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Ross Booker Out from Alice

painting and drawing in central Australia


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Ross Booker Out from Alice painting and drawing in central Australia

essay by Elizabeth Bates


Ross Booker Out from Alice — painting and drawing in central Australia

First published in Australia in 2013 by artHIVES www.arthives.com info@arthives.com on the occasion of the exhibition at Woolloongabba Art Gallery in October 2013 Copyright 2013 © artHIVES holdings PTY LTD Introduction text copyright 2013 © Elizabeth Bates Artist statement copyright 2013 © Ross Booker Images copyright 2013 © Ross Booker Photography copyright 2013 © Ross Booker www.rossbooker.com www.wag.com.au ISBN 978-0-9923443-0-6 Printed in Australia All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior consent of the publisher.


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Into the landscape by Elizabeth Bates

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Plein air works from central Australia

89 Painting and drawing in central Australia by Ross Booker 111 Studio works 148 Acknowledgements


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Into the landscape Elizabeth Bates

One of our deepest needs is for a sense of identity and belonging. A common denominator in this is human attachment to landscape and how we find identity in landscape and place. Landscape therefore is not simply what we see, but a way of seeing: we see it with our eye but interpret it with our mind and ascribe values to landscape for intangible – spiritual – reasons.1

Almost 30 years ago, as a visual arts coordinator in Alice Springs, I worked on an exhibition of Albert Namatjira’s paintings. On a research trip to Hermannsburg these works came to life, a purple mountain recognisable in several of the works was there in the flesh, looming over the small community. Namatjira, like many central Australian artists was painting his country. I travelled into that country many times, it demanded my respect, kept me grounded and tempered my ego. It is not surprising that central Australia has been a magnet for those who have thrown themselves into the arts. Painters, performers, poets and writers have all come under its spell. To be alone in this country – vast, rugged and raw – is awe inspiring, humbling, and its stories endless. It is a complete landscape, with or without a human presence. For Ross Booker the daily act of walking through this country becomes a meditative experience. Alone in this vastness, with its myriad forms of life, the idea that he may be the dominant life form is easily challenged. His human identity gradually dissolves into the oneness of nature. His own significance fades into insignificance. He describes the process as absorption, the way the lostness into the landscape happens – he into the landscape and the landscape into him.


It is the isolation of this country that has been a key element in the production of Booker’s central Australian works. During his years of travelling to Illara Creek and other central Australian locations, he has fallen in love with the liberation of remoteness. Without the distraction of urban life, even other human beings, he is able to focus completely on what he is seeing, at times feeling like the only person to have seen these things. It is this connection to the environment that allows the work to flow. This sense of harmony with the natural world also has its roots in Asian philosophy and is a vital element in traditional Asian landscape painting. Rather than attempting to describe the visual world, artists strive to capture the inner essence or life force of their subject. Australian artists Brett Whiteley and John Olsen embraced this philosophy to produce sweeping emotional landscapes with obvious links to calligraphy. An acknowledgment of this aesthetic is found in Booker’s Zen like approach to mark making and recognised in the fluidity of his ink washes. For him it can be the pure joy of working on paper with a favorite calligraphy brush. On his daily journeys into the landscape he carries a sketchbook and a camera. His sketchbook serves not only as a visual diary but also to record a system of mark making that represents more intangible discoveries. In the paintings that follow, line is used to create a sense of form and mass, while simultaneously describing the unsettling and mersmerising quiver often present in the landscape. These works elicit memories of the layering and multiple viewpoints found in Elizabeth Cummings work. Like Cummings, Booker’s line also defines atmosphere, shape and space. And then there is his colour – bright and dramatic – sometimes creating an uncertainty of spatial perception, almost dizziness. Travelling any direction out from Alice Springs it is there, in the earth, on the earth and in the infinitesimal sky. It is something which southern art critics doubted when Albert Namatjira’s watercolours first appeared in their city galleries and rediscovered in the shimmering paintings of more recent central Australian artists such as Emily Kngwarreye. Back in Booker’s studio the colour is scattered across work tables in pots, paint sticks and a myriad of drawing media. It is pinned to the wall as works in progress and a watercolour by an Alice Springs artist from the Namatjira School, hangs close by.


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Booker does not attempt to paint a realistic interpretation but approaches his paintings intuitively, distilling his own visual and emotional experiences into multi-layered compositions. What he absorbs when he is out in the landscape becomes, over time, a part of a visual landscape in his mind that comes to life back in the studio. His paintings provide clues to something that it is hard to understand until you stand at the base of a blood red escarpment or watch the reflection of a rock pool on a gorge wall. The notion of painting is akin to a journey, with its own, unpredictable sense of change. For Booker being in this country has changed his art forever. It continues to surprise him, each visit presenting another view, another fresh opportunity. He is often filled with wonder at what he encounters. Strong and enduring elements form a familiar environmental backbone but the unexpected can lie in the transient. Even the same site can appear new. Capturing the shifting relationship of these elements continues to be the artists’ challenge — it’s what draws him back. While I looked at Ross’s paintings and talked to him about our individual experiences in central Australia, a feeling of homesickness came over me. As I finish writing this essay I fondly remember the day I stepped onto that dazzling red earth to begin an amazing life changing adventure. Elizabeth Bates 2013

1 Taylor, Ken (2008), Research School of Humanities, The Australian National University, Canberra. Abstract for Landscape and Memory: cultural landscapes, intangible values and some thoughts on Asia. In: 16th ICOMOS General Assembly and International Symposium: ‘Finding the spirit of place – between the tangible and the intangible’, 29 Sept – 4 Oct 2008, Quebec, Canada.


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Plein air works from central Australia


Illara Creek — 0079 2009 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0067 2010 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0049 2010 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0004 2010 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0010 2010 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0023 2010 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0128 2010 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0027 2010 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0040 2010 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0035 2010 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0074 2010 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0184 2010 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0186 2010 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Walker Gorge — 0166 2011 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Walker Gorge — 0167 2011 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Walker Gorge — 0178 2011 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Walker Gorge — 0185 2011 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Ruby Gap — 0071 2011 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Ruby Gap — 0073 2011 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Ruby Gap — 0182 2011 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Ruby Gap — 0076 2011 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Ruby Gap — 0181 2009 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Ruby Gap — 0126 2009 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Ruby Gap — 0175 2011 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0259 2012 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0290 2012 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0133 2012 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0147 2012 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0179 2012 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0256 2012 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0287 2012 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0288 2012 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0039 2012 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0313 2012 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0312 2012 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0314 2012 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0310 2012 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Painting and drawing in central Australia Ross Booker I first travelled to central Australia for an artist camp in 2002. It was a strange journey. Not long after arriving in Alice Springs I was informed that my mother had unexpectedly passed away. I experienced a fleeting vision of what was out there, the colour and wonder of the landforms, flavoured at the time by terrible grief. I had to return home within a few days. Those initial impressions of the desert stayed with me until in 2008 I ventured out again on another artist camp to a place called Illara Creek. This experience of camping and painting in central Australia changed my art practice in profound ways. Illara Creek is remote, not another living soul around for many miles. It’s about six hours 4WD from Alice Springs on freehold land owned by the Luritja people. My first visit to Illara Creek felt like I had come home. I loved the remoteness of the place and the stillness of the landscape.


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Since then I have been on many artist camps, six in the area around Illara Creek – hence the titling of my works. The camps are conducted by Sandrifter Safaris. The artists come from all around Australia. We spend about two weeks in the one spot, venturing out solo during the day to explore and paint. I had often heard people rave about the colour and the clarity of light in the central desert, but it didn’t prepare me for the effect it would have on the way I paint. Even when I’m there I still can’t quite believe the colour: the oranges, browns and ochres of the earth; the intensity of the sky. At dusk, it’s like the land glows from the inside. The other thing I wasn’t prepared for was the wildlife. There have been some unusually wet seasons over the past few years, which have brought an abundance of flowers and an increase in the numbers of birds and animals. It’s not a desert out there, it’s one enormous garden. I spend a lot of time walking when I’m on location. The isolation is profound. It connects me directly to the place. There are no distractions; it’s just you and the landscape. I walk, draw, take photos and explore for hours on end. It’s easy to become so absorbed that you totally lose yourself. When you are out in the middle of all that vastness, the spiritual significance of this land is palpable. It’s hard to avoid the presence of the people who have been there before you. The art work I do on camp is by necessity restricted in size. I mostly work on A4 sized pieces. My studio work tends to be much larger. The act of drawing pervades my work. I have a preoccupation with line, whether it be drawn with a pencil or applied with a brush. I am especially interested in rock formations and the many patterns that describe them. When painting, I’m concerned with the process of how an image evolves: the layering of textures, shadows and marks; the way an abstract scribble can allude to something observed; why some colours elicit certain feelings; how all of these relationships settle on the page. Even when working plein air I usually draw from my memory of things observed. I’m not generally concerned with faithful representation of the scene in front of me. It’s more


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intuitive, focusing on making marks that echo elements of the landscape — more like annotated note taking. In the studio, I tend to build up images over time, allowing them to evolve layer upon layer. I draw over parts and even block out whole areas. This layering process is never prescribed. Each decision to make a mark will eventually influence another mark made. Sometimes it develops into a series of problems that I have to work my way out of — I rework bits to get to a point where they have a reason to exist. At times it’s a struggle against my own logic. It’s just as much about the process that happens in between as it is about what is arrived at in the finished work. The completed work is left as a record of the decisions that have occurred throughout the active life of the painting. To finish, I would like to give you a little history of the area that a lot of my paintings are named after. Illara Creek is situated on Tempe Downs station, which was established in 1883. By 1889 there were about 6,000 cattle there. Although Tempe Downs held natural sources of water, it struggled to survive as a pastoral property, changing ownership and management often. In 1961 part of the station, Kings Canyon was established as a tourist attraction. In 1983 it was separated from Tempe Downs to become Watarrka National Park. In 1993 the Iltjiltjarri Aboriginal Land Trust purchased Tempe Downs on behalf of the traditional landowners. The purchase was considered to be the single most important land acquisition in the Central Land Council region. More than 350 of the original inhabitants, the Luritja people, now live on the land. The station is no longer a going concern. When I’m back in the city, I realise I am often marking time to go out there again. That red dust has truly got under my skin. That landscape has become imprinted on my memory and imbedded in my act of painting. Ross Booker 2013


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Photographs of Illara Creek and surrounds by Ross Booker


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Photographs of Illara Creek and surrounds by Ross Booker


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Photographs of Illara Creek and surrounds by Ross Booker


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Photographs of Illara Creek and surrounds by Ross Booker


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Photographs of Illara Creek and surrounds by Ross Booker


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Studio works


Illara Creek — 0227 2011 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 57 x 76 cm

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Illara Creek — 0228 2011 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 57 x 76 cm

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Illara Creek — 0215 2011 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 57 x 76 cm

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Illara Creek — 0225 2012 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 57 x 76 cm

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Illara Creek — 0224 2011 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 57 x 76 cm

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Illara Creek — 0221 2012 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 57 x 76 cm

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Illara Creek — 0217 2012 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 57 x 76 cm

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Illara Creek — 0328 2013w Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0235 2013 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0324 2012 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek diptych 2011 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 21 x 29.7 cm

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Illara Creek — 0240 2012 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 14 x 49.5 cm Illara Creek — 0235 2012 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 30 x 117 cm

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Illara Creek — 0316 2013 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 37.5 x 110 cm Illara Creek — 0321 2013 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 37.5 x 110 cm

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Illara Creek — 0319 2013 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 37.5 x 110 cm Illara Creek — 0320 2013 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 37.5 x 110 cm

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Illara Creek — 0318 2013 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 37.5 x 110 cm Illara Creek — 0317 2013 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 37.5 x 110 cm

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Illara Creek — 0236 2013 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 37.5 x 110 cm Illara Creek — 0237 2013 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 37.5 x 110 cm

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Illara Creek — 0229-0230 2013 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 37.5 x 110 cm

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Illara Creek — 0326-0327 2013 Ink, acrylic and pencil on paper 37.5 x 110 cm

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Selected exhibitions 2013 | Out from Alice — Woolloongabba Art Gallery — Woolloongabba, Queensland 2013 | Outback Open Art Prize — Broken Hill Regional Gallery — Broken Hill, New South Wales 2013 | Lethbridge Art Prize — Lethbridge Gallery — Brisbane, Queensland 2013 | Marks and Gardner Gallery stand — New York Affordable Art Fair — New York, USA 2013 | The Red Centre — Marks and Gardner Gallery — Mt Tamborine, Queensland 2012 | Sunshine Coast Art Prize (SCAP) — Caloundra Regional Gallery — Caloundra, Queensland 2012 | Tarp Gallery — Illara Creek — Northern Territory 2012 | Tarp Gallery — Illara Creek — Northern Territory 2012 | The Garden of Earthly Delights — Retrospect Galleries NSW — Byron Bay, New South Wales 2012 | The Full Spectrum — Retrospect Galleries NSW — Byron Bay, New South Wales 2011 | Eclectic Mix 2 — Baboa Gallery — Brisbane, Queensland 2011 | Petits Travaux — Retrospect Queensland — Broadbeach, Queensland 2011 | Tarp Gallery — Ruby Gap — Northern Territory 2011 | Drawn Forth — Retrospect Queensland — Broadbeach, Queensland 2011 | Hidden Worlds — Retrospect Queensland — Broadbeach, Queensland 2011 | Tarp Gallery — Illara Creek, Walkers Gorge — Northern Territory 2010 | Eclectic Mix — Baboa Gallery — Brisbane, Queensland 2010 | B Aware — Saint John’s Cathedral — Brisbane 2010 | Tarp Gallery — Illara Creek — Northern Territory 2009 | Tarp Gallery — Illara Creek — Northern Territory 2008 | Tarp Gallery — Illara Creek — Northern Territory 2008 | Drawing from Trees — Doggett Street Studio — Brisbane, Queensland 2007 | A Six Week Affair — Doggett Street Studio — Brisbane, Queensland 2005 | Housework — Avid — Brisbane, Queensland 2005 | Books.05 — Noosa Regional Gallery — Sunshine Coast, Queensland 1999 | Objects of my collection — Doggett Street Studio — Brisbane, Queensland 1998 | Real Estate — Doggett Street Studio — Brisbane, Queensland 1998 | New Farm Houses — New Farm Art — Brisbane, Queensland 1997 | Brisbane Houses — Doggett Street Studio — Brisbane, Queensland 1996 | Selected Work — Woolloongabba Art Gallery — Brisbane, Queensland 1995 | You in your small corner — Doggett Street Studio — Brisbane, Queensland 1994 | Little Known Facts — Doggett Street Studio — Brisbane, Queensland 1993 | Recent Work — Doggett Street Studio — Brisbane, Queensland 1991 | Recent Work — McWhirters Artspace — Brisbane, Queensland ‘Tarp Galleries’ are exhibitions of works by the artists on the artist camps

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Awards 2013 | 2013 | 2012 |

Finalist, Outback Open Art Prize — Broken Hill Regional Gallery — Broken Hill, New South Wales Finalist, Lethbridge Art Prize — Lethbridge Gallery — Brisbane, Queensland Finalist and People’s Choice, Sunshine Coast Art Prize — Caloundra Regional Gallery — Caloundra, Queensland

Education 1981 | Visual Communications — Queensland College of Art — Brisbane, Queensland Collections Mater Private Hospital, Brisbane Wesley Hospital, Brisbane Bibliography 2012 | The Courier-Mail , QWeekend — Sandra Killen — My Place — February 4, page 41 2010 | The Courier-Mail — Ronnie Girdham — Cultural Presence — December 5, page 16 1998 | The Courier-Mail — Sandra McLean — If only walls could talk — September 18, page 13 1997 | The Courier-Mail — Justine Nolan — Picture Perfect — December 9, page 8 www.rossbooker.com


Acknowledgement is given to the Luritja people who own the land where many of the artist camps were held. The photographs of the locations presented here are shown in good faith that there are no sacred sites that should not be presented to the public.

Photography: Ross Booker pages 2–117 Wayne Talbot pages 119–145 Design and layout: Ross Booker, Susi Blackwell and Scott Whitaker Font: Corbel www.rossbooker.com www.arthives.com


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Ross booker - Out from Alice  

Out fromAlice — painting and drawing in central Australia is the result of many working visits to the central desert by Ross Booker. The sel...

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