Otomys Contemporary’s Megan Dicks speaks with Harriet Goodall about her practice.
A sensitivity and lifelong connection to the Australian land is so brilliantly revealed in your work as a full-time sculptor. Tell us about your early years growing up on the land?
I was a child of the bad drought of the 80s and dramatic dust storms often rolled in, over the flat plains that stretched out west from our dry front lawn. Our property was several thousand acres and boasted the last rocky hills for the next few hundred kilometres so our favourite childhood play place was an actual bushrangers hideout in the eucalyptus shaded boulders. I have never seen ‘big sky’ sunsets so intense as sitting on those granite rocks.
The corrugated iron shearing shed was the playground of my youth. Mostly we worked in the shed yards, moving large mobs of sheep with kelpies and motorbikes or walking up laneways but always scratching in the dirt with a stick and picking up treasures along the way. Boredom bred a close study of my surroundings. My father and grandfather were farmer-graziers so summer was 24-hour harvest time with huge headers circling in the heat of the night, spotlights making tracks through the crops. Afterwards we ‘burnt off’ the stubble with flaming tires pulled behind our truck. Dad was Captain of the local fire brigade so he was often called out to fight fires on forty degree Christmas days. Most days were a cycle of tension and relief; disasters were common and we all pulled together.
My parents were creative thinkers and aesthetically sensitive. It was always implicit that art was the best way to capture the secret language of the land. They often had creative friends to stay and my aunt was a full-time abstract colourist working in oils and we were at all of her Sydney openings. My first welded sculpture of a small horse was made in my father’s farm workshop at age 8. It still sits on their mantelpiece. His workshop was a place to connect.
Your sculptures are made from natural found materials, so your art supplies are simply all around you, however I imagine they are not easily foraged. Your meticulous consideration of the colors and surfaces must be the beginning of a time-consuming process.
My eyes are trained now to look in a different way; I am always searching for rich colours in abandoned or decayed places. As I travel around the bush, I am compelled to explore where many fear to tread! I like the eerie echo of lives passed, the sadness of the scrapheap and when I find a relic and I know it is unloved, I can give it a new life. Of all the pieces I work with, I am very conscious of the origin and can usually remember exactly when and where it was discovered.
I particularly relish pulling down and repurposing hinge-joint fence lines and netting because they represent so well the boundaries my ancestors declared to claim ownership. The intersecting lines are beautiful to a basket maker and weaver. My husband is a farmer and fencer so it’s part of our world.
Burnt-out cars on the road side have also been a long-time fascination with their unusual patina and swirling colours. The frisson is in the danger element; that these symbols of wealth and prosperity have been stolen and torched – that ownership denied in an instant. I have been given permission to explore a vintage car yard burnt in the recent bushfires – a vast hundred acres of rusting hulks – the life’s work of a hoarder destroyed. It is post-apocolyptic and devastating in so many ways. Often time creates aerial landscapes on the rusty surfaces. I only collect materials that have the most beautiful marks and rich variety.
Cutting, welding and grinding is hard on my body and often dirty and I don’t think many people would enjoy the stuff I do but I don’t begrudge the freedom it grants me to immerse myself in making art.
The repetitive nature of weaving or even simply connecting pieces is antithetical to the flurry of an inspired moment when resolving a composition. I envy the abstract expressionist painter, splashing and rubbing the canvas with passion but it is good for my busy mind that once I have an idea, I am then forced into hours and hours of slow monotonous action. It makes me still myself and is a discipline that always bears fruit.
Your selected natural materials are then bent, twisted and woven to express the temper of the Australian land. Following this recent intense season of drought, fire and flood which you were greatly impacted by, I’m particularly intrigued by the gentle delicacy of ‘Willawarrin Backroads’ which floats loosely above in its own shadows, almost obscuring any sense of tension or drama.
I collected the section of hingejoint fence in this piece from a scorched fireground at Willawarrin on the mid north coast of NSW in January while my husband was at home preparing our house and animals for the threat of the Morton fire not far to the South. It was very wild and frightening for everyone but fortunately this fire stopped short of us in Kangaroo Valley.
The very slight gradation of black-browns and lack of colour is apparent in all the many burnt landscapes I have travelled through and the wending lines woven through my work are a theme I began years ago in a representation of topography. These then became somewhat more like the scribbly lines of insects under bark. It seems the only living creature left in the all the quiet burnt areas are the insects. This piece is like a tribal relic, a skeleton of something you might find left behind in a post-disaster world.
Your sculpture successfully exploits the nature of the Australian landscape which is often known for her harsh and unpredictable character, yet in decayed and burnt materials you have found beauty and enhanced this. Australian artist, Louise Weaver said ‘creating art is how you relate to the world’. What is it about the Australian living land that gives your art practice context?
I think to really know life in the Australian bush you have to equally recognise its ever present death and decay. I just collect remnants and tenderly stitch them back to life with natural fibres, lines and colours that re-imagine nature’s own.
I feel like my practice is an exploration of the dichotomy of belonging and displacement I feel in so many ways. A kick-back against our environmental recklessness and celebration of the radical beauty at our disposal. It’s make or break!
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