About Garth

Cartoonist and rock musician. Passionate about wildlife and representations of it. Lives Down Under!

Discovering David Stacey’s natural world

I spent Christmas with my daughter who lives in Kuranda, a tourist destination in Tropical North Queensland, Australia. This small, unique village sits atop a mountain range cloaked with ancient rainforest and is accessed from the coastal plain below by a colonial style railway, a winding, mountain road and a cable car. In the 1960s its famous Hippie Market established it for tourism; hence its art galleries, souvenir shops, small zoos and various eateries.

In his small, walkthrough gallery in Kuranda’s centre, David Stacey sat working on a pencil drawing in the corner as I walked through to get coffee in the square beyond. I never got beyond. I was stopped in my tracks by the unusual and amazingly colourful, original paintings and reproductions by Mr Stacey.

David Stacey 1

David Stacey 2

David Stacey 3

My first impression was that his work lay somewhere between graphic design and picture painting and that the colourful renditions of his rainforest subject matter would appeal to the tourist market and that he would do good business selling his professionally presented greetings cards, prints etc. But there was an element about every work that appealed to something deep within me that kept me looking and kept me very interested. Mr Stacey was botanical artist, landscape painter, scientific illustrator and graphic designer all rolled into one.

Some of his paintings were conglomerations of maps, landscapes and the creatures and features contained within. I felt that each painting was conveying ideas, feelings, incidents and stories. I was convinced that he was telling of and expressing, in an holistic way, his affinity with, his understanding and appreciation of and respect and love for the surrounding country; particularly the rainforest. I was not therefore surprised that when I eventually spoke to him and asked him what his favourite work was he told me it was the Flaggy Creek Triptych above.

David Stacey 7

David Stacey 8

I realised why Mr Stacey’s work was reaching me. Although he does not paint in a strictly realistic style I noted the accuracy of his drawing in his portrayals of different species of flora and fauna; from forest fruits to birds and frogs. I applaud accuracy and this level of it only comes from an intimate familiarity, born of respect and love, for these denizens of the forest. As a student and illustrator of Natural History and familiar with many of his subjects, including some of the landscapes, I believed myself qualified to make such judgements but nonetheless was eager to test my ideas by asking the artist himself.

David Stacey 9

David, from Sydney, came to Kuranda already a lover of Nature in the 1980s. He confirmed to me that he spends much time in the bush and rainforest walking the tracks and studying the species. He uses a headtorch, like me, to find and encounter the nocturnal species such as the wonderful Waterfall Frog – Litoria nannotis in this painting which coincidentally I went on to photograph at Davies Creek that night after speaking with him! It is no wonder he loves this landscape. Davies Creek is the most gorgeous of places and the habitat of this endangered and beautiful Frog is so well portrayed in his painting.

David Stacey 10

David Stacey 11

David agreed that his style was not unlike Aboriginal art in the way that it expresses his world in an holistic way rather than concentrating on a single subject. However he stated that his style had evolved from his personality rather than having been influenced by Aboriginal art. I thought convergent evolution manifests itself in more ways than we think! The Aboriginal and David Stacey both expressing their world by painting it in their own individual way but in a way that displays much similarity.

David Stacey 12

David Stacey 13

When I asked David “why do you paint?” he thought for a while then said “what else can you do?” We discussed what he meant by this and agreed that, like me again, he is driven to recreate that which he finds aesthetic; only in his case it is a whole ecology that he has to recreate and thus his conglomerate paintings reflect this. He says that in this modern world he believes that “people are losing their sense of aesthetic and beauty.”

He is a thoughtful man; never answering a question without pause for consideration and whilst reflecting on our interview I later wondered if David Stacey was in his gallery in body but his mind was wandering the rainforest where he was most happy?

David is creating a book with a publisher already very interested. It is an illustrative narrative about the journey of water in a certain creek from source to sea. I was very privileged to be shown some of the plates for the book. It will be unique and quite stunning. It will be for young and old and filled with all the plants, animals, geology, stories and ideas provoked by a long love affair with the natural history of the rainforests of Tropical North Queensland. I shall certainly buy a copy.

David Stacey 14

David Stacey 15

David Stacey 16

David Stacey sells well to the tourists. His limited prints are extremely well produced. This does not devalue his work but I believe that it was not created for this reason. His are works of passion; expressing his world of the rainforest. I think it sells well because it is simply very beautiful stuff about very beautiful stuff.

“Evicted” by Blandford Fletcher

"Evicted" by Blandford Fletcher, Oil on canvas. Photo taken thanks to Brisbane Art Gallery, South Bank, Brisbane, Queensland.

“Evicted” by Blandford Fletcher, 1887 Oil on canvas. Photo taken thanks to Queensland Art Gallery, South Bank, Brisbane, Queensland.

Each visit to the Queensland Art Gallery sees me inexorably drawn to “Evicted” by Blandford Fletcher (1858 -1936). I question why this should be. Is it that this painting from 1887 reminds me of my past life living in English villages, thus stirring emotive memories? Is it that it brings me closer to my ancestors who lived in Britain and would have dressed like this and known the world that it portrays?

Detail of "Evicted"

Detail of “Evicted”

What I have no need to question is that it attracts me because it is Beautiful Stuff, masterfully executed by a man who could draw, who understood composition, use of colour and whose immense skill with his chosen medium is undeniable. The subject matter does not attract me as it shows a sad widow and her daughter being evicted from their home in Steventon in Berkshire by the Bailiff with villagers looking on. I wondered why I should like the painting so much when the subject was so tragic. I also wondered why every face had such blandness of expression under the circumstances but concluded that this must be a reflection of the times when to portray high emotion may have appeared almost “cartoony”. Perhaps the artist wished to give the victims dignity and also to not point the finger of blame at the others. In a cruel system all are ultimately victims I suppose. But that is conjecture. On my last visit to the painting I was unconvinced by the above conclusions as I felt that the full reason for its fascination  still eluded me. I read the information plaque again and I then understood. ‘….Fletcher’s interests lay less in landscapes than in the human stories associated with English village life. His paintings typified late Victorian works that appealed to the social conscience in an age of rapid industrialisation, reform and economic hardship.’

Detail of "Evicted"

Detail of “Evicted”

The words ‘appealed to the social conscience’ were the key. This was the missing layer, the hidden extra, the further dimension that this painting offered. It was painted for a reason above and beyond the artist’s need to recreate that which appealed to his aesthetic senses. It was a statement designed to initiate change and I saw parallels with the songs of John Lennon, the writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe and all the works of ‘artists’ throughout the ages who have highlighted the suffering and injustices in society and on occasions offered solutions. This made me further think about the ‘artist’s’ role in initiating social change. I feel that simply because of what artists do their views in this arena are seen and heard most readily, stridently and often in extraordinarily attractive and powerful ways. This, I think, has resulted in society giving an unjustified importance to artists’ opinions and therefore granting them a licence, bordering on a monopoly, over the regulation of the social conscience. If this is true then it is a complete fallacy. We all must be and can be guardians of the social conscience and initiate social change by using whatever medium we are skilled at using.

Talking “Really Ugly” Stuff!

Anything – an object, a melody, an odour, taste or texture has the ability to create within us an emotional response. This is particularly true of “stuff” created to do just that, such as the works we talk about here on Talking Beautiful Stuff. I think what happens is that somewhere, between our minds and the “stuff”, we meet with and acknowledge the story that it tells us. Often the intensity of our emotional response is greatly increased if we have some invested knowledge or particular interest in its story. For me, this is why some of us are driven to Talking Beautiful Stuff. We share the stories and our reactions because I believe it is important to do so.  But what if “stuff” has been deliberately created to be ugly? What if its story were uglier still? I think that in these cases all that remains and will always be “beautiful” is the acknowledgement and subsequent understanding of the story. It was thinking about these issues that brought back a most peculiar and powerful memory of a visit to the Museum of Ethnography in Geneva during May 2008.

I was with Jenny as I entered a small, darkened gallery in the Museum. We were alone. Dim spotlights shone down vertically from the low ceiling illuminating what I can say with utter certainty were the most extraordinary objects that I have ever seen – and possibly the “ugliest.” My immediate reaction was revulsion, leaving me feeling strangely unclean by being near these objects. I would not dream to speak of another’s emotional reaction but I can say that Jenny, unsurprisingly, did not care to join me for a second look at this gallery! I, however, was being powerfully drawn back.

Bizango 1

Copyright: Johnathan Watts / Musee d’ethnographie de Geneve

Bizango 2

Copyright: Johnathan Watts / Musee d’ethnographie de Geneve

This time I stood alone amongst the objects – ranks of life-sized figures like an army of corpses staring blankly from mirror eyes. I felt almost claustrophobic and close to panic which surprised me as in my former occupation I’ve policed, alone at night, mean city streets, but this was beyond my experience. I needed to understand what these awful things were and their story. I saw clever artistry at work creating what I felt were deliberately ugly and horror-invoking faces with pure malice sneering from their mouths. Each face was built around a human skull but it seemed that the medium used to create these creatures was dictated by other forces rather than the creators’ choice. My invested knowledge told me that this force was devastating poverty. The bodies of the figures were made of old clothes, stuffed like a child’s Guy Fawkes with stuffed gloves for hands. They were crudely painted in red and black and were dirty, old, malevolent, horribly creepy and profoundly mysterious.

Bizango 3

Copyright: Johnathan Watts / Musee d’ethnographie de Geneve

Bizango 4

Copyright: Johnathan Watts / Musee d’ethnographie de Geneve

This was a small army of “Bizango” from Haiti and were part of the first ever exhibition of Haitian artifacts associated with the Voodoo religion. The exhibition was titled – Le Vodou, un art de vivre. Truly, it remains the most extraordinary exhibition I have ever had the privilege to witness, particularly as all the exhibits were of a deeply religious, ritualistic, superstitious and personal significance to their creators. Invested knowledge, from years of reading about Voodoo, made me feel uncomfortably like a peeping Tom. In fact, I learned from an Haitian guide at the museum that objects were only given up because of poverty and the fact that collectors would pay for them.

The true and full meaning of the “Bizango” figures may never be known except to those who created them in secret places in the Haitian countryside, after dark. Serious researchers meet with real fear, secrecy, misinformation and even threats of violence when trying to probe this subject. What I tell you now is what my researches have revealed but it could be off the mark. Bizango are secret organisations who operate an unofficial justice system working on secret, social levels in this most enigmatic and unusual society. Voodoo, as a religion, has little to do with Bizango except that the two are part of and mingle within the one social structure. The figures represent the dead fighters of the Haitian revolution of 1791 – 1804.  This amazing revolution in the richest slave economy on Earth, strengthened by the cohesive power of Voodoo, beat Napoleon’s powerful French Empire and created the first Black Democracy in the New World. I think that the figures represent the idea of a spiritual judge with ancient credibilty and act as the physical focus of that idea at trials. Wrongdoers are tried by the Bizango court and if found guilty, sentenced. Zombification is the worst sentence. This is a fate worse than the death penalty as it involves being killed by poisoning, being buried then dug up and resurrected to a mindless half-life of slavery to another. Please suspend forever your disbelief on this – we are talking about Haiti. I admit that I have never been there but the more I learn about Haiti the more questions I need to ask and the answers are rarely easy on the mind or the heart.

Bizango 5

Copyright: Johnathan Watts / Musee d’ethnographie de Geneve

Here I am talking undeniably and deliberately ugly stuff. Its story too is ugly, being born from the ugliness of slavery, the ugliness of a war of revolution, the ugliness of corrupt government and crippling poverty. From my research I cannot be sure that even the idea of justice meted out by the Bizango secret societies is altogether positive. So how do I justify posting this on Talking Beautiful Stuff

I looked at and considered the string holding these figures together, the old, stuffed clothes, the childish poses which the medium dictated, the skulls of forgotten Haitians but above all the need that drove the making of such hideous creations. I added what I saw to my invested knowledge and this led me to meet with and acknowledge their story. My understanding of that story, I feel, is the “beautiful” thing. I believe this because I wept with pity and I still weep when I think about it.

  • Exhibition: Le Vodou un art de vivre – 5 December 2007 – 31 August 2008 – Musee d’ethnographie de Geneve, 65 Bd Carl Vogt, CH – 1205 Geneve
  • Book/Catalogue: Le Vodou un art de vivre – Under the direction of Jacques Hainard and Philippe Mathez. Photographs by Johnathan Watts. ISBN 978-2-88474-074-6 Published by: Musee d’ethnographie de Geneve 2007
  • All photographs in the post are from this book.
  • Recommended further reading: The Serpent and The Rainbow by Wade Davis – William Collins Sons Co Ltd 1986

The World Turns by Michael Parekowhai

The World Turns 1

Michael Parekowhai‘s bronze is a life-sized Indian Elephant apparently standing on its head with its feet attached to a rock. Beside it, easily overlooked, is a life-sized, Australian, Native Water Rat grooming its bronze fur. The work stands on the South Bank of the Brisbane River outside the Art Gallery. The Elephant is smooth to touch, unlike a real Elephant and I find it a pleasant sensation to run my hands over the wonderful folds in its skin.

The World Turns 2

Both animals are portrayed in an extremely accurate way, which for me, is the most important thing about any work. I am attracted to realistic sculptures in that I appreciate the skill involved. This may seem strange coming from a cartoonist. (We asked Garth for cartoon examples of these animals and he sent us two he had used to illustrate an article on the law concerning trapping of animals – see below!) The Elephant’s massive strength is somehow accentuated by the way it is pushing back on the rock to prevent itself being turned on its back. The Rat’s fussy grooming is typically rodentious – now there’s a new word for the dictionary! So I find myself liking this unusual work very much. I walk around it and realise that its placement with the background of the impressive Brisbane skyline adds greatly to my enjoyment.

Then I read about the sculpture. “The World Turns” was commissioned by the Queensland Government in 2011. The descriptive plaque tells us that the Native Rat is a hero, a traditional caretaker, together with the Native People, of the Mangroves at Kurilpa point where the Gallery stands. This initially seems to give some geographical meaning to the work. It continues by telling us that the Rat goes about his business even though he has shifted the World, as represented by the Elephant and rock, from its axis. Oh! Dear! I am becoming confused! Not hard to do, I know, but I don’t like it. I read on about how the work “reminds us that history is often recorded to highlight specific moments, but, as the world turns, there are many other stories – and these are central to our understanding of history”. Now I am truly confused! Obscure and multiple meanings, poorly written, do not serve this wonderful work well in my opinion.

I walk away, annoyed that what I consider to be pretentious “art speak” has spoilt my complete enjoyment of the sculpture. This situation forces me to think about which is ultimately the more important, the work or the idea that drove its creation. I know that the two cannot exist without each other and the question is a difficult one. I try to find an analogy or parallel to clarify my thinking. I find it in poetry, where I am sure that any idea is given more power by words that intelligently and beautifully rhyme rather than simply being written down? Therefore the work is the greater of the two, ultimately speaking to us of its own beauty in spite of the idea that spawned it.

The World Turns 3

The World Turns 4

City Roos by Christopher Trotter

City Roos 1

Since discovering Christopher Trotter‘s ‘City Roos’ on George Street, Brisbane, I have wondered how this sculptural installation has escaped the machinations of the Health and Safety officials and avoided immediate removal as a hazard to pedestrians who might trip over them.

City Roos 2

City Roos 3

Four kangaroos, constructed of scrap, congregate on the pavement. One feeds, two are attentive to you, hoping for a snack perhaps, and one lounges on a seat with his steel scrotum catching the sun. This is how they are if you wander amongst them at a zoo and it is this accurate portrayal of character as well as form and pose that attracts me. A kinetic effect is remarkably achieved as folk walk by, ignoring the ferrous Macropods, or giving them attention when smiles are the most frequent expressions generated. This is wonderful to behold and adds to the enjoyment of the ‘City Roo’ experience! We could all do with smiling more! I also spend time finding additional interest in the shapes of the scrap and guessing the scrap’s origin and former function. In my opinion ‘City Roos’ (1999) are imaginative, well executed and thoughtfully placed in their concrete and neon, skyscraper habitat.

I find no obvious message here but I would bet that Mr Trotter and the Brisbane City Council, who own the work, are stating Australian pride, indulging in some Australian humour and deliberately adding to the wonderful, urban environment that this city offers.