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Sue Lovegrove

Maatsuyker – Island of the Mind

19 September to 16 October 2007

45 Days on Maatsuyker

The morning I arrived on Maatsuyker, the wind peaked at 49 knots; apparently helicopters don’t usually fly in wind over 40 knots. As you can imagine it was a pretty spectacular ride. I left Hobart on a still clear sunny day. By the time we were over Geeveston the helicopter had started doing a little jive, sideways and up and down. I was hanging on to the seat. As the wind increased, we flew low, following the valleys of dense forest; Eucalypt, King Billy, Myrtle, and groves of Pandani looking like fluffy green mushrooms from above. The valleys opened out in to grass land and heath – or was it dense low scrub so neatly pruned by the weather that I couldn’t tell the scale or height. Then suddenly we popped out over the ocean at New River Lagoon. The sea was whipped up and heavily streaked with ribbons of white foam, clouds obscured the horizon, then parted to reveal a cluster of small islands. We flew past Flat Top then Round Top, sitting upright on the left, then De Witt and Flat Witch lying like dark sleeping creatures on the right, and then Maatsuyker appeared through the rain stretching out in front.  We circled around to the western side of the island, coming up beside the Needles - huge rocky outcrops strewn out from the end of the island being swallowed up by a frothing foaming mass of sea. The lighthouse swept past, then the keepers’ cottages and we landed ever so delicately and perfectly in the middle of the helipad, facing west into the gale force wind.

The excitement and adrenalin of the arrival stayed with me for nearly my entire stay of seven weeks. The weather blew past with such alarming speed, sometimes dark stormy clouds flew past and then only a few hours later it would be still and calm. Sometimes the horizon would disappear under thick white fog, then reappear late in the afternoon bathed in silver light. 

I started by setting myself a challenge of painting a cloud every day as I thought it might be an interesting way of focusing my mind and disciplining myself to get straight into work. I thought that through the repetition of painting the clouds, eventually boredom would set in and then creative innovations might begin to take place and lead to other, more interesting and perhaps abstract ways of describing the sea and sky. As it turned out, boredom never set in and I became more and more absorbed in the challenge of observational and descriptive painting and more compelled to record the rapid changes in weather and the subtlety of patterns of light and cloud. I was driven by the thrill of painting ‘plein air’, as the wind threatened to steal the painting or the palette from me and at times it was a struggle to hold onto the thick stubby brush and make it move in vaguely the right direction. Squalls came and showered me, birds - currawongs and crows - hurtled past. White goshawks fluttered downwards like pieces of abandoned paper caught in the wind. It was like painting in a fury of survival. The weather painted itself onto my pieces of paper as I tried to paint the weather. At other times it was incredibly still and quiet and I could see so many fine layers of light and shadow in thin stripes at the horizon. The cloud paintings started as studies from observations of light on cloud and sea, but collectively they have become a map of the sky, charting the temporal space of an island. As the paintings begin to merge together, with jumpy horizons that won’t sit still, they tell the story of the vastness of the ocean and sky. From the lighthouse you can see all the way from Cox Bight, Cox Bluff, SW Cape, past a huge expanse of the Southern Ocean taking in the Mewstone, and you can almost see Round Top and Flat Top to the East. Looking south there is nothing but ocean before reaching Antarctica.

After the first few days, when I wasn’t grappling with painting clouds, I started painting the neighboring islands. I painted them at different times of the day, in different lights, disappearing into cloud and rain squalls then reappearing again. They became intimate to me, as if I knew their moods and they became physically very close. The Mewstone is about 10 km away and Western Rocks are 3 km away yet they appeared so close that I could hold them in my hand. It was as if they were living beings. As the days passed into weeks, my sensory awareness spread further and further afield. I hardly slept and hardly ate, constantly alert to changes in sound, patterns of light and movements of creatures. The Antechinuses became familiar with my painting spots and often came out to feed and chase skinks around where I was sitting and on one occasion chased my paintbrush as I swished it in the jar. Birds came closer and closer. The tiniest sounds became audible and once I looked up to see two sea eagles hovering just a few metres above my head.

Looking out, there was a constantly changing cloud and seascape of light and air. Looking in to the belly of the island was an entirely different experience. It was cold and dark. At times the dense undergrowth was impenetrable and almost impossible to see beyond. The ground was thick with damp ferns, vines, mosses, leaf litter, riddled with mutton-bird burrows and flecked with patches of luminous green where the sun was able to get through the canopy and light up the ferns. Above was a crowd of twisting trunks of ancient Tea Tree, Banksias, Peppers, Melaleucas and other lumpy trees with red berries that are particularly good for lichens to grow on. It would be ‘tough going’ to venture off the track. Perhaps to some people it may seem like a hostile place - so isolated, so exposed, so far from civilization. I felt so protected by the island. So at ease amongst its leggy limbs, crawling around at ground level marveling at the most exquisite fine delicate fragments of lichen that had been dislodged from the branches in the latest storm. I had no idea how to begin to paint the island itself, but I imagined it like an extension of my own body. In the same way that you cant see your own body as it really is, I couldn’t see the island in its entirety. The island seemed a perfect metaphor for the mind.

Because I was privileged to be on Maatsuyker by myself and had only a satellite phone and VHF radio for emergency use and no other technology to communicate with the world, I rarely heard human sound. Although I occasionally passed one of the lighthouse caretakers on the track, I had very little conversation during the entire time. It is interesting to watch what the human mind does when there is so little intellectual stimulus or human interaction. Actually the mind can be quite happy with only abstract sounds of the natural world for company. I found it that way at least. I imagined what it was like for other people who had visited the island. The Aborigines who paddled out from Cox Bight in canoes made of stringy bark bound together. How did they keep their canoes upright in such a volatile ocean? How did they know that the weather would stay calm enough for 3 – 4 hours, long enough for them to get to the island and land? They must have stayed for several weeks, even months feeding on the mutton-birds, seals and fish. With plenty of fresh water and food it would have been a great campsite. Did whole families come across or was it only the men? And then I imagined what it might have been like to be the artist on Abel Tasman’s ship rolling and lurching and creaking its way around the coast of Van Diemen’s land, discovering small islands along the way to shelter behind. Did they try to land at the gulch on the northern side of the island? I imagined walking through the undergrowth as if seeing it for the first time in 1642.  Or perhaps I was the assistant lighthouse keeper’s wife going out to feed the  chooks in the early days after the lighthouse was built. It occurs to me that there is nothing contemporary about Maatsuyker. It is full of old stories: Colonial stories, Aboriginal stories and Dutch stories, but nothing of the present. Being there is like being a time traveller. I think that this is why these paintings can’t and won’t look contemporary because there is nothing of a contemporary experience in them. If anything the closest aesthetic link might be to the light of mid 17th century Dutch still life or interior painting. But I suspect that is only in my imagination.

I read once that Colin McCahon said that the essence of painting could be described entirely with light and dark. He then went on to reduce his paintings to just black and white. When I was sitting on Maatsuyker watching the sky change from light to dark, watching the flicker of sun in the dark undergrowth and at night watching the light from the navigation beacon spin around at two flashes to the minute, I think he was absolutely right. When you sit still in a place long enough you cease to dwell on the larger more obvious aspects and become more tuned to the character of a place through the subtle patterns of light and dark.

There are no big ideas or concepts in these paintings. I was simply compelled to paint what I was moved by, what I fell in love with and the experience of sitting still long enough to see it.

Sue Lovegrove
September 2007

This residency took place between the 11 March 2007 and 25 April 2007. It was the first time an artist in residence opportunity has been offered on Maatsuyker Island as part of the Arts Tasmania Natural and Cultural Heritage Residency Program. The project was assisted through Arts Tasmania by the Minister for Tourism, Arts and the Environment.

I am very grateful to the staff at the Parks and Wildlife Service in Huonville, in particular Craig Saunders and Albert Thompson, for their assistance in facilitating my stay on Maatsuyker Island and for being supportive to the idea of an artist working in a remote area of SW Tasmania.

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