Exhibitions    Earth Canvas

24.10.20 to 30.10.22

In Australia, the way we produce food and fibre has come to rely increasingly on industrial principles of

production. This approach has led to many environmental and human health losses.

Regenerative agriculture is emerging as an alternative approach. Its principles focus on the health of nature

and people, and on how all things are interconnected. It is more than sustainability; it is the active rebuilding

or regenerating of an ecosystem towards full health.


The Earth Canvas project invited contemporary artists to work on regenerative farms between the Murray

and Murrumbidgee rivers in southern New South Wales. The project aimed to link the artists’ perspective on

the land with the farmers’ management of the land. What was revealed was a mutual creativity of approach

and deep empathy with the landscape.


This exhibition explores the experiences of both the regenerative farmer and the artist, their respective

engagement with the land and their vision for a healthier world.


The artists and farms involved in the Earth Canvas project are:


• Rosalind Atkins, working with the Wearn Family at Yammacoona, Little Billabong

• Jenny Bell, working with the Coughlan family at Mount Narra Narra, Holbrook

• Jo Davenport, working with the Austin Family at Mundarlo, Mundarlo

• Janet Laurence, working with Rebecca Gorman and family at Yabtree West, Mundarlo

• Idris Murphy, working with the Coghlan family at Eurimbla, Gerogery

• John Wolseley, working with Gillian Sanbrook at Bibbaringa, Bowna

John Wolseley - Artist's notes

I am camped here in Gill Sanbrook’s cabin high up on Bibbaringa land - perched on top of the world. To the East I can see Lake Hume and a long way into Victoria. To the South towards Woomargama over a deep valley I can see a fragment of snow on the flanks of Mt Kosciuszko. Yesterday I carried my painting things through the long blond grass, and strung my collapsible camp table between the wires of the fence. I clipped a large sheet of paper on it and then drew the lolloping meadows as they moved down to the two dams. A wedge-tailed eagle flew round me and then glided down towards Albury. In the afternoon a rufous songlark kept up a chatter from the branches of a dead tree.


Last year, I surveyed and documented this amazing bit of land in a number of ways. I took photographs when Doug Smith flew me along the Hume dam and then back over the farm.  Then I walked all over it taking more photos from ground level. Later I pinned photos stolen from google earth on my studio wall near Bendigo. This week I think I may have been unconsciously channelling the invader Major Mitchell, the first European to survey this Riverina land, who was prone to use military terminology. I feel I have been engaging in a ‘flanking manoeuvre’ - the term used to describe the movement of an armed force around a flank to achieve an advantageous position.  My own ‘flanking manoeuvres’ have been to draw this valley from a number of different positions, and then to put all the different perspectives and graphic systems from my other drawings and photographs into the making of the three oil paintings in this exhibition.           


 As I sat drawing this morning, I could recognise all the modifications and changes which have been done to this farm. Like so much of the land in southern Australia it had been drastically dumbed down by the white settlers who have blankkreuzed and blitzkrieged it to clear, rip up and radically change the land and its biota.


It’s the old and terribly sad story; tree cover being reduced, water washing the vital topsoil down the valley and causing gullies and gulches, and a general deterioration and drying out of the soil.  Looking down today I could see Gill’s heroic attempts to rectify this; all the new planting - great slabs of trees placed in a kind of counterpoint around the creeks and wetlands. What had once become a kind of drain had been slowed down with weirs and hosts of trees, and been turned back into chains of ponds with their filtering beds of phragmites reeds and cumbungi bulrushes. And I could see water glinting in the sun as it carried out its own flanking manoeuvres, moving along contour banks around the hills with marvellous serpentine flourishes.


Last year when I was doing the workshops for artists and farmers here, I used to go on rather a lot about how in order to see and truly paint the earth one must try and enter into it and become one with it. I like to say that this applies both to the whole landscape, and to all the creatures which live within it - including the rich hordes of invertebrates – beetle larvae, worms and microbes and so on. You must ‘find your inner beetle’ I would say. For me it’s all about how Zen Buddhist artists attempt to understand and experience landscape from within: which is so different from our tendency in the European tradition to comprehend or paint from an external point of view. This year I have become obsessed with finding the ‘inner animal’ within the landscape. I am searching for the ‘inscape’ or ‘instress’ of the land as Gerald Manley Hopkins would say.   


I always find it difficult to articulate what I am trying to do. I suspect it's often got to do with creating a model, a distilled and pared down re-creation or analogue - of this vast ‘earth animal’ I am looking at. I like to use words like 'animal' - or ‘bird’ or ‘insect’, because as I draw and paint it the landscape starts to take the form of a giant creature, lying there in the valley beyond my easel.  This strange shape-shifting process starts to happen as I peer at my photographs.  Then when I start drawing animal forms emerge from the landscape like the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland.


Each day the land reveals more of itself to me; shows how it is made up of so many different elements and processes which correspond to the organs of a living animal’s body. The strata of granite and sandstone emerge as rib cage or vertebrae. The flow of creeks and chains of ponds reminds me of lymphatic systems. The light catches the flow of water where it glides over the rim of the dam and takes the form of throats and lymph nodes. Then when the water fans out into the swampy wetland it becomes a spleen.  The swamp does mimic a spleen or thymus gland in the way it filters impurities and builds resilience. And there sparkling in the light are the purple flowers of our native thyme, Prosthanthera sp., a micro example of these landscape/human synchronies - our own Thymus glands are named after their resemblance to the Greek Thumos - the bud of Thyme. Peter Andrews wrote; ‘I view the landscape as a living organism. All the processes which occur in a living body occur in some form in the landscape. The landscape needs a vascular system with its own flow pattern and storage pattern. The landscape needs energy. It needs energy. It needs to be able to move nutrients around. It needs to maintain a natural chemical balance.


The drawing has grown quite rampantly today. It really is becoming some kind of organic or visceral creature, but not telling me yet if its animal, bird or insect. This is how I like it.  What seems to be happening now is that as I build up the picture, modifying this passage or discarding that, it starts to take over - showing me the next move and really being quite bossy. This kind of thing often seemed to happen when I did my burnt bush works in the Mallee - dragging my paper against the burnt fingers of the scrub, so that the landscape itself was drawing on the paper. There would then emerge - come into focus on the paper, as it were - a more specific type of Being, something avian or piscine or insectivorous. Often back there in the Mallee my drawings seemed to be pulled towards insectness. While here in the Riverina things seem to move towards something strangely primordial.  My painting What would the world be, Bibbaringa 2 seems to me to have the feel of a winged and feathered pterosaur struggling to emerge out of the earth. As I write this, I can see I might be sounding rather fanciful, even fantasist. But I would be happy to protest that this kind of painting does have a strong affinity with the approach of some other old artists sitting on mountains – the great classical Chinese artists.  They often painted the landscape and its creatures as being in a state of metamorphosis – the trees and mountains and wind and water being part of the primordial matrix of undifferentiated matter, from out of which the ten thousand creatures shiver into being, and then fade back into the great Tao.



Chains of ponds, contour banks and the return of the reed warbler, Bibbaringa 1 by John Wolseley

Chains of ponds, contour banks and the return of the reed warbler, Bibbaringa 1  2021

oil on Masonite

73 x 122cm

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What would the world, once bereft of wet and wilderness?Let them be left, O let them be left, wildness and wet, Long live the weeds, and the wilderness yet – G M Hopkins by John Wolseley

What would the world, once bereft of wet and wilderness?Let them be left, O let them be left, wildness and wet, Long live the weeds, and the wilderness yet – G M Hopkins  2020

oil on Masonite

92 x 122cm

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Slow water and the rufous songlark, Bibbaringa 3 by John Wolseley

Slow water and the rufous songlark, Bibbaringa 3  2021

oil on Masonite

58 x 76cm

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Study for Chains of ponds and contour banks, Bibbaringa 4 by John Wolseley

Study for Chains of ponds and contour banks, Bibbaringa 4  2021

watercolour and coloured pencil on cotton paper

57 x 76cm

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Lolloping hills and the two dams, Bibbaringa 5 by John Wolseley

Lolloping hills and the two dams, Bibbaringa 5  2021

graphite and watercolour on cotton paper

58 x 76cm

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A natural history of slow water, Bibbaringa 6 by John Wolseley

A natural history of slow water, Bibbaringa 6  2021

watercolour graphite and coloured pencil on cotton paper

57 x 70cm

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Study for Slow water and the rufus songlark, Bibbaringa 7 by John Wolseley

Study for Slow water and the rufus songlark, Bibbaringa 7  2021

watercolour and gouache on cotton paper

57 x 76cm

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Healing the Fowlers Creek gultch, Bibbaringa 8 by John Wolseley

Healing the Fowlers Creek gultch, Bibbaringa 8  2021

watercolour on cotton paper

70 x 73cm

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Study for What would the world be, once bereft, of wet and wildness, Bibbaringa 9 by John Wolseley

Study for What would the world be, once bereft, of wet and wildness, Bibbaringa 9  2021

charcoal and pastel on drafting film

86 x 120cm

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