The Australian landscape has been the muse for many creative endeavours; its latest interpretation is by Ellen Howell, a visual and textile artist based in Newcastle.
Ellen grew up on the NSW coast within earshot of the surf, but migrated inland with her parents and eventually became a committed country girl.
With her husband Andrew Howell, a photographer, they established a rural publishing company at their property at Ogunbil near Dungowan and were recognisable in the campdraft, rodeo and horse scene. Family commitments had them move to Newcastle in 2005. Ellen started her professional life as a designer and has immersed herself in fine arts over the last 15 years, going back to study and complete a Diploma of Fine Arts in Newcastle.
“My work has developed from a design base with a client and having to produce definite results for them. Now I am creating work that is purely my interpretation. The hardest thing was to unlearn skill sets and let my native creativity shine through,” says Ellen.
“I paint memories. Our brains take snapshots, mental selfies minus the physical self in which the colours are stronger, the light more subtle and the feelings more intense. The strength of my art lies in the viewer’s reaction. The memories that are evoked when they see and the depth of feelings that are experienced. I am not a slave to opinion but I am a mistress to memories.”
Last year Ellen started creating ‘The Long Paddock Project’ with the aim of bringing the vistas and majesty of the Australian country into everyday lives – to have our connection with country be alive again. This has morphed into ‘VISTAS’ and is concentrated on the New England and Upper Hunter high country.
Ellen has based herself at Hanging Rock, a small village 8 kilometres from Nundle. This gives her access to a great number of state forests and national parks, running on the southern tip of the New England highlands, part of the Great Dividing Range.
“The ability to stand in a high country paddock and look for hundreds of kilometres, sometimes over the Liverpool Plains and at others down into the Barnard River Valley, moves my soul,” she muses. “I was taken to Baldy Knob, that’s the locals name for it, the highest point in the area, from which I can see 360 degrees, out past Tamworth and Chaffey Dam and Gunnedah, over to Nowendoc, down past Murrurundi and into the Hunter Valley. There is so much Australia out there. I would like my art to have people pause and take in the space and serenity that is our country.”
Second to her love of painting is textiles and, in particular, the process of block printing. Each block is hand-carved and printed in a pattern to complete fabrics that are full of life and colour. She has named the piece completed at Hanging Rock the ‘Mountain Blanket’. It is a large wall hanging created by felting metres of wool material then blocking in three colours and finally embroidering with hand-spun and -dyed wool.
“People really understand textiles. They’re beautiful, they’re tactile, you can see the hours of work that have gone into them and they have a purpose.”
The schedule has been taxing for the last six months, with Ellen travelling to Hanging Rock for three days most weeks and then back to Newcastle to resume family and business life. The Hanging Rock community has been very supportive and the local community hall has doubled as a studio and home away from home.
“I seem to be living two lives. Leaving Newcastle on a Friday night, once I hit the New England Highway I point my car’s nose to Nundle and there’s no stopping me. Plus, an added bonus is that I get to spend valuable time with Mum and Dad who live in Tamworth. It’s the little things like meeting for a coffee in Peel Street that I miss.”
In appreciation of the support of the Hanging Rock community a preview exhibition was held at the hall the weekend before the exhibition was installed at Tullochs Winery in the Hunter Valley. Tullochs is hosting the ‘VISTAS’ exhibition during the Hunter Wine and Food months of May and June.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have the management of Tullochs embrace me as their artist during the Food and Wine event. The venue is stunning and certainly adds impact to my art.”
In line with Ellen’s belief in creating a multi-dimensional experience when viewing her art, she has worked with Tamworth local Jessica Taylor to produce musical accompaniment to the exhibition. “Jessie has been a friend of my son’s since Tamworth Montessori days and she’s now spending some time with us while she is studying music in Newcastle. When I heard her composing I knew I had to include some music in the exhibition. My favourite would have to be the ‘Magpie Dance’, it makes me smile every time I hear it!”
In April she received an email from a contact made a few years earlier while visiting Croatia with her husband, inviting her to be part of an artist residency in Kastela near Split in Croatia. The Kastel Residency jointly with the Kastela Museum will host four artists from around the world over the month of July.
“To say I was excited is an understatement. The landscape and light of Croatia is so different and so dramatic. Their history is deep and the mountains and the islands tumble into the Mediterranean as they did thousands of years ago.”
How will this experience translate to her work? “To observe and interpret through art an unknown landscape and the people within it will change how I experience the Australian landscape. So bring it on, the more challenging the better. I also want to create a way for Croatian artists to visit Australia, more to the point Australian country and Hanging Rock in particular.”
View Ellen’s work at www.ellenhowellartist.com
STORY & PHOTOS Andrew Howell