All posts by Michael Burge

Journalist, artist, author, designer, digital publisher and mentor

Glen Innes set for spring of storytelling

THE second annual High Country Writers Festival kicks off at a free author talk with Tamworth-based author and teacher Yumna Kassab, who will join local writers and readers at The Makers Shed Glen Innes on Saturday August 15.

MIGRANT STORIES: Author Yumna Kassab

Kassab’s first book The House of Youssef was published in 2019 by independent press Giramondo Publishing, and quickly drew acclaim, garnering a place on the ‘longlist’ for the 2020 Stella Prize for Australian women writers, and the shortlist for the 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. This week it was cited at a finalist in the short fiction category of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards.

A collection of short stories set in the suburbs of Western Sydney The House of Youssef explores the lives of Lebanese migrants who have settled in the area, circling around the themes of isolation, the expectations of the family, and nostalgia for the home country.

The High Country Writers Festival, dubbed ‘Spring Into Storytelling’ continues with Clarence Valley-based author Hayley Katzen in conversation with Glen Innes-based journalist Michael Burge at The Makers Shed on Saturday September 19, talking about her riveting country memoir Untethered.

A range of events will take place at Glen Innes on Saturday October 24. Glen Innes Severn Public and TAFE Library will host an author talk with Moree-based historical novelist Nicole Alexander on Saturday October 24 about her new book The Cedar Tree; and festival partner, author and broadcaster Mary Moody will be returning to The Makers Shed for a cold-climate food-growing chat.

AVIATOR TALE: Author and journalist Mary Garden

Local journalists Lucy Munro, Amanda Woods and Michael Burge will be moderating talks across the region with visiting authors, including novelist Kim Kelly and journalist Mary Garden, whose biography of her aviator father Oscar Garden has this week been shortlisted in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. 

Writers are encouraged to book a place at the second annual High Country Writers Retreat, taking place on October 24 at Waterloo Station, just 18 kilometres west of Glen Innes on the Gwydir Highway. Day passes to this skill-sharing event are free and extremely limited, and writers will have the opportunity to meet experienced authors and ask questions about fiction and non-fiction writing processes. Accommodation packages are also available.

More information about the second annual High Country Writers Festival can be found at the event website, or at festival bookshop The Makers Shed, 123 Grey Street Glen Innes, or by contacting festival director Michael Burge on 0400 977 816.

All festival events will operate under a COVID-safe plan including social distancing and sanitising measures.

For all festival information: https://highcountrywritersfestival.com/

The greening of Deepwater Country

“Artists sometimes whisper to one another about the new palette that emerges when the rains stay away”

I TEND to blend into the landscape wherever I am living. The hues of the Blue Mountains were wrought on my vision for three decades, and I lived on Moreton Bay long enough for its marine palette to become second nature; but I was born in the New England, this vast cluster of upland valleys known as ‘tablelands’ after the plateaus and mesas that rise in their midst.

The Blue Mountains are draped with scrub and fern. Moreton Bay might be at sea level, but its islands are the leftover pinnacles of ridges and peaks that once rose above river valleys, their crowns layered with red earth and sand. The New England’s surface is blanketed with remnant wood- and grass-lands, now tucked in by pastures as varied as patchwork quilts.

DELUNGRA DAZE: The head of the driveway where I waited for the school bus

My first view from our settler’s homestead was of the distant chalky-blue hills running north from Bingara to Warialda, sometimes lit like rich strips of indigo against the gold of crops. The shapes of these tree-studded hills, mottled with dusty greens, came leaping out of me in a series of works I executed within months of returning to live in the Deepwater region in 2017.

The green ridges of Tenterfield, stooped under mist, became a theme in early 2018. By the time I was throwing paint around on canvas regularly, some of the high country around Glen Innes had started to brown off. We assumed it was the usual wintering of grass crisped by frosts, but when the spring rain drizzled instead of pelted, the ‘D-word’ crept into conversation.

It is harsh, there’s no arguing with the reality, but even drought doesn’t dampen the creative spirit. Artists sometimes whisper to one another about the new palette that emerges when the rains stay away… the pinks, yellows and apricots keep the landscape alive while the crops and cattle fail.

It’s not something to crow about, but as my brush kept at it though 2018, I noticed how the perennial blue of the sky started to offset land gilded by drought.

The result was a small collection of works that told the story of local woman Ada Bezzant, who drowned herself in the Deepwater River in 1927.

The Choices of Ada Bezzant

Her reasons seemed as clear as Virginia Woolf’s, to me: a decade of loss that started with a young son blown apart on the Western Front, and ended with an ailing husband dead in faraway Newcastle.

Ada and her family ran a sawmill further along the road that still bears their name, situated just metres from the river she chose to end her life in.

CHOICES: ‘Ada and the Dam’ (oil on canvas by Michael Burge, 2018. Private collection)

Creating art about suicide encouraged me to make works of sufficient beauty that the pain of loss runs seamlessly into the landscape, so it was gratifying when a judge at the 2018 Frost Over Barraba Art Show commented in his notes that awarded ‘Ada and the Dam’ a painting prize, that the bittersweet feeling of loss and regret shone through.

DROUGHT: ‘Drowning Without Water’ (oil on canvas by Michael Burge, 2018. Private collection)

‘Drowning Without Water’ is the work that told me I was capturing the colours of a parched landscape. Perhaps that’s why I wanted to express the presence of water in the title and the blatant droplets of paint? Here is Ada, her clothes rightly just out of style for 1927, walking to an unseen river.

I spent a year thinking of her, even found her grave off to the to the side at Deepwater’s cemetery. I understand the challenges of country living, how they can wreak havoc on families when death makes its inevitable call. With apologies to Ada’s surviving relatives, some of whom we have met since moving here, I borrowed her tale for a while for this series of ‘New England Gothic’.

Creative Juices

By 2019 even my brushed dried up… bushfires are hardly inspiring, and adrenalin drains creative juices almost completely.

GREENING: ‘Torrington Plateau from Deepwater’ (pastel on paper by Michael Burge, 2020)

Almost… when the green tinge returned I could barely contain my desire to capture it, and a series of works emerged with greens so impossible that no-one would believe such bright hues, captured not with liquid paint but dirt-dry chalk pastels.

The drought is not over for everyone, but the rains have stayed for us, and the Deepwater River is flowing again. I saw the plain of Dundee so water-soaked the pools reflected rays of light. I saw hillsides with verdant green at their feet, while the seed heads of the grasslands tinged the sloped with a new dry gold. I saw weather where for so long there had really been nothing but dry skies. I saw change that seemed like it was never going to come again.

GOLD: ‘Hill above Yoongan Creek, Deepwater’ (oil on canvas by Michael Burge, 2020)

The Deepwater Country collection bleeds from greens and greys, to a fool’s gold, and then back to a surreal burst of colour that I’ve heard some locals confess to being desperate for. I know I was.

Deepwater Country runs until the end of August at The Makers Shed.

Sculptural Story of shadows and silence

THE recent installation of a major work of public art at a junction of the New England and Gwydir Highways through Glen Innes has generated plenty of community queries about the title of the sculpture and the inspiration behind it. Michael Burge of Arts North West talked with its Walcha-based creator James Rogers to dig deeper.

“This is no signpost or billboard. No voice cheers it on other than the harsh glare of our daily cycle, weeks and months at a time as the light of the sun and seasons’ angle shapes our moments at the crossroads.”

James Rogers

What we found was an artist thinking about the long-term experience of his work in the context of its setting: not just the centrepiece of a roundabout in a major traffic corridor, but one that sits within an upland valley of the NSW Northern Tablelands.

“‘Blue Hills’ is an abstract, painted steel construction composed of 52 hand-cut, long, curved strips of steel and accompanied bridging elements,” James explained. “The strips are cut from 600-millimetre dia tube. This character of element is something I have been working with in the studio for some years.”

Despite its apparent simplicity, according to James ‘Blue Hills’ took on its own life during its creation.

“I composed the work over five months in Walcha, accumulating groups of the steel slivers into loose-leaning bunches that connect at the foot and the top, into a generally circular form,” he said.

“As work proceeded, lyrical elements were added to accommodate structural considerations and activate the ridge of the sculpture, maintaining a dialog from top to base and back to the ridge of the listing, arrhythmic drapes.

METAL MAN: Sculptor James Rogers working on “Blue Hills” in his Walcha studio (photo by: Caroline Downer, Arts North West)

“The density compounds across the space as the structure circulates. Steel is endlessly plastic and further welding and cutting kept the process alive.

“I work alone and with a small forklift as my assistant. I felt very close in answering the sculpture’s physical demands as the work unfolded.”

Patterns and distance 

Quirindi-born James Rogers is a regular Sculpture By The Sea exhibitor who studied the art form at the former Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education before living, working and regularly exhibiting in Sydney. His public commissions include ‘Song Cycle’ (2001) at Walcha, another sinuous metallic work situated inside a roundabout.

It’s clear that James spent time gauging how ‘Blue Hills’ would appear from road level in a moving vehicle.

“I see the work as a composition of long shadows,” he said. “The tonality of distance is blue and the silence of the Tablelands, so blue; but on closer experience the blue is itself a composition of forms, an interplay across a space of light and shadow, of form and void”.

“Further familiarity may reveal counterpoints of rhythm that invoke pattern, but it all moves on, the blue still unfolding as a memory of looking forward, around a roundabout and indicating some choices made.

“The sculpture is a distillation of nature’s space with a detached countenance that asks us to look into the silence in the shadows.”

No signpost

According to James, who relocated to live, work and exhibit at Walcha in 2009, his work must speak for itself over time.

“Now that ‘Blue Hills’ is installed, and all the barracking and raspberries blended over, the sculpture gets on with its job, mute and silent,” he said.

“No plaque will speak for it adequately if the eye is not enticed. This is no signpost or billboard. No voice cheers it on other than the harsh glare of our daily cycle, weeks and months at a time as the light of the sun and seasons’ angle shapes our moments at the crossroads.

“Whether north, south, east or west, it is a drivers’ and passengers’ exchange. It is all first-timers and learners, fresh-faced and old hands that negotiate an evaluation of delight at their transport through the intersection. No two arrivals will be the same from foggy dawn to day’s end.

“A successful work of art, I think, induces silence, while in our core we suspend disbelief, and the eye’s curiosity moves ahead of what might be daily and commonplace utterance.”

This article was first published by Arts North West. Main image by Carol Sparks.