Oz – Hobart – 42° 50′ S.

The last leg of our trip takes us to our southern-most destination Hobart; the capital of Australia’s tiny southern island state Tasmania. I have been here a few times over the years and my visits always mark significant milestones in my life. I’m sure this visit will turn out to be similarly significant to me.

We’ve been hosted by the School of Art of the University of Tasmania at Hobart which has an amazing location in old industrial buildings (the old IXL jam factory) on the bustling downtown waterfront docks of Hobart.

I ran a design workshop for a week with a dozen motivated and inspiring students. We explored a range of methods for developing complex sculptural forms and created a whole lot of interesting prototypes derived, in part, from seed pods and flowers that we collected in the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens. My thanks to Richard Skinner, the furniture design program director, for all of his enthusiasm and planning to make this workshop a success.

The nature table for form inspirations

Discussing the forms we constructed

The highlight of our last fee days in Hobart was our visit with Peter Michael Adams at his extroardinary piece of paradise – Windgrove. I recommend that you spend hours reading his rich, engaging and provocative blog.

Peter had the insight to acquire some 100 acres of beachfront property about 2 hrs drive from Hobart and has spent the last 18 years re-foresting the land and creating an artist’s retreat and living sculpture garden. Peter’s own writing gives a clear perspective on his spiritual and ecologically inspired approach to land management and art practice. I will simply share some images and captions from our brief stay with him.

Roaring Beach

One of Peter's many outdoor sculptures within the sculpted landscape

The fire pit where Peter maintained a continuous fire for 6 years to promote world peace. While digging the fire pit Peter found blackened fire stones that were used sometime in the last 20,000 years by the Aboriginal people of the area.

Peter in his outdoor studio

One of many sculptural benches Peter has created for Windgrove

The huge circle clearing that Peter has created by his plantings and nurturing, as viewed from Roaring Beach

The circle from nearby

The bowed bench that crowns the circle and affords panoramic views of Roaring Beach and the Derwent River estuary

The 'drop stone' bench, inspired by the volcanic stones weathered from the sedimentary cliffs nearby

Detail of the 'drop stone' bench

Double spiral sculpture in Peter's house

New works on display in Peter's house

A new work inspired by the plight of the recent 'boat people' trying to land in Australia, which of course, is a country inhabited entirely by 'boat people' and their descendants

Watching the sunset with Peter and Jerry Michalski

'Alpha Romeo' highlit on the Derwent as she heads for line honors in the annual Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race

A perfect way to end our 4 months of inspiring travels!!

But hopefully not my active blogging.

Oz – Sydney – 33° 52′ S.

Opera house tiles

After Heron Island, we flew back to Sydney to start our residency at the College of Fine Arts (COFA) at the University of NSW (my science degree alma mata). COFA gave us a wonderful apartment just off Oxford St. in Paddington, close to galleries and an easy bus ride into downtown Sydney where I wanted to be for most of my planned research.

Sydney is my hometown and its always great to be there. Old friends, beloved relatives, Scotch finger biscuits, Madura tea, Boy Charlton Pool, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Bondi Beach, the list goes on.

My main purpose in Sydney, however, was to continue my research into Australian colonial furniture and artifacts connected with natural history collections and the transmission of knowledge about the colony back to England. I have already talked about Bauer’s writing desk that I saw at Kew Gardens in London in an earlier blog. In Sydney I struck the jackpot! My dear cousin Anna Blunt is a librarian at the Historic Houses Trust which has a rich and varied library. Anna spent a day with Sandra and me helping us research our various interests and getting wonderfully side-tracked along the way.

Exhausted from too much input

Anna showed me a beautiful new monograph of the early colonial painter Joseph Lycett (a convict deported to Sydney in 1814 for forgery). In the monograph was images of the Macquarie Chest, an extraordinary piece of cabinetwork, which encapsulated all of the ideas which I had been looking for in an early colonial piece. For those of you interested you can find a wonderful image archive of the Macquarie chest here.

I will give you a taste of it here.

Macquarie chest

The cabinet itself is about as big as a cooler (Esky) and sits on four short legs. Its made of timber sourced in the colony. When the chest is opened it reveals its treasures. Under the upper doors is a separate shallow chest with two drawers and an opening top. Below that are two shallow trays. Underneath all that, opening from the front of the chest, is a series of 3 drawers. In each drawer and tray is a unique collection of aesthetically displayed natural history specimens. The piece as a whole is wonderful but it has four extraordinary aspects.

Open sesame!

Firstly, under each lid is an original oil painting by Lycett of a scene from around Newcastle and Port Macquarie (north of Sydney).

One of Lycett's views

View with a roo (or two).

Another view

Secondly, the natural history collections are intact and largely undisturbed from when they were assembled almost 200 years ago. The dried bird specimens in particular are brilliantly coloured and perfectly preserved – it looks as though they all fell off the perch yesterday.

The birds!

The bugs!

The corallines!

Thirdly, there is a great story about the piece which conservationists, curators and historians have pieced together over the years since the chest was discovered. It seems that the chest was most likely a gift from Lieutenant Wallis, the Commandant of the new penal colony of Newcastle, to the 5th Governor of the colony of New South Wales – Lachlan Macquarie. Macquarie in all likelihood, took the chest with him on his return to England in 1822 and passed it on to his son – also named Lachlan – in his estate two years later (dead at 62). Lachlan was a wild boy with passions for gambling and drinking (a good son of Australia), he ran up debts to William Drummond the son and heir of his father’s old friend Andrew Drummond, the 6th Viscount of Strathallen. It appears that shortly before his untimely demise from a drunken fall down the stairs of Craignish Castle (in 1845 at 41 years old), Lachlan Jr. changed is will to leave most of his dwindling estate to Drummond in payment for his debts. Fast forward to 1986 when the NSW State Library was informed of the existence of the chest still in place in Strathallen Castle where it had rested for 140 years undisturbed – passing from owner to owner over the generations. Resting undisturbed in a cold, dry dark stone castle was perhaps the best treatment it could possibly have received.

The fourth extraordinary aspect is that it has a twin – the Dixson chest. Which is almost as superb as you can see in the album of images here.

My task now is to develop a piece based on and drawing inspiration from this incredible piece of craftsmanship so imbedded in Australian history and the relationship of the young colony to England. Its quite a challenge. I wish I could just claim authorship of the work as an objet trouvé. It would be a wonderful addition to my Genius Loci series. But this isn’t a possibility. I’ve been enjoying thinking through my interpretation of this piece. How much will it be a reproduction? What will it contain? Where is my act in the work? What part of history will it encapsulate? Which Scottish castle will take care of it for 140 years for it to reach maturity?

Anna Blunt and Louise Anamaat

My immense thanks to Anna Blunt, at the Historic Houses Trust, who revealed the existence of this piece to me and to Louise Anemaat, curator at the State Library who kindly made it possible for me to spend an unforgettable afternoon closely examining, measuring and being awed by the Macquarie chest.

Oz – Heron Island – 23° 26′ S.

Board decal at airport

After a few days in Oakland to repack our bags (dump the books and fancy clothes, swap in the camping gear and insect repellent), bond with our furry boy Nico and squeeze in a quick surf at Bolinas, we boarded our 13 hour flight to Sydney. Then we turned right around again to fly to Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef.

I was first on Heron Island over 20 years ago as a zoology student at the Heron Island research station. The research station and the neighbouring resort have changed totally since then, but the island itself seems largely unchanged. At this time of year the island is home to (almost infested by) tens of thousands of nesting seabirds.

During the day, every tree has scores of nesting White-capped Noddy Terns. They were getting ready for the nesting season by building their nests which they are incredibly bad at. Its hard to imagine why they are so ineffective. I watched a nesting pair for two days as the male flew dexterously around collecting suitable looking Pisonia leaves which he then ferried to his nest building mate. She would juggle the leaf to find a good spot for it and then look on impotently as it fell off the nest. After two days she was still sitting on just a single leaf.

Noddy nesting

Mr. and Mrs. Noddy

As the sun sets thousands of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters fly in from the west to meet up with their burrow mates and work on their sandy burrows. The pairs sit close to each other and moan to each other or squabble with their neighbours causing an extraordinarily creepy cacophony all through the night – like hundreds of deep throated babies wailing. The resort has a supply of earplugs in each room.

When you walk around by day or night you have to be careful not to tread on a bird or get run over by one as they come in to land. They are completely fearless. Bird poop becomes an integral part of your casual attire on Heron Island and pervades the otherwise pristine atmosphere.

The seas are full of life as you would expect on a coral atoll. And from the beach you can see rays and sharks and turtles right off shore in just a foot or so of water. The Green sea turtles were just beginning to come up on the beach in the evening to lay their eggs. You can wander out carefully at night and spot their tractor-like tracks heading up the beach and then get fairly close to them by listening for their digging. They spend hours laying hundreds of almost golf ball sized eggs in a deep pit which they then cover before heading back to sea. Here’s one heading back to zero gravity after a hard night’s work.