19 Jun 2003

Julia Griffin . Ross Laurie . Stephen King . Angus Nivison . James Rogers
Photos of the town of Walcha by Beryl Feron
Opening launch: June 19, 6-8pm
To be opened by the Mayor of Walcha, Bill Heazlett
Exhibition Dates: June 12 - July 27, 2003
Don't miss Walcha on Stateline on Friday 8 August, 7:30pm on ABC TV!
Why Walcha? Why devote an entire exhibition to the art of a small New England town
of approximately 1800 inhabitants, some 447 kms from Sydney?
The best answer is the exhibition itself, featuring the work of five outstanding artists Julia Griffin, Stephen King, Ross Laurie, Angus Nivison and James Rogers, who live in the region. Yet Walcha is special in another way: it is home to twenty-one works of public art spread across the community, including large sculptures on the four access roads into town, and Song Cycle, an enormous abstract sculpture by James Rogers installed at the point where those roads converge. It would be hard to find the exact statistics, but with one public artwork per 85 citizens, there can be no town in Australia that is so art-friendly.
This is a departure from popular stereotypes that portray country towns as cul-de-sacs of narrow minds and philistine attitudes. But at a time when so many rural communities have been hit hard by drought and devastated by the closures of banks and essential services, Walcha has found a way of signposting its continued vitality. For a modest investment of ratepayers’ funds, the Council has given the town a special place on Australia’s cultural map. This has come about with the assistance of artists and supporters who have donated a great deal of time and expertise to create this unique facility. It is an example of many individuals working together for the good of a community in which they share strong family and sentimental ties.
Walcha was the first part of New England to be discovered by the explorer, John Oxley, in 1818. The earliest white settler, Hamilton Collins Semphill, arrived in 1832, and took the name ‘Walcha’ from the local Aboriginal language. The meaning, however, remains ambiguous, since it may signify “Sun”, Deep Water” or “Water”. The district has long been known as a primary producing area, with vast numbers of sheep and cattle. Its natural attractions include the Apsley Falls and the Werrikimbe National Park.           
(1)    (2)
As a cultural attraction, Walcha is usually overshadowed by its larger neighbours, Armidale and Tamworth. The former has one of Australia’s best regional galleries in the New England Regional Art Museum, while the latter is probably best known for its annual festival of Country and Western music. Yet Walcha has one geographical trait that gives it a peculiar distinction: it is the mid-point of the fastest road route between Sydney and Brisbane – a fact not recognized by the road authorities who have placed a huge sign on the Pacific Highway pointing out two alternatives, via Tamworth or Taree. For the inhabitants of Walcha, the sign is a mystery, for there can be no doubt that the fastest and most scenic route from Sydney to Brisbane takes one along Thunderbolt’s Way, through Gloucester and over the Barrington Tops.
The installation of public sculpture in Walcha dates from 1996, when Stephen King presented the Council with a proposal for his fountain-sculpture, Weather Signs, in McHatton Park, close to the centre of town. From 1999, King, Ross Laurie and James Rogers, were working on the sculptures that now stand on the community’s four entrance roads. By 2001, a Public Art Plan had been adopted, and – with the support of Armidale’s third City of the Arts program and other local bodies - a group of local and invited artists created an ambitious collection of sculptures and ‘street furniture’. Along with King and Laurie, and sometime resident, James Rogers, the other contributors included Nigel White, Stephen Killick, Mandy Francis, Mike Nicholls and David Waters.  
In 1998 King had met the sculptors Tom Deko of Papua-New Guinea, and Emmanuel Watt of Vanuatu, during their shared participation in Bondi’s annual Sculpture By the Sea exhibition. The two artists accepted an invitation to Walcha, and left works that are now on permanent public display. In 2001, indigenous artist, Gordon Hookey, was commissioned to design a circular ground sculpture that celebrates the region’s Aboriginal heritage. The project became a labour of love that involved the artist in a fruitful collaboration with locals.
(3) (4) (5)
Undoubtedly the crowning achievement of Walcha’s public sculpture program is James Rogers’s Song Cycle, of 2001, a rhythmic abstract sculpture of welded steel that occupies a central roundabout, from which the entire community seems to radiate. It is a difficult location for a sculpture but Rogers’s work has a tremendous sense of lightness and grace. It would be a highlight in any Australian town or city, but in Walcha it is startling discovery for visitors.
As all this was happening, the painter, Angus Nivison, whose family has lived in the area for generations, began to attract national attention for his abstract paintings, filled with references to life on the land. I had arranged for his painting, Hard Rain (1995), to be included in the exhibition, Federation: Australian Art and Society 1901-2001 at the National Gallery of Australia, as part of a section that dealt with 20th century views of the rural landscape. Even to get this huge work to Canberra from the New England private collection in which it resides, turned into a battle with the elements. The result though, was worth the effort, since many visitors responded strongly to this painting, which conjures up the ecstatic moment of the breaking of the drought.
During the most recent drought Nivison was repeatedly featured in the newspapers as an artist-farmer, struggling simultaneously with the environment and his personal muse. Yet he would find a greater degree of celebrity in 2002, when he was awarded the Art Gallery of NSW’s annual Wynne Prize for landscape, for his multi-panelled painting, Remembering Rain. Nivison’s success was also Walcha’s success, because the prize drew even more attention to the local area. Indeed, it seemed as though the impact of the drought itself was being off-set by the efforts of artists, who were able to distill a powerful aesthetic vision from the harsh conditions.
This exhibition celebrates those artists who have chosen to live and work in Walcha, and to support the land they call home. The photographs of public artworks by Beryl Feron, are an integral component of the show, demonstrating the fact that art may have both a private and public dimension – individual creative acts, accomplished for the widest possible audience. This may, perhaps, be the most important lesson to emerge from this project: how the transforming power of art may be harnessed to the good of the community. To bring the work - and the photographs - to Sydney, is to reverse the usual thinking about ‘regionalism’ in the arts. This term has received a massive amount of lip service in recent years, but the practical results of regionalist programs have been largely one-way traffic. Works are brought from the city and exhibited in a regional gallery, like missionaries bringing a taste of civilization to the natives. This is all very well, but it tends to ignore the fact that the missionaries could also learn much from the local inhabitants. Neither is it recognised that the slightly patronizing attitude that the city exhibits toward the country, is paralleled, on a global scale by the way the art centres of New York, Paris or London view the art of Australia and New Zealand.
In Walcha: City of Art, the distinctive art of the country comes to the city in a way that it has never done before. City-dwellers may be amazed to find paintings and sculptures of greater power and sophistication than they could have imagined, and an attitude of mutual co-operation that is not easily discerned in the metropolis. In the work of these painters and sculptors, art, life and land are closely integrated in a manner that is both exceptional and uplifting – a welcome breath of country air amid the art smog of the city.
John McDonald, Director
Special thanks goes to the Walcha Art Council and Walcha council
for their support in this project, and to Beryl Feron for photography.
(1) Tom Deko, Family sculpture, photo by Beryl Feron
(2) Julia Griffin Storm Brewing in Uralla, 1999, water colour on arches 320 x 220mm
(3) James Rogers, Truck Driving Song, 1986, Welded Steel, 380 x 240 x 440mm
(4) Angus Nivison, Thicket, 2003, Acrylic, charcoal & gesso on Arches, 750 x 1040mm
(5) Stephen King, Stargazer II, 1993, Stringybark, 420 x 420 x 2050mm
(6) Ross Laurie, Black Cockatoo, 1999, 2.5 x 0.6 x 5m, southern entrance sign commissioned by the Walcha council
Invitation image: Nigel White, True Born Native Man, 1999, photo by Beryl Feron
For more information on the artists visit:
Julia Griffin & Stephen King's website
Angus Nivison's website
Articles on-line about Walcha - City of Art:
John McDonald, Walcha, as featured in Artreach, a quarterly magazine on regional arts
Sydney Morning Herald - Artists Reign in town where there's nary a trickle, 16/6/03
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