Born in England in 1938, the artist John Wolseley’s passion for nature has not only governed his career, but also led him to expatriate to Australia some 30 years ago.
This fascination has required Wolseley to incorporate as many organic artefacts as possible into his works, where landscapes and creatures abound (often literally), within the work itself.
Wild met with Wolseley at his studio in Bendigo’s Whipstick Forest in late February to discover more about how he “collaborates with nature” in order to help protect it.
The Artist’s Natural Environment
“I arrived in Bendigo around 1985, I suppose. I was artist in residence in Bendigo and eventually came across this little shack on a bush block that was available for me to purchase.”
A more substantial studio later replaced that shack. From outward appearances, the structure doesn’t have any airs, appearing more like a concrete bunker, but with large windows looking out upon the property’s dam.
Upon entering, Wolseley’s studio reveals itself. There’s no doubt that it is an art studio, yet there’s something more than that, something arcane. Much like any good wizard, the artists’ collection of materials cover every available surface providing an impression of a space that’s a little less organised than you’d find in a museum curator’s workshop. From bones to stones, leaves to feathers; Wolseley’s studio is brimming with his subjects and materials – and there’s little to distinguish the two.
“I’ve often said that my art is made in collaboration with nature,” he said. “And this is a political statement, if you like. It’s my belief that our disconnection from nature is the very thing that will lead us to our own destruction.”
On the other hand, Wolseley hopes his art is in some way educational, not only depicting the plants and animals within a landscape, but also giving some indications as to how these environments are formed.
“In any given painting I try to use at least five or six different processes, which is sometimes representative of the way the landscape itself is shaped,” he explained. “I might use charcoal, found ochres and other natural pigments to inform these processes.”
In one particular piece, the artist has allowed the juices of sliced tree fungus to create a print of itself onto paper. Wolseley then completes the piece with some ink to add definition.
From Exmoor to the Heartbreak Hills
Over lunch, surrounded by the organic fragments of his work, Wolseley spoke of his upbringing in the UK and how he’d been sent to boarding school in London from the age of six.
“The first school I went to was eventually closed as a result of its poor reputation regarding the treatment of children.”
Needless to say, Wolseley spent his time at school yearning to get home so he could explore the forests and countryside on Exmoor. When he wasn’t out on his own he was reading stories about other children going on adventures. It was during these years that he was introduced to leisure activities such as fishing and shooting.
“Some years later I fell in love with the far north of Scotland,” he said. “I had a friend who was a gillie and he would invite me up every summer for about four years.
“This gillie was an incredible rascal, so he’d get me up to help him catch fish on the Duke of Westminster’s estate and sell them at Harrod’s. We also poached a few red deer from time to time.”
Yet, rather than satiate Wolseley’s desire to explore the wilds, he soon became disillusioned with what the UK had to offer.
“England’s so tame it’s like living in a great big garden,” he said. “You can’t actually find many ecosystems working in any proper sense. One of the reasons I came to Australia was in the hope of finding a more wild country.”
As it turns our, Wolseley wasn’t disappointed.
“Part of the reason that I’ve settled in Bendigo is that here we’re right on the edge of the mallee. For me, the mallee is one of the most romantic places in Australia. From here I can go to places like the Murray-Sunset National Park, or Wyperfeld National Park.
“Sometimes I’ll take a few GPS devices – I never go out without two – and just head out into the Big Desert for five days or so. That’s how I get a lot of my research done.”
Of course, these experiences with wilderness don’t come without their fair share of risk and Wolseley speaks of several encounters with snakes and scorpions. One scorpion sting reduced him to walk on hands and one foot for several hours in order to get back to his car.
“Another time I was in the Heartbreak Hills as they call the Strzelecki Ranges in Gippsland,” he said. “I was sleeping in a ruined farmhouse but at some point I woke to find a tiger snake moving up my leg.
“I wasn’t exactly afraid, but once it had made its way past my knee I decided to tell it, very softly, to go away. The snake kind of rose up inquisitively to look at me, then look around, before deciding the best course of action was to move on, for which I was grateful.”
Conservation in Art
Wolseley has developed a reputation as an artist that is able to replicate the true beauty of the Australian bush in a way that doesn’t play to the tropes often perpetuated in more classical renderings.
For him, the bush, the deserts and the hills aren’t desolate and forbidding, rather, they’re “uniquely fecund”.
Beyond selling some of his pieces to help raise money for conservation initiatives, or creating pieces to commemorate successes in these fields, Wolseley has also been spending time with the Yolngu people in a bid to learn more about traditional practices and perspectives.
As a result, even a cursory analysis of this man’s body of work reveals a depth of passion for the natural world that’s provided in a very sympathetic fashion. Rather than attempting to replicate a flower, a grass or a place, Wolseley attempts to find ways to physically incorporate that object, or at least an element of it. In some cases the grass appears woven or pressed into the paper he works on, in other cases he reproduces wood textures with rubbings. In a sense, this isn’t art imitating life, nor is it life imitating art.
For Wolseley, the two concepts are inextricable.
Unveiled earlier this year, the art of John Wolseley has been on display at the Ian Potter Centre of the National Gallery of Victoria in an exhibition entitled ‘Heartlands and Headwaters’. The exhibition will conclude August 16.