Birdlands: Showing/sharing Work close to the Heart

When an artist has been working in the studio, often in relative isolation, it can be confronting to see the work in a gallery space. The Gympie Regional Gallery has done a lovely job of hanging my recent works in botanical paper and wool felt in a way that helps the viewer see both my finished work and the emotional journey behind it. The show runs till March 23 at Gympie Regional Gallery, Nash Street Gympie.

Looking back on my work there is evidence that I have always been interested in birds and incorporated feather, wing and bird motifs into my compositions. I also I am a close observer off the bird life to be found in my suburban Gympie quarter acre where I am fortunate to have regular visits from both common and uncommon birds, possibly attracted by the tempting array of fruit and vegetables growing in my organic garden.

After the terrible fires of 2020, the island of K’gari began the process of recovery and for me this was symbolised by the birds. Birds were also symbols of escape from the flames, and during the dark days of smoke and ash, I portrayed this in a series of artworks including the hero image of the Birdlands exhibition, Escaping the Flames, where the birds rise above the charred and blackened land. In these works, I used layers of botanical paper, all made from significant local plants, along with actual botanical fragments of charred bark and charcoal from post-burn sites in the Cooloola area which is ecologically similar to K’gari. The emotional charge of the fire days prompted me to use my extensive collection of botanical papers, in many colour tones, textures with fragments of plants embedded in them, in a more uninhibited and free manner. Tearing and superimposing, I created a series of rather dark but powerful works relating to the theme of the fires on K’gari. Significant plants such as kangaroo grass were not only embedded but stitched to the substrate, emulating the work of women over the milennia. As the rains came and the ground turned greener, my palette changed towards the colours of recovery, with the key work The Rain Garden. On the night the rain began to fall I had the vision for this work, and I made my way to the studio at dawn to begin work on it. These works in botanical papers were the starting point for the Birdlands collection.

More recently walks at Lake Alford have accentuated my appreciation of the intensity of avian life to be found in our local region. The many pairs of black swans caring for fluffy cygnets first drew my attention. Magpie geese with their striking black and white plumage have extended their range south to encompass Gympie. I observed adult birds sharing the task of feeding the tiny goslings. Soon afterwards I noticed swamp hens seeking out fragile nests among the reeds and hatching the tiny black offspring who appeared to be able to swim as soon as they emerged from their shells. In a dry spell before Christmas, every tree on my walking circuit became occupied with cattle egrets in yellow breeding plumage. These egrets preceded to construct nests in every hollow and branch and hatch a remarkable number of babies. These are now fully fledged and in the process of getting ready to fly away and find their own territories. A beautiful aspect of the birdlands is the humans who care for it. A diverse collection of people can be noticed enjoying the birdlands: picnicking, walking, taking photographs and generally enjoying the green grass and the company of the many kinds of birds and ducks which frequent the Lake Alford. As evening falls, a cacophony of squawking, squealing and hooting fills the air, with many squabbles taking place over prime positions among the branches.

This gave rise to the works in wool felt which form the second component of the exhibition. They celebrate this colour and life. The first phase, the wet felting, is very physically demanding. Once dry, this is followed by the time-consuming and delicate dry phase of the work, overstitching and dry-felting extra layers. In a third medium, works in clay reveal what an ongoing theme birds have been in my artistic life. I began my career as a potter with a studio at Coondoo, past Wolvi, firing a double firebox kiln with fallen timber and mill offcuts. Two bowls from this period have survived and one, Winged Victory, is included in the show along with very recent works dealing with the great birds of the Birdlands. I hope a visit to the exhibition will be as uplifting as a visit to the Birdlands itself.

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Susan Zela Bissett (Zela) is an educator, writer and artist with a lifetime involvement in environmental education and advocacy. Zela was born on Butchulla Country in Maryborough and has worked as an artist, educator, permaculture gardener, studio potter and consultant. She is passionate about sustainable lifestyles, maintaining habitat for wildlife and about unleashing the creativity in all of us.

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