Camie Lyon’s exhibition, ‘A Physical Response’ opened on 18 October at Bathurst Regional Art Gallery with a suite of new works created during her 2019 Hill End residency. Taking inspiration from the lives of Hill End’s gold rush inhabitants, Lyons upped the anti on her physical making process, dragging branches back to the Haefliger’s Studio, digging up clay and embarking on her usual mark making frenzy with sticks, stones and ochres found on site. The resulting works alchemise a hybrid artistic language for Lyons, mining through her past themes and processes to uncover a rich new seam of ‘gold’.
Southern Wild Co arts writer, Jennine Primmer visited Lyon’s Dulwich Hill studio ahead of her exhibition launch.
I was listening to that Ron Sexsmith song, Gold in Them Hills, and the lyric ‘There’s gold in them hills so don’t lose heart’ and I was thinking about that line from an artist’s point of view and how the struggle is real (laughs) but also that idea of needing to find that sweet spot, that exact recipe of place, space and time, inspiration/story and that secret ingredient, the human part whether it be loss, grief, new found strength, love, compassion … this gold digger metaphor seems particularly resonant Camie! Can you explain that sense of place and history at Hill End and how it informed this body of work?
I think the most powerful thing about an artist residency is the opportunity to be taken out of regular life, to be dropped in a place that’s very ‘other’ with nothing to do but make and create. Away from the interruptions of ‘adulting’ and mothering, the days were all mine. I could read all night, create all day without interruption. I relished and reveled in the freedom and I exhausted myself physically, experimenting all day. That’s the other joy of a residency like this one, I wasn’t thinking about the end product or a potential show, the process was purely about the exploration and play, through ideas and mediums. That opportunity to explore is a true gift for an artist. And as you say, I found a kind of sweet spot with all the planets aligning and I started to feel that this work really had legs and so this new exhibition was born. Many of the works here I actually created at Hill End and then I developed some of the ideas further and built on those concepts when I got home.
As for the history – well, that was a rich source of inspiration and it somehow felt like a coming home. I grew up in Ballarat which of course has an amazingly rich history from gold rush time, so all the reading, all the museum visits, all the wonderful Holtermann photos that inspired, it all somehow connected for me – it was a reigniting of lost memories and I found such a sense of place. It felt like home.
Another powerful event during this residency was the death of my mother. I attended her funeral the day before I arrived at Haefligers. I would not usually mention this as it’s very private, but it was too powerful to ignore in the context of this work. I arrived raw and hollowed out and kinda lost. There were times during those first few days when I felt such a rawness and true sorrow. It took my breath and all my meaning away. But, I found it was a blessing to be there, to have time to myself without distractions, to remember and hold those memories close and the making became my healing and gave my days and my work meaning. This show is definitely for her.
“There were times during those first few days when I felt such a rawness and true sorrow. It took my breath and all my meaning away.”
I’ve been following your practice for many years now and you know I’m a huge fan of your work. I’m interested in where you went with your thematic and your process? It seems like there was a certain freeing and a letting go following the initial grief and numbness. In talking to you about this work it seemed like a ‘starting fresh’. I see you wearing a huge invisible tool belt with all your past creative learnings in it, and you are marching across the paddock towards this new work with a bravery and a clarity, is that how it felt?
Ha, yes! I quite like that image you’ve conjured of my state of mind, I can relate to that. I definitely had my artistic/conceptual power tools with me but I didn’t have all my actual, physical tools and devices, just a few basic materials and a lot of precious, precious time and space to create. It seems that’s all you really need. I began this experience with no expectations and preconceptions. I just wanted to explore and to see what would happen. I really took advantage of the time I had to push what I already knew and was practiced in, and then to feel my way into a new territory. It’s such a freedom to make a mess and reinvent. As a working artist, it’s so rare to get that kind of opportunity. I felt extra bold, with no observers, and further rejuvenated by the fact that none of my technology worked – no phone, no Instagram, no email. I bloody loved it! And it was such a joy to step out of the box, artistically, I just let loose.
‘– no phone, no Instagram, no email.
I bloody loved it!’
You are a hugely instinctive artist with an innate sensibility, and I see an earthiness, an affinity with the land in your work. I actually see you as earth, wind and fire! Ha ha, like the band! I love that you got this opportunity to work on familiar land. Can you explain how you felt in this place?
I felt held. I felt for the first time as an artist that I had a voice and that I could add to the long, rich and layered conversation that has taken place over time in this part of NSW. I felt so privileged to be there and I felt I had somehow earned my place. A teeny-weeny corner in this amorphous thing we call Australian Art History. This residency really was a turning point for me – I felt an authenticity through the process that I had never truly felt before. I wanted that feeling of belonging to carry through to the work and I have been very mindful not to deviate from that honest source, when creating this show. I’ve trusted my instincts along the way and I’ve tried not to question things too much. It’s been a wonderful ‘letting go’ to create for the sake of creating. I’ve loved it! It’s changed everything for me.
‘This residency really was a turning point for me – I felt an authenticity through the process that I had never truly felt before.’
Can you talk me through the materials you’ve used here and your artistic process as it evolved in this place and the learnings that emerged as you went along?Materials = limited. Basically, what I had with me, it’s not like I could pop into the shop for something I’d forgotten. This led to ingenuity. I hated the paper that finally turned up (very long story but it did find its way to me after asking all over town, which ended up being a great way to meet the locals), so I had to work really hard to give my 2D works the right surface. The ‘Itchy, Scratchy’ bed sheets have been dragged all over town. I left them out in the rain and hanging over fences and attacked them with sticks and rocks and my boots –literally jumping on them. I’d lose patience and discard them at the end of the day, but of course had nothing else to work on so I’d drag them out the next day and work on them some more. And then I realised I was building history. I was finding my language. I was using this very place in and on the surface. It became a kind of gold panning of sorts, this repetition of action and rinsing and rubbing and dumping. I was mining for my own kind of gold and this notion carried me through the whole residency. Mining for my own treasure, and working hard and beginning all over again each day with no tangible prospects. Hence the exhibition title ‘A Physical Response’ – it seems to be what I do when faced with new realities – I just push though it, work hard, hope everything will make sense eventually!
‘I was mining for my own kind of gold and this notion carried me through the whole residency.’
You stayed in an historical house at Hill End, Haefligers, and you talked to me a bit about the layered feelings you experienced there. Did these historical hauntings influence your art making?
Oh Haefligers – you are a full house! So many creatives past and present. All leaving a little lamina of themselves behind. When I wasn’t unnerved by it, I loved it. The pendulum swung depending on the day and the darkness of the night. I felt a little like a creative warrior, brave in the mornings when the sun shone brightly, but I must admit, it was a long walk in the dark to the outside dunny.
Tell me about the gold rush and other stories that captured you? How did you uncover these?
I read a lot. Haefligers has a wonderful library (another unexpected gift) and I became immersed in the Holtermann collection of photos. I wasn’t really interested in the success stories (laughs). It was the exhausted looking families covered in mud and bites, sinewy with hard physical work that captured my imagination. Gosh it was a hard way to make a buck. So uncomfortable, and so unstable, living on hope and a prayer. All they really wanted to do was make enough money to put down roots, plant a few fruit trees and build a life. Hence the apples and pears appearing in my work and the huge, lean lurching, earthbound figures.
A lot of artists do preparatory sketches and then move into 3D works but the thing that gets me about you is that you seem to go in the opposite direction, working from 3D back to 2D. I love this! Are your works on paper the ‘dance bow’, a flourish at the end to finish your performance or is it more of a mapping exercise?
The drawings began as a way to document the sculpture and quickly grew into a practice all of their own. I always draw from the sculptures, they are my follow-through device and I think of the drawings as snapshots; a way to make the sculptures work a little harder. I always show the two together, they bounce back and forth and talk to each other. I think of the sculptures as drawing in space and the drawings, in my mind, are trying to escape from the wall, to re-enter the space, both are super energised and kinetic.
‘I think of the sculptures as drawing in space and the drawings, in my mind, are trying to escape from the wall, to re-enter the space...’
How much of a place do you carry away with you back to your city studio?
Everything stays with you so I get to put all of this experience into that invisible tool belt you imagined me in. Every experience changes your course if only subtlty. This one happened to be profound for me. I suppose that was buoyed by the added intensity of the loss and grief I was experiencing and that this place held so much familiarity and memory for me.
Where to from here, and are there other wildernesses you want to conquer and dream through?
I want to continue putting myself into new environments, to see what kind of responses they evoke and I hope that future responses will be just as authentic and wedded to place. I really want to continue working in new places, to push myself further and to extend on that bravery I’ve imagined into real. It is such a good way forward because it’s the best way to really ‘step out of my own way’, does that make sense?
It does indeed, and all I can add is please don’t ever stop panning for that gold.
Find more of Camie Lyon’s work at Australian Galleries. Follow Camie on Instagram @camie.lyons
Words: Jennine Primmer / Images: Southern Wild Co