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Drawing in the Dandenongs

On Mary Tonkin’s farm at Kalorama

Travelling to unfamiliar places to view art and meet artists is one of the highlights of being a curator, and over the years I have been able to see many parts of regional Australia that would otherwise have remained a mystery to me.

In planning the inaugural Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial exhibition – Drawing out – I travelled to a number of rural locations to speak with their resident artists about art, working the land and their connection to place.

Mary Tonkin’s family has cultivated flowers, rare bulbs and perennials in a secluded pocket of farmland nestled in the Dandenongs, east of Melbourne, since just after the Second World War. Although now living in inner Melbourne with her family, Mary escapes as often as possible back to the farm, where halfway up the hill from the front gate she has built a studio, funded with the proceeds of the Dobell Drawing Prize, which she won in 2002 for her work Rocky outcrop, Werribee Gorge.

In the studio she can paint and draw, store finished works and even stay for a few days (although the bathtub outside the back door did not look at all inviting on the cold day I visited in early spring).

The temperate rainforests of the Dandenongs are remarkable – trees seem to grow for miles into the sky, and the ground cover below is green and lush with carpets of ferns and fallen logs thick on the ground. Standing still, you can hear birdcalls and the sounds of water and wind, with the occasional bark of a dog or distant car. Pockets of land in the hills have been cultivated for over a century; there are established groves of introduced tree species that bring bright contrasting colours and forms with the passing seasons, while homes and farm buildings, private roads and fence lines carve up the hills.

On the day I visited, Mary and I took a walk along an easy trail leading uphill from the main farmhouse. Wide enough for a vehicle, it was deserted and completely private, allowing us to linger for hours without interruption and take it all in.

When she is working Mary hauls her drawing and painting materials deep into the bush, returning to the same spot over months so she can concentrate on her subject in solitude. Her ability to recognise familiar trees and hollows is amazing to me, the natural result of a childhood spent exploring the gullies and undergrowth for hours on end. She soon found the place along the path where we needed to broach the perimeter of trees and venture into the scrub to the spot where she made her extraordinary 14-metre-long charcoal drawing Between two logs, Kalorama. Progress was slow and slightly hazardous, with large fallen logs slippery with rain and mossy growth blocking the way, although the resident leeches were held at bay with the enormous gumboots I was glad to have donned down the hill.

We stopped a short way in, in what seemed a rather unremarkable hollow indistinguishable from the forest around. But here it was – the place where the drawing was born. Mary pointed out a few key features – a forked tree, a dead trunk crashed down onto the ground – and slowly I came to recognise the subject I had seen only in charcoal up to that moment. The experience of being enfolded in the bush made perfect sense of the drawing, which captures its subject from all angles – looking down, up, and all around – while the density of the plant life blocked long perspectives through the trees. Suddenly the charcoal drawing came alive with colour, sound and sensation, and I came to have an even greater respect for the ambition and persistence that went into making it. We emerged a few minutes later to head down the hill to lunch in the studio and the bright clear light of the spring day, my perception completely transformed.

For a slideshow of photos from the visit, click on one of the small images to begin…

	Mary Tonkin, walking up the track towards the rainforest.
  • 	Mary Tonkin, walking up the track towards the rainforest.
  • 	Massive trees reach up into the sky at Kalorama.
  • 	Deep within the bush is a fallen tree that is one of the subjects of Mary’s drawing Between two logs, Kalorama 2013-14.
  • 	Mary placed this ladder on site to enable her to get another viewpoint.
  • 	Mary described her position, when making the drawing, as being within the 'enfold’ of the bush.
  • 	Inside Mary’s studio, with her drawing in progress. The table holds prepatory studies and sketchbooks for the work.
  • 	The work, at 14 metres long, was too big to fit along one wall in Mary’s studio. The rolled up work on the table is a preparatory study for the larger drawing pinned to the wall.
  • 	The view from Mary’s studio.
  • 	All 14 metres of the final work Between two logs, Kalorama 2013-14, installed at Australian Galleries, Sydney.

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November 17 2014, 11am
by Anne Ryan
Curator, Australian prints, drawings and watercolours