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.

North East Living Magazine - - Contents - words Jamie Kron­borg photos Marc Bongers

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...

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