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Art knits a community together

Socks on breakfast table, c1979, by an unknown photographer, from the Frank Watters Archive, gift of Frank Watters 2009, National Art Archive, Art Gallery of New South Wales

Hand-knitted rainbow socks and jumpers definitely aren’t what you’d expect to find in most art exhibitions.

However, a peek into the Watters Gallery Archive in the National Art Archive at the Art Gallery of NSW reveals them to be among the more unusual pieces of art and craft on display in the ground-breaking Upper Hunter Valley environment exhibition some five decades ago. The message these items hold about the importance of environmental awareness and the impact of coal mining on the Australian landscape is all too familiar, perhaps more so now than ever before.

The Hunter Valley region has always been a major site of mining, today accounting for two thirds of New South Wales’ coal production. In the 1970s, the news of further extensive open-cut coal mining was a major issue for residents of the Hunter. On one hand, the mines promised thousands of jobs, but their negative environmental impact was undeniable. At the end of that decade it was predicted that within five years the Hunter Valley would be not only the aluminium capital of Australia, but also a major source of aluminium globally.

Frank Watters at his Darlinghurst home, 2018

Sydney gallerist Frank Watters had a strong personal connection to the area, having grown up in Muswellbrook as the son of a coalminer. In the late 1970s, after returning for the first time in years, Frank rediscovered his love for the region. It is said that while helping his sister Marie prune her rose garden, he was struck by just how peaceful the town was. Appreciating the beauty of the Hunter Valley obviously runs in the family, with Frank’s brother Max Watters – a renowned Australian painter – often choosing to capture its scenery in his vivid landscape works.

And so, the combination of Frank’s love for art and his love of the Hunter Valley slowly grew into the idea that became the Upper Hunter Valley environment exhibition. The region was known for dairy, fodder and wool production – most people saw themselves as farmers rather than coalminers. Drawing on this, as well as growing outrage felt towards the proposed mining expansion, Frank called on residents to contribute their art and craft works to be part of the exhibition in Muswellbrook.

Front and back of jumper knitted by Marie Partridge for the Upper Hunter Valley environment exhibition, 1979, photographed by Frank Watters, from the Frank Watters Archive, gift of Frank Watters 2009, National Art Archive, Art Gallery of New South Wales

Using 52 colours and taking four days to make, this jumper actually inspired the poster for the Upper Hunter Valley environment exhibition. Accomplished printmaker and activist Chips Mackinolty used Marie’s vibrant designs to create the iconic poster, which was used to promote the exhibition as it toured several towns across NSW, including Scone, Denman and Singleton, and continued to tour in video form, even making its way to Watters Gallery in Sydney at the end of 1980.

The exhibition was an unprecedented success, with attendance figures often outnumbering the population of the towns it visited. While the majority of the artworks, memorabilia and craft displayed were made by non-professional artists, schoolchildren and residents of the Upper Hunter, fine art authorities and critics also flocked to it. The exhibition represented the transition of a way of life; through the process of making art about the area, people began to realise the real extent of the environmental issue at hand.

The poster for the Upper Hunter Valley environment exhibition is one of the objects on display until 13 December 2019 in Behind the poster in the Gallery’s library and archive. It’s just one example of a vibrant, eye-catching poster with a rich and important story behind it, created at a time when poster making was at its peak.

Poster for Upper Hunter Valley environment exhibition, 1979, by Chips Mackinolty, Earthworks Poster Collective, from Watters Gallery Archive, gift of Alexandra and Geoffrey Legge 2006, National Art Archive Art, Gallery of New South Wales © Chips Mackinolty

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December 01 2019, 2pm
by Laura Myers
Library and archive intern