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There is nothing shocking or avant-guard about ‘Paluma Catalyst’, but the premise is sound. Pinnacles Gallery at Thuringowa (twin city to Townsville, North Queensland) put twelve regional artists and one of Australia’s leading abstract painters, John Firth-Smith, into a rainforest artist retreat, and subsequently exhibited one artwork produced by each participant during this retreat. Rather than conducting formal workshops, Firth-Smith worked one-on-one with each artist to further develop their concepts and approaches, while the artists also explored and shared ideas amongst the group.
Curator, Anne Donohue, explained that the retreat actually came about as part of the Gallery’s education program to accompany her other curatorial project for September—Anneke Silver’s and James Brown’s exhibition ‘Hinterlands’. Both Hinterlands artists participated in the retreat as an adjunct to their exhibition, and Paluma Catalyst ran concurrently with Hinterlands.
Noted for her landscapes of dry forest areas and boulders, for the exhibition Anneke Silver produced Hidden Valley, an austere, yet meditative charcoal drawing of a study of a single boulder and branch. Silver has been exploring this approach in recent drawings, focussing on the spirituality of the land within a simplicity of subject matter. Like Silver, Therese Duff incorporated a spiritual element with Outcrop. This oil on paper painting presented a serene cluster of rocks in isolation in warm glowing hues, mildly cooled by a blue background. Capturing the atmosphere of the misty mountaintop in Sounds of Paluma, Trish Nixon-Smith rubbed back into charcoal in a steady rhythmic manner which imbued her drawing with an eerie dreamlike quality.
James Brown captured the light and airiness of the forest fringe in his watercolour on paper, Paluma Screen. As usual, Brown executed this painting with sensitive markings, and approached the subject with a degree of artistic licence which enhanced the composition. With equal consideration of mark-making quality, Anne Lord used wetted charcoal in Paluma 2. Lord varied the intensity, energy, tone, and style of each mark, creating a fresh image that led the eye of the viewer into the recesses of the forest.
Vanda Coyne broke away from her usual studies of bark and boulders and instead did a pastel streetscape of the little mountain top village in Paluma Glimpses. Coyne used strong tonal variation and colour to bring out the crisp lines of the late afternoon shadows while dividing the image down the centre with a tall line of trees (that actually divides the road). Terri MacDonald also approached the exhibition with a lifelike study—not an unusual choice as she is a graphic artist. Her extreme close-up analytical studies of moths and leaves showed a microcosm of the forest in watercolour and ground pigment. The choice of vellum and papyrus as the platform for her two small paintings added another level of interest.
The untitled monotype by Anthony Edwards, of a simple tree fern amid a dark jungle of vertical growth which covered the entire surface area of the work, was created after the artist returned from the retreat. This was a surprising result as usually Edwards paints and incorporates varied media onto the surface of his works. Also created after the retreat, Giant, by Cary McAulay is another densely worked surface. Using acrylic paint on paper, McAulay rendered a fallen log horizontally across the middle of his page, blocking out the sun, but with dispersed light leaking its way through a forest of smaller vertical trees. Dabs of pure pigment stop the image from becoming too dark.
Two further artists concentrated on the darkness of the forest while slightly abstracting their subject. Margot Laver produced some interesting textures in her charcoal drawing of a segment of a tree, while Barbara Cheshire incorporated symbolic imagery into her very dark mixed media drawing.
This approach of providing a well-known artist as a catalyst to extend the ideas and experience of practising artists, with the aim of ultimately producing an exhibition, proved to be a valuable process which is well worth repeating.