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In my studio by Deborah Van HeekerenDeborah Van Heekeren

In the oil paintings and mixed media works selected for “Beings” I imagine shared connections between the land and the inhabitants of Australian farms. Predominantly figurative, my work is grounded in the modernist tradition of oil paint on canvas, with the occasional incorporation of collage and mixed media treatments. I am influenced stylistically by the Australian painters of the mid-twentieth century, nevertheless, my imagery reflects a personal response to the current state of the human condition in its relationship with a degraded environment. I also want to challenge the masculinist representation of life on the land and question some common assumptions.

I was born in Sydney and grew up in the—then working-class—inner suburbs. The beaches were our weekend playground and my nanna’s place at Lithgow was ‘the country’. When I moved to Maitland in the Hunter Valley in 2013, I was struck by the way rural life thrives at the edges of the city. I found it magical. And my preconceived distinctions between town and country dissolved. This experience was heightened by my evolving admiration for the novels of Patrick White, who was deeply connected to this part of NSW.

My artistic and intellectual influences are eclectic. They include Marc Chagall, Arthur Boyd, and the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, but it is White’s poetic descriptions of the Australian landscape that are particularly resonant in much of this body of work. As an anthropologist, I have also benefited from many years of engagement with the indigenous lifeworlds of Melanesia. I understand that there are many and varied ways to exist with-the-world. Beings are entities, but the word also suggests plurality; that there are multiple ways of being. And being-with one’s environment rather than in the environment offers an alternative possibility.

In White’s epic novels, The Tree of Man and Voss, the Australian landscape is presented to the reader as a protagonist. His human characters are drawn into complex relationships with their environments as they coexist with, negotiate, and are shaped by seductive pastorals or treacherous monsters in the guise of flood, fire, and drought. My paintings from 2017 are the most literal depictions of White’s writing. Amy Parker’s Tree and Stan Parker’s Secret of that year are imaginings rather than illustrations that emerge from The Tree of Man. The latter painting marks the emergence of my human/animal figures. During a flood Stan Parker had deliberately mistaken a dead person wedged in a tree for a sheep.

The Beings of my paintings developed a greater involvement with the NSW landscape following a road trip I made in 2018, at the height of the drought. I wanted to express the essence of a dying landscape as a shared experienced for all involved. Farmers were suffering, animals were suffering and the land was dying. The human/animals in these paintings take on the colours and forms of the land. They are compacted, reduced to poetic possibility. The images speak to the tragedy of landscape in the face of neglect, and misuse, and suggest a devastating breakdown in human-animal-earth relations. This theme is shown most deliberately in the 2018 works Number Our Days and The Farm I (near Lake George) and then reappears in Crying Dry (2020). In other paintings such as Sheepish, Farmhouse and The Europeans I raise questions about the very nature of Australian farming. I have also included some brighter images such as the small Bunny Rise (2017) and the very recent Calligrapher (Mudgee) because they are playful and show a lighter aspect of rural life.

Running through much of the work is the theme of gender. Just as they are neither human nor animal, many of the figures are both male and female. They are essentially domestic and all exist in relationship with their environment. My intention here is to feminise the masculinist tradition of Australian landscape painting and question generalisations about farm work and male labour. The figures suggest a shared condition; the connections between the land and the beings that inhabit Australian farms which goes beyond common stereotypes. Other works such as The Red Handbag (2018), Struggle (2019) and Keep Out (2018) speak explicitly to the obstacles to women’s recognition as both farmers and artists.

Deborah Van Heekeren C.V.