Artists Ross Laurie and Myfanwy Gullifer live on a cattle farm outside Walcha, about halfway between Sydney and Brisbane on the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales.
Curator Anne Ryan spoke with them recently about their dual lives as farmers and artists in these times of drought, fire and COVID-19, and about the uplifting powers of art for them as individuals and for their community.
Can you describe your property, Ram’s Gully?
RL: We are about 10km south of Walcha on quite hilly country; hilly-to-steep. There’s a lot of timber over it, stringybark and box and gum. Traditionally it’s sheep and cattle country. We were running cows and calves which we had to sell because of the drought. We’ll slowly try and build up our numbers if and when we can.
Ross, You grew up on the land at Walcha, but Myf you were born in the city?
RL: Yeah, I grew up here and then left, and came back when I was about 30.
MG: I met Ross in Melbourne and came up to stay, and I ended up moving here and feeling overwhelmingly overwhelmed!
So now you’ve been in Walcha for over 30 years. Has the balance between your life as artists and your farming responsibilities changed over that time?
RL: It’s different now because we’ve got almost no stock. Since the drought we’ve leased half the property out to my nephew, just because we were struggling to do everything at once. The drought’s worn me out.
The drought has gone on for a very long time; how long has your part of the world been under those conditions?
RL: The theory is, on and off, we’ve experienced about 20 years of declining rainfall. When we took over our block of country, we went straight into a drought – we haven’t had a single year of ‘average’ rainfall. Last year was a complete killer. A lot of the trees around the house died and there were just endless windy, dusty, smoky days. Really hot, everything dying.
MG: It was really depressing.
Have the recent rains alleviated that? What’s the future that you and your neighbours and friends see?
RL: We had good rain in January and that made a lot of stuff grow, so we’re having the best autumn we’ve had in years. A lot of people have planted crops and they’ve all come up. I think they’re all extremely optimistic after a pretty dreadful time. We’d like to think there’ll be a nice spring next year and on it will go, but the signs don’t really point in that direction. The long-term view led us to rethink our strategy a bit. There’s not much point flogging yourself into the ground when the future doesn’t look as rosy as you’d like.
However, unlike other people that you’d know who farm full-time, you have this other side to your lives which is your professional practices as artists. How important has art been for you to get you through?
MG: It’s saved our souls really, although at times it was quite difficult to find the motivation because the drought was exhausting. But being able to go and make your work, it takes you to another place that nourishes you.
RL: It certainly got you focused.
MG: I felt lucky to be able to shift out of that purely farming space.
Has it had an impact on the art you’ve been making?
RL: It’s probably more informed by the state of the country itself than it was previously.
Are you talking about the local country or the nation?
RL: The local country, because we’re in it. Initially I was using brighter sorts of colours, but then, as things got worse, I couldn’t use any of that colour. I started paring the colours back. I couldn’t tolerate anything that didn’t seem to look sort of ‘dead-y’. One of the things that happens when it hasn’t rained a lot and the trees are dying is that there isn’t much foliage – you just end up with the bones of the world. And that provides a different vision. It gives everything a clarity that it might not necessarily have had before. When things are pumping with life, there’s a lot going on that interrupts what you see. So, the drought had a deep visual impact.
Was the rain a circuit-breaker? You’d had to destock by then, hadn’t you?
MG: When we sold the cattle, it was sad because they’re nice people, cows. But there was also a sense of freedom and lightness that I hadn’t felt for a long time. And then it rained. Ross needed a project and so he built me a studio. I walked into this beautiful, light, warm, sunny space and started making bigger work – it was a whole Virginia Woolf moment of ‘a room of one’s own’. I feel like my brain’s been able to expand and it’s informed the sort of work I’ve been doing. I felt like I was being slowly suffocated by the drought. So I’m bloody glad it’s over.
RL: Well, it’s a pause. We don’t want to find ourselves in that situation again. I love the country and the fact that we have the farm gives us access to the country. Without that I feel a bit lost.
MG: While the landscape doesn’t feed into my work directly, having that space and having a studio and being able to go out and work in these surroundings is a privilege.
How has the town fared with the drought, the bushfires in the eastern part of the district, and now COVID-19?
RL: COVID made us realise we’ve been self-isolating for 30 years! We just go out on the farm and do what we always did. People aren’t travelling so much, so that’s had an impact on the town. After drought and bushfires, any region would be desperately hoping people will visit as things reopen.
One fantastic thing about Walcha is that, apart from being in beautiful country, it is also an open-air art gallery – something you both played a part in. Can you tell me more about that?
MG: The Walcha Open Air Gallery was initiated by local sculptor, Stephen King, in 1996.
RL: A lot of the towns in New England are a similar size, with about 1,500 people, and they were all struggling. We needed to differentiate ourselves from every other small town that you whizz through. Stephen was keen and had workshops and various people up to his farm to make work, and that’s how he got it started.
The project has developed since 1996 to become a town full of art. How do people engage with it now?
RL: Mostly people are accepting and they like the fact the town’s done up a bit.
MG: A beautification thing started to happen, with lots of trees planted so it was not just sculptures being popped along the riverbank or street. There was a big unifying moment where it all felt chirpy and uplifting and good for the spirit.
RL: You get some comments by people, whether they are shearers or people working in shops or nurses, and they’ve obviously had a deeper look. Of course, if they don’t like something they will let you know! There’s a lot of civic pride, so every time a new sculpture is added it does require explanation and open days and broader discussion with the community. But then people have a sense of ownership.
So it will continue?
RL: I just think it’ll keep going. If the art was taken away I think Walcha would be a less beautiful place. People would miss it.
Postscript: Ross and Myfanwy have scaled back their farming commitments, but the farm has some new residents – young Angus steers – so farming and art look like they’ll continue together at Ram’s Gully, at least a bit longer.