self”. When you look into the interior of a decaying cedar, see the erosion of wood by the ocean with its distinctive pattern of grain or the towering strength of Old Growth trees that have outlasted many human generations, there is a sense of connection with being small in relation to the world and with a reality beyond the physical. The same grain of resilient life, delineated in ovoid form in the heart of a cedar, can be seen in the abstracted designs of master Haida Artists such as Bill Reid, Charles Edenshaw and Robert Davidson, drawn directly and holistically from their environment.

A Soul Catcher; (Northern Northwest Coast, 19th Century .Bone, string and abalone shell.15cms. Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.) a shamanic object intended to hold and protect the soul of an ill person until it could be returned to the body, feels like an apt symbol of the restorative aspect of human creativity ever present in Carr’s work. Her engagement with the coastal forest of British Columbia was a creative act of going deep within, beyond what she could see with her eyes, being still and prepared to listen, restoring her disassociated soul to her body in a world of strict Presbyterianism , Victorian constraint and advancing industrialisation.  Her descriptions of the forest and sea in her writings and her visual language present a human being open to the sensuous and experiential. Her writings on Art, Nature and her paintings are rapturous, heartfelt and revelatory.  Works like (Forest 1935, Oil on canvas) capture reverberations of colour and light in swathes of movement, the vertical upright of the tree at the centre of the composition; a shimmering path into the woods and ever upwards, a representation of her lifelong quest for light. In Hundreds and Thousands, the artist’s journals from 1927 to 1941, she wrote;

It seems as if these shimmering seas can scarcely bear a hand’s touch. That which moves across the water is scarcely a happening, hardly even as solid a thing as thought, for you can follow a thought. It’s more like a breath, involuntary and alive, coming and going, always there but impossible to hold onto. Oh! I want to get to that thing. It can’t be done with hands of flesh and pigments. Only the spirit can touch this. So it is with all of her paintings, Carr is an artist striving resolutely towards “God” with every mark.

The First Nations objects on display create an awareness of the spirit of place Carr tried to capture in her work, highlighting shamanic practice not as a religion but a way of seeing the world. Raven Rattle, Northern Northwest Coast, early 19th Century (Maple wood, paint, animal skin, stone and animal sinew. 14.2 x 33.2 cm. Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.) is a particularly beautiful example, utilising natural materials of the Spirit. Displayed in a glass cabinet there is a distance between Western Art Historical, Ethnological or Anthropological readings of this work and its actual function as part of a living creative tradition. These are objects made, held and used by human hands, with a fluidity of design moving easily between the physical and the metaphysical, rather than Art objects separated from everyday life. The economic and spiritual wealth of the communities that made them is part of their Craft. These were qualities Carr recognised and found wanting in her own Victorian community. In her later work she recognised that the appropriation of “Indian” imagery ran counter to what she needed to cultivate in her Art and in herself. Although she perceived a kinship with Aboriginal ways of seeing, contact with the Group of Seven’s Lawren Harris validated what she always believed and strove for in her Art- realisation of the Divine (or metaphysical) in Nature and within herself. “You are one of us” declared Harris. Finally in 1927 following the Exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art- Native and Modern at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa, the “little old lady on the edge of nowhere” found her tribe, but continued to set herself apart.

Big Eagle, Skidigate

Emily Carr, Big Eagle, Skidigate, B.C. c. 1930, Watercolour on paper, 76.2 x 56.7 cm , 1980.034.001 , Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Donated in memory of Dorothy Plaunt Dyde. Image courtesy of Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Her painterly treatment of totem poles was criticised in its day for not being documentary enough and is still criticised today for its stylisation of First Nations Art. However Carr’s greatest achievement as an artist is in being uniquely herself, developing her own expressive language, grappling, as all great artists do, with the Art of her chosen discipline and what it is to be human.

The juxtaposition of Pacific Northwest Coast Aboriginal Art and Carr’s work in the exhibition is a great source of inspiration, the source of the artist beginning to explore what was most essential to her in life and Art. Carr acknowledges her struggles to come to terms with the life force of the forest and her upbringing of colonial prejudice in her autobiography Growing Pains. She acknowledges the “inner intensity” and spirituality of “Indian Art”, together with the deficiency of her own culture “schooled to see outsides only”.

Indian art broadened my seeing, loosened the formal tightness I had learned in England’s schools. Its bigness and stark reality baffled my white man’s understanding. I was as Canadian-born as the Indian but behind me were Old World heredity and ancestry as well as the Canadian environment. The new West called me, but my Old World heredity, the flavour of my upbringing, pulled me back. I had been schooled to see outsides only, not struggle to pierce.

The Indian caught first at the inner intensity of his subject, worked outward to the surfaces. His spiritual conception he buried deep in the wood he was about to carve. Then—chip! Chip! His crude tools released the symbols that were to clothe his thought—no sham, no mannerism. The lean, neat Indian hands carved what the Indian mind comprehended.

Emily Carr, Indian Church

Emily Carr, Indian Church, 1929, oil on canvas, Overall: 108.6 x 68.9 cm (42 3/4 x 27 1/8 in.) ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO, Bequest of Charles S. Band, Toronto, 1970, 69/118. Image courtesy of Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Although the attribution of value is clothed in colonial condescension, referring to “crude tools” and “neat Indian hands”, Carr also reveals the contradictions and complexities of being Canadian born, of the “new West” and also the product of “Old World hereditary”. The Victoria Carr grew up in was distinctly and proudly British, yet the sheer force of her personality demanded a deeper state of connection with her beloved West. Carr’s painting Indian Church (1929, Oil on canvas) which positions the stark white rectangular architecture against the lush green growth of the forest presents this essential conflict. The cold geometric confinement of missionary zeal and advancing “civilization” is aligned with the crosses in the graveyard whilst the layered forest, towering over the church is overwhelmingly vibrant, fecund and spiritually charged. Contrary to the Canadian government’s policies of assimilation at the time, the dynamic “vortices of natural form” are distinctly and resiliently alive in comparison to the invading architecture. Carr also makes the connection between the life force of the forest and the evolution her painting/way of seeing in terms of movement:

Movement is the essence of being. When a thing stands still and says ‘finished’ it dies. There isn’t such a thing as completion in this world, that would mean stop. Painting is striving to express life. If there is no movement in the painting then it is dead paint.

Emily Carr, Tree spiralling upwards

Emily Carr, Tree (spiralling upward), 1932 – 1933, oil on paper, 87.5 x 58.0 cm, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust, VAG 42.3.63, Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery. Image courtesy of Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Works like Tree Spiralling Upward (1932-33, Oil on paper) are the visual expression of this imperative, a spontaneous and joyous response to the Divine in nature, a quality also seen in the poetry of Walt Whitman and English Romantic poets that Carr loved. The looser paint handling and vibrant palette of her mature style, influenced by exposure to Post Impressionism and Fauvism in Paris, the work of Kandinsky, Picasso and Braque in New York, together with the post-Cubist work of American artist Mark Tobey and the integrity of abstraction in First Nations Art, give Carr’s paintings a distinctive edge. In Europe she studied with Henry Gibb, the New Zealand artist Frances Hodgkins and the Scottish Colourist J.D.Fergusson, who she said encouraged his students to see “rhythm in nature”. Another Untitled drawing– formalised tree forms with totemic details (1929-1930, Charcoal on paper), with its pure strength of line and overlapping organic forms, conveys a felt sense of depth, dynamism and protection Carr found in the forest. Carr’s interest in Asian Art, with its calligraphic brushwork capturing the essential spirit of subjects in nature, is aligned with her technique of using oils on paper diluted with gasoline to respond immediately to the energy of earth, trees, sea and sky when working in the field. A quality also found in the assured, confident marks of her ink and charcoal drawings and in the formal design of her compositions.

Carr never fully embraced abstraction; I clung to earth and her dear shapes, her density, her herbage, her juice. I wanted her volume, and I wanted to hear her throb. In works like Kitwancool Totems (1928, Oil on canvas) and Silhouette No2 (1930-31, Oil on canvas) the sensuous curves of human figures are made solid as the earth or seen in stark silhouette against the glow of twilight, a God-like hand outstretched over the water, canoe and all of life’s journeys.

Within Carr’s Art and writings there is a hidden beauty, seen only in the light reflected by forest, sea and sky. In many ways this feels like her core self; the unconscious, all she kept hidden beneath an obstinate, formidable exterior, in the crafting of her own fictions and in female sexuality never fully expressed in outer life. In BC Forest (1930, Oil on paper), one of the most beautiful works in the exhibition, the palette of black and greys tonally unite rocks and layers of canopy in a vision of deep stillness and contemplation. The light is within and beyond, a feint glow of perceptive Truth at the heart of the composition; an exposed mark of paper whose light spills into the viewer’s foreground.

It is impossible not to be moved by the image or the human hand/ mind that made it. Like all of Carr’s best works we reimagine the world and ourselves in relation to it in the act of seeing. She inspires connection, understanding and heightened awareness of Self and of the World.

Everything is green, everything is waiting and still. Slowly things begin to move, to slip into their places. Groups and masses and lines tie themselves together. Colours that you had not noticed come out timidly or boldly.

Look at the earth crowded with growth, new and old bursting from their strong roots hidden in the silent, live ground, each seed according to its own kind…each knowing what to do, each demanding its own right on earth.


Emily Carr, Self-portrait, 1938-1939, Oil on wove paper, mounted on plywood, 85.5 x 57.7 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Gift of Peter Bronfman, 1990, Photo © NGC. Image courtesy of Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Many Liken Carr to one of her most celebrated paintings; Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky (1935, Oil on canvas.), a singular line of lone pine standing tall and reaching toward the heavens, fragile and enduringly resilient. Throughout her life she was acutely aware of her isolation;

I don’t fit anywhere, so I’m out of everything and I ache and ache. I don’t fit in the family and I don’t fit in the church and I don’t fit in my own house as a landlady. It’s dreadful-like a game of musical chairs. I’m always out, never get a seat in time; the music always stops first.

Fortunately for us, Carr had the strength and conviction to resoundingly create her own music. In the final room of the exhibition in works like Sky (1935-1936, Oil on Paper) and Strait of Juan de Fuca (1936, Oil on paper) we see the sea becoming sky, a sense of communion with the infinite and in the vibration of every mark an ever expanding universe.


Emily Carr at Vancouver Art Gallery;


Danish Diaspora – Scotland Seen Through Danish Eyes.

Danish Cultural Institute, Edinburgh.

1 August to 28 September 2014 and touring in 2015.

Amongst the madness and sensory overload of the Edinburgh Fringe I had the pleasure to be blissfully still in the Danish Cultural Institute’s gallery space for a wonderful exhibition of work by Lotte Glob, Lise Bech, Lillian Busch, Mette Fruergaard and Nickolai Globe. What struck me immediately was the sense of a living tradition of ancient Craft skills fused with Fine Art disciplines and striking Contemporary Design. What is so exciting about this show is the way that traditional Crafts such as Ceramics, Weaving, Gold and Silversmithing incorporate elements of the Scottish landscape to transform the viewer’s perception of place and genre. Each artist reveals the integrity of handmade objects as part of a tradition of seeing ourselves in relation to our chosen environment; tapping into a deep seam of knowledge and indigenous understanding of place and materials.  This is an expansive show in terms of what Craft can be, blurring the lines between Applied and Fine Arts, reflecting the dynamically fluid relationship between the two in many artist’s studios.

Lotte Glob Moon Pool Lotte Glob Rock Eyes

Lotte Glob, Moon Pool,Rock Eyes

Displayed on one wall Lotte Glob’s superb sequence of sculptural plates are of a cosmic scale in the imagination. In form and feeling Moon Pool seems to encompass the entire world and its eternal cycles. Crater Pool with its iridescent ultramarine core is another magnificent example. The use of materials and handling of glazes create an imaginative space of deep time; molten stone dripping into the centre, colours and textures evocative of ice, fire and millennia of Geological change. Glob’s work is forged physically and spiritually from the landscape. It is made of that land, from rocks and sediments gathered from the mountainous Scottish Highlands, home to the artist since 1968. In the beautiful and mysterious free standing sculptures Rock Eyes and Boulder Eyes we can sense a human eye and mind perceiving the landscape; the land and collective memory staring back at us, a tangible connection to a long history of seeing and making. Glob’s work presents a symbiotic relationship between Art and Life. There is tremendous respect for natural, primordial forces communicated in her work that never fails to inspire. She is an artist living consciously in her chosen environment, with tenacity, joy and a lifetime’s experience in every work. In the Western canon Creativity is often defined in terms of masculine energy and egotism. Lotte Glob’s work is a more expansive exchange that redefines our relationship with the natural world and the role of creativity in our lives. Many of the artist’s works are returned to the landscape, placed in lochans and on mountain paths, a natural gallery. At her sculpture croft on the shores of Loch Eriboll she has created “a place for discovering…, contemplating and enjoying a point in the universe” consistent with her life’s work.

mette fruergaard, wall boxes Mette fruergaard, box, aluminium,beech and resin

Boxes by Mette Fruergaard

Mette Fruergaard’s finely crafted boxes seamlessly combine materials such as wood, aluminium, copper, bone, resin and concrete in a union of form and function. Many of these are almost architectural in form, an unexpectedly beautiful fusion of organic and industrial design consistent with the Danish tradition but with the subtle accents of colour and light typical of the changing Scottish seasons. Fruergaard-Jensen’s “silent language of materials” is also revealed in selected pieces hung above the main display of boxes which invite the viewer to contemplate the tactile beauty of raw materials; the powdery midnight patina of a lump of  charcoal or the playful suggestion of a lion in wood grain. Using found and recycled materials highly finished surfaces are contrasted with textures formed by time and weather.

Lise Bech Venus and Mars dancing2 Lise Bech Venus and Mars dancing1

Lise Bech- Venus and Mars Dancing (2), Venus and Mars Dancing (1).

Lise Bech’s basketry immediately invokes a world of Iron Age Crannogs; functional forms of creels, platters and cauldrons melded with expressive, asymmetrical, contemporary form. The scents of natural materials like willow are part of experiencing this work, creating powerful associations across time, transporting the viewer beyond the city gallery space and into the countryside. The rhythm of the weave feels as central to this Craft as the natural cycles of growth and harvest that provide raw materials for Bech’s Art. The wall piece Venus and Mars Dancing (Lath & Willow) evokes an eternal pattern of mythology and creative energies, masculine and feminine. Celtic Coil Cauldron (Salix p. Dicky Meadows) has its own distinctive energy, defying functionality as a poetic object woven from multiple traditions. Bech’s basketry aligns itself to a state of being in relation to the landscape; a return to Craft as a signifier of social and cultural cohesion, rooted in the earth. Its ancestry is simultaneously Viking, Celtic and in terms of why human beings need to create in the first place, universal in origin. What many contemporary Artists/ Makers bring to our attention is the rhythm of a living Art that connects us to the natural environment. Both in the making and experiencing of the work there is a meditative element in play, a powerful antidote to an age of mass attention deficit and unprecedented technological and social change.

Lilian Busch, Bangle silver,gold, diamonds

Bangle by Lilian Busch

Lillian Busch’s jewellery also provides points of recognition and delight on an intimate scale; worn on the body, close to the skin. Bangle (46.Silver, 9 & 18 ct Gold, Diamonds) in its incredibly subtle use of gems could be likened to a pin prick of light seen through a dewdrop. The unexpected oxidised finish of this piece invites closer inspection in its sensitive rendering of materials. Unlike the usual use of sparkling diamonds and shiny metals to proclaim wealth and status, Busch’s work doesn’t reveal itself immediately but allows its richness and beauty to unfold. Inspired in early life by the Danish jeweller Ingeborg Mølsted, Busch’s designs incorporate ancient forms like the Torque from Viking and Bronze Age jewellery. Neckpiece (34. (9ct Gold, Jade, Silver, Rubber, Bayonet Clasp) feels almost ceremonial in function; an inventive combination of precious traditional and everyday industrial materials to create an intimate object of adornment and human connection.

Nickolai Globe, Mantle3

Detail from the Mantle Series by Nickolai Globe

Nickolai Globe’s high fired ceramics of earthenware, porcelain, stoneware and minerals are arresting for their elemental, physical embodiment of natural forces. Ova for example with its volcanically ashen surface feels like an egg of creation and primitive shield, there at the beginning of all human life; protective and expansive, microscopic and cosmic in its associations. Vessel Core with its stalactite- like form and finger marked surface could be a geological sample or the record of an entire species and its core beliefs. There is a blurring of lines between the naturally formed and man-made structures in Globe’s work which is immersive and intriguing. Relic reads like a naturally occurring piece of fossilised earth marked by the tracks of an unknown species, it is impossible to know where the hand of nature and the hand of the artist begin and end. Similarly the boat-like vessel Kronos with its ridged formation like eroded sandstone is both immediately tactile and physical, but also  an excavation of collective archeology. The artist’s series of sculptures Mantle; 3, 4, 5 & 6 present the raw physicality of a living crust of rock and earth being formed, twisting and turning, ancient forces suspended in time. Blackened by the fires of creative energy it is also the mythologies we cloak ourselves in. There is reverence for the natural world in this work together with reverence for the artist as maker in pieces such as Ferrous Manus. Globe’s Art reflects his work with COBRA Group ceramic artist Erik Nyholm in Denmark, rooted in the folkloric tradition and Thanakupi , renowned ceramic artist and Aboriginal Elder from the Cape York Pennisula, Queensland, Australia, in its exploration of ancestral narratives and indigenous understanding of the earth.

Exploring the relationship between natural and man-made forms is a major strength in the work of Artists, Designers and Architects from both the Danish and Scottish traditions in terms of continuity and innovation. Historically this visual literacy has been recognised in a European, rather than a National or UK context which is why exhibitions like this one are so important as part of a process of cultural reappraisal on an international stage. The work in this exhibition represents a state of being in relation to Craft; part of a living, breathing  tradition rather than a revival or a memorial to ways of seeing long past. As an ex-pat Australian I am fascinated by the cultural migration of people and ideas, how visual language, mythologies and narratives evolve, fuelled by people, place and memory. What “Danish eyes” bring to our understanding of the land I also call home is dynamically charged, full of subtlety and complex associations. It is uniquely of its place and universally global in scope, bringing us closer to the vital spark of why human beings need to make Art in the first place- to make sense of the world and ourselves within it.

Danish DiasporaScotland Seen Through Danish Eyes

At the Danish Cultural Institute, Edinburgh until 28th September, then touring in 2015 to;

Peter Potter Gallery, 2 February – 28 March 2015

Rozelle Hopuse Gallery, 11 April – 17 May

Highland Regional Museums, 1 June – 28 August

Bonhoga Gallery, Shetland, 12 September – 25 October


Artist’s websites;