John R Walker, Fireground

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John R Walker Fireground 4 - 25 july, 2020

© Utopia Art Sydney

No one could have imagined that we would spend the last summer watching the east coast of Australia burn, and burn, and burn. Watching weeks and months pass without rain and then without the sun, as smoke filled the skies. For some this was a time of great loss: of family, property, animals and country. For others it was a time to consider their good fortune and to reflect on what might have been and then what might be to come. It took a global pandemic to take it from our minds for a time, but one look at John R Walker’s latest exhibition ‘Fireground’ brings it all flooding back. John R Walker has lived in Braidwood for long enough now to know the surrounding country very well. An experienced bushman and bushwalker he has explored more of the district than most. His interest in geology, ecology, biology, morphology and the land itself are evident throughout his work. The scars of erosion, the traces of existence, the detritus left behind. Marked trees, cleared land and wild bush, separated by lines drawn by wires. This summer Braidwood was ringed by fire. It stayed at a distance from the town, but the pall of smoke was a constant, and the streets were full of engines and trucks and high vis crews, a reminder of what was lingering at the fringes. Walker initially did not want to venture too close to the fire ground, sensitive to those that had lost it all, but as the fire season dragged on and on, and the fires threatened, advanced and retreated, the attraction of the monster could not be ignored.

Walker’s preceding works used spare, sparse mark making to show us a fragmented, distant Australian landscape. They were paintings of a parched land, stripped of vegetation, the bones revealed. Colours were pale, muted, bleached by light. Scenes most of us never experience, except in these paintings. These paintings are of remote places, with little settlement, they say so much with a tremendous economy and set the scene for what was to come. Fire on the doorstep is a different thing altogether. John Walker’s works have progressed slowly from big, strongly colour filled paintings of twenty years ago, with hills and valleys reflecting a predominantly Hunter Valley perspective. A stint at Bundanon really announced his stature as a painter of our land as he tackled Boyd’s backyard on his own terms. He has immersed himself in his local area but also made significant explorations of remote areas of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. Over the years his paintings came to show us much more about our country and with the years has come a maturity and reflection, a visual style matching the ancient, drier landscape he observed. He evokes a landscape that is sometimes lush but is more often threatened by drought and fire. The big pictures in this exhibition capture the full story, The first two of the major canvases are filled with the burning trees, the fires licking and roaring, in the night. These are the scenes we all imagine, like on the TV news, but instead of a distanced generality, these

flames have specific personalities and the forest is being devoured. This is an inferno picture and it goes far into our collective minds. Marks, colours and lines build into giant flames that flow up the canvas. It feels intense and furnace hot. The next is washed of colour, ashen grey, the twisted metal is all that remains. This is a bleak landscape, full of ghostly reminders: a tap and a hose, a bleeding heart at its core, burnt to the ground. In the last panel, a black charred trunk stands sentinel in a sea of verdant regrowth. This is the resurrection, the optimistic promise in a land that will burn again. Together these are paintings that rage and live in our imagination. Walker has never been a painter of pretty things or happy endings. His unflinching observations capture the fireground with all its hard truths and wild beauty. For our largely urban population, the bush remains mysterious, and it takes an artist like Walker to bring it to light and to help us understand the summer our country burned. C.H 2020

1. Fireground 4, 2020, archival oil on polyester, 244 x 183 cm

2. Fire Garden Bucket 2, 2020, archival oil on polyester, 60 x 41 cm 3. Fire Garden Bucket 1, 2020, archival oil on polyester, 56 x 46 cm

4. Fire Cloud, 2020, archival oil on polyester, 76 x 76 cm

5. Fire Cloud 1, 2020, archival oil on polyester, 152 x 183 cm

6. Fire Garden 1, 2020, archival oil on polyester, 96 x 109cm

7. Fireground 5 (Rebirth), 2020, archival oil on polyester, 244 x 183 cm

8. Rebirth, 2020, archival oil on polyester, 118 x 97cm

9. Fireground 1 (for Bruce R), 2020, archival oil on polyester, 243 x 182 cm

10. Dusk in the Budawangs III, 2020, archival oil on polyester, 36 x 46 cm 11. Dusk in the Budawangs II, 2020, archival oil on polyester, 36.5 x 51.5 cm

12. Fireground 2 (for Matty H), 2020, archival oil on polyester, 244 x 183 cm

13. Fireground 6, 2020, archival oil on polyester, 81.5 x 76 cm

14. Ridge After Fire, 2020, archival oil on polyester, 36 x 30 cm

15. Fireground 3 (for Dave), 2020, archival oil on polyester, 244 x 183 cm *not on display

16. Forest of Ash, 2020, archival oil on polyester, 81 x 76 cm *not on display

17. Platypus Pond, 2019, archival oil on polyester, 107 x 76 cm *not on display

18. Dusk in the Budawangs, 2020, archival oil on polyester, 36 x 46 cm *not on display 19. Dusk in the Budawangs I, 2020, archival oil on polyester, 45.5 x 55 cm *not on display

20. Pyrocumulus, 2020, archival oil on polyester, 25 x 42 cm *not on display

21. Fire Garden, 2020, archival oil on polyester, 48 x 36 cm *not on display

A lightning strike By John R Walker

A lightning strike hit on the night of 25th November 2019, starting a fire on Black Range about twenty-five kilometres west of the town of Braidwood, New South Wales, where I live. For various reasons the RFS was not able to get to that fire before it was too big to suppress. By Friday 29th of November the fire had grown large: it was burning just 8 kilometres from Braidwood, and over the next few days things were touch-and-go on the outskirts of the town. The view from our front balcony was livid with burnt debris landing everywhere. We watched a DC-10 air tanker drop fire retardant on Jillamatong Hill just 2 kilometres from us. However, the regional RFS was able to deploy a lot of assets to the town’s defence. According to a report from one of the local RFS brigade captains, road graders ran over the paddocks near the fires at ‘40 kph for thirty hours, nonstop’, building containment lines. By the 5th of December the town was out of serious danger. In hindsight, Braidwood was fortunate that the fire that most directly threatened it, came early and was a relatively cool fire. After it had burnt through the sixty years of fuel load that had accumulated in the great forests just to the west of us, we were, to a degree, immunised from the worst of the fires. Attention then shifted to the vast forested regions and national parks surrounding the settled areas that stretch from Eden to Nowra. The worst of the fire season was yet to come to our region and the adjacent south coast.

By mid-December the conditions were shocking: very hot, no ground moisture, and with dry, hot north-westerly winds. The fires to the east of us, which came to be called ‘the Beast’ started to really get going at the end of the first week of December. We will never forget the first time we saw a pyrocumulonimbus cloud rising about 30 kilometres to the east; it was beautiful and very frightening. I knew that at the base of that cloud, the temperature must be comparable to ground zero in Hiroshima. (A CSIRO report on the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983 estimated that the temperature at Cockatoo in Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges reached 3000 degrees Celsius.) The carnage inflicted by the Beast continued to grow: Lake Conjola, Mogo, Rosedale, the outskirts of Batemans Bay, Moruya and Cobargo, and a murderous New Year’s Eve. In Braidwood we lived through a time dominated by an all-pervasive smoke stench of burnt flesh; of streets where the only movement was the endless queues of RFS, SES and other emergency-service tankers refuelling, and day after day of asking: Northangera Rd, Back Creek Rd, Charleys Forest, Farringdon, Monga, Mongarlowe, Araluen, Krawarree, Bombay and so on—did they get through today? On most days when any of us went to a café or the local supermarket, we would run into friends and acquaintances who had spent the last 12 hours fighting fire, had seen fire burn very close to their home, had lost stock, old gardens, orchards and produce sheds or, were taking refuge at friends’ places in town. A friend with limited mobility who lives out near

Mongarlowe stayed for most of December and January at our house. When she could, she would duck out to her home to feed the chooks and comeback via the Mongarlowe fire shed with the latest developments. I started painting what could be termed ‘journalist reports’ of what I was learning from those on the frontlines. For example, the second of the Fireground paintings began when Matty H was telling a group of us outside Deadwood Café about fighting the fires near houses out at Foxes Elbow. He and his crew had been reversing their truck in close to the threatened houses, fighting the fire and when it got too hot, hopping into the cab and hightailing it out a few hundred metres, then once the flames had dropped down, reversing back into the fire-zone and resuming the fight. They had been zigzagging like this for hours non-stop. Matty was exhausted, running on adrenaline. Fireground 2 is what I saw in his eyes. And the story behind Fireground For Bruce is similar, based on Bruce’s experience of fire burning all around him. Fireground 3 grew from Dave telling us about being tasked with blacking out a hot spot of about 10 square metres, where the soil was so dry that even after pouring 4,000 litres of water on it, it was still smouldering red-hot.

Photography by Anne Sanders.

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