Zela Bissett looks back on the origins of a groundbreaking exhibition at Gympie Regional Gallery and a robust tradition of interdisciplinary arts/since/activism which underpins it.
In August 2019, a group of regional artists from the wildflower regions of South east Queensland met for a weekend of walking, talking and art-making. This weekend was enriched by the guidance of Butchulla Knowledge-holder Nai Nai Bird and botanical authority Shelly Gage. The organiser behind this gathering was Dr Susan Davis working on a Fryer scholarship to develop arts connected with a distinguished wildflower artist of the 1970s, Kathleen McArthur.
I became interested in our wallum wildflowers through finding out about Kathleen McArthur’s work and the stories of these creative women who had been involved in campaigning to establish reserves. For Kathleen that included trying to protect areas where her beloved wildflowers grew. I wondered did they still grow in our regions, what were they, I really had no idea. Like most people I thought you had to go to Western Australia to see native wildflowers. Then when I was involved in Noosa Biosphere Stephanie Haslam often spoke of the joys of the wallum and wildflower festival walks, I went on one of the walks one year and was so impressed with what I saw, I was hooked.
The artists who made work for Wild/flower Women lll spent a year learning, walking and bonding before the exhibition was assembled. Therefore the works seen in the collection reflect more than the act and effort of making. Their making was underpinned by complex interrelationships, between the artists and curators and with the Wildflower Country itself. Service to Country and community have been a big part of the lives of these artists, and their works are seasoned by years of observation, thought and reflection. The works certainly bear the input of the very special places where wildflowers grow, along with the other very important plants and creatures of the wallum country. The term wallum comes to us from the Butchulla people, the traditional custodians of this country, and it originally referred the Banksia aemula, which is what Bill Mollison has termed an indicator species for this type of plant community. The areas are found within the Great Sandy Region which includes K’Gari (Fraser Island) and the Cooloola sand-mass in south-east Queensland, a significant area of internationally recognised coastal wetlands. Citizen-led conservation campaigns during the late 1960s lead to a successful court case in 1970 in which the Queensland government withdrew its support for sand mining applications and subsequently established the Cooloola National Park.
The upright colourful flowers of the Banksia family are very familiar to Australians, as they are a hardy and widespread coastal species. Spending time walking, drawing, photographing, talking and sharing as this group of artists has done, reveals a wonderland of less well known plants, some shrubs bearing masses of showy bright flowers, others a slender stem bearing a single orchid lasting just a few days, or a complex of delicate filigree fronds. Time spent together on Country at Rainbow Beach helped form bonds of friendship which have encouraged the artists to try new methods and push their boundaries. With the help of our Indigenous knowledge-holder, Nai Nai Bird, and botanical brains trust, Shelley Gage, the artists were privileged to spend time together walking and bonding, among the plants of the wallum. Over a weekend at Rainbow Beach, they were able to then share food, ideas and images. This is the climate in which we can open our eyes to the wispy stalk that precludes a rare lily, the tiny plant at the very edge of its climatic tolerance, and hear a story that one of the wildflower women can share about this tiny marvel. It was illuminating to see Nai Nai and Shelley head-to-head over a tiny shrub, western knowledge meeting traditional knowledge, revealing a wealth of confluence.
In front of mind the group held Maree Prior, a dedicated wildflower woman, activist and artist who left us in April 2019. Her exhibition Wonderful, Wonderful, Wallum, which ran from 13 August – 14 September 2003 at the Gympie Regional Gallery attested to her aesthetic appreciation of the Wallum and brought it to a wider audience. Historically, wallum country, or coastal heathlands, was thought of as a second class type of vegetation, far inferior to rainforest. Few voices were raised when it was cleared for pine plantations. But one of these voices was certainly Maree’s. She struggled gamely on many fronts to share her passion for the charms of Rainbow Beach and Tin Can Bay with those who wanted familiar plants and flowers around them, like the neighbour who planted mother in law’s tongues. It was never wise to get her started on the coastal resort’s favourite for a “tropical” look – palm trees!
Staunchly defending the coastal ecosystem against those who complained that the beach stairs were buried by shifting sand, or that “trees” were obstructing their views, Maree brought a new language to the teachers at the schools at which I worked with her. In 2011, with a grant from natural resource management organisation, Burnett Mary Regional Group (BMRG), we presented an innovative professional development module to the staff on Ecological Literacy. Using the school grounds as our classroom, we took each teacher out for a session to show them the ecological treasures within the schoolgrounds. I especially recall Maree explaining to one teacher who wanted to cut down the insect-chewed red ash (Alphatonia excelsa) outside her door that the shrub was not unsightly, and its pitted leaves proved it was food for local insects. A better response would be to observe and photograph what was eating the leaves and work out if they were larvae of a local butterfly, and thereby tick a curriculum box about Life Cycles. On the other hand, she showed that local people do have a practical grounding in ecological literacy, or “reading Country” when she demonstrated that all knew that the presence of paperbarks indicated poorly drained or boggy ground. Teachers have a huge mental inventory of abbreviations, and Maree opened their minds to the fact that RE may not stand for Religious Instruction, as it usually does on the school weekly timetable, It also means Regional Ecosystem and there is a whole field of knowledge which names regional ecosystems and classifies them with numbers such as 12. 4. 7. I hope we inspired teachers to delve into this field not just as a way to improve their teaching, but also deepen their relationship with the land on which they live. Among our artists, Meaghan Shelton spent time on K’gari weeding trips with Maree as organizer.
Maree’s voice was not alone here. Tin Can Bay School had previously engaged our Butchulla Knowledge-holder, Nai Nai Bird, who had told Tin Can Bay school they already had a fine intact wallum ecosystem and the best thing they could do was leave it alone. The artists in this project were fortunate to have the knowledge of Nai Nai on a spine-tingling night walk to Carlo Sand Blow where she told those present a very special story. For some of the Wildflower women, this was far from their first time walking this country, Joolie, Zela and Nicole walked it in service of documenting its biodiverse treasures at the 2017 and 2018 Bioblitzes, events organized by Lindy Orwin and her partner Randy of Rainbow beach Coast Care. Re-grouping in the car park, we stood beside a loaded Midyim berry (Austromyrtis dulcis) clump, a spot the Bioblitz artists had previously explored on night walks with Uncle Long Nose (aka Ian Morris). Nai Nai also took us on a visit to the Fire Station where she had to stand strong to protect a spirit tree in the face of men with bulldozers. K’gari (Fraser Island) is the sister country to Cooloola, where the wildflower women walked the wallum with their human and spirit guides. On a weekend organized by Queensland Art Gallery (QGOMA) exploring local involvement with significant places, Joolie, Meaghan and Zela spent time with Butchulla artist Fiona Foley, making beach installations and exploring the literal and metaphorical territory.
The patterned fens, a vast system of marshlands overgrown with wet-tolerant coastal rushes, is another unique feature of this ecosystem. An unreal feeling accompanies the walker setting out to explore the Fens through the vast mass of reeds, uncertain of what lies underfoot. The long walk in finally leads to a tiny flark, a patch of open water reflecting the bright blue of the sky. The sensation of being supported by nature rarely comes as close to an immediate experience as amongst the fens. Here, the tough strands underfoot belong to a little-known plant with the humble, if accurate, name, wire rush. Wire rush (Empodisma minus) forms a massive, fibrous super-organism extending to the horizon with greyish green spikes and tangles that support each footstep as you traverse the deep swamps where a fragile perched aquifer overlays the water table. The vast expanse of the wire rush brings to mind a super-organism from science fiction. One can readily believe the complex is as sentient as the continent-covering plants of sci fi stories which relate all the doings of invader back to a central over-arching intelligence. In fact, researchers found that the rush has helped form the peat upon which the wetlands sit. In the first major scientific study of the patterned fens of the Cooloola Landmass, in 2014-15, Moss et al reported that
Wetland formation and development is thought to be related to a combination of biological and hydrological processes with the dominant peat-forming rush, Empodisma minus, being an important component. The wetlands dominated by E. minus are highly resilient to disturbance, particularly burning and sea level alterations, and appear to form important refuge areas for amphibians, fish and birds…
This was borne out during an evening visit to the fens in 2017 with Bioblitz birding enthusiasts. Participants listened keenly for the call of the rare ground parrot as a pinkish dusk settled over the wetlands. Just as all were losing hope, a flurry of feathers flashed into view giving a distinctive cry, disappearing an instant later into the fens. A young Butchulla girl had flushed one out for all to see. Rare creatures find refuge among the sentient rushes. Revisiting the fens with the wildflower women brought out Wildflower artist Mel’s gift for ritual and sacrament, not to mention brilliant group selfies. After sharing the long trek supported by the giant sentient vastness of the wire rush. into the fens, she scooped up some of the ancient water and brought it back to share with the group. On another occasion the group visited a special site on Lake Poona with many indications of a women’s area.
As artists we are engaged upon a huge project, well beyond the parameters of the visual arts, yet visual arts are essential to it. Building upon long decades of involvement by the living Wild/flower women, we can move back in time to a legacy left by others. Linking back to the work of curator Sue Davis, foundations laid by artist-activists like Kathleen Macarthur underpin our efforts. Without Macarthur, poet Judith Wright and their citizen co-campaigners, we would not have the biodiversity now still in existence at Cooloola National Park and its surrounds. Other wildflower artists such as Vera Scarthe-Johnson whose work was recently shown at Bundaberg Regional Gallery, have been instrumental through their work in bringing the value of local native species to the attention of the public, authorities and law–makers. In a more recent example of people-power in preserving ecosystems, the victory for the Mary River in defeating the Traveston Crossing Dam proposal was assisted by artworks and collaborations with the Mary River Catchment Coordinating Committee by Joolie and Zela. Their group, Sisters of Mary, produced thousands of illustrated postcards which were sent to politicians at State and Federal levels. In costume as Mary River “nuns”, they appeared at many rallies and performed songs and street theatre.
A Distinguished Tradition
These wild/flower women work on many fronts to celebrate not just the beauty and diversity of native plants, but the ecosystems that support them. In the arts, in education, in research, in activism, they work to move on a great project which began as early as the early colonial era, when artists strove to protect natural places by sharing their beauty and appeal with a wider public.
The massive tree ferns of the colony had visitors trooping out of the cities every weekend to view the plant wonders. Fern-filled valleys near Melbourne and Hobart were among the first areas to suffer degradation through the pressures of too many visitors. These became the scenes of some of the first public campaigns to protect places natural beauty. In 1837, Tasmania’s Surveyor-General, George Frankland, sought to prevent quarrying in a fern gully known as Salvator Rosa’s Glen, possibly the first case of protection of a place on aesthetic grounds. (Bonyhady p. 7)
Art continued to assume significance as a medium for changing how Australians looked at their environment. Eugene Von Guerard’s 1857 painting “Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges” helped spread the fame of the place and awakened public sympathy to preserve it. Famous paintings which celebrated the beauty of the Australian natural environment were William Charles Pigeunit’s The Flood in the Darling and Arthur Streeton’s Cremorne Pastoral, which were declared pictures of the year in Sydney in 1895, signifying an increasing appreciation of Australian scenery.
In 1893 the lantern slides of Archibald Campbell and R.S. Sugars were used in the first known effort to preserve special natural places by showing their beauty to the public. Slide evenings were held to generate opposition to throwing open the Dandenong State Forest to selection by smallholders. This tradition continued with the famous photographic calendars by Olegas Truchanas of the Franklin River during the campaign against the Gordon-below Franklin dam in Tasmania. Returning full circle to the Cooloola region, announcer Hardie Buzzacott was fired from his job with the Gympie radio station in the early 1970s, for sharing his wonderful photographs of the Cooloola region, so effective were they deemed to be in arousing public sympathy for the preservation of the area.
A connection between the visual arts and their role in mediating a relationship between settler society and the new part of the world harks back to the colonial artists who broke away from the romantic European style of painting landscape and moved towards faithfully recording Australian scenery. The Heidelberg School painters of the late 19th century claimed to be “interested in making paintings that looked distinctly Australian”. They claimed that most earlier works resembled European scenes that did not reflect Australia’s harsh sunlight, earthier colours and distinctive vegetation. Recent researchers including Gammage (2011) and Pascoe (2017 ) have identified earlier painters such as John Glover who faithfully rendered Australia’s unique light and sprawling, untidy gum trees in the 1830s, as well as evidence of park-like landscape management by Aboriginal custodians.
The names of these colonial artists are all male. The circumstances and social mores of the Heidelberg era meant that the female painters among the group including Clara Southern and Jane Sutherland could not stay overnight and camp but could only come for day visits. This limited their time spent and the amount of immersion they could achieve in the environment. This brings us back to the significance of the Wild /flower Women project, from MacArthur and Scarthe-Johnson to the present day. While painting wildflowers many seem a stereotypically female domain, the wildflowers are in fact symbolic of a greater array of Australian flora. In the late 19th century, it was too bold for women to stay overnight in painting camps with the likes of Fred McCubbin and Tom Roberts, but nowadays female curators and gallery directors can use the opportunities we now have to conceptualise their own projects and seek suitable collaborators. We are fortunate to live in a time when woman can organize their own excursions, their own accommodation, provisions and form their own support networks. The potential of these collaborations to get past outdated divisions between and science and art, Western and traditional, art and craft, is profound. Such projects have the potential to develop a new aesthetic which is firmly rooted in place, yet global in relevance.
Bonyhady, T. (2000) The Colonial Earth. The Miegunyah Press,Melbourne University Press Vic.
Gammage, B. (2011) The biggest estate on earth: how Aborigines made Australia. Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, N.S.W.
McPhee, John (2003). The Art of John Glover. The Macmillan Company, Vic.
Moss, P., Tibby J., Shapland, F., Fairfax R,. Stewart P., Barr C., Petherick L., Gontz A., and Sloss C. (2015) Patterned fen formation and development from the Great Sandy Region, south-east Queensland. Marine and Freshwater Research 67(6) 816-827 https://doi.org/10.1071/MF14359
Pascoe, B. (2017) Dark Emu: How Aborigines made Australia. Magabala Books, WA.
Sinclair, J. and Corris, P. (1994) Fighting for Fraser Island: John Sinclair an autobiography with Peter Corris. Kerr Publishing, Alexandria NSW.
Smith, Bernard (1962). Australian Painting: 1788-1960. Oxford University Press, p. 19