Earth Canvas

The Earth Canvas project has connected six prominent Australian artists with regenerative farmers, and their land, between the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers in New South Wales. This July, Mount Gambier's Riddoch Arts + Cultural Centre Gallery hosts the work which emerged from these interdisciplinary collaborations.

In 2007, Gillian Sanbrook bought Bibbaringa, a 950-hectare property located in Wymah Valley on the south west slopes of New South Wales. At the time, the land had suffered from overuse – too many livestock led to the degradation and reduction of ground cover and, as a result, soil quality was poor. It needed new land management practices to improve carbon levels and create the right growing conditions.

A practitioner of regenerative farming, Sanbrook began the slow process of restoring the landscape. She planted over 60,000 native trees and shrubs to restore the biodiversity of Bibbaringa’s ecology. She also built leaky weirs, designed to slow the flow of water and improve hydration across the property. Thirteen years later, Sanbrook’s efforts have raised carbon levels in the soil by three percent and Bibbaringa now operates as a profitable grass-fed cattle farm.

‘I’m passionate about climate issues and also how disengaged the general public are about farming and where their food comes from’, explained Sanbrook. ‘We all buy food. We all eat food. If we can engage the consumer to put pressure on the farming community to look after their land better, it’s going to be much more successful in working with governments and institutions to create change. It’s going to be faster and more effective working from the bottom up, than the top down’, said Sanbrook.  

But what does this have to do with artists? Sanbrook wanted to get people onto farms so they could learn the difference between regenerative and industrial farming practices, which often have a degenerative impact on the land. Art was the perfect avenue, and Sanbrook recognised a shared language between regenerative farmers and artists. ‘Artists actually understand exactly what I’m saying,’ she said.  

She began connecting contemporary artists – John Wolseley, Jo Davenport, Janet Laurence, Idris Murphy, Jenny Bell and Ros Atkins – with regenerative farmers managing properties between the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers in southern NSW. The aim was for each artist to spend time on the property and create new work in response to the landscape, leading also to workshops, events, and a touring exhibition, all under the name ‘Earth Canvas’. 

‘Earth Canvas’ responds to regenerative food production, where the land managers are building the ecosystem rather than degrading it, and the need to communicate more widely how farming practices impact the food we eat. It’s a project infused by Sanbrook’s commitment to educate and create change. ‘I look at Bibbaringa, and all I see is beauty. I feel connected to the landscape. I feel part of where I live. Why don’t other people see their land with such love and beauty and empathy?’

For ‘Earth Canvas’, artist John Wolseley camped at Bibbaringa in 2019, his outlook high enough that he could see well past the state borders into Victoria. There he immersed himself in the landscape, reflecting on the regenerative practices that had reshaped the property in recent years.

‘The act of painting the landscape has things in common with the various acts of farming and cultivating the land, which the farmer does’, he said. 

A series of landscape paintings, part of the ‘Earth Canvas’ touring exhibition, by Wolseley at Bibbaringa tell this story. This work traces the contours of the landscape and capture the breathing, moving energy of the earth as a living body, as in Chains of ponds, contour banks and the return of the reed warbler, Bibbaringa 1 (2019–20).

‘When we paint, we’re not painting the surfaces of the thing, we’re actually painting the movement of the earth over the rocks, and then we’re painting the way the water – because in a wonderful farm like that, the water has been slowed down – permeates and percolates into the soil … it hydrates the wetlands all around so that even in dry times, the soil is quite moist’, Wolseley explains. 

Also inspired by her location, Janet Laurence took up residence to work alongside Rebecca Gorman on her property Yabtree West, situated on the river flats and hills above the Murrumbidgee River. Influenced by Gorman’s efforts to regenerate the land, Laurence created a series of works reflecting the symbiotic relationship between species. 

These and works by Davenport, Bell, Murphy and Atkins are part of the ‘Earth Canvas’ touring exhibition launched at Albury Library Museum October 2020. The exhibition will continue across four states, before finishing at Australian National Museum in October 2022. 

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 54, 2021.

Earth Canvas
16 July – 29 August 2021
Riddoch Arts + Cultural Centre, Mt. Gambier, SA

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