Category Archives: Life

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.

Music as medicine for the soul

A chance meeting between two old friends led to the formation of Armidale-based band Pantor. Glen Innes audiences get another chance to experience the vibe of this diverse group at The High Country Handmade Showcase at The Makers Shed on Sunday June 2.

“We love playing eclectic covers of happy tunes with a Latin-Spanish twist,” guitarist and singer Jon Anderson said of the group.

“Peter Georkas (guitar, bouzouki, voice) and Massiel Barros-Torning (guitar, voice) have been playing together for some time.

Massiel Barros-Torning. Photo: Peter Torning

“I knew Massiel and her music from the distant past but a chance meeting brought us together, and from the first jam session we knew we had something that was enjoyable and unique.”

According to Anderson, Pantor (which includes John Kellett on percussion and vocals) loves to play to an engaged audience and selects its performances carefully.

“We don’t play mainstream shows, we ensure that each show we do is an enjoyable experience for both ourselves and the audience,” he said.

“We are flexible enough to play as a two-piece duo or the full band with extra members.

“As we are all well-respected local musicians, it is not uncommon for other musicians to join us on stage for a song. We also mentor and include young music students at our rehearsals and can sometimes offer a guest spot in selected performances.”

The group has performed at The Makers Shed at Glen Innes before, at the first two High Country Handmade Showcase events that take place in the sunny, grassy yard of the venue on the first Sunday of each season.

“Visitors to the event had such an incredible response to Pantor,” Michael Burge of The Makers Shed said.

“The High Country Handmade Showcase is a marketplace for artisans and independent creators to get in front of discerning shoppers and audiences, and the musicians we showcase are an integral part of these events.

“Pantor’s music is uplifting and incredibly diverse. If you haven’t had the chance to experience them yet, come along to our free event on Sunday, June 2. Pantor will be performing from 11am in the yard,” Burge said.

“There’s gourmet brunch on offer, so grab your spot and enjoy the performance.”

Tailor-made music

The four members of Pantor are regularly joined by special guest performers, sometimes at the last moment.

“Angelo Saavedra often joins us to add Zamporias (pan pipes) and Charango (stringed banjo-like instrument) to the Latin Spanish theme,” Anderson said.

“Because we tailor each set list to suit the dynamics of each show, and communicate with and involve listeners, we generally have an engaged and entertained audience.

“Our theme is music as medicine for the soul.”

According to Anderson, Pantor is very much a group-led project.

“We generally get together weekly and almost always add a new song to our list,” he said.

“All of the members contribute to the ideas of our performance.

“If it feels good we keep it, if not we move on. Each live performance is different and as we are all multi-instrumentalists we can swap instruments and include our other talents in our performances.

“Peter plays bouzouki, Massiel plays blues harp, I have my trumpet, John has multiple percussion instruments, and we all sing.”

A less-is-more approach seems to inform the choices of this Armidale-based group, which wowed audiences at the 2018 Black Gully Music Festival.

“Our rehearsals and jams are just as valuable an experience to us as the performances we do,” Anderson said.

“We only do stuff that we enjoy, so with that in mind we’ll continue performing selected shows in 2019, including the Thunderbolt Festival at Uralla in October, 2019.”

Pantor will perform at The Makers Shed, Glen Innes, during the High Country Handmade Showcase, Sunday June 2. Free entry.

Main photo: Armidale-based band Pantor performing at The Makers Shed, Glen Innes. L-R: John Kellet, Jon Anderson, Massiel Barros-Torning, guest artist Angelo Saavedra, and Peter Georkas. Photo: Peter Torning

A nation up to speed on HIV/AIDS

WORLD STAGE The International AIDS Conference came to Melbourne this week.
WORLD STAGE The International AIDS Conference came to Melbourne this week.

By Michael Burge 

THE world has been watching Melbourne this week as the city hosts the 20th International AIDS Conference. Despite initial reports from the event focusing understandably on the delegates killed by the missile attack on their flight over eastern Ukraine, the conference agenda hit the airwaves visibly on this week’s episode of QandA.

As a result a range of new and unfamiliar language has been presented to mainstream and social media audiences. From ‘Sero-Discordant Relationship’, ‘PEP’, ‘PrEP’, ‘TasP’, ‘ART’ and ‘PMTCT’ to phrases like ‘heteronormative’ and ‘men who have sex with men’, Australians have been getting a higher-than-average dose of HIV/AIDS-related vocabulary.

There are many other new elements to HIV/AIDS.

Unfortunately the word use is not coming with enough interpretation. ‘Conference-style’ or ‘industry-speak’ acronyms and sound bites occur in every sector, but with its ‘Stepping Up The Pace’ mission statement, this particular conference and its media delegates could have done with more plain talking and less weasel words to get the important messages about HIV/AIDS through to the communities they are seeking to engage.

With new HIV infection levels in Australia at a 20-year high, one of those communities is surely ours.

The international conference has a focus on tackling new infections and raised questions about the direction new HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns should take, considering the scare-factor of the Grim Reaper ad campaign of the late 1980s, and new data which reveals the 96 per cent protection rate for sero-discordant sexual encounters if one of the partners is being treated with ARV.

If you’re confused it’s no wonder. I thought I knew plenty about HIV/AIDS, but, like writer and HIV activist Nic Holas who was on the QandA panel, I am torn about whether this should be an opinion piece or a community service announcement.

One of the terms the conference has chosen to focus on is ‘Men who have Sex with Men’ (MSM), although the focus is mainly on this HIV/AIDS risk group overseas.

“It is a key objective of the 20th International AIDS Conference to shine a light on those men who have sex with men, sex workers, transgender people and people who use drugs who do not have the same access to treatment, care and prevention as their western colleagues may do,” UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé said at the start of the conference.

Ever since the phrase was coined in the 1990s as a means of de-stigmatising HIV infections which were the result of heterosexual men who engaged in sex with other men, it has sat rather uninterpreted outside the HIV/AIDS community.

But is it effective when addressing Australians in the media?

To answer that it’s important to underline that MSM does not mean ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’, in fact the term was invented to shield MSMs from any hint of ‘gay’.

Many in the gay community have sexual encounters with MSMs in sex-on-premises businesses (read: ‘saunas’ and/or ‘bathhouses’) or at beats (read: ‘public toilets’, although beats are also located at road-stops, sports fields, and can often crop-up right in the high street at bookshops or other businesses).

It doesn’t take long at a gathering of gay men for the stories about baby seats in the backs of cars at beats, or wives dropping husbands at saunas, to enter the conversation with an awkward mixture of laughter and understanding. MSM do not identify as ‘gay’ and they (and therefore their heterosexual sexual partners) remain at very high risk of HIV infection, in part because they tend not to get tested regularly.

Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) is a mouthful, but it’s also something the Australian community could develop a greater understanding of. Available at most hospital emergency departments, and essential to start before 72 hours have passed since exposure to the HIV virus, PEP is a four-week course of anti-HIV medication with a decent success rate.

Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) is similar, but it’s engaged as a means of preventing HIV infection. Sero-discordant couples (when one partner is HIV positive and the other is HIV negative) are in the demographic which can benefit from PrEP, including couples who are trying conceive a child while protecting the uninfected partner from contracting HIV.

Treatment as Prevention (TasP) is an approach to HIV prevention which acknowledges that a sexual partner taking antiretroviral (ARV) medication has a greatly-reduced viral load (the amount of HIV virus in body fluids). It’s important to acknowledge that ARV’s side-effects means this form of treatment program is not for everyone.

TasP has made a significant difference in Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMTCT) of HIV during breastfeeding.

Heteronormative’ is a term that has often cropped-up in HIV/AIDS debates, generally at the queer theory end of the spectrum, and it’s used to tackle the assumption that gender and sexual orientation fall into fixed categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ according to abstract ‘laws of nature’ that have led to the shaming of same-sex attracted people.

DIY TEST HIV self-testing kit.
DIY TEST HIV self-testing kit.

Such stigmatising only increases the conditions in which higher rates of HIV infection occur, no matter which country you live in.

There are many other new elements to HIV/AIDS, from home testing and rapid testing at clinics (which have the potential to ensure a higher rate of MSM testing), to new measures for assisting the ongoing health of long-infected PLWHA (‘People Living With HIV/AIDS’).

It’s a veritable alphabet of acronyms which many LGBTQI (there we go again) remain grateful for because this kind of language aims to avoid assumptions of ‘victims’ and blame.

While it’s tempting for Australians to believe that HIV/AIDS in a third-world issue, that we have tackled the problem, and there is plenty of good news to get our heads around, the issue of how to communicate that message without an increase in new HIV infections is now one of the main HIV/AIDS challenges facing Australia. I believe unlocking the acronyms will help.

Further information about HIV/AIDS and rural communities.

This article first appeared in No Fibs.

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