About the Artist
Dr. Sarah Willard Gray PhD is an exuberant, intuitive artist who has been painting and exhibiting for over 25 years. Her work is forceful, supported by fine draughtsmanship and traditional and abstract painting techniques.
She has a love of the landscape, the bush, the hills and the Wingecarribee River on the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. This basic landscape as narrative is balanced by her expressive execution and used as a platform to play out the act of painting. Her bold and vibrant painting style is infused with personality that reflects her drive and dedication. Sarah's thorough enjoyment of painting is evident through the essence and grandeur reflected in her confident brushstrokes and dramatic colours.
The jagged landscape of Australia sprawl across the walls, warm tones evoking feelings of comfort which are abruptly sliced through by harsh black lines and snaking rivers. Some reach almost from floor to ceiling, inviting you to lose yourself in an abstract view of the Southern Highlands. Behind the imposing canvases is a warm-faced woman who is easily dwarfed by her creations. This woman is Sarah Willard Gray.
The artworks are strongly influenced by the Bong Bong Common or Bayoong-Bayoong, an Aboriginal site within the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, Australia. The paintings which adorn the walls have the warm and texture of earth and the soil of the Bong Bong Common is mixed with the paint in each.
Sarah Willard Gray is a professional painter whose practice-based studio research builds on scholarly research undertaken at Wollongong University, N.S.W., from 2003 to 2014 and she specialised in Still Life and Landscape painting in both contemporary and abstract modes. As a visual artist with an established reputation she has had many solo and group exhibitions over the past twenty-five years. Her career revolves around traditional landscapes and interior still life. These paintings are from the essence of being and are very much involved with form and colour and she explains her work will continue with this genre as well as her mapping technique.
Memories set in stone
Some of the best art throughout history has been born from rich context. It’s a fuel that’s used to quench this creative fire that needs to burn. History provides a back ground, a sweeping narrative with which you can create a lush landscape from. The latest installation with the University of Wollongong’s exhibition space is one that chronicles a deep history that runs in Australia’s soil.
Sarah Willard Gray has created “Cartographic Concepts of Ownership, Belonging and Place”; a series that explores the history of New South Wales southern highlands through abstract expression of it’s very landscapes. However, these are not your atypical pastoral meadows.
As the title suggests, she has approached the form cartographically i.e. through depicting the area from top down view. If you were to think this would simply be a collection of maps however, you’re far from the truth. “Mapping is a shared form of knowledge,” Mrs Gray shared, “and therefore provides a common ground between different human cultures.” Each piece is sumptuous with organic beauty that truly captures the majesty of our great southern land.
She has worked on the artworks of this exhibition for about 4 solid years and it truly shows. Being the visual aspect of her thesis, it takes into account countless hours of research and practice to have finally arrived at the final piece. “In these artworks I’m not only painting the landscape,” she claimed, “but I’m also reacting to individual experiences that took place in the history of it.”
The places depicted in these landscapes: the Wingecarribee River, Bayoong Bayoong, and The Burning Grounds all hold crucial personal memories for Sarah Willard Gray. This is what makes the series such a crucially powerful collection of artwork. This specifically shows up through her determined perseverance.
One of the biggest pieces in the exhibition, “Bayoong Bayoong 2012” was completed whilst she was injured, requiring her to be temporarily ambidextrous. Completed in an impressive eight hour stint, she describes it as a big hug. It’s this personal streak running through the work that lends it such a human quality; taking this fairly faceless terrain and soaking it with both personal and historical significance.
The Map to One(’)s Past
What is the purpose of a map? For Sarah Willard Gray, it is discovering her heritage and sharing her people’s history. Using artistically driven cartography, Gray has created 33 painted works based on her heritage with the Bong Bong people and their historic territory in the Southern Highlands.
The pieces on display are part of Gray’s doctoral studies, her thesis for which centers on the concept of mapping as a shared form of knowledge. Spanning over four years, her work began when she went searching through her family’s history and discovered strong ties between herself and the area where she lives, an area she until then had an inexplicably strong bond with. “You can’t consciously do artwork,” she says. “You need to let something else take over, and when you know it’s right, it’ll go 'ding.' ”
Gray’s work is led by thoughtful research, though it in no way aims to be educational. “I paint to enlighten myself,” she says. “I do not just paint to paint a pretty picture.” The landscapes she distills into images impose strong affect on her, infiltrating her moods and actions.
Gray does try to bring this same physical pull into her paintings, even mixing the paint with ground soil from the locations they represent, but allows the viewer to take from it what they will. “Abstraction allows the mind to expand,” she says of her approach.
Gray is an obviously spiritual woman, deeply rooted in her cultural heritage and wealth with wisdom from years spent following her passion. She holds each of her paintings dear, as dear as she holds the memories and history that relate to them. “That big painting of Bong Bong over there just wants to cuddle me,” she points to a large work covering the back wall of the exhibition hall. “Oh, how I like it,” she sighs, love for her work and her journey of discovery unmistakable in her smile.
Robert Rosenblum's 1975 study of landscape painting, from the northern European transcendentalist tradition through to American Abstract Expressionism, has not been matched, as far as I'm aware, by any comparable study of landscape painting based on empirical observation, beginning with say Turner's topographic work, Constable, Corot, the Impressionits and through 20th Century abstraction via a lineage that takes in Matisse, de Kooning, Kline, Pollock, Joan Mitchell, Maria da Silva, Richard Diebenkorn, John Passmore, Fred Williams and contemporary painters such as Sean Scully, Per Kirkeby and Brendan Stewart Burns. The work of these painters is mostly without metaphysical pretensions as it negotiates perceptual experience through a dialectic of figuration and abstraction. I would place Sarah Gray within this empirical tradition.
Whatever else they are, her paintings are sensuous responses to the places she loves: we can see it in the rich, deep earthy reds and muted greens and purples, the soft creams and lovely textures and the shimmer of paint. This is her poetry of place, responding to the here and now.
John Berger asked: 'What is the meaning to be found in the visible? A form of energy, continually transforming itself’. Sarah’s paintings insist that you don’t look for anything literal or instantly familiar. You have to keep moving around and above.
But something else is going on in this work that Sarah has flagged with the titles to her exhibition and individual paintings. Most allude to memory and the cultural practices and presence of indigenous Australians and I think these things, for her, haunt this landscape in the Southern Highlands, usually noted for its colonial legacy and natural beauties.
The titles serve to remind us that not all is as idyllic as it seems. How does it work out in the paintings? Are they sombre rather than sunny? Do the shadows bleed through them? Are the lines organic or symbolic?
For example, take the cross format in Bong Bong Dreaming No2. Front-on it’s asymmetrical, but if see it as viewed from above, it’s cruciform, like the ground plan of a Christian church. Is this intentional? Does it refer to our heavy footprint?
These are the sorts of clues that her paintings offers us to puzzle over and, knowing Sarah, it wouldn’t surprise me if this exhibition wasn’t full of little mysteries and puzzles.