Being in Landscape

At a Sydney exhibition of paintings in 2010, I was struck by the presence of a small-scale work nestling quietly amongst a cluster of outsized, mostly unimaginative offerings. The artist was Susan Baird (b.1964). The painting was titled Gentle Shift, Hill End. The subtle, tonal quality of the work evoked an alluring atmosphere, achieved through close observation of landscape.  Dusk in the ranges beyond Bathurst is short-lived. The fading light underscores the sense of time passing, suspending for a moment the long night to come.

Susan Baird’s passion for plein air painting dates back to the early 1980s when she was encouraged by her mentor, the painter Ted Blackall, to join him on painting expeditions around Sydney Harbour. Earlier, Blackall had studied under the legendary William (Jock) Frater (1890 -1974). As one of the early modernists in Melbourne, Frater encouraged his students to get out of the studio and work directly in the landscape – not to slavishly render vistas, but to carefully absorb atmosphere and respond emotionally to the encounter. Via Ted Blackall’s urgings, Baird began her venture in art adhering to Frater’s earlier dictum. Throughout the 1980s, the artist forged a successful career exhibiting paintings and prints inspired by the experience of Sydney Harbour, the city and its beaches.

Apart from Ted Blackall’s encouragement, Baird was virtually self-taught. Commercial success had its rewards, but as a young artist, she felt something vital was missing. It effect, she felt she had no real connection to her subject. After viewing a survey exhibition of Kevin Connor’s paintings at the Art Gallery of New South Wales the young artist made up her mind: it was instant recognition. For Baird, Connor’s work was the ‘real deal’. In his expressive handling of paint, she recognised the artist’s struggle to capture the immediacy of his sensation along with the veracity of his impressions. Buoyed by her revelation, Baird cast about for an art institution with the reputation to push her formally and intellectually. The artist now had a vocation.

It was on the suggestion of William Wright, director of Sherman Galleries, that Baird applied for a place, and was accepted at the New York Studio School in 1992. The idea of New York had immense appeal. As a youngster, she saw the Woody Allen film, Annie Hall, and was smitten by both the film-maker and the city. The rigour at the school would instil in Baird the discipline to best harness her creative talents. The painting and drawing program structured around observations of the figure was an intensive investigation of form, colour and tone. It was during the year spent at the New York Studio School that Baird began the vital task of transferring sensation and emotion into a shared experience. Apart from formal studies, there was the rich regime of New York’s museum collections and gallery exhibitions. Yet, it was the experience of seeing the work of West Coast-based painter Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), that would have a lasting impression on the artist. Baird responded to Diebenkorn’s ability to reconcile abstraction to the appearance of the natural world evident in the 1967 Ocean Park series, inspired by the beachside section at Santa Monica where he lived. Diebenkorn’s art was not driven by ideology: it was sustained by a specific environment and its atmospheric shifts. As Robert Hughes pointed out: ‘You cannot walk down the Santa Monica Esplanade without recognising elements [of the paintings] in the real landscape.’ [1]

Back in Sydney in 1993, Baird mounted an exhibition of the New York City-based work at the Barry Stern Gallery in Paddington. The critic Elwyn Lynn, who had observed the artist’s earlier work responded favourably to the recent offerings:

‘Baird constantly empowers, concentrates then disarmingly alleviates. At times traffic canyons are delirious with yellow cabs; areas of lambent intensity can become luminously sour and fleetingly clam .She has momentarily tamed New Yorks ceaseless, impetuous energy in works where the expressive can dissolve into nuanced lyricism.The works are splendid examples of relevant painterliness, and even in the black and yellow Downtown, a small concise summary of a light post curved over a cab on its desperate journey, there is a mature assurance.’ [2]

Susan Baird’s first encounter with the Hill End site was on a road trip in 2009. The impact was immediate. But Baird realised it would take time to assess the visual and historic stimuli that confronted her in and around Hill End’s charged landscape. She was also aware of the Hill End-inspired works of Donald Friend and Russell Drysdale that constituted one of the most significant chapters in the history of Australian landscape painting.  The rich legacy continues to resonate today. Yet, it was Lloyd Rees with his sensitive response to light in Evening Hills near Bathurst, 1952, that would remain an inspiration. On visits to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Baird would always search out the work.

In 2011, Bathurst Regional Art Gallery awarded the artist a residency at the Haefliger Cottage. It was the month of April, and the autumnal atmosphere would trigger a series of studies that reflected the verdant nature of the surrounding paddocks and enclosures. Paintings such as Field, 2011, Soft Approach, 2011, and All Welcome, 2011, were executed directly from aspects in the immediate vicinity of the cottage. Baird’s fluency with pigment and skilful handling of form and tone evoke a convincing, yet poetic description of ‘being in landscape’. In addition, this suite of deceptively simple, small-scale works capture the quiet dignity of the place. Looking out from the Haefliger’s cottage, Baird was inspired by the structures and forms of St Paul’s Presbyterian Church and the Police Station. This lead to an interesting series of etchings stimulated by the constant shifts in atmosphere and quality of light throughout the day.

In recent correspondence the artist explained her process: ‘To make the etchings, I took the plates up to Hill End and worked on them outside – gathering lines and marks from the field directly to the plate … to get that sense of immediacy. I chose locations that I became familiar with during my time at Haefligers – looking down over the field towards the police station as in the print titled Night watch, and the gnarly trees at the back of the cottage near St Paul’s Church, understanding the pace of the light is another factor.’[3]

Baird proofed the key plates back in Sydney, then went out to Hill End with support plates. There she worked directly onto the plates with sugar lift which were aquatinted later on. As the artist pointed out: ‘Getting the plates to work together tonally is the most difficult aspect of using colour on a print with multiple plates.’ [4] The result is an engaging suite of prints that tackle the diurnal rhythm of village life.

The distinct seasonal nature of village life high in the hills behind Bathurst becomes apparent in April. The Easter festivities at Hill End usher in the long winter months that can test one’s physical and mental endurance. During the last weeks of autumn, there is a warmth and glow in the air. The effect is enlivened by the reddy-gold deciduous display of elms, oaks and ash that stretch along Beyers Avenue. With these ancient trees framing remnant structures, Hill End stands as a potent instance of time passing. In a recent statement, Baird describes the encounter: ‘Being at Haefliger’s in April 2011 allowed me to watch how things unfold in Hill End from morning to night. It was great to be able to drag the easel outside to capture a passing haze or the flicker of a house light – the transitory moments in time.’ [5]

In the summer of 2011, Baird returned to Hill End and stayed at Cooke’s Cottage. The fine nocturne, Dark December, 2011, would mark the entry point into a rigorous series of accomplished works. Further exploration of the region took the artist north to Tambaroora, with its scrubby stands of eucalypts and shallow waterholes. It was a period of consolidation where Baird confronted the landscape and began processing the raw beauty of the native scrub that had taken hold around scenes of casual desolation and abandonment. In the early 1850s, Tambaroora had been a thriving centre of activity. Alluvial gold was the attraction. The sites around the creeks and gullies were virtually cleared of all vegetation in the search for gold. Thousands of diggers from Britain, Europe, California and China arrived on the scene. A township sprang up to service their needs. Before long, the alluvial gold became scarce. Tambaroora’s rich alluvial deposits had been exhausted. The diggers moved south to establish Hill End and unearth the fabulous reef of gold at Hawkins Hill that made the place world-famous.

There is little of Tambaroora left today. Apart from a few die-hards who live in remnant dwellings and relish the isolation, a forlorn atmosphere pervades the site. The melancholic mood of the place is accentuated by the presence of both the Anglican and Catholic cemeteries. Some years ago, a delegation of Chinese came and removed the remains of their ancestors.

A series of shallow depressions are all that’s left of the Chinese cemetery. The smooth-trunked eucalypts that have reclaimed the region became the central motif in Susan Baird’s most recent works. In Landscape 1, and Landscape 11, 2012, the artist has sustained the sensation of her first impressions. Fleeting gum, 2012, exudes a spectral presence that seems to have penetrated the artist’s psyche. In works such as Crossing and reflecting, 2012, Baird has seized upon the mirroring effect of a still body of water to amplify the sombre beauty of her vision. Moonlight gully, 2012, is imbued with a meditative mood attained through a time of silent observation.

The fine tonal modulation and surface quality in Susan Baird’s recent works attest to her skill in wresting compelling imagery from a fundamental motif. Once again, Hill End and its surrounds with that elusive ambience have proven to be a well-spring for the creative spirit.

Gavin Wilson, 2012

[1] Robert Hughes, American Visions: the Epic History of Art in America, 1997. Harvell Press, London. pp. 550-551.

[2] Elwyn Lynn, Calm amidst the frenzy, The Australian, April 3-4 1993.      

[3] Susan Baird, correspondence with the author 15 October 2012.

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid