‘The Nature of Existence - The Long View' - an exhibition by Julie Williams - an essay by curator Gavin Wilson
Gazing at the native leaf litter underfoot in the Parramatta Lakes district west of Sydney, Julie Williams seized upon a key motif that would animate her recent series of paintings
Working as an art teacher in the nearby Juvenile Detention Centre for over six years, Williams had the opportunity to develop an intimate relationship with the place. Through the indigenous juveniles she mentored, the artist was introduced to respected local elders. Revelations that emerged from encounters with the indigenous custodians of the region were coupled with the artist’s strong links to Hill End, a remote historic site high in the ranges behind Bathurst.
Patterns of habitation and connections to country began to evolve. The concept of home resonated in the artist’s imagination. After emigrating from England in 1980, Williams at first found the Australian landscape hostile and bewildering. The notion lingered on until coming upon Hill End where the artist discovered a community she could relate to, with its deep sense of history and complex settlement patterns interwoven with the landscape. The old wattle and daub mining cottage, purchased with fellow artist Janet Haslett, rose precariously off the ground. As with most of the gold rush dwellings in Hill End dating back to the 1870s, there was a sense of impermanence – the natural environment claiming superiority over the built.
There is nothing provisional about Julie Williams’ engagement with Hill End. The cottage known as Collaroy Cot is in an on-going state of restoration. Over time, the occupants have maintained the vernacular fabric of the place which has become a significant source of inspiration in the artist’s practice.
In a number of Williams’ previous works exhibited at Bathurst Regional Art Gallery in 2011, elegant outlines of historic buildings tended to haunt the landscape, reinforcing a sense of impermanence; of time passing. The recent series, that again reaches beyond the specifics of time and place, focuses on an eerie domestic realm animated by aspects of the exterior world. The phenomenon is manifest in elements such as; ‘wallpapers reflecting leaves outside, ephemeral (mud) walls, and windows that bring nature outside in’.
The reality of living in close contact with country was made clear to Williams while developing a friendship with indigenous elder Uncle Des Dyer, who indentifies as a Darug man, active within the Parramatta Lakes community. As the artist got to know him, she began to empathise with his deep sense of loss and dispossession. The shadows and stains instilled into the carefully glazed, modulated tones of the canvases on exhibition, such as ‘Banksia Trail’, impart a weighty atmosphere: a melancholic ode to vivid memories of time past. Uncle Des relates: ‘Every time I come back to Hunts Creek or Parramatta Lakes I feel it is like coming home. I love my memories I like to remember how my grandparents made humpies out of whatever they could scrounge and my swimming in the little creeks and our vegetable garden. A safe memory which makes me feel at peace after all the chaos which ensued in later childhood. I love this place so passionately to this very day’.
The oral history of indigenous elders such as Uncle Des is vital in the on-going custodianship of the site. Supporting Uncle Des’s reverie, shelter caves, stone flaking, tree scars, hand stencils and midden deposits have all been identified as evidence of a vibrant culture that once inhabited the Parramatta Lakes region.
The artist’s poetic response to the place known as home has been informed by a number of disparate influences. Edouard Vuillard’s layered domestic interiors; the organic motifs in the decorative wallpapers of William Morris; Liepzig artist Mattias Weischer’s formal use of interior architectural details; the spatial dynamics of Sung Dynasty painting and Francis Bacon’s tracing of interior spaces have all stirred the artist’s imagination in the evolution of the series.
Finally, in this highly-personal body of work, the artist has established a metaphysical space that reflects on the temporary nature of habitation. The landscape endures: our presence passes. Houses in all manifestations contain palpable evidence of the cultural imperatives that shaped the lives and animated the spaces that generations of people have called home.