Artwork rises from bushfires' ashes

For some ARTEXPRESS 2022 artists, lockdown gave them the time they needed to create something truly memorable.

A young woman stands in front of a long artwork of muted browns, blacks and white
Image: A physical connection: Ella McGaw sees her work at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Cronulla High School student Ella McGaw’s artwork Lament for the Lost has a physical connection to the summer of 2019-2020 bushfires it references.

In preparing her HSC major artwork, Ella travelled to the Bells Line of Road in the Blue Mountains bringing home containers of ash, charcoal and soil from the fire-ravaged communities she visited.

As part of the project, Ella made her own paper and used the detritus of the fires as one of the ingredients in her paper mulch.

But she didn’t stop there, instead the Bundeena resident, who lives on the fringe of the Royal National Park, took the papers and research she was reading and also added these into her recipe.

“I started thinking how could I incorporate more of my meaning into the material I was working with,” she said.

“I pulped all these materials into the paper. I was connecting to my research and I was connecting to the landscape.

“I was creating an essence of what had been and what was lost.”

The resultant work, which was inspired by the squiggly gums she sees over her backyard fence, is one of 43 artworks from 8000 submissions that is hanging today in the Art Gallery of NSW as part of its ARTEXPRESS 2022 exhibition.

In total 107 2021 HSC artworks have been selected for the four exhibitions that make up ARTEXPRESS 2022, which includes a broad range of media including ceramics, documented forms, designed objects, drawing, graphic design, painting, photomedia, printmaking, sculpture, textiles and fibre, and time-based media.

Macintyre High School in Inverell was the recipient of the 2022 Sir William Dobell Foundation Excellence in Teaching Award for the best-performing arts faculty in a secondary school that has students in ARTEXPRESS.

NSW Department of Education Secretary Georgina Harrisson said that students should not only be proud of their artistic achievements, but for the resilience shown in a year like no other.

“The artworks produced by NSW students that are featured in the annual ARTEXPRESS Showcase are always incredible, but this year their talent and dedication is on full display,” Ms Harrisson said.

“It was a challenging year for the graduating class of 2021, but their positivity and perseverance has been nothing short of exceptional.

“It’s so pleasing to see the students’ ability to adapt and still produce such amazing work, and to have their hard work rewarded by being selected to participate in ARTEXPRESS.”

Ella, who saw the exhibition earlier this week, said it was weird to see her work hanging at the Art Gallery of NSW.

“Normally when I am at the art gallery it is about looking at and examining the works of artists and it was really different to be able to do the same to mine,” she said.

It was also the first time she had been able to look at the large work in its entirety.

“Because of the size of it when I was at home I could only see it on a table, but seeing it at eye height and being able to step back and view it from a distance was really different.”

While last year’s lockdown made her HSC year difficult, Ella said she had benefitted in many ways from being forced to stay home.

“It was initially hard because of being distant from my teacher and other students,” she said.

“But in many ways my artwork is good because of lockdown. If I hadn’t had the massive amounts of time to work on it, it wouldn’t have the complexity or be the size it is today.”

Ella plans to continue her artistic career as part of a visual arts major at the University of Sydney.

An artwork depicting three different emotions on the fact of a man
Image: Natural talent: Damian Wells was inspired by Picasso for his major work.

A portrait of mental health

Growing up as a "sporty kid" Damian Wells from Temora High School never thought he would enjoy art. But once he picked up a paint brush in Year 11, he soon realised it was a great way to relax and was naturally talented in the art space.

"I was new to art but as soon as I started putting in some effort everyone thought my style resembled that of Picasso, so that is where my inspiration came from for my HSC work," he said.

"I did some study into him and his use of colour and his form to portray emotions.

"That really supported my idea of portraying men's mental health through paintings so I just ran with that idea and I am pretty proud with how it turned out."

Damian's major work, Colours, like features, follow the changes of emotions, is inspried by Picasso and features three abstract paintings portraying three men expressing different emotions.

To be selected in the ARTEXPRESS exhibition that will show at the Bank Art Museum in Moree was a shock for the "country boy".

"I surprised myself with how it turned out and then to receive the email that it would be in the ARTEXPRESS was a major shock," he said.

Damian is in his first week of a double degree at Canberra University in health science and human movement and nutrition, but is "keeping the door open" to art opportunities in the future.

Two faces with one underwater and one emerging out of the water
Image: Resilience: Bella Luu's work Emergence inspires the viewer to look inward.

Lockdown inspiration

Like Ella McGaw, Bella Luu, from Sefton High School in Sydney’s west, found lockdown played a key role in her major art work.

“During COVID the year felt so endless and seeing that there is an end and a reward to the end as well, it definitely taught me resilience that I’m trying to portray here,” Luu told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Her dyptich, Emergence, shows her sister’s face underwater and then emerging in the second panel.

Completed amid the stress, social disconnection and anxiety in south-western Sydney during the COVID-19 lockdown, Emergence represents a message of hope and resilience in the face of adversity, Luu writes in her explanatory description.

“My intent is to inspire everyone to turn their attention away from the tumultuous unpredictability of the external world and instead look inwards to build resilience, to say ‘I made it through. Here I am’.”

Exhibition dates

ARTEXPRESS Art Gallery of NSW
Currently on show until April 25

Bank Art Museum Moree
14 April – 25 June 2022

ARTEXPRESS Virtual Exhibition
Will launch in May 2022.

Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Art Centre
22 July – 18 September 2022

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