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Two days ago I woke to find a story in The Canberra Times about a mother duck who returns each year to the Australian War Memorial to give birth to a brood of chicks in the Pool of Reflection.  Because the mother duck is such a regular, Memorial staff have made a ramp so the chicks can get out – in the picture above, which shows the family hanging around the Pool’s eternal flame, the little guys are only 24 hours old.  The staff also escort mum when she and the kids make the journey across a series of busy roads down to the nearby Lake Burley Griffin where she’ll do the actual raising.

It is, of course, an image of contrasts.  Delight in a place of heaviness.  A celebration of hope in an institution that remembers extraordinary – and potentially futile – loss.

The Pool of Reflection at the Australian War Memorial - sans duck family.

Yesterday, as I was walking around the lake, I saw coming across the water – yes, it was her…them! – the mother and her brood.  I stopped to watch, as did three female joggers; the female joggers deplugged themselves from their iPods.  The ducklings zipped here and there as if they didn’t have a minute to lose, all the while the mother kept a close, nervous eye on her charges.

Barely a minute later, the surface of the water broke and for a split second the joggers and I saw the mouth of a large carp – the bloody ugly fish was trying to take one of the ducklings. In a flash, the ducklings reformed themselves in a tight group and then the mother quickly escorted them to the relative safety of the shallows.

As I walked away I couldn’t help wondering if the carp had managed to score a duckling and drag it underwater, would the mother duck grieve for her loss?


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The following was first published in Panorama, Canberra Times, on Saturday 11 September 2010.  Many thanks to Chris Colonna from Bumblebeez, Julian Davies, and John R Walker for participating in the story.  Thanks also to Gillian Lord.

***

One of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers about place, Edward Relph, wrote in his seminal Place and Placelessness that ‘The meaning of places may be rooted in the physical setting and objects, but they are not a property of them – rather they are a property of human intentions and experiences.’  This begs a question: can one of those properties be creativity? Can a place have a confluence of attributes that might result in a source of vision and inventiveness?  And if so, what might be an inherently creative place?  And might that place exist outside the maddening megalopolises, which are usually seen as the hot-bed of arts practice?

Here’s one possibility: Braidwood, New South Wales, Australia – population 1,100.

For many residents of Canberra, the national capital nearby, Braidwood is just a place to stop to grab a meat pie and a cappuccino on the way down to the coast.  According to tourist literature, however, the town is ‘a centre of excellence in the world of art and craft, presenting unique and diverse talents in the fields of pottery and ceramics, two-dimensional art, sculpture, patchwork and quilt-making, doll and bear-making, spinning and weaving, woodwork and precious handcrafted jewellery.’  What’s more, the same tourism source claims this: ‘It is the picture-perfect location for movies, melodramas, masterpieces and photography.  Let Braidwood inspire the screenwriter, the movie producer, the artist and the photographer.  The peaceful countryside encourages the free flow of inspiration and genius.’

The town also boasts that The National in the mainstreet is the oldest operating picture theatre in Australia, and at the local museum visitors can gape at the ‘armour’ worn by Mick Jagger in the Ned Kelly film which was shot in and around Braidwood.

As creative places go, it’s clearly got something.

However, before we face the infamously fierce winds of the place and ask the hard questions, here’s a quick history.  In terms of the European context, Braidwood was discovered in 1822.  Dr Thomas Braidwood Wilson, a respected though by some accounts luckless pioneer of the district, has his name immortalised on the town.  In the 1820s and ’30s, despite the harshness of the climate and what must have been excruciating isolation, settlers established cattle and sheep properties.  Like many towns in the area, Braidwood’s population exploded in the 1850s when gold was discovered.  Much more recently, and after considerable internal angst and argument, the town was placed on the NSW State Heritage Register.  Whilst the architecture has been restored to former glories, it is still a living place where things are allowed to look their age.  It’s not museumified.  At least not yet.

But what is the Braidwood experience for practicing professional artists who call the area home?  I put this question to three creative practitioners: a painter, a musician, and a writer.

Abstract landscape painter John R. Walker has been described as a ‘force in contemporary landscape painting’ and his work was celebrated by the 2008 exhibition Journey Through Landscape at Sydney’s S.H. Ervin Gallery.  In a Sydney Morning Herald review of the show, critic John McDonald noted that ‘to spend many weeks and months in silent communion with a landscape is also to spend that time in an increasingly deeper meditation on the self.  I don’t think this is a Romantic idea, just an observation about what happens when an artist stops worrying about other people’s expectations and begins to discover personal, fundamental priorities.’  The suggestion is that Braidwood has facilitated this ‘silent communion’.

Walker, whose work can be found in many of Australia’s major public and private collections, has lived in Braidwood since leaving Sydney in 2002.  He first discovered the town when he’d regularly pass through on the way to the Budawangs, the ranges that form a dramatic barrier between the Tablelands and the south coast.  Walker lives in town on a half-hectare block located ‘a few hundred yards’ from the surrounding farmlands.  Needing to often travel, he describes Braidwood as ‘a home-base’.  When I ask him how the area influences what and how he paints, he replies, ‘My work is based in experience – when the place changes the pictures change.  For some reason I connected with something about this place.  The land here has a lived-in, damaged-and-loved feel to it.  Every ‘thing’ in every paddock is a story.’

'green pick' by John R Walker, 2006, gouache on paper, 55x75cm

What advantages is there in being an artist and having a relationship with a place like Braidwood?   ‘For me,’ says Walker, ‘close and long immersion in the ‘motif’ is essential.  It’s all about looking, learning to see clearly, which is something that takes a surprising amount of time and effort.  Time and space are big advantages to living here.  The area has a diverse cross section of people.  It’s very different to a lot of our main cities where post-codes are good indicators of uniform demographics and attitudes.’

Walker believes that there’s an interesting political overlay to this neck of the woods.  ‘Braidwood is in the federal seat of Eden-Monaro,’ he points out, ‘which is in some ways a microcosm of Australia.  Up until this recent election is was known as a ‘bellwether’ seat because it’s a representative cross-section: urban areas, old-fashioned rural areas, feral areas, middle-class ‘greenie’ areas, public servants, retirees and self-employed contractors like builders, loggers and fishermen.  It’s a small population spread over a lot of country.  It’s stimulating and, at times, annoying.’

In many ways, with its hot summers, cold winters, fogs and mists, sometimes snow, and in September and October that relentless wind, the Braidwood edge of the Monaro must be a potentially unforgiving place to live and work.  How does Walker’s practice respond to this?  ‘Matisse said it well: “solitude and silence, only the mediocre need fear it.”  Australia is very different to all other inhabited continents, and the experience(s) of the sheer strangeness, the resistance to human meaning of the land, has a centrality in Australian culture which is unusual in other modern societies.  But the Braidwood winds are truly awful, and on a bad day there are times when it’s possible to feel like you are in Mongolia.’

Walker disagrees that Braidwood is inherently creative, because, he says, nothing is inherently anything – there is only change.  ‘In modern Greek a Meta-phora is literally a removal van,’ he says.  ‘The usefulness of containers that move is that they have a lot of empty space inside them and thus they can be used to bring together things that would otherwise be unconnected.  The mental and physical room to maneuver is important.  The very high capital cost of inner-urban real-estate these days has changed the dynamics.  When I was twenty it was the inner-city that was a largely deserted, cheap and interesting relic of a previous industrial age.  These days the inner-urban areas are very pricey.  In more recent times creativity is more likely to be found in rural and other sorts of ‘fringe’ areas that have the low capital cost spaces needed for people to take innovative risks.’

Bumblebeez is an Australian band comprising siblings Christopher and Pia Colonna, both of whom have a long association with Braidwood.  The band was discovered in 2002 by national youth radio station Triple J as part of the ‘Unearthed’ project.  Bumblebeez’ first release, The Printz, hit the shelves in 2004, with the follow-up record, Prince Umberto & The Sister Of Ill coming out in 2007 and nominated for a J Award.  All Bumblebeez songs have received significant international airplay.

Speaking from Rome where he is working on the band’s fourth studio record, Colonna says, ‘I started school in Braidwood in Year One and since then have walked those streets up and down.  In later years I ventured outside of the shire to pursue my adventures.’  He keeps a studio in town where he makes hit records, including producing albums for Australian acts such as The Vines and Wolf and Cub, and ‘holds techno parties’.

Like John Walker, Colonna describes Braidwood as a home-base, and he believes that the trick is finding the right balance – ‘not too much, not too little’.

‘The freedom in my music and practices comes from the freedom in Braidwood and the surrounds,’ says Colonna.  ‘The advantages are being able to get drunk with Jarrah, Bib and Lil Joe, walk up the street to get a coffee and sit at the Albion, then go and play ping pong… and never get a parking ticket!  The challenge is it’s up to you, so you need discipline – there’s no scene to be a part of.  The isolation can be quite evil, especially in winter.  In winter I get out of there.  But my music has a punk feel to it, and I reckon Jack Frost was a punk.’

Does Colonna believe that Braidwood is inherently creative?

‘Many Australian towns are creative hot-spots,’ he says, ‘though only a few of the country-town artists will shine through and go worldwide and take things to another level and not do some hippy wind-spiral shiz.’

Julian Davies, author of five novels including The Boy (2003), a member of not-for-profit publishing venture Finlay Lloyd, and a potter, says that long-term residents of Braidwood refer to relative newcomers as ‘blow-ins’.

‘It’s a nicely appropriate semi-meteorological-sounding term,’ he says, ‘considering the region is a place with plenty of weather.’

Davies suspects that after more than thirty years living on the mountain range to the west of the town he’s still something of a ‘blow-in’.  ‘But I’m comfortable with that label – after all, I’ve long argued that the district is a refuge for misfits and escapees from mainstream urban Australia and that I’m one such happy outcast.  I’ve always felt it’s a virtue of the place that I can take part in a small community but also hide off in the forest.’

Davies describes the country around Braidwood as being wonderfully varied.

‘There are the changing skies,’ he says, ‘the thunderstorms and mists, the open grazing lands, and the wooded hills and mountains.  Tall moist forest covers the range where I live – a protected place where it’s possible to grow citrus and cherries, raspberries and figs, all in the same garden.’

This diversity is something that Davies finds particularly appealing.  ‘Getting up from my desk I can, within minutes, walk among four-hundred-year-old trees.  It was this particular landscape that brought me here – it’s a perfect place to live, and to write and pursue a craft.  Braidwood itself I’ve got to know and enjoy over time – eventually becoming part of Finlay Lloyd – until now, when I’m beginning to set up a small, eccentric gallery in town.’

John Walker believes that there is something ‘inner-city’ about Braidwood, and Davies agrees.  ‘It might seem funny, but for me Braidwood feels strikingly urban.  For city dwellers its resources must appear very limited but after a thirty-five minute drive out of the bush it becomes something of a hub.  It’s a place interesting for its mixture of old farming families, people with newer rural dreams, tradesmen, urban retirees, and academic and arty types.’

It is arguable, says Davies, as to why Braidwood has long been a retreat for artists.  ‘The district may be an attractive place to settle and work but the suggestion that one place is inherently more creative than another seems unlikely.  Most people attempting any sort of creative life are doomed to some level of economic insecurity, so perhaps this town’s appeal has had more to do with being a relatively cheap place to live, at least until recently.  Reasonable proximity to Canberra and Sydney may also make the town an easy hideaway.’

Davies makes the point that the increasing mobility of people may be a factor.  ‘In the United States, for instance, the polarization of different communities has been particularly exacerbated by migration.  Now significant numbers of people are choosing to move to a city or district where they hope to feel comfortable, where other people are gay or Christian, liberal or conservative.  Perhaps for its newcomers, Braidwood has become part of this self-selecting process.  Whatever has caused Braidwood’s peculiar population mix, I’m simply happy to be part of it.’

If Edward Relph, who has spent his adult life thinking about place and geography, is right that the meaning of places is a property of human intentions and experiences, it could be argued that whilst there’s no such thing as an inherently creative place, people who hunger for creative experiences may gravitate to certain places.  And that tourism blurb might be right: Braidwood and its physical, cultural and historical environment may indeed encourage ‘the free flow of inspiration and genius’.  Even if it’s only an aspiration, it’s a mighty aspiration for a little country town to have.

It’s been haywire around this neck of the woods and, rather reasonably, I put it down to the fact that Australian politics has turned into a dog’s breakfast.  A week and a half ago, on Saturday August 21, we had a federal election, resulting in what’s essentially a hung parliament, which is a rare event for us.  The only hope of resolution is coming from a small group of rural-based independents who are currently trying to work out whether they’ll support the slightly more progressive Australian Labor Party, the incumbents, or the conservative Liberal/National Coalition, who – based on previous form – may well take us back to a dim dark past.

How did we get to this point?  In a nutshell (or should that be ‘nutcase’?), the election involved an inept campaign from the Australian Labor Party and a morally bankrupt campaign from the Coalition.  Labor, who’d ditched their leader just before calling the election and chose to put forward Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, seemed to be making things up every minute, trying to be modern and ‘real’ but really just coming across as amateurs.  The Coalition, however, ran a traditional fear campaign, putting forward the old chestnut that Australia is in the process of being swamped by Asians – gasp, all those funny eyes and weird languages and the stinky food – and we’re going to lose our way of life.  Morally bankrupt indeed.

So what did Australia do?  We sent one message that neither party was really up to the task, and another message that we’d like the Greens to have control of the Senate from July next year – both of these are good things.  But it should be pointed out that fewer Australians voted in this election than in previous elections, despite it being compulsory, and of those who did vote 600,000 either stuffed up their ballot paper or wrote ‘We can do better than this’ or ‘Don’t treat us like fools’ or ‘F*** off and die’, or something similar, perhaps.

At least the politicians have got the message that we’re not happy.

So while we wait to hear who the independents will support, what to do?  I’ve chosen to tune out.  And it’s the first time in my life that I’ve chosen to do this.  Normally I read all the papers, watch all the current-affairs shows, get obsessed and worked up about every twist and turn.  But not this time.  On one hand, this political caper is very important, but on the other it’s not what matters at all.  What matters is reading a great story.  What matters is hearing great music.  What matters is a loving look from your partner, or a smile from the dog (how good to be the dog!), or the taste of a particularly delicious home-cooked meal.  Or just the sound of the wind in the trees, though it’s frighteningly windy today – not sure if someone’s trying to tell us something.

What’s important is the small things, the things that will continue on no matter who’s ‘in power’.  And in the spirit of the small things, and to inject this pallid election tale with something that really does matter – the arts and creativity and meaningless whimsies which are actually so meaningful it hurts – I give you Slinkachu, who has rather delightfully imbedded himself into this post.

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