Spaced4- Lake Grace Artist Residency 2021
Spaced 4: Rural Utopias, Jo Darbyshire Lake Grace Residency Sept/Oct/Nov 2021
I spent the first ten years of my life in Lake Grace (1961-1970) but have not been back since I left- so this residency is an opportunity to personally reconnect with the landscape of my childhood and with people in the area who remembered my parents, and me, as a child. It is also a reckoning of sorts- how did the landscape and culture- shape my life?
I have vivid memories of the town in the ‘60s and growing up there was a happy time. My father was the Shell Service Station Rep and I accompanied him on his truck, delivering petrol and water- all around the district. As a child I took in the landscape and the people- I remember the poverty of some small landholdings and the power of the salt lakes- the largest collection of salt lakes in Australia.
My mother, from Perth, had come to the town as a primary school teacher before she married my father, who had also come from Perth. While it was an extremely ‘white’ settler community, with no Aboriginal residents, It was also the ‘60s and the small Wheatbelt town was a thriving, growing community; new young people were drawn to the town for work and included nurses, bakers, railway workers, goldmine workers and those who were there to build new, infrastructure projects: a Swimming pool (1966), a Drive-in (1967) and a new concrete CBH wheatbin- built by Yugoslav immigrant families (Nino Buratovic) that travelled the Wheatbelt in caravans (1968/9).
They were ‘Utopian’ years for farmers and townspeople- the high rainfall gave a false impression of the drought years to come. My father and a few friends took advantage of the high water levels; they bought a small boat- and began to water-ski. This was a popular sport in nearby Narrogin and Dumbleyung and ski show teams came to Lake Grace to perform regattas in the lake. I remember watching them water skiing through hoops of fire. They were the exotic symbol of modernisation and progress.
The first two weeks of my residency (6-19 September) saw me re-introduced to the general community through the amazing women that run the Lake Grace Regional Art Space. For a small country town Lake Grace contains a relatively large number of professional artists with tertiary art school training and experience. Tania Spencer and Kerrie Argent, both Curtin Uni graduates bought and set up a large gallery/studio in what was the old 4-Square supermarket, in the main street. This space supports professional visual arts practice throughout the Wheatbelt and they arranged an afternoon tea and an evening public talk to introduce the project to the local community. Artist and curator Michele Slarke, my mentor for this project, and her mother Annie Slarke, took me on an early morning walk to view the spectacular wildflowers on various remnant pieces of bush that have been saved from farming/clearing, and drought.
It is serendipitous that this year has been a year of high rainfall. In fact the Rural Utopia theme particularly resonates, as after the record rains- it is hoped to be a bumper season for crops- if the “frost doesn't kill them”. “Parts of southern Western Australia have recorded their wettest-ever winter, while others topped 20-year records. The Bureau of Meteorology's (BOM) revealed that Lake Grace – an area declared water deficient in recent years due to climate change – recorded its wettest winter on record with 167 millimetres, smashing the 1998 record by 30mm… Lake Grace farmer Ross Chapple said this year's winter felt like one from decades past. "In June and July it was feeling a bit like the old days," he said." Hasn’t been like that in many, many years.” John Dobson and Tyne Logan, ABC Great Southern, 1 Sept 2021
The rare times when winter rainfall fills the lakes, has an immediate impact on Lake Grace. Not only is the land prosperous but the bush is also renewed. Wildflowers and local species are seen to recover from the drought and are appreciated by locals and tourists. In a sense this renewal of the land also affects peoples mental and emotional spirits and ‘culture’ is more readily celebrated. A ‘utopian’ optimism replaces stoic pessimism. Again this year some locals are water-skiing on Cemetery Lake, closest to town. This shallow, and salty lake, cut in two by the road leading into town, was the first water body that encountered as a child, and learnt to swim and play in. I took a paddleboard out on it and was able to spend a morning immersed in its solitary beauty.
The population of the town has decreased since the ‘60s. Where the school had 300 children then- now it has 100. Many of the old farming families have stayed but the town population is more transitory.
I have started painting in the studio space, mostly at night, when the space is empty. During the day there are many visitors from the community including some of the participants from the painting workshop I held on the middle weekend of the 2-week residency. This was the first of 3 painting workshops with 14 participants that come from Lake Grace, Narrogin and Newdegate.
The participants range in experience; some are professional artists already and some have never painted with oils before. Their ages range from several senior people in their late 70s, to young people in their 20s. In the first workshop we discussed the project, and the process of working with oil paints on large-scale canvases (150 x 150 cm), and ideas about how to explore abstract techniques in relation to the theme Rural Utopias.
My Optus phone doesn’t work in Lake Grace- I am borrowing a Telstra phone for emergency calls and the Internet is only available to me during the day from 9-3. Its been a little disconcerting to be without city privileges, but its also means I understand the past experience of place and distance, just a little better.
You can follow me on insta #lakegraceresidency #jodarbs
This project was commissioned by International Art Space as a part of the spaced 4: rural utopias program
SPACED 4: RURAL UTOPIAS
Spaced 4: rural utopias is a program centred on an artists’ exchange between international and Australian visual artists with regional and remote West Australian communities. The program will span three years (2019-21) and constitute the core of the fourth iteration of spaced, a recurring international program of context-responsive art, presented by International Art Space (IAS) https://www.facebook.com/spacedias/