While drawing forms the core of Jody Graham’s art, she uses unconventional tools, found objects, and idiosyncratic approaches to explore the boundaries of contemporary art practice.
This exhibition is of striking new work that emerged from two residencies Jody had as part of her Wildfire Project at The Old School House, Mount Wilson in December 2020 and at the BigCi international creative grounds in Bilpin in January 2021. There she elaborated on an earlier visit she’d made to the bushfire-ravaged area only a few weeks after the Black Summer mega-blaze.
In January 2020 Jody had leapt at an invitation from BigCi to experience the immediate aftermath of the fires and immerse herself in the chaos of destruction and the creativity of renewal. On that first trip she focused on the sensory impact of the charred land – immense, scorched stretches of the mountain range filled with ash and possibilities; studded with burnt trunks and pin-pointed with odd, improbable new shoots and epicormic sprouts.
The works in Jody’s first series were monochrome – charcoal renderings of desolation and birds in flight. The work she produced then was stark and dramatic; finding a way to draw broad charcoal marks with large burnt branches she had gathered from the torched land.
The opportunity for Jody to return to the area for an extended period in late 2020 was pivotal. The focus of the two more recent residencies was to elaborate on her first, raw experience and produce new artwork through connecting with people affected by the fires.
The Getting Pinked series draws on the human and emotional toll as much as the natural and environmental impact of the Black Summer fires. Over those two months Jody absorbed the stories of the locals from communities in and around Bilpin, Mt Tomah, Mt Irvine, Mt Wilson, and Bell – people who’d fought and lived through the fires and who were still confronting their devastation.
Getting Pinked sees Jody re-expressing herself through colour. Her peculiar fascination with destruction and decay is matched now by a visceral enthusiasm for repurposing and regeneration. This rich, chromatic development in her work nevertheless builds on a structure of tone and emphatic mark-making.
The birds have not just reacted to the shock of devastation; they’ve come to post-fire life in the garish, unnatural hue of fire retardant, as if expressing the impact on the world not only of the bushfires but of the community and institutional response.
This effect she achieves by using physical residue of the fires – charcoal, gum sap, and ochre – layered with a pink ink-mix that she had, fortuitously, packed in her artist’s tub. Jody then rubs the works in rich basalt soil and at times soaks them in a rock pool. Rips in the paper she then hand-stitches with twine found discarded in the local habitat.
There is something deeply atavistic in the art of Jody Graham that tells us much about the person herself: as if she is touched not just by nature but by the concerns of ancestors. A force of destructive creation echoes a natural concern for preserving the habitats of native wildlife in the face of onslaught. Jody’s take on art could only have emerged in an Australia profoundly affected by our impact on the natural world.
* Jody heard the phrase ‘got pinked’ from local volunteer firefighters; a reference to the fire retardant artificially coloured as a visual aid for pilots and firefighters that had been dropped over the bush and, inadvertently, on those fighting the fires:
‘We had on our yellows… and I got pinked.’
The story of the Gospers Mountain mega-blaze is seared in our national memory. The wildfires were sparked in late October 2019 by a lightning strike 60km north of the Blue Mountains. They burned for 79 days, torching over 10,000 square kms of desiccated Wollemi National Park bushland and in the process merging with an out-of-control backburn. The conflagration scorched in its path the Blue Mountains Basalt Forest that surrounds Mount Wilson and borders the Bells Line of Road from Mount Tomah west to Bell.
‘Awe-inspiring’ might seem like an unusual an expression to apply to The Black Summer fires.
For me, awe-inspiring holds a range of meanings, from the breath-taking, to the terrifying, to the truly formidable. This is how I experienced the desolate, burnt landscape driving up the Bells Line of Road, two weeks after the 2019-2020 mega-fires swept through the Blue Mountains, NSW. I was aghast and knew I was witnessing a moment in history that demanded a creative response.
A year on, this initial astonishment resonated throughout my time in artist residencies at The Old School House, Mt Wilson (Dec 2020) and BigCi (Jan 2021). While on these residencies I had the opportunity to talk with local people and learn about the depth of courage and kindness that binds communities together. I also heard instances of colour and comedy that added levity to brighten difficult times.
It was during one of these conversations a volunteer firefighter mentioned that he’d ‘got pinked.’ Instantly I was struck with curiosity – what did that mean? It was an expression I heard several times – it involves being near, sprayed, or dumped-on by pink fire retardant from aerial firefighting support.
From that point on I introduced the colour pink into many of my artworks. This functioned on numerous layers within this body of work. Initially, I added this hue to entrench story into my drawings and paintings. While appreciating the work does not rely on understanding the significance of my use of colour, it has a distinct purpose in reflecting my concern about the use of pink fire-retardant to fight fires.
My intention here though is not to judge: honestly, if my home was in the fire’s path, I would want it saved too. I am more interested in encouraging thinking about the long-term consequences that fire retardants may have on people, the environment and wildlife; and whether there are other fire management strategies that could improve the impact we have.
Beneficially though, the pink hue added a dimension to my palette that accentuated the magnificent beauty I witnessed in birdlife returning to a scorched land. The absence of the sound and sight of birdlife was pervasive after the fires, and their re-emergence and birdsong expressed a joyful and restorative healing. These colourful glimpses of native birds became beacons of hope and wonder.
I am grateful for the warm welcoming into communities affected by the Black Summer fires and for the many personal accounts people generously shared with me. All of the conversations I had continue to contribute and drive my artistic research about wildfires.
23rd November 2021