Paintings from Soapy Bore

The 12 paintings that I have completed since our Conference came to me in a dream like way.  My mind was full of images when I got back to Sydney - the intensity of the colours in the desert  the blue of the sky  the brown/red of the earth,  felt as though they were seared on my retina.

Although I have painted for pleasure for some years, this was the first time I felt compelled to put paint to canvas.

The paintings were taken from photographic images, either mine or Brad’s.  They are a bit like a visual diary of my experience.  Why did I choose these images from so many photographs?

Looking at the whole 12 (one for each of the people who attended) I think I wanted to capture something of the landscape, its beauty and it harshness.  I also wanted to portray something of our presence and that of the local inhabitants, human and animal.  So the paintings are a mix of landscape and its inhabitants:  indigenous, foreign and feral.

Which are we?

The process of painting was intensely pleasurable.  I covered each canvas with a luminous blue, a mixture of Pthalo Blue and Titanium White. For most of the paintings , I then painted the lower part of the canvas with a mixture of Burnt Sienna and white, sometimes with a touch of Brilliant Alizarin (dark red) or Yellow Oxide (a yellow ochre).  To my delight I discovered that when I mixed the blue with the burnt sienna it produced a sage green that resembled the colour of the leaves in the river gums.  

Penny Jools 
February  8th  2010



Once we are off the Plenty Highway we are onto the wide stretch of red dirt road that takes us to soapy bore.  Alastair comments that we only took three turns in the 375 k. between Alice Springs and our destination.  I think Plenty?  There are plenty of car parts littered along the roadside, tyres, inner tubes, car bodies, radiators.  What stories do they tell us?  A trajectory of broken pieces of encroaching civilization.  Not far from soapy bore we pick up a woman a man and their baby.  Their car has broken down. They pile into the bus.  The baby has red hair? Michelle looks at the baby with love.  We drive into the settlement to drop them off.  As we pass the dry river bed of the Sandover river I see a line of tents, tiny in the distance, strung out close to the trees on the river bank. I realize that this is our camp, our home for the next 5 days.  The tents seem as insubstantial as the detritus of the cars we have seen along the road…….. 


The wild horses are surprising and beautiful.  They are a reminder of the days when Utopia was a cattle station.  But they seem to thrive.  Twice a day they cross the dry river bed. The mares often seem to lead the group. One day I walk over to the shade in the early afternoon, my sarong over my head, flapping in the breeze.  This daily “crossing” is a challenge because of the heat, although the distance is only a couple of hundred meters.  As I approach the shade on the other side I see a white mare very close to the hammock that Peter is lying on. Her neck is stretched out towards Peter. She watches me intently as I walk towards the shade. I think she might stay, but the flapping of the sarong scares her off.  When I am about 10 meters away she suddenly whinnies, turns and canters up the bank where she remains vigilant on the plateau above the river bed.  She is joined by the other horses and they stand, looking down on us strange humans below.  Peter says that she was just about to talk to him when I scared her off.  



The children are so vivid in our minds.  I am sure that we are still in theirs – this strange group of people who arrived and camped on the river bed.  The boys love Kam and Peter.  Kam is their doctor and Peter is the male they would like to be, powerful and competent.  The boys are sitting at the camp fire eating oranges, adoration in their eyes.

The camp fire is the centre of the camp.  It is where we gather instinctively as people have done since the invention of fire.  A huge log burns bit by bit day after day.



The landscape is extraordinary – the river bed is red brown sand, but on the plateau above the river  the soil is a richer red.  Mulga trees abound interspersed with tufts of golden grass. At a distance the vista can seem quite verdant, but close up the earth is baked hard and cracked in places. Close up the survival of the trees and grasses seems as precarious as our existence in this immensity of space.   Along the river bank, red gums , twisted and gnarled, survive on the subterranean water.  
We are sleeping on a dry river bed but the water is just underneath.  When the children want to get cool they burrow their feet into the sand until they meet the coolness of the water that is not far under the surface.  The dogs do the same.
At the human level things are not what they seem - there is a mask in the river bed, painted by one of the children.  We lose our masks of civilization.  I feel stripped bare, no makeup, none of the comforts of inner city living, coffee shops, the newspaper.  But beneath the surface we are connected by our common humanity, we help each other.  Brad and I empty the toilet.  Sara has an allergic reaction to a caterpillar?  We look after her. Her feet swell up and her breathing is restricted.  I find myself really worried about her, grateful that Kam is here and can access medical supplies.  Brad finds some cold water in the bottom of one of Roy’s eskys to help bring the swelling down.  After some antihistamine she starts to get better.  Alastair puts his feet into the tub of cold water she has vacated.

It is on this plateau that we have our yoga sessions with Michelle and Sara. The children join the yoga session with Sara and Michelle.  Brenda is my partner for the exercises on the ground.  She is about 7 years old, her hair is bleached by the sun to a light ochre  that seems to match the colour of the earth when sunlit.  Her hair frames her beautiful face like a halo.  As she sits on my back I feel the fragile small bones of her spine digging into my ample flesh.


I sleep in a swag near the campfire towards the middle of the river bed beside Brad.  It is the first time I have slept in the open under the stars.  The sky is immense, I have never seen so many stars in my life.  The Milky Way seems to be directly overhead with the deep darkness of a celestial canyon beside it.  Some constellations are familiar, Orion, the Southern Cross.  Venus is to the East and Mars to the west.  The moon is waning.  The camp has been planned for the dark moon because the moon is so bright it can make sleeping difficult.
On the second morning when I wake I see in front of me the arched branches of the river red gums framing both the thin crescent of the waning moon and Venus pulsating against the navy blue light of early dawn.


On the day of Praxis, when we are doing a sound sculpture, the flour tins are littering the camp left over from the big cook up the night before when about 100 of the local indigenous people came to eat with us.  Roy, organized the three upended flour tins on which the cooking was done, the tins had  a hole cut in the side to feed the fire and let the air in.  

Roy and Kam and Peter were the cooks. The locals assembled and waited in groups.  The young men hung about together, the young children played together, the women sat in a number of groups.  The older men, the elders, sat on the top of the truck or on the Toyota ute.  One hundred plus people were served from three woks.  The experience of chopping the vegetables – sweet potato, pumpkin, onion, was fun in the sharing.  The vegetables, once chopped were put into large bowls and added to the woks once the meat had started to cook. Roy had pre-cooked a vat of rice.  One wok had sausage and vegetables, one lamb chops (still frozen at first) and the other chicken.  Roy simmered  the meat with the vegetables, tomato paste and spices.  Peter produced  some wonderful Spanish garlic  that was added to the woks.   Karen, Jeanne and Sara served the mob. The men are served first.  We worry about whether there will be enough to go around.  Miraculously everyone is fed.  
In the praxis session on the second last day we were using the flour tins as drums.  I drummed  the upturned flour bins transformed so skillfully by Roy into stoves for wok cooking The drumming was very satisfying.  The resonance was amplified by the wind, it was unpredictable.  I think about putting the container on my head, it has a front piece cut out like a Ned Kelly helmet, but I worry that the inside is too dirty and I will end up covered in soot.  Then Michelle and David put the tins on their heads.  Michelle became an androgynous Ned Kelly in a yellow t-shirt.  Ned Kelly came from Tasmania originally, so there is a connection with David who went to school and there to Brad who lives there.

Dogs were so much part of camp life.  They followed the children everywhere, by our standards skinny and mangy. They annoyed Roy as they attempted to steal the camp food.  In this painting, taken from one of Brad’s wonderful photos, Brenda, my partner in the yoga sessions is coming across the river bed towards the campfire, the embers of the sunset catching the ochre of her hair.


The local women come with the paintings, they move through the landscape as though they were part of it although the brightness of their clothing contrasts with the ochres and greens of the landscape.  They move with grace and like all aboriginal people materialize in their destination rather than arrive.  The painting is taken from another of brad’s photos and captures the sense of the immaterial and the material, the way the women move through the scrub in a way that does not announce their arrival.  And yet they are there, more vividly present than the horses but like brightly coloured spirits drifting through the material world.


Donkeys were also daily visitors, but seemed more connected to the people than the horses.  At night we could hear them braying.  They were often following a group of children or adults along the river. They too were a reminder of when the whole of Utopia was owned by a Pastoral company.  Somehow the donkeys seems even more incongruous than the horses.  Perhaps as incongruous as we are, pale fleshed city dwellers in this arid and harsh environment.


On the last morning I rise early from my swag beside the fire to witness the sunrise on the incline above the river.  I take a number of photos as the sun moves from being a tiny crescent of brilliant yellow on the deep navy sky to becoming a ball of fire that irradiates the landscape with a myriad shades of purple, violet, orange and red.  I experienced that sense of wonder at the miracle of day and night, of the sun that continues inexorably to rise every day and my own insignificance in this landscale and this experience. 


On the last day we take our tents down and roll up our swags to load onto the bus.  Alastair is the last one to do this and he stands, firmly planted in the landscape, with a certain Alastair-like rootedness.

I am reminded of our Praxis session when Alastair makes a sound so wild and bloodcurdling (and so seemingly out of character) that I get goosebumps.  He then lurks in the middle of the tree that has had a coolamon cut out of it.  I find myself quite alarmed and vigilant for what would happen next. I try to whistle the bird song that wakes me often in the morning, a clear beautiful series of notes. Alastair’s fierce tribal shout scares me so much I cannot whistle.
Was Alastair the wild aboriginal testing out the white invaders? 


We all took photos of the car body that served as a sign to the airstrip.  It seems a fitting way to signal the road back to civilization.  As we slipped away from the dry river bed of the Sandover river, the experience began to seem like a dreaming……moments of madness and moments of beauty and moments of puzzling connection.  With people with the sky and the earth and with the astonishing colours of this particular universe.

Penny Jools (all paintings copyright) 2011.