drawing on two worlds: embarkation

 

Janet McKenzie: Works on Paper, 2008–2013

Janet McKenzie conceived Drawing on Two Worlds, in 2009, after 22 years of living in Scotland, having settled from Australia in 1987. The ponds, lakes and subliminal lochs always existed in her work. They stem from memories growing up on the Snowy River, in Orbost, Eastern Australia, yet it was only on moving to Scotland in 1987 that she found this, her ancestral homeland to be full of the shapes and spiritual forms that have been in her subconscious since childhood. A recent trip (2012) to the Western district of Victoria to visit her only surviving aunt reawakened a primal connection through early memories of that part of Australia, where her paternal grandparents from Skye lived and where her ancestors and many Scots families settled in the nineteenth century: Port Fairy, Warrnambool, Terang. The western district of Victoria had first been settled in the 1830s and 1840s: Scots settlers took with them farming methods, building plans and a way of life; they built dry stone- walls in the ancient volcanic hills where small lakes created a strong aesthetic, similar and immediately recognisable from Scotland as being a transfer of culture. These features were in contrast to the area around Orbost in the east, (selected for grazing as early as 1842) but settled by a group of families from Orbost, on the Isle of Skye, and from other parts of Scotland around 1870.  The historic background is examined in the more immediate threat of personal loss, on learning that her husband had just months to live, after some years dominated by the fight against cancer. With three young daughters and family 12,000 miles away, the position of her forebears assumed greater significance in relation to her own sense of isolation and impending grief.

Following marriage to Michael Spens (1986) and the birth of Christiana, in Melbourne, in 1987 they moved to Scotland, on the east coast near St Andrews, where the Spens family had first established a home some 700 years ago. Her father Donald McKenzie visited soon after (1988) and they made trips with him to the Isles of Skye, Harris and Lewis and the Summer Isles, off the far north coast from Achiltibuie. Donald McKenzie, a photographer had trained as an aerial surveillance photographer in the RAAF and served in Darwin towards the end of World War II.1 The family home in Orbost was replete with aerial photographs of the local area and he documented all aspects of community life there, primarily in black and white. On Lewis, a treeless, windy island in the Outer Hebrides, Janet McKenzie drew the Standing Stones at Calaneish, on the summer equinox. The trip paid homage to their family who migrated from Skye in 1861 when the artist’s great-grandfather was a one year-old baby. The Outer Hebrides provided sustained inspiration, which underpins her writing, and on going art practice.

At Wormiston on the North Sea, the seasons were in great contrast to Australia. Layers of history existed in the form of Bronze Age burial cysts and remains of ancient buildings, all now obscured.2 The bleak winter weather and short days, give way in the springtime to a spectacular show of deeply rooted bluebells, a solid block of violet, and lengthening days. Perceptual drawings were made and notebooks kept: of woods, trees, flowers, birds and babies. Dolls, puppets, theatre costumes and sewing (an extension of the drawn line) and collage in fabric, established a body of work that continues. Throughout that time, her father’s sister, Alison Stonehouse, sent regular packages of traditional knitted garments, made by her, for the three daughters (Christiana, b.1987; Flora b.1989; Mariota, b.1993) using patterns that she had herself inherited, dating back too those printed in Scotland; they created a link to the waning art of knitting there in the present day. An essentially female pursuit, which migrated to the New World, in the same way that quilt-making was important for women who migrated to America, or who worked together in pioneering communities there, stitching symbolic forms and creating narratives that can be seen to represent hitherto marginalised forms of art, but revived by the Feminist Movement of the 1970s. McKenzie’s own work was primarily painting, drawing and sewing until the 2012 work Embarkation, a site-specific spatial drawing, using knitted banners hung together. All her work, however, centres on the role of nurturer and observer of natural phenomena, as in The Osgood Suite: a series of 10 paintings, where paint is applied as distinct mark-making, alluding to the role of “Drawing as Exploration”, the title of a Keynote Paper, she gave at Drawn Out, University of the Arts, London (2012). The Osgood images are inspired by Osgood Mackenzie, (1842–1922) the creator of a famous garden at Inverewe, near Poolewe in Wester Ross. Mackenzie wrote a volume of memoirs (1921), A Hundred Years in the Highlands,3 an account of Highland country life and society, where mystery and ancient superstitions are inherently embodied in the landscape and natural phenomena.

The Osgood Suite followed on from: Landscape and Memory, (2006 - 2007) a series of paintings done in Scotland, which takes cue from a pastel of the same name, which was done in Melbourne in 1986, though a number of Scots claim that this work and the etchings done in the 1980s are of their landscape, which she had never seen but in the mnemonic mind’s eye. It refers to a preoccupation with landscape as emblematic of the human spirit. The spiritual is sought, through an affinity with place - issues that allude to the unknowable, mysterious aspects of life.  Materials with symbolic associations such as: ash, wax, ground ochres are mixed with oil paint and used to allude to the unknown. The 2007 images are a natural extension from paintings made at Wormiston over a period of 20 years, but they depart from previous work in their conceptual focus. Four paintings are entitled, quoting T.S. Eliot, “We are only undefeated because we have gone on trying”, (4 Quartets), (2007); they use a rich, colourful palette, which many viewers indeed attribute to Australia not Scotland. Expressionistic use of colour comes from disparate art historical sources, especially Arthur Boyd with whom the artist worked over an eight-year period in the nineties.

At Langford 120, works on paper are shown that represent the first stage of Drawing on Two Worlds, that lead up to Embarkation, where hope and faith are shattered by impending death. Perceived and actual, loss is seen in parallel to the historic position of the Highland Clearances: where landowners evicted crofters from their lands and livelihood in response to severely increased taxation, a form of forced migration that in contemporary terms can be compared to that brought about by the dispossession of war; epitomised too, by the struggle of Australian Aborigines for Land Rights, having ironically been dispossessed by White settlers in Australia, (many of whom were Scots).  The landscape/environment that is, at once challenging and familiar, and which determines every aspect of life, is used in Drawing on Two Worlds, as the backdrop for the metaphorical journey that every individual faced with mortality, must endure. As an artist, it is the landscape, emblematic of the human spirit, and aspects of nature: plant forms, lochs and mountains, which provides a lexicon of images from which to take strength and survive loss. The manipulation of these forms by means of large chainsaw woodcuts, made for the Langford exhibition in 2013, now establish the potential for art to provide a spiritual dimension and redemption through form.

Janet McKenzie interviewed Antony Gormley in London in November 2011, on the subjects of drawing and the 19th century diaspora and how it was linked to the colossal act of faith that enabled people to travel the other side of the world. The journey was effectively forced as a consequence of the Highland Clearances, made out of sheer necessity; constantly there must have been a sense of one’s relationship to one’s Maker through harsh conditions, the elements. Whilst examining drawings he had made in Argyll, on the west coast of Scotland, Gormley responded:

“I think that is what Another Place is about, which is now installed on Crosby Beach at the mouth of the Mersey. It was originally outside Cuxhaven, from there and Bremenhaven thousands left Europe for the New World between at the time of the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of National Socialism in the last years of the 1920’s and the early 1930’s. Another Place came out of encountering the Wattenmeer, the tidal plane where the sea comes in over 7 kilometres of muddy sand at the rate of a fast walk. That work was all about the faith necessary to overcome difficulty but also to believe in the possibility that there was another place – on the other side of the horizon where life could be better, where somehow one could live more freely. It was the utopian [concept] based on the belief that human life could be better somewhere else - the same vision that caused the people of Jonestown in 1978 to commit mass suicide believing that they could translocate to another planet; the vision of life on other planets has been a recurring dream of earthly life.”4

Found, natural materials such as wood ash, are used in the paintings made in 2008-2009, to allude to the mystery and power surrounding death and the unknown. Sombre colours and a reduced palette (earth tones, charcoal, gold leaf) are used for their ability to imply states of mind, specifically anticipation of loss. The works done early in 2008 depart from previous work in their conceptual focus, in direct response to learning that her husband had just months to live. This followed 12 years already dominated by his ‘stoical engagement’ with advanced cancer, defying medical statistics and prognoses.

Falling House (2008), Burning House (2008), Burning (2008) are images that confront the personal void. The method of applying the mud or lava-like substance (wood ash, oil paint, linseed oil, turpentine, Liquin medium) to the canvas provided an extraordinary release of emotional pressure. It combined the immediacy of drawing with a primal substance, a necessary catharsis.

Author and neighbour in Scotland, Christopher Rush observed that Falling House alludes to the building of a house, a home, a family, “which is itself a leap of faith: to see it crumble to ash represents the loss of life, the loss of faith. But in Burning House the fire, which destroys, also purifies. And out of its own ashes rises the Phoenix that resists destruction and obliteration. In Burning House, there are phallic flames – of course! – but also the plumes of the Phoenix”5. In Head on(2008),  Void (2008), and Leap of Faith (2008), Arthur Watson RSA identified here, an affirmative quality6. Rush wrote of the Wormiston Wood works  (July 2008) quoting “The Wood’s in Trouble” by A.E. Housman: “The wind in the wood is a great metaphor for the human spirit, and for what is happening to you now: the anger, the ashes, the futility, the hurt. And yet – that connection, through nature, with the timeless and universal emotions, that are the same as yours. Housman looked on this as a spectator, somewhere in Shropshire. Your home – and therefore your life – are actually in the wood, so you are a more immediate part of it: the wood and you are one”.7 Such is the process of human embodiment in nature.

In Head On, Rush observes a hellish tangle, “Here are trees, cathedrals, phalluses, swords, flints, Stone Age daggers – those very broad, crude weapons of war. It’s a battle scene (your domestic battle, the battle with cancer, your own battle, your deep needs). It’s a hymn to primitive virility. It’s a burnt-out wood that will rise again – with sexual and religious connotations”.  The use of gold leaf Rush connects with the medieval gold leaf used by monkish illuminators: the colour which (along with blue) always represented eternity in early medieval painting. In Leap of Faith, the arches suggest faith – not just because of the cathedral, but because an arch is an entrance – to new experience, to the unexplored. Quoting Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses: “All experience is an arch”.8

Remarkably Michael Spens’ cancer has stabilised, astounding all medics involved. Janet McKenzie accepted a commission from Irene Barberis, (Metasenta, Melbourne) to write a new book on Contemporary Drawing in Australia, 22 years after her first. The initial research trip enabled travel to Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra in October 2008. In Canberra, one day with friend and former etching teacher, the late Jörg Schmeisser, it resulted in 16 unique images, using 4 perspex plates, two copper plates, an electric Dremel tool and a dental drill. New techniques and Jörg’s expertise resulted in a liberating process.9 These include: Storm (2008) and Trees I, (2008). Together with a series of drawings and watercolour paintings also made during this time, these were key for a future series of work, back in Scotland in 2010-12.

 

Drawing on Two Worlds (2012-2017) is a visual art project that addresses issues of cultural dispossession and personal identity10

Drawing on Two Worlds is a metaphor for both Janet McKenzie’s professional and personal life, on a number of levels, being both Australian and an adopted Scot, a researcher and a primary carer. The research is informed by the fact that many women, in the 21st century, in the event of serious illness and death, often revert to traditional female roles. Acute isolation results, which is damaging for families and limiting in the present constrained Welfare climate for the cohesion of society. The uncertainty of long-term terminal illness mandates the closest relatives to deal with grief outside of normal support systems.

Related issues exist in societies where forced migration, (war, political strife) and cultural diaspora isolates individuals. A study of historic examples of dispossession and loss, by women can establish parallels on three levels individual, community and societal.

Practice-led collaborations have the potential to build bonds between individuals, to enable sharing and contextualize isolating experiences.  The project proposes to investigate collaborative drawing as a means to determine whether providing the opportunity to address issues in this way can in turn provide knowledge and understanding for an audience beyond the visual arts.

Art is thus key to the cultural and spiritual rebuilding of lives that have been damaged through such cultural diaspora and loss.  Drawing on Two Worlds will undertake an exploration of personal identity using drawing as a primary means of expression. A study of visual arts practice at individual and community levels in two countries – Scotland and Australia - linked historically but with very different societies and climates will focus a study of broader paradoxes relating to Identity, that exist within global culture.

The dispossession of Gaelic communities in the 19th century led to settlement in Australia by a significant numbers of Scots. White settlement of Australia, in turn, led to the concomitant destruction of Aboriginal culture and the dispossession of Aborigines from their land. These issues have been and continue to be addressed in the visual arts with international and political implications, for present and future migration, and to the sustainability of cultural expression and identity at national and community levels.

A dialogue will be established with practicing artists who will address issues that have both historic precedent and personal application (dispossession/bereavement), enabling the visual research to be documented, tested, appraised in terms of its relevance to wider applications, combining a personal subjective stance, with a conceptual approach. Global issues of cultural dispossession and loss can thus be addressed with poignancy and commitment by individuals who themselves have experienced loss on a personal level; yet have exhibited their ability to adapt personal experience, to address universal issues. A feminist agenda here underpins the objectives of Drawing on Two Worlds, where personal experience is validated. Collaborative Drawing as methodology is a cutting edge application of such a practice, but one capable of achieving a forensic precision in the exploration of human experience.

So the fundamental premise of Drawing on Two Worlds is, that by placing the visual arts at the heart of an academic research project, which seeks to explore Identity using a feminist agenda, a new focus can be established, which is beneficial on creative and critical levels. Thus drawing itself will facilitate the documentation process, by means of a dedicated language in terms of precise definition of ideas.

The project will undertake a series of three research projects:
(1) to investigate visual representations, of women's experiences from 19th century to the present day, in both Scotland and Australia;
(2) to contribute to future development of visual and cultural studies in both countries; and
(3) so seek to merge practice-led research with art history and critical research.

EMBARKATION:

The first stage: EMBARKATION will create as its final piece, a site specific work, using spatial drawing in the environment of the wood and the coast, where the artist has lived and worked for the past 25 years11. The spatial drawing will make allusions to tall ship sails, to shards of light, with tall trees in Wormiston Wood acting as a virtual cathedral. The spatial drawing in the shape of elongated sails, will be made using woollen yarn on large knitting needles in order to make reference to one of the few relics or remnants (that can be re-created) of the 19th century female experience. The shape of sails evolved intuitively in various works in 2008 that were made by McKenzie, soon after she learned interim that her husband, after a long illness had just months to live. Later the shapes seemed to lend themselves to meaning on several levels of embodiment: personal and historic. As given, Janet McKenzie’s family left the Isle of Skye in 1861 for Australia, when Kenneth McKenzie her great- grandfather was a one-year-old infant, part of the diaspora from Scotland to the New World. The installation aims to address burning issues of human existence, one’s spiritual and emotional journey. It aims to allude to how individuals relate to the wider world, and how from rudimentary beginnings humans have always sought to assert that identity through painting and drawing.

The knitted forms (to be completed in Autumn 2013, in Scotland) will be constructed from and between tall trees; they will pay homage to those forebears who out of necessity travelled to the other side of the world, in order to survive; and to the artist’s own aunt, her greatest support, since her father died suddenly in 1990. The Fall, in the northern hemisphere, with Biblical undertones, alludes to death, and in physical terms a time of preparation for the long, dark winter, for survival against the elements. In formal terms they will also resemble billowing fishing nets, with all those implications and references in Christian iconography and in Scottish history, to the artist’s forebears who were coastal fishermen in Portree, on Skye. Photographic documentation will form an exhibition in 2014. The knitted drawings, sketches, collaborative drawings with invited artists and other dialogue works will be executed on site, with artists in Australia who have been invited to participate, at Wormiston.  Further sites in the Highlands or the Outer Hebrides will link the on going process of Drawing on Two Worlds, over a period of five years, with a major commissioned publication finally bringing ideas, essays on this and the subjects as already explored in her work already.  Loss, dispossession and regeneration are the abiding themes in this a multicultural and multidisciplinary project, driven by a firm belief through nature, to the timeless and universal aspects of life.

References

1. At the end of the war, McKenzie returned to the airbase at Sale, in East Gippsland, Victoria, and when he left the RAAF, in 1946, he moved to Orbost to work with Bill Dreverman in his family business.

2. In March 1826 a farmer on the estate of Wormiston near Fife Ness, in levelling a piece of ground, discovered, at a depth of ten feet from the surface, thirty cists disposed in two regular rows, at equal distances apart, and with heads towards the North-East. Their arrangement was peculiar, and obviously the result of some special design. A line drawn along their ends was nearly due East and West, and from this they declined obliquely in the direction of northeast and southwest. The whole lay parallel and equidistant from each other, and in the centre of each of the intervening spaces an oblong stone was placed so as to abut against the sides of the adjacent cists. From: Library of Antiquarian Society of Scotland, 1829.

3. Osgood Mackenzie, A Hundred Years in the Highlands, Edwin Arnold, London, 1921.

4. “Antony Gormley: Studio Visit”, Studio International, January 2012. www.studio-international.co.uk

5. Christopher Rush:  letter to Janet McKenzie, July 2009. Christopher Rush was born in 1944 in St Monans, a fishing village in the East Neuk of Fife. A Twelvemonth and a Day was first published in 1985 and is a semi-autobiographical account of the first twelve years of a boy's life. I was also made into a highly successful film, Venus Peter (1988), of which Rush co-wrote the screenplay. Rush's other publications include a poetry collection, A Resurrection of a Kind (1984), and two short story collections, Peace Comes Dropping Slow (1983) and Into the Ebb (1989). His first novel, Last Lesson of the Afternoon, was published in 1994. To Travel Hopefully, (2007) was written in an effort to come to terms with his wife’s death from cancer. His books Hellfire And Herring: A Childhood Remembered and Sex, Lies & Shakespeare continue the account of childhood and teenage experience in Scotland of the 1950s and 1960s. He lived at Wormiston Sea Cottages in the 1970s and then bought a Newton of Wormiston Cottage in 1990s following his wife’s death.

6. See: Janet McKenzie, “Arthur Watson: Poetic Conceptualist”, Studio International, Special issue 2008, Volume 207, Number 1030.

7. Rush, op.cit.

8. Ibid.

9. Janet McKenzie, “Jörg Schmeisser: Studio Visit”, Studio International, 2009.

10. University of Dundee, Scotland.

11. First stage funded by Fife Council and Creative Scotland, 2012.