Beechworth painter Nina Machielse Hunt has taken challenging ’ turns in the road’ to abstract the landscape — from the red deserts of Australia’s outback to the ‘ hiding country’ of the Woolshed Valley.
Beechworth painter Nina Machielse Hunt has taken challenging ‘ turns in the road’ to abstract the landscape – from the red deserts of Australia’s outback to the ‘ hiding country’ of the Woolshed Valley.
NINA Machielse Hunt, painter, pours earl grey tea at a table in the double-height living room of her Woolshed Valley house. On the wall behind her is ‘Riding high’. The large, abstracted landscape has just been shown in an exhibition in Stanley, an old village where farms and orchards run down to nuzzle like a clutch of sleeping pups among a few gentle folds of the high plateau above Beechworth.
It is a work split with arrows and axe-heads – of orange, olive, indigo and cadmium yellow, aquamarine, black, burned-brown and peridot-green.
From them, with owl-eye perspective, you can conjure poplar and eucalypt, creek and dam, tilled earth, paddock, hill, vale and dense bush.
It is a captivating image – a jigsaw of physicality and possibility by which the familiar is re-arranged with discovery at its heart.
“It can take months, or it can be something that happens in a couple of weeks,” says Nina.
It is emblematic of her response to the North East – the “incredibly varied” landscape to which she came three and a half years ago with Bill, her medico husband, and children Poppy and Reuben – and the enigmatic place in which she lives.
Thousands once grubbed for gold in this brooding valley – “hiding country”, Nina calls it – and where bushrangers Joe Byrne and Dan Kelly on a black mid-winter’s night 137 years ago ambushed Aaron Sherritt and Byrne shot him to death just a few kilometres down the creek.
“There were Chinese gardens, opium dens, a school, 10 pubs, hookers – it was all happening here,” Nina says.
“And I find it incredible that there’s really no evidence any more of any structures of substance.
“It’s like a whole community just vanished and all that remains is some overturned earth and rusty tools and bits of cups and plates.”
But there is a jigsaw all about her and she sees it.
You “can always see representation in my work.” Nina machielse hunt
Nina – she of the sharp-smart eye and disarming candour – as a university graduate mixed paints on weekends at the Brett Whiteley studio-museum in Sydney.
Nine years later and a world away she kept watch overnight against dingo coming close to an old Warlukurlangu artist taken ill in a remote Western Australian mining camp. “It was terrifying,” she says. In the country where the sky arcs beyond imagining and the red dirt colours everything Nina and the old woman were camped in a vast, silent parking lot for monster dump trucks.
“And the dingo were just surrounding us all night,” she says.
Nina learned the jukurrpa – dreaming stories – of the Warlukurlangu artists whose country intersects with the Papunya Tula of the famed Western Desert Art Movement in the extraordinary landscapes of the Northern Territory-western Australian border.
She had just achieved her master of art when she was interviewed – “the most nerve-wracking I’d ever had” – by the National Gallery in Canberra for an education role, but instead took what she calls a turn in the road to become an art co- ordinator at Yuendumu in the Tanami desert.
She was encouraged to work for the renowned AAMU in The Netherlands – the only museum in Europe exhibiting contemporary Aboriginal art – but turned it down when, on arrival, it was suggested she might become a volunteer.
She lived and partied hard in the white light of Broken Hill’s eclectic art world and took on the boys to challenge the machismo that has always and continues to spill, she says, from Australia’s landscape painting tradition.
Nina had graduated a top student from Sydney’s prestigious College of Fine Arts – now known as UNSW Art and Design – when offered a visual arts teaching post in the silver city on the edge of the outback. It was a seminal “turn in the road”. Wendy Whiteley – widow of the avant-garde artist, who had died in 1992 – at the same time proposed what would have been a dream job: to foster as an education officer public awareness of her late husband’s artistic legacy. Nina chose Broken Hill’s Willyama High School. “So I could have been on a different path in art administration if I’d chosen the Whiteley studio,” Nina says.
“But I wouldn’t have worked with indigenous artists, possibly, and I might not have painted at all. Who knows?” The choice was catalytic. “I became really involved in the ideas of ‘community’ and social justice,” Nina says.
“I was 22. I was teaching kids not much younger than me. It introduced me to the indigenous community.”
It was also like petrol on the flames of her innate sense of colour.
“In the 1990s at university all the imagery was dark and gloomy, yet I had iridescent colours – and I was painting cityscapes,” Nina says.
“I’ve always painted the environment in which I’ve lived.
“I’ve always used colour and I’ve always really loved painting with lots of colour” – and with lots of paint.
Stephen Coburn, son of John Coburn – the master painter and designer whose work at the famed French Aubusson tapestry workshop led in 1970 to a commission from Sydney Opera House for the great curtains of the ‘Sun’ and ‘Moon’ – advised her not to waste it. “I like to layer and scumble and wipe-off,” Nina says. “And it’s messy. It’s not a pretty thing to witness. “Steve said to me: ‘ Why don’t you just scrape the paint off and put it on a palette and then re-use it, instead of just scraping and chucking it?’
“I thought I should, probably – but then it’s all part of applying and making those little problemsolving decisions: to get rid of this, to re-apply that, then to smudge an edge and use a brush and a rag and add beeswax.”
Yet Coburn’s caution sometimes perches on her shoulder.
Below the house, down towards the road which carries ever-growing tourist traffic on the Indigo gold route between Beechworth and Eldorado, is Nina’s studio.
It was built from natural round timbers and old corrugated iron by the former owners of their small farm – with its rugged curtain of densely-wooded hills looming behind like a proscenium – and is often visited by birds and now and again by snakes.
Side-plates on which oil paints have been mixed and left to dry lie in a jumble on bench-tops surrounded by tubes – some full, some half- rolled.
‘Rock wallaby’ – a gritty, wild work which featured in Nina’s perceptive ‘Bushranger’ series at Wodonga Art Space in 2016, and from which selected works were shown in Benalla Art Gallery’s impressive ‘Vista: artists from the North East’ group exhibition – stands against a wall.
In it are compositional elements from a 2013 work in which she depicted a great storm over the Mcdonnell Ranges near Alice Springs – a triptych for which she won the highly- regarded Central Australian Arts Society’s Advocate Art Award ‘places’ category. But evolution is clearly in play. “You can always see representation in my work,” Nina says.
“I try to abstract but I find it really challenging to leave things abstracted, so I start working in this jigsaw-puzzle, almost-tapestry way to try to abstract a work and flatten it.
“I try not to think of it as a scene… but by breaking up and shifting the perspective throughout the surface of the work in different areas – like Matisse did, and Cézanne, he used to make things shift – I end up focusing on certain landmarks.
“So it can be endlessly frustrating because I would like to be confident enough just to let it go and remain purely abstract.
“But I can’t help myself because I’m always trying to find a landscape.”
The valley between Beechworth and Eldorado has provided ‘ infinite variety’ for Nina Machielse Hunt’s eye.
A pair of large landscapes - ’ Two brown snakes’ ( top) and ‘ I could not find that track’: works from Nina Machielse Hunt’s ‘ Bushranger’ 2016 series. INTO THE BUSH / Wolfgang is Nina Machielse Hunt’s constant companion in her bush studio. HAPPY...