Another Conversation with Artist Craig Barrett

As part of my Western States Tour 2010 (see archives from August – October 2010) I visited the farm in Minnesota where I spent my childhood. After see the place and walking through the house, I insisted to my father and siblings that something had to be done.  The house was falling apart: the ceiling in my bedroom losing its tiles, mouse droppings all through the carpet and on the mattresses, shelf upon shelf of mildewing books, a basement in which our wonderful neighbor burnt out three sump pumps in heroic attempts to keep it dry.

The house looked as though the inhabitants had left for just a few days and decided to never come back. Dishes sat in the kitchen cupboards; Mother’s stainless measuring cups hung inside the door; clothing still waited in the closets. The first time I walked through the house during that visit, I left quickly. In the past, the presence of Those Who Had Gone Before had always been palpable. Now the place felt truly abandoned, and I was spooked.

On Sundays during my childhood, my father would drive us down county and township roads, checking the crops. We would pass random abandoned farms –  a barn with a caved-in roof, a house with a sagging porch, hip-high grass, trees overgrown around the lot as if to protect and conceal the decay. After my visit, it appeared that my family was going to follow suit and just leave our place to fall apart on its own. I was ashamed.

I neither intended nor desired to own our family farm someday. But I didn’t ever think that it would not be there.  The possibility of selling any of it never occurred to me. Yet in December last year, 15 acres of the original homestead were purchased by a young farmer and his wife who have now demolished the uninhabitable house and some of the outbuildings. Now I picture a steel building the size of an airplane hangar sitting where the house used to, bursting with John Deeres and Internationals, 30-foot harrows. I haven’t decided whether or not this is a nightmare or merely a fact.

“Late Afternoon – Lindsay Park” is Craig Barrett’s misty-eyed view of the farm that he says, “in my head, really belongs to me!”

But I’m not the only person in the world who has had to process losing family land. Some of you may recall that I had the pleasure of speaking with artist Craig Barrett last December after I was galvanized by an installation of his work, “Everyman,” at the Shrine of Remembrance war memorial in Melbourne. I wanted to speak with Craig again because at about the same time I was visiting my former home, he opened an exhibition called “Buying Back the Farm,” his creative reaction to a farm being sold out of the family – a place that he had hoped to someday own.

Craig Barrett did not grow up on Wangambeam, the farm just outside of Euroa, Victoria, that his Uncle Jack and Aunt Elva owned. But it was integral to his childhood in the form of a holiday haven, an idyllic place where he and his brothers played.  The land came into the family through convoluted relationships on his grandmother’s side.  Approximately 1,200 acres remain of what started as 120,000. Barrett quips that “families killed farming,” the mathematics of repeated division splitting acreage into smaller and smaller pieces as each child matured and wanted his own land

I spoke with Craig at Angela Robarts Bird Gallery as we walked through his current exhibition, “A Shared Vision: Drawings by Craig Barrett and Photographs by David Tatnall.”  His love for land and landscape is apparent, but I was there not only to admire the current work, but also to speak with him about the paintings and drawings that his way of reclaiming the farm.

“Then and Now – Wangambeam” with a “now” thoroughbred race horse in the paddock that used to be for abandoned calves.

Craig calls Wangambeam his Dreaming, a reference to the Aboriginal belief that before this time, there was another time where all that is around us was created. Aboriginal art is one of the ways by which that culture expresses its histories and passes down traditions and stories of the Dreamtime. Barrett’s art hands down his history, the images of one of the places that created who he is today. Craig bought the farm back figuratively – by painting it, both as it is now and how it was, sometimes superimposing one upon the other. The old dairy, the shearing shed, the house, the machinery.  Ghosts and dreaming.

While we sat chatting over coffee and he took out a portfolio binder full of photographs: An idyllic pastoral of two young boys overlooking a rolling valley, a creek flowing through the background, a paddock dotted with hay bales at the foot of the hill where they stand under a willow tree. Barrett called it the Australian version of Norman Rockwell. To me, it is a Constable or Turner watercolor.  Another shows Craig with his arms around the neck of a fawn-colored Jersey calf. The next, a fast moving creek, boys fishing from a bridge. Page after page of reproduced family photographs, every one soaked in the past, cured with nostalgia.

He shows me an aerial view of what is now called Lindsay Park, Jack Hayes’ Thoroughbred stud farm and training facility.  The stable was built on the paddock, and beyond it are pools for equine physical therapy, padded corrals for lunging and exercising.   The shearing shed is now a ballroom for celebrations continued beyond the winner’s circle. The tractor shed stands, covered with vines. So does the dairy. And the beautifully situated house has been renovated – a postcard sent 40 years ago by Craig’s mother unearthed from behind a kitchen cupboard.

” Woolshed,” with the “now” heavy rail fences for horses and the ghostly remembered details of the woolshed.

Hayes moved to the property to Euroa (the name means “joyful” in the old Aboriginal dialect) from the Barossa Valley in South Australia where his former property, Angston, is for sale. Euroa consists of about 2,700 people and sits just off the Hume Highway on the way from Melbourne to Sydney, a more strategic location than South Australia.  During the nine months that he spent drawing and painting the property, Craig had unlimited access to Lindsay Park. But he doesn’t like to be there anymore amongst the 120 people that work for David Hayes.

I ask Craig about the concept of genius loci, the spirit of place: Do we get taken up in the mythology of a place, until it becomes unclear whether the place has its own spirit or if we have imbued it with a spirit by imposing on it our own longing?  Looking back can be important. Staring is a distraction at best, destructive at worst.  He admits, “I prefer to be alone, so this may be part of what I build around me.”  That’s an arresting piece of awareness.  We create our own reality which includes memories – soft, fuzzy bricks of the wall with which we surround ourselves.


Note: When Craig emailed these images to me, he informed me that the all of the background material for the “Everyman” installation at the Shrine of Remembrance has been acquired by the State Library of Victoria. This comprises of some fifty pencil / crayon drawings drawn while reading the poems of Owen and Sassoon, some twenty full-size cartoons over which the calico banners were traced, all correspondence with the  Shrine regarding the proposed installation, mock up photos of the installation, studio photos of works in progress, two proto type banners , etc etc. Craig now has works in the collections of National Gallery of Victoria, the Shrine of Remembrance and now, the State Library of Victoria.

An image from “Everyman” which will now reside in the State Library of Victoria.

He has also been asked to provide images as stage projections for the music festival One Great Night on Earth, being promoted by Chip Monke (of Woodstock brown acid fame) who has collected Craig’s work. The concert is a fundraiser for Fine Green Paddock, a not-for-profit organization that helps Australian farmers facing financial challenges due to natural disasters.

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