Australia has been called ‘the lucky country’. Compared to many countries, this has been the case with Covid-19. As an island nation, it has been easier to protect our borders. Despite some early scares, we are now down to a handful of new cases daily.
Prior to the pandemic, however, Australia was not as fortunate. Following several years of drought, we faced the most devastating series of bushfires on record. The tally was 33 deaths, more than 3000 homes destroyed, 17 million hectares (over 42 million acres) of land burnt, and the loss of a billion birds, mammals, and reptiles and hundreds of billions of insects. For days on end, people in nearby cities could not leave their homes due to the hazardous air quality. [Photo 1]
Photo 1 – Holbrook 6 January 2020
Smoke haze in rural New South Wales
during the January bushfires,
as viewed from a train window
So Covid, when it came, was a double whammy. Even unluckier for me was that I live in Melbourne, and the city went into lockdown not just once, but twice. The first time, people took it with good grace. The second time, however, most Melburnians were far from happy, because it was caused by mismanagement of the quarantine system that was supposed to protect us.
For several months we faced early evening curfews, 5km travel restrictions, no visitors to our homes, and the closure of schools, cafes, shops, gyms, and hairdressers. Only essential workers could leave home, and they required permits. We were allowed one hour of outdoor exercise per day, wearing masks. This harsh approach has worked, however, and life is returning to ‘Covid-normal’. Although every individual death is sad, as of mid-November 2020 our mortality rate was very low, at 40 per 1 million people, compared to 751 in the US, 800 in the UK, and 804 in Brazil.
My response to Covid
Having set the scene, how did I live, what did I do as an artist? I am a found object assemblage artist and create brooches, wall sculptures, and 3D sculptures using only materials that others have lost or discarded on the streets or beaches. In effect, I make art from trash.
The first lockdown resulted in the closure, cancellation, or postponement of art exhibitions across the country, including five of mine. Although disappointed, I was sanguine. The Covid restrictions were difficult for galleries and businesses generally, but being shut down temporarily was a small price to pay to prevent a huge increase in deaths.
Clichéd as it sounds, all these doors suddenly slamming shut led to new doors opening. With Melbourne galleries closed, I started looking for opportunities online. I contributed three brooches to the call by the University of Melbourne’s George Paton Gallery for works portraying our Covid Survival Kit: Boiling the Billy [photo 2] (healthy cooking in the kitchen), Reaching Out [photo 3] (staying in touch with family and friends), and Yoga 2 (my morning exercise routine) [photo 4]. The Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery asked artists to visualize Be Still Australia, and I submitted Siloed [photo 5]. I found it challenging and thought-provoking to reflect creatively on the pandemic. From Australia I could also participate internationally online: in MAHB’s Planetary Limits exhibition in California and Artsolation’s Sustainable Art: Recycle Your Ideas exhibition in London.
Photo 2: Boiling the Billy,
Found pieces of copper
Photo 3: Reaching Out,
Found pieces of tile and metal
Photo 4: Yoga 2,
Found pieces of wood, wire
Photo 5: Siloed,
30x38x2cm wall sculpture.
Found paint-spattered veneer,
fridge rack, rusted metal sheet
and washer, flat pieces of metal
Creativity Cluster, the group of nine women artists that I facilitate, had expected to present our exhibition De-Construction/Re-Construction in May. Counteracting our disappointment in having to postpone it, a grant from the City of Melbourne Covid-19 Arts Fund enabled us to take the exhibition online. This provided a welcome psychological boost. We developed a group website and ran training sessions to improve our Instagram posts and stories.
The online exhibition was featured in the Victorian Seniors Festival Reimagined – a virtual version of the annual event. Thus, instead of only Melbourne locals seeing the exhibition, nearly 50 percent of our online viewers have been from interstate and overseas. Finally, the postponed ‘in real life’ exhibition went ahead in November.
River Studios, where I am an artist in residence, closed down during the second lockdown, which meant no interaction with fellow artists for more than three months. However, this led to my holding regular chats by Zoom with a German artist I had worked with when she lived in Melbourne and with colleagues in Laos where I have held two exhibitions.
Incube8r Gallery, where I sell my small wall sculptures and brooches, also closed its doors. Without access to my studio, I had time to do the administration and web posting required when the gallery set up an online shop. Amazingly, during the first two months online, my sales doubled.
With gyms closed, the daily hour of permitted outdoor exercise meant I walked and walked, exploring Melbourne’s back streets and laneways. As a result, my collection of interesting and unusual street trash has grown and grown.
Being flexible, staying optimistic, doing what I could, trying not to stress about the things I could not do, looking for opportunities: these all contributed to a year that has passed surprisingly quickly with unexpected positive results.
My response to the bushfires
People living in the bushfire-affected areas of Australia have not fared as well. Many are still mourning their losses and trying to rebuild their lives. With our summer about to start, fire season is again upon us.
I found that my artistic response has been triggered more by the enduring heartbreak of the bushfires than Covid. The destruction wrought by fire, not just this year but in previous years, is much grimmer, more devastating.
Legacy of Fire 1, 2, and 3 [photos 6, 7, and 8] address this loss. I created the first two in 2018, in response to visiting an area still recovering from the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009, which killed 173 people and destroyed 3500 buildings. My German friend Julia Zöllner worked jointly with me on Legacy of Fire 2. I completed Legacy of Fire 3 this year.
Photo 6: Legacy of Fire 1,
10x10x1cm wall sculpture.
Found yellow tile, rusted sheet metal,
cylinders and washer
Photo 7: Legacy of Fire 2 (with Julia Zöllner),
11x34x3cm wall sculpture.
Acrylic paint on found board, copper pipe, rusted cylinders
and nails, orange plastic, sequin
Photo 8: Legacy of Fire 3,
23x59x2cm wall sculpture.
Found weathered board, rusted sheet metal,
bent nails, wire and bolts, bobby pins
The recently released State of the Climate 2020 report estimates that Australia has on average warmed 1.44℃ over the past 110 years. Since the 1950s, the number of extreme fire weather days has increased significantly, and since the late 1990s, southeastern Australia has seen a 12 percent decline in rainfall during our cold season. From 2013 to 2019, the annual mean temperatures all ranked in the nine warmest years since records started in 1910.
Every Australian state and territory has recognized that human-induced climate change is fuelling the increasingly severe droughts, fires, cyclones, and floods, and is working towards net zero emissions by 2050. Unfortunately, our Federal Government has refused to accept this as a national goal because of a political stance supporting coal and gas.
Earlier this year, many of my artworks took on a somber tone, with titles such as Dystopian Cityscape and Bad Moon Rising. My artistic contribution, in theme and use of waste materials, seemed insignificant when the problem was so immense.
However, I have taken heart from two simply expressed and practical quotations. The first is by US Senator Cory Booker: “Never let your inability to do everything undermine your determination to do something.”
The other, more recent, is by Jeff Frost: “Even when our problems with the environment and politics feel impossibly large, we must persevere and act as though it is possible to make things better.”
Happily, my studio has reopened. My new works have a more positive tone, similar to the sentiment expressed in Reach for the Moon in MAHB’s Planetary Limits exhibition. I am excited about participating with Creativity Cluster in the exhibition Making Old New Again during Melbourne Design Week 2021. Nonetheless, I plan to continue the Legacy of Fire series, drawing attention to the anthropogenic climate change exacerbating such fires.
Making artworks solely from rubbish is, in its small way, my contribution to sustainability. I hope that my creative use of unloved and unwanted trash will encourage and inspire others, as it has me, to follow the 5Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, and recycle.
Nancy D Lane, working as NancyDee Sculptures, is an artist-in-residence at River Studios in Melbourne, Australia. She creates brooches, wall sculptures, and 3D sculptures from metal, tile, wood, and plastic she gathers from the streets and beaches of cities where she works and travels. She has had several solo exhibitions in Melbourne, as well as in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, Laos. Since 2018, her works have appeared in over 40 group shows. She is the facilitator of Creativity Cluster, a group of nine Melbourne women artists. She teaches workshops in found object assemblage and runs a series of interviews called ‘Conversations with Artists’.
This article is part of the MAHB Arts Community‘s “Covid19 Diaries Series”. If you are an artist interested in sharing your thoughts and artwork, as it relates to the disrupted but defining period of time we live in, please contact Michele Guieu, Eco-Artist, MAHB Member, and MAHB Arts Community coordinator: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you. ~