When it comes to finding places to stay on our travels, there’s only one thing that beats showing up to find the place we’ve booked is a beautifully feathered nest. It’s turning up to discover that our host is a famous artist. That’s what happened when we arrived in the village of Franklin in Southern Tasmania earlier this month.
We’d booked a few nights in a lovely cabin in the hills overlooking the Huon River, which we planned to use as a base for exploring Tasmania’s remote southwest. But the weather deteriorated and our original plan quickly unravelled. Instead, thanks to an amazing stroke of luck, we got a fascinating and completely unexpected introduction to Southern Tasmania’s vibrant and quirky art scene.
Our host was Richard Clements, a world-renowned glass artist who creates jewel-like artworks from his garden studio, just 50 metres from the cabin where we were staying. He says he’s retired, but you’d never know it. He’s absolutely in love with glass and both the technical and artistic process, and I suspect he’ll be making beautiful treasures until his dying day.
We watched Richard at work in his workshop, where he spends most of his time these days making intricate borosilicate perfume bottles, which he sells through his website. It’s an extraordinary place, filled to the brim with precious objects that Richard can’t bear to part with.
I know this because, although almost every surface is covered with his work, and much of it is officially for sale, every time I chose a piece to buy, this is what happened:
Me: This perfume bottle is gorgeous. My friend would love it. Can I buy it, Richard?
Richard: Oh, that one. It is nice, isn’t it! Sorry, you can’t have that one. I’m keeping it. Have another look. You can choose anything on this shelf.
Me (a bit disappointed, but still dazzled by what seemed to be endless choices): Ooo, look at this! I like this one even better – it reminds me of a dewy meadow. How much is it?
Richard: Oh, I should have said everything on this shelf except that one. You see, I used a new technique when I made that one, and that’s the last…so it’s not for sale. I’m hanging on to it.
Me: So, probably not this one either, then…?
Richard (shakes his head and grins sheepishly): That’s part of my pension, that one. And all the ones on that shelf, actually…
In the end, I did manage to select three lovely perfume bottles that he was willing to sell, but I had to practically prise them out of his hands and then run like the wind. It’s understandable, because for Richard, his glass is his passion, and his work is his life. He began working with glass as a 16-year old apprentice, and he’s never stopped since. And he’s truly amazing to watch at work – such skill and precision, honed during and since his early days making scientific glass instruments in the UK.
Wendy, Richard’s wife, informed us that their neighbour, Linda Chee, is also an artist. From her beautiful modern studio (where she, her photographer husband and her two adorable dogs are living while they build their house on the adjacent land), she creates unique, eco-dyed textiles.
The process of eco-dying is as intriguing as the finished results. Linda collects eucalyptus leaves from the surrounding trees and presses them into natural fabrics, which are then wound up, tied with string, and boiled in aluminium and iron cauldrons until the dyes are released. Once the colours are fast, she unwraps the pieces to reveal beautiful patterned textiles, which look like they are still part of the woodland. They look, smell and feel heavenly: impressionist paintings, fragrant as eucalyptus leaves after rain; soft as baby cashmere. In fact, the fabrics Linda uses are as important as the processing – they’re all natural, and mostly knitted by Linda from wool produced from sheep that are shepherded by another local woman.
The finished results are unlike any clothing I’ve ever worn. I tried on so many beautiful pieces, and I would have bought several if I thought I could fit them in our over-packed Land Rover. (It’s virtually bursting with clobber, unfortunately!) So in the end logic won the day and I settled for a couple of Linda’s lovely scarves, which pack down into a tiny space. As Al will confirm, I literally haven’t stopped wearing the summer weight one since! Here are a couple of iPhone pictures of me wearing it on our scramble up to the top of Hollow Mountain, in the Grampians, Victoria. Initially, I wasn’t sure if the earthy tones suited me, but now I love it. I’m planning to order a couple of Linda’s beautiful knits from her website, Gecko Strands, when we eventually settle down again.
As well as recommending a trip to Linda’s place, Richard and Wendy also suggested we should visit MONA (the Museum of Old and New Art), Tasmania’s wacky and highly controversial art gallery. “It’s a complete send-up of the pretentious art world,” Richard explained. “You absolutely have to go. You’ll never see anything else like it. It’s the jewel in Tasmania’s crown.”
So, on our last day, we took their advice and headed across to MONA, which is just outside Hobart. On the way, we stopped off at Huon’s Apple Shed and sampled quite a few delicious artisan ciders – works of art of the liquid variety! To be honest, after our lengthy tasting session, I think we would have appreciated just about any artwork, uncritically!
But actually, there’s something all-consuming about MONA that makes it sparkle, whether or not you like what you see and whether or not you’re completely sober. From the moment we walked through its mirrored entrance and headed down into its dark labyrinth, it sucked us in and mesmerised us until it spat us out at the other end, wondering where we were, what we’d just witnessed, and whether it was still the same day. Either that was some strong cider, or MONA is a very special place.
Here are some of my favourite exhibits (none of which are controversial, just beautiful or interesting:
MONA’s story is unique in Australia. The museum is vast, glitzy and privately owned, set up by an eccentric Tasmanian art collector, David Walsh, who made his fortune from gambling. His view is that art should be accessible, fun, and even shocking – a “subversive adult Disneyland” – a goal his museum absolutely achieves. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, though. As I walked around the galleries, I spent some time watching peoples’ reactions to the exhibits, some of which were sexually explicit, others which were just garish, ugly or bad taste. A lot of visitors just looked uncomfortable, whereas others grabbed their partners or kids and marched towards the exit. We really enjoyed it though – both of us saw artworks that we either loved or detested, to the point that we felt like we’d been on a visual rollercoaster by the time we left.
When we re-emerged back into the sunlight, we reluctantly set off on the road again, sad to be leaving Southern Tasmania, with its vibrant art scene and spectacular wilderness (so much of which we hadn’t managed to explore). But our regrets quickly faded as we headed up the Midlands Highway and on to new adventures: through the historic town of Oatlands, with its topiary animals; onward to the Freycinet Peninsula, with its stunning beaches and striking landscapes; and then on to kitsch but fun Sheffield, with its brightly coloured murals and street art. Everywhere we went, it struck us that Tasmania does things its own way, celebrating tradition, but embracing the quirky, the experimental and the new. We loved that about Tasmania. It feels quite different to mainland Australia, and in a good way.
For more photographs of our Australian adventures, please see www.ogilvie-white.com