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Art & Ocean: Norfolk artists and the call of the sea

Art & Ocean: Norfolk artists and the call of the sea

At night, when the sea is up, the dull roar of the waves can be heard from every house on Norfolk, and the salt mist swirls around the pines. The boat doesn’t unload and the whitewash can be seen out in long streaks off Kingston. Yachts come in to shelter and wait out the storm. When the sea is calm, fishing boats are towed through town and a fresh catch might be left on your door. Had a hard day? Sit on a cliff and contemplate the infinite swell all the way to the horizon, or swim the channel between Emily and Slaughter Bay and commune with the aatuti.

Should you spend a little time investigating the arts and crafts on Norfolk you’ll soon find a theme running through the work. As well as a strong sense of pride in “awas side” (our home) you’ll always find the ocean. Depicted in glass, in painting and drawing, in sculpture, textiles and printing, photography, jewelery, carving, tattooing and weaving, and created by people who are passionate about where they live and their maritime heritage.

As any local will tell you, the largest artwork on Norfolk Island to feature the ocean is, of course, Fletcher Christian’s mutiny cyclorama, a 3.6 m x 50 m circular painting, viewed from the inside. This celebrated work was painted by local artists Tracey Yager and Sue Draper and follows the story of the Bounty mutineers from the docks of Portsmouth, England to the beaches of Tahiti, the craggy cliffs of Pitcairn and finally the homecoming of their descendants to Norfolk in 1856. Understandably, within its impressive 180 m² of painting there’s a lot of ocean and within the 16 months it took to complete the painting of the cyclorama, a full two to three months were spent just painting water. As Sue tells it, “I airbrushed the background colour for the sea and then Tracey took it from there, painting every wave by hand.” Tracey continues the story, “We’d done a lot of research by taking loads of photos and had six different scenes featuring water, all different. I remember one day I had 16 individual colours of blue mixed, just to paint one small section of water in the Norfolk scene. By the end of it, I was dreaming about water! I’d try to take a break from the painting by going to the beach and I’d end up looking out to sea and analysing it.” Many visitors to the cyclorama report seeing waves actually moving in the painting!

Both Sue Draper and Tracey Yager had made their reputations as accomplished artists in Noosa, Queensland and Norfolk Island well before tackling such a large project as the cyclorama. Tracey explains that “painting river scenes in Noosa is where I really taught myself how to paint water. Just studying it, watching it. People think water is just blue but it’s not. It’s all colours, rings of different colours, layers of patterns. I was painting boats and their reflections in river water, and one day it all just clicked in for me and I felt like I knew what I was doing.” While Tracey is known for her watercolours, Sue prefers pastels for many works and has a particular attraction to the intertidal zone, where the waves wash up the beach and are sucked back. “I love where the waves meet the shore, the colours of the rocks, the reflections and the light in the water. It’s awful being away from the ocean, I feel some part of me is missing if it’s not close by.” Apart from atmospheric pastels and acrylics, Sue also makes collages of collected beach findings, both of natural forms and man-made plastics with a poignant environmental message.

If you’ve admired a carved bone fishhook with an inlay of black sand or curved whale tail pendant recently, it’s likely to be the work of John Christian. John taught himself to carve six years ago, and since then has been on a quest to meld the two cultures of his ancestry into contemporary imagery. “I’ve been working on and evolving a tiki form, inspired by the Tahitian ti’i, but specific to Norfolk, with Norfolk imagery and themes. I work a lot with dolphin, ray and whale forms, and I like to incorporate black sand from Matavai Bay, and paua and pearl shell from Tahiti.” John turns the partially carved tiki over in his hands and demonstrates the style changes, “See, this used to be an anchor here, but recently it’s become a stylised pine tree, which curves over, it can be a fern or a tail …” Recently John was among a group of 85 Norfolk Islanders who visited Tahiti for the 220th Bounty Anniversary, and who were taken in and treated to boundless Tahitian hospitality for their extended family. John was delighted to spend time while he was there with Atea, a local carver, investigating techniques and materials and swapping stories. “It was just amazing, the highlight of my trip … he’d disappear down the beach and come bounding back with a shell that can be carved or something he wanted to show me.” Fresh back from his trip, John is keen to get to work on new pieces that will stylistically span the ocean between the islands.

On the far side of Norfolk lives a family with a prodigious creative output and an ongoing and active relationship with the sea. Steve (a keen windsurfer) and Alison Ryves have been running the Cottage Pottery for 37 years, and upon entering Alison’s studio and gallery you’d be forgiven for thinking you were underwater. There are turtles and fish and ocean waves in all shades of blue and green in glass, paintings, ceramics and printing. Their daughter Emily majored in photography at a Technical and Further Education institute and upon graduation bought herself an underwater camera, allowing her entry into new realms of photography, portraying Norfolk life under the waves as well as over it. Recently Norfolk was visited by the sailing ship Soren Larsen and Emily took the opportunity to photograph the ship from the unusual angle afforded by an underwater camera, while swimming nearby.

When the Norfolk Island team attended the 10th Festival of Pacific Arts in American Samoa in July this year, they wore a distinctive turtle T-shirt designed by Alison. The T-shirt included images of Norfolk’s rich natural heritage in order to tell people who Norfolk Islanders are and where they came from. As Alison puts it, “In my designs waves and ocean currents are a common feature, it surrounds our little island and yet I find a security in its vastness. I couldn’t live without it.” Growing up on Norfolk for me meant spending all summer at the beach, snorkelling and marden’ about in the water and poking around rockpools (or building dams in the creek, but that’s another story). Learning to scuba dive when I was 18 introduced me to the wonders of nudibranchs and other frilly wonders, and over 10 years of sculptural work in textiles has produced many sea-themed works, from small, soft-tentacled works to large 500-piece mobiles that invoke schools of silver mullet. An affinity for sea themed works meant a natural synchronicity over many years with “Sculpture by the Sea” in Sydney Australia, including being an invited guest artist for their 10th Anniversary in 2006. This involved spending three months sewing a giant sea urchin out of red PVC, which got more and more difficult to manage as it grew, so that it looked in the end like I was wrestling with it as I sewed the last spikes on! Great amusement for young and old! More recently, a pink and white-striped tentacle work called “Polyps” has just had a esidency in the Sydney Opera House foyer for four weeks (November/December 2008.) I’m proud that under the artist’s name it had “Norfolk Island”. We might be small but we sure do get around.

The ocean touches us all, and there are too many artists that have gone unnamed. What we are trying to say though, in a nutshell is this: It’s 7 pm, the sun is slipping towards the horizon and the pink and orange clouds are reflected in the ocean all the way from the horizon to Emily Bay. The tide is out and it’s crystal clear. Some kids are splashing around in the shallows and their parents call for the older ones to come in from the raft. It’s time to go. Soon there will be no one on the beach. Do you have it clear in your mind? Good, I’ll meet you there … last one to the raft is a rotten egg.

Image Credit: Water textures closeup at Fletcher’s Mutiny Cyclorama


Article content disclaimer: Article first published in 2899 Magazine V1 Iss1, 2008. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.

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