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 Rocky Cape sky sea series (Rocky cape wilderness residency), Sue Henderson, 2015.

Case study: Sue Henderson - Tasmanian Residencies

Monday, 4 January 2016

Sue Henderson is a visual artist based in Launceston and Lecturer in Art at the Tasmanian College of the Arts at Inveresk. In late 2015 Sue undertook a month-long residency at Rocky Cape National Park through Arts Tasmania's residencies program.

Can you briefly describe your current arts practice?

Cliffs at Rocky Cape National ParkI am a visual artist working with various painting media on paper ranging from large-scale ink paintings to ephemeral site-specific painting installations. High places, geology and exploring intimate encounters with natural environments through painting processes have been central to my visual arts practice.

In my previous work I have responded to perceptual experiences in northern Tasmanian natural cliff environments through painting specific sites that I often visited through rock-climbing and walking, particularly Cataract Gorge. I wanted to expand my focus to other areas with different rock formations, topography and histories.

Is this your first artist residency?

This was my first residency experience. The opportunity to have time dedicated to being in the one location, with a focus only on artmaking and experiencing the site without the distractions and responsibilities of my everyday life was wonderful. A new environment to respond to encouraged me to heighten my observations. Being in the same place for a month allowed me to repeatedly visit interesting locations in different atmospheric conditions and diftimes of the day.

Why did you apply for this particular residency at this point in time?

I chose the Rocky Cape National Park site because of its unique geological formations. It is the type classification area for Precambrian quartzite (a kind of living museum) with rocks among the oldest in Tasmania, which have a range of effects of erosion and traces of weathering. It is also a place of significance to today's Aboriginal community, with cave middens revealing 8000 years of continuous occupation.

What did you do on the residency?

Immersion in the site was central to the project. I walked daily and repeatedly visited specific locations. I wanted to scope visual compositions, patterning and erosion effects of interest, and familiarise myself with shapes and the formation of vegetation and topographical features. I used observation and photography as data collection and made multiple interpretations in painting media once I had returned to the shack each day.

I kept extensive technical journals documenting observations of the locality and researched the natural environment and historical and cultural meanings active on the site. I used photography to capture information which I reworked in the studio and to provide a bank of images for further development using painting processes after the residency time. This residency extended my visual ideas by allowing me to respond to a new set of environmental conditions, geology and topography.

One of my aims of the residency was to have time to utilize painting materials in new ways and to take risks and experiment without the pressure of outputs. These experiments at Rocky Cape have revitalized my technical approaches and given me new starting points to continue from.

Were there any specific surprises or unforeseen challenges?

Artist studio at Rocky Cape National ParkWinter in Rocky Cape can be wet and windy, which posed a challenge to working on site (which I had imagined). The view from the shack provided constant changes in the colours of stormy skies, variable textures of the ocean and transitions of the horizon line.

This became an inspiration for a series of small square paintings I made on the shack table, while looking out of the window and enjoying the comforts of the wood heater (thanks to the Parks and Wildlife staff for the firewood). This series explored transitions between the sky and sea and is intended to operate in multiples of a grid system, referencing the Cartesian systems of mapping of land and presenting moments of temporal and changing atmospheric phenomena.

Where to next?

I will add more paintings to this ongoing grid with variable configurations encompassing other elements observed at Rocky Cape such as atmospheric shifts between the land and the water's edge, transitions between vegetation, cliff edges and shifting patterns of erosion on rock formations.

I aim to develop some of these experiments into more resolved works for exhibition in 2016. Some artist friends visited during the residency and it was terrific to experience the site with others perspectives, discuss our responses and critique the artwork in progress. Mel De Ruyter made a short film of my working process at the residency. It was also great to return to the Tasmanian College of the Arts, Inveresk to share and reflect on the experience with students.

I'm interested in the dialogue that can be set up between different peoples visual responses to places and I would like to curate a show that invites artists to respond to Rocky Cape, a site with important cultural and geological significance in northern Tasmania.

What would your dream residency be?

Actually I would be really happy to go back to Rocky Cape and extend on the knowledge and observations that I began to make within that environment. I felt like it took time to develop an understanding of the site and the ways that my visual language might explore the dynamics, topography and meanings on the site. The residency felt like a beginning with many future trajectories for my creative practice.

While return to Rocky Cape would be great, a visit to the Karst areas of Guilin in southern China with its dramatic limestone pinnacles alongside the Li River and traditions of ink painting would be ok as well!

Click here to see Melanie de Ruyter's video of Sue at Rocky Cape.

Applications for the 2016 Arts Tasmania Residency program close on Tuesday, 1 March 2016.

Click here to find out more information about the program and how to apply.


Image credit: Rocky Cape sky sea series (Rocky cape wilderness residency), Sue Henderson, 2015.