Some years ago at the Melaleuca Gallery I held an exhibition
of paintings depicting The Great Ocean Road on the southern coast of
Victoria. My mate Brian Smith from Anglesea flew me over the area in
his small plane so I asked him about the logistics of a flight over
the Lake Eyre and Painted Desert regions of the interior. He greeted
the idea with enthusiasm and we decided throw our swags down for a few
days at Oodnadatta. Winter was the time to go as the light was clearer
and Oodnadatta would be free of flies and bugs; they make the place
impossible during the warmer months. So we headed north to the desert
in June 2005.
Although appearing to be in the middle of nowhere, Oodnadatta
is critically located in the outback. It sits halfway along the Oodnadatta
track and provides services for thousands of tourists each year. I chose
it as a base for gathering material for my paintings as it has an airstrip
and Avgas and is only a short flight from the Painted Desert, the Simpson
Desert and Lake Eyre.
The Intercontinental Hotel at Oodnadatta is managed by
Kath and Alan who made us feel at home. We were given the run of the
pub on a tab basis and they were kind enough to loan us their truck
so that we could get our gear to and from the airstrip early each morning.
One morning Kath packed us a hamper of bacon and eggs with all the trimmings
and we landed on a deserted strip alongside the old Ghan train line.
Brian filed a few stone chips from the prop while I made
There is nothing like the taste of bacon and eggs and toast cooked on
the hot coals of an old red gum rail sleeper; the only sounds were a
butcher bird's yodel and the sizzle of bacon frying.
Flying low over the desert is fun. The land rushes away
below and a new landscape flashes for a few seconds, disappears and
is replaced by another just as fascinating. This low level madness was
motivated by the urge to portray the Australian landscape from above,
where one gets a sense of the vastness of the weather-worn plains and
a hint of the bones beneath.
I found it strange that the most obvious natural influence
on the desert is water. Even a casual observer can see the influence
of millions of years of roaring torrents written across the dry surface
of the outback in a rhythmic calligraphy of sandy watercourses lined
with trees. Trees that become sparser and diminished as the older creeks
are by-passed to make way for newer short-cuts forged by the more recent
rain; rain infrequent, short in duration but devastating in its rush
to leave a new signature on the fragile surface of this ancient land.
For forty years as an artist I have battled the elements
in various regions of Australia - the Kimberly, the Red Centre, Bass
Strait, the great rolling hills of the Macleay Valley and the Capertee
Valley but none so challenging as the nothingness of the desert.
It's hard to paint the sound of a Butcher bird's yodel
and even harder to paint silence. The paintings in the exhibition at
the Melaleuca Gallery are a sincere attempt to do both of these things;
it is for others to judge if I have succeeded.