Climate Conscience: art, environment and beef production in an era of climate change.
From a suburban upbringing and a six year teaching career in England, a two year stint of backpacking overseas led to my new life in rural Queensland, Australia.
I live on a 55,000 acre cattle station; a place of raw beauty, incredible wildlife and space. Here I was able to slowly absorb the rhythms of nature, re-connecting with the environment without the distractions of urban living.
Over thirty years this affinity has developed into a deeper respect for the complexities of ecological life cycles and my desire to protect our local biodiversity has grown. Simultaneously my shame has increased as human impacts on the planet have become more evident and confronting whilst leadership on action to address this has been woefully inadequate. As a business we have progressively worked to reduce emissions and protect the environment through regenerative land management practices. But we are not squeaky clean.
Over the decades weather patterns have become strident and unpredictable, bringing us more frequent and intense weather events. When Category 4 Cyclone Debbie crossed the Queensland coast in March 2017 it transitioned into an intense rain depression which moved slowly, dumping an unprecedented deluge across our region. This swelled the level of our local creek 4.5m higher than previous records, sweeping away enormous gum trees, 20km of fences, two of our outbuildings and invading 40cm into the upper level of our high set house.
This visceral event shocked me into thinking harder about climate change, the broader picture and our role within it. It formed what I call my Climate Conscience: on the one hand I have an income from beef production for which I’m very grateful, but on the other hand I have a desire to protect the environment that we manage, and the two come together to create a dissonance.
My conscience encloses an array of emotions: sadness, frustration, guilt, anger but also pride that we are doing our best to make a difference. The tension within this diverse framework drives my art practice and helps me to explore the complex web of connections.
So coming in to my final level of study I already knew my topic. Through the exploration of my climate conscience I have created a visceral body of work made up of ten large found object abstract sculptures. Some works are stark and blunt; others reference nature’s raw beauty; but all have an uneasy undertone that draws on my emotions.
Objects from our industry scavenged from discard piles are combined with natural materials found locally. All have been affected by a major weather event. Their contrasting forms and interactions explore the human/nature relationship through the lens of the beef industry and are suffused with tension.
My exhibition Clima(c)tic was a one day event held here on our farm on 26th September 2020.
The ten works were set on a sculpture trail leading around our sheds, down alongside the dry creek bed and into local paddocks. Their placement was integral to their conceptual meaning. For example a dysfunctional ‘Water Vessel’ made of split and woven polypropylene water pipe was suspended next to a dwindling dam, encouraging the viewer to consider the broad predicament of this precious resource.
Another work ‘Eyrie’, a welded steel structure made of discarded rusty fence posts, referencing the nest (or outstretched wings) of the magnificent Wedge Tail Eagle is a site-specific work. It is placed precariously on the edge of a rocky outcrop on the hill behind our farm buildings. Its artificial jutting contours, painted a gleaming silver, are incongruous against the natural backdrop and speak of human presence in the environment and the potential loss of habitat and wildlife. The hill is a special place for us, named after our daughter whom we lost in 2002. It just seemed right to place this work here, to reflect on our own loss but also to think about the fragility of life and the vulnerability of the environment which needs to be cherished and protected for future generations.
By exhibiting here not only were the works seen at the source of their inspiration, materials and creation, but our visitors were invited to walk within the environment, to hear the crackle of grass beneath their feet and see our industry at first hand. Awareness and connectivity to nature is so important to engender action on climate change.
Bringing this body of work to fruition has been physically tough at times but it has also been therapeutic; it has helped me to physically express my range of emotions. Art is a natural extension to my life and a way to deeply investigate the local environment and found materials and to process the issue of climate change. I see myself as a responsible witness who seeks to engage the viewer by presenting an unexpected take on the familiar. As Janet Laurence (Australian environmental artist) says “Art, if it engages, can linger in the mind in the way that pure information can’t”. Laurence (2019)
This exhibition was a step towards my future practice where I feel the next project will focus on resilience, regeneration and hope. Positivity is important.
Writing this a few days after the event I feel buoyed from the knowledge that our family team effort had produced a day enjoyed by about 60 people (a number way over what I had initially hoped for, given our location). They gave lots of positive feedback both verbally and written on the slips I had provided. What I was most happy about was the fact that they had found the work thought-provoking.
My confidence at the beginning of this journey a few months ago had been lacking; putting myself out there was the last thing I wanted to do. But over the weeks as I worked through the process of organising, I gained a lot of reassurance from my peers and tutor and my confidence grew. My desk was covered in lists: insurance, catering, COVID safety, invites, catalogue, council contacts, marketing, portable loos! So much to think about, but it got done. I practised talking about my work as I drove to town (two hours each way) which gradually allowed me to find the right words more easily. I managed to deliver my speech without too many wobbles and say what I wanted to say. I’ve had a couple of interviews and coped fine, after all I’m the one who knows the work best.
In bricks and mortar universities students aren’t required to fully organise their own exhibition and I was envious of this at one stage. Having come out the other side I see how this experience has benefited me: knowledge, confidence and an extended network of contacts for the future. As the Arts Development Officer at the council said “We know about you now…” – opportunities will arise. She is already hoping the work can be presented in a gallery format.
A video and details of the trail are available on my website: suegedda.com
Quote: Laurence, J. in: Kent, R. (2019) After Nature Museum of Contemporary Art: Sydney p90
End of an era
My route through the OCA has lingered over many years, I have perpetuated my study to prolong the challenge and enrichment it has given me. I enrolled when confronted with an empty nest and reflecting on my mother’s demise of Alzheimer’s disease a decade before. Keeping the grey matter going was essential and I was keen to learn. For me it has always been about the journey, not the destination (although as I’ve got closer it has become more important to graduate well).
On the painting pathway I progressed through level 1 drawing and painting courses; staggering through acrylics and oils but skipping through the watercolour module. It was in level 2 that my trajectory shifted. After Drawing 2 I chose Mixed Media which introduced me to a range of new ways of working, including found objects. This genre seemed ideal to explore the issues uppermost in my mind. The intrinsic meaning that these materials bring to a work through history of previous use and demise are very valuable to me.
So would I be able to focus on sculpture in level 3 despite working through a Painting Degree? The answer was yes. Programme Leader Emma Drye reassured me with the following statement:
‘My view of your work is that you are on a painting degree to come to a critically robust & evidenced position about painting as part of your practice. If, during that journey, you moved away from actual pigment & paint but are still using some of the processes & devices of painting then that is a fair position to be at.’
The network of connections an artist makes along the way is an important tool to bringing about opportunities and receiving support. In the past (pre Zoom meetings), I have shared some work on the OCA forums but generally kept to myself. This hasn’t helped my networking, particularly given the disadvantages of my remote location! However in level 3 with its course hangouts I have accessed a wonderful source of knowledge, support and fun within a cohort who are working towards the same goals in diverse ways. If the world was smaller and COVID-free I would love my peers to have attended my exhibition, and I theirs…if only.
The flexibility which attracted me to the OCA has served me well and I have been able to fit the modules around other aspects of my life. I have been inspired to be proactive and search out ways to learn, including workshops and webinars. And I have been guided by some excellent tutoring, not least from Emma Drye and Diana Ali who recently have buoyed me with the confidence to ‘go for it’ and put myself out there when I would rather have run to hide.
The future beckons. I have a range of genres I am interested in pursuing as we move towards retirement and eventual relocation. I am pleased I have made the most of the opportunities available to me here on our cattle station and whatever future pathway I pursue, I know it will have a foundation of environmental connectedness.