Melbourne, 22 Nov 2022 — 10 Dec 2022

35 Derby Street [PO Box 1183], Collingwood 3066

Tracing the ephemeral rivers of the Wimmera Plains: Recent painting and etchings
- John Wolseley

In the last few years, I seem to have spent much of my time wandering along rivers and creeks. There was a lot of this while I was engaged on the Earth Canvas project when six artists were paired with six brilliant regenerative farmers. We celebrated and documented the farms, and our work became the touring exhibition, Earth Canvas which had its grand finale at the National Museum in Canberra this past Autumn. Walking over the land and following the creeks and chains of ponds, we found how so much of the regeneration of these farms has been about the slowing down of water, and the rehydrating of the land. Since white settlement so much of the Riverina had been cleared of trees and the water rushes down the rivers and creeks to the sea along veritable drains. Fast water causing gulches and drastic erosion.

As we documented these farms, we found that the husbanding of water enjoys a splendid vocabulary. Living water has always invoked fabulous names like: fen, bog and swamp, ditches dikes, and berms. We discovered that most of the features with these lovely names had been drained or erased over the last hundred years or so. But not on the farms we were exploring. On Bibbaringa, Gill Sanbrook has evolved her land from a bare dumb-downed landscape to a rich fecund farm with complex vegetation and a dark healthy soil, hydrated and swimming with microbial life.

After working on the Earth Canvas project, I continued wandering along rivers and creeks to the west of my home in the Whipstick Forest. I was bent on researching the remnant bits of country where the river systems behaved and worked in the way they used to before white settlement. In particular, I became obsessed with how many of Australia’s inland rivers formed chains of ponds in between and around wetlands. 

Charles Massy wrote in his revolutionary book – Call of the Reed Warbler – “Like many before me, I dearly wish I could be transported back in time to go for a long walk through the pastoral ecosystems of Australia prior to white settlement. Just once to walk across grasslands un-grazed by the cloven-hooved animals of white settlers; …  to feel the soft ground underneath and access the depths of layered mulch; to witness fully hydrated landscapes and see how the original chains of ponds looked and functioned; to hear the cry of bustard and reed warblers…to glimpse bettongs and bilbies busy about burrows beside inland streams, and to listen to insect and birdsong under river redgums and she-oaks.

I have been very lucky down the years to have met passionate experts and lovers of the wild landscapes which I paint. In this – my own particular Pilgrim’s Progress, in the Riverina and the Wimmera, I have sometimes felt as if I had fallen into one of those ancient stories where a mythic guide has appeared out of the mists. Some kind of ferryman like a Charon who guided souls across the river Styx. Or perhaps Hermes the god of flocks and herds. I’m not sure whether they would approve but I reckon that it is appropriate that I should be hanging these kinds of mantles onto writers such as Charles Massy and to Peter Andrews because like Hermes they are both farmers – and visionaries. Visionaries of the earth in the tradition of Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson and James Lovelock.

Rob Youll, the naturalist and Land Care expert took me to some fascinating bits of geography where the water courses flowing within marvellous remnant woodland spoke to me about living, vital, healthy country. Looking at the google earth maps of Kara Kara National Park one sees landscapes which seem to have the generative energy found in Chinese paintings of dragons. These dragons being embodiments of ‘chi’ in which the flow of water is so often identified with the nature of the Tao.  As Lao Tzu says – ‘ It is best to be like water, nurturing the ten thousand things without competing, flowing into places people scorn, very like the Tao.

In April 2019, I camped and began documenting the source of Middle Creek in the forest, and followed it as it bubbled up in the fields of Sam Medlyn and Meagan Barham and then as ‘chains of ponds’ it moved through groups of River Red Gums, some of them of gargantuan size (Catalogue nos 4, 5, 6).

In July 2020, I crossed over to Anne Hughes’ farm where she has restored the creek by encouraging fallen trees to slow the water down, and in some cases do the same kind of work which I had seen beavers do in rewilded Shropshire rivers.’ John Wolseley, 2022

Click here to read the full essay



The artist would like to acknowledge –

Kaitlyn Gibson, Print Maker, for her brilliant work in the making of the woodcuts and intaglio prints in this exhibition.

Jeff Gardener of Cascade Art, Maldon, who printed several of the etching editions.

John Wolseley
Since moving to Australia in 1978, John Wolseley has immersed himself in the landscape, an …
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