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The Land Where Time Began

Finding Inspiration on Arrernte country - an artist adventure through the Macdonnell Ranges.

In May 2021, as part of an organised artists' expedition, I had the privilege to visit, stay and paint on Arrernte country, the traditional Aboriginal land in Central Australia, which includes Alice Springs and parts of the MacDonnell Ranges. The traditional owners of the land have lived here for over 20,000 years. Many of these ranges were formed at least 1000 million years ago, but the sediments that comprise them have been dated to be at least 1400-2400 million years old.

To the east of Alice Springs, within an hour's drive, are easily accessible sites important to the local Arrernte people that you can visit, some of which contain examples of ancient rock art. These include, to mention a few, Emily Gap, Jessie Gap, Trephina Gorge and N’Dhala Gorge.

Above: The mystical Angkerle Atwatye (Standley Chasm) and its jurassic cycads, palms and an ancient stony creek bed is like walking through a land before time. It is best viewed in direct sunlight, at noon. This work is a limited edition photographic print available through the Fine Art Photography store.

To the west of Alice Springs is the Larapinta Trail, a world-class, long distance bush walking trail that runs 223 kilometres along the backbone of the range. Along the trail are Simpsons Gap, Standley Chasm, Ellery Creek Big Hole, Serpentine Gorge, the Ochre Pits, Ormiston Pound, Redbank Gorge, Glen Helen Gorge, Tnorala Gosse Bluff, Palm Valley, Mount Sonder, Mount Zeil and Mount Giles.

Above: Light infusing the monolithic Standley Chasm (Angkerle Atwatye), sacred to women's dreaming of the Arrernte people, and accessible through a self guided walk. This work is a limited edition photographic print available through the Fine Art Photography store

The country is rich with mountain ranges, waterholes, gorges and pristine 'conservation areas' in which an abundance of various species of plants, animals and sacred rock art belonging to the traditional owners are protected. These spectacular places are like huge outdoor art galleries in nature. It is always advisable to view the rock art but not to photograph it, in respect for the traditional land owners' customs & beliefs and the significance many of these sites continue to hold for them.

This was not my first trip to the red centre and while I didn't visit all of these locations on this occasion, I did spend time photographing and painting at Simpson's Gap, Standley Chasm, Ormiston Gorge, Emily & Jessie Gaps, and Trephina Gorge. I'm already planning a return extended visit to connect again with this spectacular country. This ancient landscape is one of my favourite places to photograph and paint. In celebration of this striking country I've made a series of editioned prints available in the Fine Art Photography store.

Above: Converging verticals at Trephina Gorge. This work is a limited edition photographic print available through the Fine Art Photography store

Artists on Country

The famous Aboriginal painter, Albert Namatjira captured the beauty of the MacDonnell Ranges in many of his paintings. It's not difficult to see how the deep rich red sandstone palettes, the misty grey greens of the river gums and the rich luminous purples and blues of the the spectacular ridges and gorges lured all number of artists to express their beauty. Most people never look past the aesthetics of works of art, however country is so much more to the traditional owners and contains their sacred knowledge and stories of the land and the dreaming, passed on through generations over thousands of years, and holding deeper meaning and connection than what we just see before our eyes. This iconic desert palette continues to be a rich source of inspiration for many artists past and present who have visited the area, many returning time and time again. Such is the magic call to return to country and these wild spaces.

Above: Crumbling ancient landscapes impacted by the ever changing colours of the light. This work is a limited edition photographic print available through the Fine Art Photography store

The best way to connect with the vibrant landscape and culture of the local area is to experience the expressive visual heritage and language of the local artists, past and present, through viewing their responses to place. There are many outstanding art spaces to visit, both privately and collectively owned. These include the Araluen Arts Centre, which holds some of the most significant examples of both the beginning and ongoing development of the Aboriginal art movement in Central Australia and the Western Desert Region. The galleries showcase (on rotation), stunning works from their collection by the renowned watercolourist Albert Namatjira and his artistic response to the Central Australian landscape as well as historical Papunya boards showing early Western Desert dot painting. There is also a changing selection of original works by contemporary local artists.

There are other community arts centre in and around Alice Springs where you can visit and talk with the artists as they work and I would definitely recommend a trip to Hermannsburg, a Lutheran mission now returned to the Aboriginal people and once home to Namatjira, where his originals are still on display.

Above: Ormiston Gorge Nature Park. This work is a limited edition photographic print available through the Fine Art Photography store

A Personal Creative Journey

On this particular adventure I was part of an artist led group from the Byron Bay region, where I live and have my own studio. I have an enduring passion for travelling and making art 'en plein air'. Travelling and making art is always an inspirational experience when shared with other creatives! Accommodation was at Ooramina Station Homestead, a family run business located in Hale, on a quintessentially Australian outback property about a 45 minute drive from Alice Springs.

Above: The Timber Cabin at Ooramina.

I had my own rustic but cosy timber cabin with a very comfy bed and a wonderful verandah that was the perfect spot for my 'artistic musings' and a hot cuppa at the start and finish of each day.

Above: The Timber Cabin verandah at Ooramina.

The sunsets were pretty amazing and directly behind my cabin was a beautiful billabong full of swarms of birds at certain times of the day as well as some monolithic rock formations that glowed as if lit by a fire from within at sunset. Dusk would settle suddenly with a show stopping silence before darkness fell peacefully over the landscape.

Above: 'Billabong'. This work is a limited edition photographic print available through the Fine Art Photography store

Above: Rock sculpture in the landscape. This work is a limited edition photographic print available through the Fine Art Photography store

Dinners were served up at the homestead, usually on the verandah, where all of the artists would gather at the end of the day to watch the sun go down, enjoy a cold beverage of choice and a tasty meal and debrief the day's creative adventures.

Above: The dining area at sunset at Ooramina.

I also spent one evening towards the end of my trip in a glamping tent on the other side of the station homestead complete with wildlife and nocturnal visits from the local friendly pig and a few wild horses in the middle of the night!

Creating on Country

The natural world is a source of magic, spirituality, healing and creativity for me. I am drawn in particular to the geology of place and the natural structures, the passage of time and the processes which act on them. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to visit some of the most timeless and ancient geographical sites in Australia and connect with the spirit of the country through art and mark making.

Above: Creating & mark making on country.

Above: Finding inspiration on country.

The rocks feel like belonging. I am not a first nations person, I am a descendant of European Australians, but honour and feel a deep connection to this place and this land. to which my identity is intimately connected. Mark making in these ancient places is a wonderful, mindful way to experience the landscape on a level that embeds itself in your memory. Travel is about being present in your experiences, and no better way to connect with a place than to draw or paint the place you are in!

Above: Intimate explorations- getting up close and personal with the landscape.

Whenever I arrive somewhere for the first time in a landscape I quiet my mind, greet and honour the landscape I am present in, and slowly walk in wonder. I wait to be welcomed or if I am not meant to be there, for a message to move on. If I do this, the place I am supposed to sit and create becomes apparent and the source or energy of the land will share with me and flow through me. If I listen, the spirit of the landscape comes alive and welcomes me, often with the most wonderful unexpected surprises- a flock of birds landing right in front of me, a perfectly shaped ochre painting rock, a gust of wind from out of nowhere. There’s magic in nature all around us if we’re still and open to it.

Above: Responding to the landscape with mark making- field sketch #1 using ink mixed with ground materials (ochre & dirt) and found grasses.

Responding to the Landscape

Notes from the field. I really enjoy this part of my creative process immensely, collecting information outside, immersing myself in nature and the detail. Observing, noticing the beauty in the large landscape but also the infinite wonder in the microcosms that exist within. Foraging for nature’s tools and using them for my mark making. It’s become such a sacred ritual for me that always fills my heart and soul.

Above: Responding to the landscape with mark making- field sketch #2 using ink mixed with ground materials (ochre & dirt) and found grasses.

On Returning...

The Red Centre has so many easily accessible locations you can drive to, visit with monolithic gorges and rock formations and explore ancient riverbeds and timeless artworks in open air natural art galleries! While it can be visually overwhelming at first, just to take in the scale and diversity of the MacDonnell Ranges, its also a good reason to return, which is definitely on the cards for me in the near future!


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