Since I’ve been living in New York, my paintings have evolved into landscapes of symbols collected from direct observations of nature, and from specific memories of my childhood in Tasmania. I often employ cherished retreived objects from this landscape, its temperate rain forest, its scattered animal bones, ancient paths and intense dry heat. After I left my home country, I found it necessary to develop a rich symbology of color – ochres, greens and yellows to reflect the lush palette of the Tasmanian rain forest, contrasted with the black, red and white of the dry heat. The color is applied to a composition employing pattern, rhythm and repetition. I have transformed this remembered landscape into a personal landscape.
Weaving through this landscape, are images derived from convict carvings on the Ross Bridge in Tasmania. I sometimes include experiences from the time honored tradition of water-divining (which I practice) in the paintings.
A trip home to Tasmania, several years ago, unexpectedly started me on the path to this work. My Aunt, Hazel Laird, gave me a parcel of original photographs and notes written by my Uncle, Tasmanian Artist Norman Laird. The Lairds were social and environmental activists. Uncle Norman had a fascination with the Ross Bridge, a Colonial Era sandstone bridge in the middle of the island, covered in Celtic-Inspired carvings. The artist responsible for all these carvings was Daniel Herbert, a convict transported to Tasmania for life for the crime of highway robbery. In the 1830’s, Herbert, without any previous experience, carved the extraordinary mythological Celtic imagery on the Ross Bridge. For this he won his freedom and lived the rest of his life in a house he built in Tasmania.
Norman Laird’s passionate journey to learn about the construction and carving of the Bridge led him to photograph and record every detail of the structure, especially its 186 carved panels that decorate all six sides of its three arches. He made latex molds of all the carvings in the hopes of preserving them. He collaborated with author Leslie Greener to publish all his research and photos in a large book, “Ross Bridge: The Sculpture of Daniel Herbert,” (Published 1970). The parcel that Hazel gave me contained prints of Norman’s photos.
These photographs have served as inspiration for much of my recent work. It is ironic that I left Tasmania, came to New York, a city full of art, imagery and inspiration, only to find my richest source once again in the place of my childhood.
The imagery of the Ross Bridge, both vegetal and mythical is all over my work. It repeats and transforms in scale and in context as I paint it into my narrative.
The paintings are structured with pathways, like children’s mazes. These paths lead the viewer into the painting to be lost amongst remembered landscape, populated with plant forms, ships, symbols and the ancient heads and shapes of the Ross Bridge. Following the pathways creates a displacement in time and place. It is related to the displacement felt by transported convicts (including my own ancestor, Sarah Nichols), by the expelled Tasmanian aborigines, as well as that caused by my own self imposed exile.
It is important to me to visit these sites of inspiration, to understand the history of Tasmania much closer and the peoples who were displaced from it, and through my own vision make new artworks.
- Garry Nichols