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The Creative Landscape

Suzanne Bellamy

(This essay was first published in Australia For Women. Susan Hawthorne and Renate Klein(eds)
Spinifex Press1994

I began my creative work life under the influence of radical feminism and the city. Both of these great forces in the 1970s nurtured many Australian women artists and writers struggling with the eternal paradox of creative freedom and commitment to political change. The city — in my case, Sydney — the anti-Vietnam war movement, the birth of women's liberation, extreme youth and an internationalist perspective, all tended to obscure any real consciousness of being 'Australian'. In practice, this meant for me a busy life as writer, artist, activist, teacher, working on women's liberation papers in Sydney, speeches, campaigns, posters, theatre, the fight for women's studies in the universities, the fight against rape, violence, and all the prisons of patriarchy. With very little money, one could survive, living in the tailend of a smug prosperous economy, freed from the expense of fashion and appearance by our new ideas, high on a marvellous optimism. The city was the locus for much of this, looking out to the rest of the planet more often than either inward or over one's shoulder to the earth I stood upon.

My mother had been born in Cobar, a rural copper town in the central west, from a long line of domestic servants, with uncertain and untraceable bloodlines and little control over their lives. Her mother packed her off to the city when she was twelve to work in the new factories, and she never looked over her shoulder after that. The heat and dust, no water and cruel men — these were all my mother told me about. Even today, in her 80s, she holds on to her urban life with a passion, uncomprehending of both her daughters, who live in the bush. I realize now that forgetting the past is my family's motto, making my own quest seem to them like sabotage. Amnesia and secrecy — a dubious inheritance.

A great change came towards the end of the 70s decade as I focused more deeply on my inner voices than the demands of the political community. Our collective visions of freedom and the end of patriarchy had led me to desire something more interior, something which might touch the chaotic core of my spirit, and unmask, for me at least, the stranger I harboured. Simple as it seems, I longed for the land, for more creative focus, less people, and a documented journey in words and clay free from ideologies.

I resigned my job at the University in 1979, travelled extensively in Europe and the USA in 1980, and by 1983 I had left Sydney to set up a clay and sculpture studio in the country. I had no idea what this would bring, beyond almost immediate relationship strain. Within three years, two lesbian partnerships broke under the difficulties of this experiment.

My commitment to staying with the journey inward was greater than all else, more fierce than the loss of human companionship and aloneness. Some force was unleashed which left my friends bewildered and my self out on the wild shore. I trusted only the land, the healing energies which opened up to me, my own spirit and the relentlessness of the process. From 1986 I lived alone on the farm, with my companion animals and the wombats, echidnas, snakes, kangaroos, tortoises, goannas, lizards and birds who approached and shared their territory. I made pots about them, gardened, cut wood, wrote in my journal, learned printmaking and chainsaw sculpture, walked and endured a journey of recovery.

It was very hard, cold, harsh and unrelenting. I would never have chosen it quite like this but I came to see it as a gift of life. We women of the late 20th century have been called to live out mysterious and miraculous lives, as wounded healers, ancestors of the new time, the time of our visions. Living day to day was anything but heroic, and my small ant-like steps kept me humble and grounded. Only now can I see the spiral force which, in taking me in and down, then spun me out into connection with other women and the planet, more forcefully than could have happened ten years earlier. How had this come to be?

Like many young artists, I had harboured a romantic fantasy about living for a time in a 'foreign' culture — a Greek village, the south of France, somewhere in the Aegean perhaps — somewhere strangeness in everyday life could shock me into knowledge of my own shape and my own voice. I dreamed of somewhere where I couldn't speak the language, where the community was indifferent to me. And then it happened, not in Greece or France, but near the village of Bredbo, NSW, Australia, a most unromantic destination. As a lesbian artist in the bush, I could not have been more alien, more unable to speak the language, than there. My test of exile began.

As a traveller in the landscape, I had already written about what I saw as our alienation from the land. In 1982, when this was written, it was deeply felt, but I was still an outsider looking in.

Women are so truly dispossessed. We have no sacred sites left, no landrights, no connection with place — and yet I fed a passionate connection with the Earth, and seem to be remembering. There are places in Australia and other countries which feel like my sacred sites, places where I feel timeless, overwhelmed by deep erotic connection, places which have flowed through my fingers into my work. I have stood and known of our connections with another time, another way of being, a deep nurturance — massive symphonic Silence.1

I found the door into that Silence at Bredbo, on the Strike-A-Light Creek, in a solid old farmhouse built by settlers and sheep farmers in the 19th century. I was a stranger among strangers, although at certain points we found a meeting. Two great bushfires helped to level us, as my neighbours and I did what was required to save the bush. And then there were the memorable Open Days I decided to hold, when the farm people mixed with the spikey-haired city dykes from Canberra and Sydney. They bought pots, sculptures, lavender and sage plants, scones and cups of tea. I loved these days, marvelling at how people only ever see what they want to — shearers just not seeing women holding hands or kissing, country wives buying my porcelain shells never once mentioning they were more like vaginas. And so, over the years I earned a grudging respect as I struggled with the water pump on the creek, survived the devastating locust plague, built greenhouses and had tomatoes earlier than anyone else, fired huge gas kilns into the middle of snowy freezing nights, collected a vast array of bones, feathers, wood and rock, walked long distances alone across everyone else's land with my dog, came and went and came again, staying ten years, longer than anyone expected.

Only once did I try to make a major creative bridge between me as a woman artist and those agricultural people. In 1988, the village of Bredbo celebrated its Centenary, at the same time as the Bicentenary of the whole country. I was deeply critical of the national celebrations, which were insensitive to the prior claims of indigenous peoples (dispossessed and almost eliminated), and the rural communities were blatantly racist. At the meeting to plan the village Centenary, I raised the question of the indigenous people of the area, only to be attacked and shouted down by angry fearful landowners. I already knew the depth of feeling from an earlier battle, having spent time helping an archaeologist who was surveying the local area. Her research findings proved conclusively that there had been continuous aboriginal settlement for thousands of years in the district. The land where I was living was on an aboriginal walking track between a healing stone circle and a series of axe quarries producing stone tools, to the south. Certain property owners refused permission for surveys by the archaeologist, and she backed off, thinking it wiser to wait than have spiteful landowners bulldoze important sites.

I persisted in questioning the Centenary committee, and then proposed an Earthworks project. Miraculously, a group of local farm wives and country women supported me, and promised to make their husbands help with cranes and tractors. I designed a healing stone circle with earth mounds and standing stones, using local granite, to be constructed on a site in the village — a sheep paddock sloping down from the tiny Anglican church, rising up, as it were, from the past, challenging the Christian imposition.

I imagined a sculpture which tried to integrate at a ritual level the over­laying cultures, the archaeological realities of the place, to combine openly the elements of what had happened to the land. Along with the drawings, my written submission to the regional Council stressed the tradition of the most ancient form of public sculpture, involving patterning with arranged rock form sand earthmoving — combining the old European megalithic monuments I had seen in my travels, with what we knew of indigenous forms from scholarly sources. Like Virginia Woolf's Miss LaTrobe in Between the Acts, I watched with disbelief as the project was accepted and grew, on paper, through committees, through Council, through the Regional Engineer . . . Some of the very old people of the village came forward. One very old man, a beekeeper, winked at me and whispered: 'This will bring the rain back.'

It grew and grew in our minds, each seeing what we wanted to — and then, suddenly, it was over, stopped. Despite our base of village support (or because of it), higher authorities denied us the use of the land itself, public land. Like the mythic Avalon, it stayed in our imagination.

Initially disappointed, I soon realized it was remarkable in having gone so far. Perhaps beyond that point, our differences would have risen up. I had learned a lot, about negotiating for public earthworks, about large machinery, community yearnings, and about my own great well of inner resources as an earthworker. Nothing was wasted, and the story seems to me not yet over.

Through the 1980s, I continued to exhibit and travel among women's communities, peace encampments, the 1985 Nairobi Women's Confer 


ence, lesbian festivals and conferences, spiritual gatherings. I sold my pots, prints and sculptures to women, held workshops, told stories, and found a way to connect as a travelling country woman, helping, as I saw it, to build the Trade Routes of a diverse Women's Culture. It seemed that I lived on a re-emerging map of the world of women, no longer a dream, with journeys, places and stories seeded into my imaginative spirit. When I came back to my farm studio, I started making great boats carrying large groups of women. The first was called Going to Africa. Then there were a series of animal boats, elephant, reptile, birds, dragons, and finally the largest boat, a great wooden barge and sail, with a deck full of porcelain figures and objects, exotic women carrying books, instruments, artefacts, boxes, scrolls, fleece, statuary. I called this work . . . And We Hid Our Secret Knowledge, Even From Ourselves. Like an ancient dynamic artefact, this journey-boat came alive in my life. I felt I began to meet the women on it, scholars, artists, holywomen, storytellers, musicians, archivists, navigators. These boat women, my spiritual ancestors, had gathered up into the secret recesses of my ancient memory the key ideas and forms of a pre-patriarchal heritage. They floated upon the sea of my amnesia, waiting to return. Their mythic presence found a way of seeping into my everyday life with ease.

Some moments of clarity in my work thrill me, alter me, encourage me to live, to be alive now But there is a parallel story — equal and opposite. The inward journey, the reluctant deconstruction of my psyche, had other destinations, more cruel and hideous to see. This was the story of how we had lost our minds, of how I had lost mine, the narrative of patriarchal hate of women and the earth.

I kept making my clay and porcelain figures: animals, earth, water, trees formed the bedrock of trust, while simple actions spun the thread —walking, sitting, listening, watching, making solid things. The tortoise became my main spirit companion, tough shell, soft protected heart. I carved her over and over again, on clay eggs, on the backs of clay women. Birds also participated, holding my terrors lightly in their feathers, appearing again and again in clay as giants in serious conversation with tiny women. Birds also give direct messages, and it was through this time that I opened to these other worlds of thought and image. Looking back from this place now, I would say that I endured a nervous breakdown of half my brain, while the other half fed my animals and made the pots. It was a thrilling and appalling time.

Out of its wake came new ideas, a new sense of self, still fragile but very alive. In a city I would have been taken away, but on the land where no one could hear me shout my rage and scream my memories, I was safe. Old spirits came to my fire, old women watched over me. They spoke simply, dispassionately, that this was not tragedy but mystery, being revealed.

From this experience I learned to trust my creative self as a problem solver. How affirming to look up from confusion and see another part of my self walking towards me with it all worked out. I knew then absolutely that for me, the exploration of non-verbal forms, the visual surreal, held the key to healing, renewal and action. And just as this process can work in my solitary life, so too could it be possible on a larger map, into deep past. Who are these women who sail towards me on their barge, who are these great spirit protectors, what is this mass of memory stirring in our nightmares like an awakening planet of secrets? The old women remind me, again — Mystery not tragedy. Hearts mending, not breaking. Take the long view.

This is true also of radical feminism which moves like the glacier, erupts like the volcano,, sweeps away old forms like an earthquake, builds like the tidal wave, travels with the core heat of a comet. It is the language of artists, writers, visionaries — those who combust and prosper at the beginning of change, those who pick up the seeds. In preparing for a new century, I feel good about these seeds, I feel in fact that I am a seed, a scattered seed among many.

I am sitting writing this today, in 1993, having just left my home in Bredbo. A hard and necessary transition has begun, learning about a new place, gathering confidence and resources to build an earth studio by a new creek, with platypus in her depths. There's always another beginning.

I marvel at the continued shared visions of women globally, in great numbers, all discordant with patriarchy. That is our common ground. We have a generative spirit, which builds pictures and shapes in our brains and its heartcentre. This is our Mythic Potency. I feel that, even if we all died tomorrow, we have begun something marvellous. Out of a century of bloodlust, global wars, genocide and racism, eco-madness and environmental crumbling, mass media psychic numbing, rape, sadism, torture and despair — quite a list — we still meet, work, nurture, grow, remember and tell, explore and create. It is the unlikely privilege of my generation to go the whole journey, beyond naivety, past despair and on towards the Old Laughing Women, my old relations, my inspiration. You never get to see them, they are so old they can hardly move now, just wrinkles really. They sit like big old boulders, cared for in all ways by others, and they mostly laugh. You never get to see them — you hear them. They say to me that a day comes when I see all that has been done to women, to animals, to the planet — all of it I see dearly, fully, with a steady unshockable eye — and I know that it still didn't kill us, that life is greater than death, and you never give up when you're just about to win. Storytellers are like that. What can you do but love them.


1. Suzanne Bellamy. 1982. 'Form — We Are the Thing Itself'. In Third Women Labour Papers. Adelaide: Third Women and Labour Conference.