Alchemy is the age-old practice of attempting to turn a base metal into gold and by association find the elixir of life.
In the arts, however, alchemy has become a byword for turning something ordinary or even scorned into something precious and magical.
That’s exactly what’s happening with Project Alchemy, a multimedia exhibition coming up at The Hive in Queanbeyan, in which, magically the rubble, charcoal and shattered dreams that followed the Black Summer Fires of this region are turned into pure gold.
It’s the result of a project Queanbeyan artist Helen Ferguson has been managing on behalf of Canberra social change arts company, Rebus Theatre, working with affected communities – Bega Valley Shire, Eurobodalla Shire, East Gippsland, Queanbeyan-Palerang Regional Council and the ACT – with three artists selected from each region to “heal hearts and weave magic”.
It’s about to culminate in an exhibition at the “Yellow House”, The Hive, opposite the council chambers in Queanbeyan, where works by the 15 Project Alchemy artists will be seen.
Related ventures that followed Rebus-led residencies in 2022 and 2023 have included community dances, walks through fire-devastated properties, eco dying, printmaking, music and chromatogram workshops, tree planting, dance and involvement with events such as The Daring Festival of Possibilities in Bega Valley Shire.
On show at the Hive will be embroidered works and a larger collaborative piece from artist Michele Grimston’s workshops, concertina art books of drawings and paintings from Cecile Galiazzo’s Wonder Walks and a free illustrated handbook, Nye on the River of Life, by artist Sue Norman with Colleen Weir.
A chosen artist from the ACT is Sammy Hawker, a freelance videographer and photographic artist who in her short time here has become almost legendary.
A relative newcomer to Canberra, Hawker studied video art at the Sydney College of the Arts, but moved to Canberra and discovered PhotoAccess – “My spiritual home,” she says.
“I learnt how to process film and then lockdown happened. I never saw myself as a photographer, but I discovered that film allowed me to experiment.”
She did and has since won a swag of prizes, including the 2022 Mullins Conceptual Photography Prize and the 2023 Canberra Contemporary Photographic Prize.
“Photographers are a little bit suspicious of me, suspecting that I might not be a real photographer, and I agree with that,” she says.
Hawker’s secret was her discovery of chromatography, invented in 1900 by botanist Mikhail Tsvet, a process for separating components of a mixture to create “the visual expression of vibrant matter”. By using a teaspoon of soil from a site, she could use the chromatography process to help material to express itself.
“I tried it with a leaf from a favourite scribbly gum in O’Connor, but it could have been from any tree or a leaf,” she says.
“I put a nine-centimetre circumference filter paper with a little wick, then the silver nitrate solution I had created spread up on the paper, so the paper developed. I blew the images up and saw the chemical make-up coming into a visual expression – the patterns that formed could not be manipulated or controlled.”
Hawker is a fire survivor, having been at Bermagui when the fires struck and also residing around that time near Michelago, feeling their direct impact.
This gave her the first-hand experience she needed to embark on Project Alchemy.
Her final exhibit for The Hive is not a conventional picture but a composition of 64 printed chromatographs.
“People who were recovering from the effects of bushfires came together with stories of strength and sometimes their favourite trees… I worked directly with some of them and others posted me a leaf or a piece of fire litter,” says Hawker.
“They told me beautiful stories, including one about how a tree had survived because it was next to a water tank which burst, sending water soaking down to the roots.
“I feel together they would make a great book.”
Project Alchemy, The Queanbeyan Hive Gallery, February 24-March 17. Official opening with dance, music and poetry readings, February 23.
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