While painter Sue Lovegrove scans the surface of The Big Punchbowl, holding three pencils banded together, poet Adrienne Eberhard arrives to share what she calls “a watery nest”. Artists are perched, delicately like wrens, on driftwood at the edge of the lagoon. With a black book in her lap Adrienne starts playing with words, seeing the fringe of trees, though Sue hasn’t got past the water yet. The morning belching of frogs fascinates her and she’s trying to mark each sound. They’ll sit here for most of the day making friends with the blank page.
Sue and Adrienne are among 18 renowned Australian poets and painters participating in a three-day retreat at The Big Punchbowl Reserve. The wetland oasis is part of a series of lagoons dotted across 244 hectares on the Freycinet peninsula, acquired by the Tasmanian Land Conservancy as its 14th permanent reserve in 2015.
Carol and her late husband Dick Bett, of Hobart’s Bett Gallery, started the poets and painters initiatives (where writers and artists pair up to produce collaborative work) in 1986 as part of the gallery’s audience development.
“Back then, an exhibition was us, the artist and the artist’s mother,” recalls Bett. Artist David Keeling, who’s been with the Bett Gallery from the beginning, and is paired now with poet Edith Speers, acknowledges with gratitude how the gallery’s approach made it possible for artists to live and work in Tasmania.
It’s the first time in 30 years Bett Gallery has joined with a third party. After the TLC’s hosting of a wilderness residency that created The Skullbone Experiment in 2013, it seems a natural match. Both hold passionate regard for their worlds, where species are endangered or rare.
This time last year The Big Punchbowl was empty. January rains have seen the return of the globally threatened green and gold bell frog and waterfowl in large numbers.
The TLC’s Sally Bryant sets off with a party to view two raptor’s nests; later they’re rewarded with three sea eagles soaring above them. Freycinet’s first oyster farmer Andrea Cole shucks oysters while lunch is prepared at the bush camp by the AliCart food truck; wines from Devils Corner just a few kays away.
Andrea, a resident of more than 50 years, recalls when all you could get on the peninsula was a pie and milkshake and there was a set menu at the lodge. She sees the changes. Retired now, and clinically blind, she cares for wildlife and shares her stories at nearby Shuckers Cottages; how Pacific Oysters were a gift from Japan after the Second World War.
Poet Pete Hay is co-curator with Carol. The collaborative works from this retreat will be exhibited in August 2017. Hay calls Tasmania “a poet’s island”. “We’re expecting a lot from them”, says Hay. “Not just one piece. It’s a whole body of work.”
Adrienne, a teacher at St Michael’s Collegiate, has three sons and writes poetry in what she calls “the stolen moment”. She worries social media is discouraging the quiet, contemplative space people need to write and read poetry. “I think if young people never learn to concentrate, to read, to give a poem a go, then they lose something of immense value. It’s not that we lose poetry but we lose the readership and the potential in ourselves for understanding, empathy, and compassion that poetry can provoke.”
Tasmanian Aboriginal poet and essayist Greg Lehman, who is paired with artist Imants Tillers, has welcomed the group, and urges them to learn the name of the local Aboriginal tribe who once lived in the area. In their watery nest, while they draw and write, Sue and Adrienne repeat the tricky name over and over: Loontittetter Mairrenerhoiner, Loontittetter Mairrenerhoiner, Loontittetter Mairrenerhoiner…
It is fascinating to observe the impulse when in nature there is nowhere else you have to be. It seems it’s what you do with that moment. Those present are practiced at preserving it.
Out of this intimate privacy, the general public will be able to view the extraordinary next August: paintings and poems dug out of stolen moments, caught at The Big Punchbowl. Every story will be different and unique. Not snatched but absorbed and digested. From contemplation speaks the hope of the artist that they might help make the world a better place.
That translucent wallaby skull, a wombat that seemed to walk on water, the orchestra of frogs, wind on the lagoon, a swan with her cygnet, the Blue Love-creeper, the wedding bush and native cherries ripening on the tree…
Poet Jan Colville says to write poetry she has to be excited by something. “It has to have amused me, frustrated me, intrigued me. It’s what I’ve loved, what I’m passionate or curious about.”
“In a way,” muses Colville, “when you’re working on a poem, it’s working on you. For us old fogies you hope it will come back to a point where there is a place and time for contemplation.”
Poet Ben Walter and painter Richie Wastell are about to wade into the middle of the Big Punchbowl. Can’t wait to see what they’ll make of that.
Words & photo copyright Hilary Burden. First published in TasWeekend, October 22nd, 2016