"I have come to recognize nature’s significance to our humanity."
adrift 2007, oil & tempera on linen 130x160cm (Habitat series)
Hanna Kay draws from Mother Nature in her search for meaning, equilibrium and a sense of place. At the heart of her expansive career as an artist, writer and linguist there are core themes of inquiry - dislocation, exile, heritage and migration.
We meet in Haydon Hall,' The Bank' at Murrurundi, an eatery, garden and gallery that is a magnet for artists, locals and passing tourists in the Upper Hunter Valley of New South Wales. There is a sharpness of mind in her eyes and warmth in the smile of Hanna Kay. She may reside in this sleepy mountain haunt more renowned for its thoroughbred horse studs than the caliber of its artists, but this artistic 'tour de force' chooses to live and work close to nature.
aspect 2 2016, oil and tempera on linen 100x200cm (Shifting Horizons series)
To quote from her musings entitled 'Notes from the Shed' (published by Macmillan 2006)
"tolerance and patience can be learned from native species"...
On Autumn: At the end of drought..."I can hear earth gulping every raindrop. I can see the trees stretching their arms and the leaves anointing their silvery skin with liquid..."
On Spring: "I can almost hear the rainwater seeping into the riverbanks and gushing toward the south.... up-stream where the river bends and cascades over watercress and pebbles ... I hear the sound of waves breaking within the rock. I sit and listen."
On Summer: "I find myself describing King Parrots and Kookaburras in the paddock at dusk...I want to celebrate the 'chooks' and home-grown tomatoes ... to write about the rain-less storms that, like fireworks, light the hot summer nights... and storms that clear the heavy air."
shelter v 2007. oil & tempera on linen 125x105cm
It seems incongruous that a woman with a worldly breadth of experience and a European Jewish heritage would choose to settle on this five-acre plot on the Pages River in the foothills of the Liverpool Ranges. Kay grew up in Tel Aviv, studied in Vienna and lived for twenty years in metropolises, first New York and then Sydney. Now that she has sculptured a garden with native trees, vegetable patches and mounds of stones she says that she has "everything she has always wished for" - a large studio refurbished from old stables, a space to hang and view her work. She shares a contemporary living space fashioned from the original cottage with her partner, photographer and filmmaker Leslie Wand and their shiny, black and tan dogs.
Unlike the Celtic settlers of past centuries, she thrives on the foreignness of the Australian landscape. Nature, with all its seasonal force, has a profound impact on her work and thought patterns in the garden and in the studio.
voyage 1997, oil & tempera on linen 180 x 300 cm
It challenges and stretches her imagination and sharpens her capabilities as a gardener, writer, academic and artist. Her seasonal activities in the garden, successes and failures, make for a direct and ongoing conversation with Nature.
Nature is the direct source of her intellectual and creative energy and it informs her work in a manner that results in powerful art.
From the moment of her arrival in Sydney she was struck by the light - "a touch brighter, clearer and sharper than the light I had left behind in the northern hemisphere... the smell of dry gum leaves that permeated the air... and the way people fit into the texture of the environment."
At Murrurundi she has fully embraced the dust and mud, mists and storms, droughts, bush-fires, floods, the river rising and falling with its profusion of insects, birds, flora and fauna.
watercourse 11 2008, Mixed media on canvas 66 x 66cm (undertow series)
She turns to her adopted Australian landscape to contextualize her Jewish heritage. She takes a 'bird's eye' view into the far off "lightness" and "darkness" of her family background and a youth spent in the turmoil and bloodshed at the Six Day Arab Israeli war-front. She feels at times "weighed down by the load of my birth-right" but her memories are plumbed through her toil in the garden, filtered in the studio and they enrich the complexity and subtlety of her work.
In her journal for her exhibition 'Undertow' based on commissioned works that focus on a consecrated Jewish graveyard in the regional Maitland cemetery, she ponders the consequences of displacement and migration as engagement with a foreign landscape:
"Upon arriving in a new place, our first encounter is with the environment: the vista, the light, the sky, the clouds, the smells. This triggers an urge to reflect on the relevance of place, and the significance of the natural environment to our well-being..."
Valued for her unique technique she paints in the traditional tempera style of the Old Masters. It requires precise brushstrokes, layer upon layer of semi-opaque layers of paint that she combines with a contemporary 'Jackson Pollock' style of splattered paint. Her ambiguous paintings are both purely abstract and painfully 'true to nature'. They achieve a meditative quality.
Her drawings are intense distillations of nature, a moment of dramatic light and shade. They express her observations in another language capturing the textures, moods and energy of Nature herself.
According to Kay "by layering paint and tempera the canvases develop a reality of sorts, with which I hope to entice the viewer to enter into a dialogue with the artwork; to perhaps reach beyond the surface and engage with the new spaces I created."
in flux - hei - oil sticks and pastels on paper 51x72cm (Equilibrium series)
estuary (5) 2009, oil and tempera on linen 120 x 90 cm (Waterways series)
undercurrent 2008, oil and tempera on linen 180 x 350cm (Undertow series)
In recent years Kay has embarked on a series of pilgrimages to China to Xian where she has explored the terra-cotta warriors in the ancient burial pits of the first Emperor Qin Shi Huang. This archeological wonder has catapulted her into a new dimension of creative and intellectual inquiry 'searching for traces that connect ancient and contemporary lives."
She attributes her renewed surge of creative energy to 'the clay of China' - experimentation with new mixed media - photography, works on rice paper and the creation of hundreds of three dimensional ceramic angels.
The overwhelming influence of the China experience - thousands of ancient artifacts emerging from clay - has led her to embark on a PH.D. in Fine Arts (Sydney University) examining the processes of thinking about histories, the natural forces that impact on traces and fragments that connect us to ancient cultures. The creative component of her thesis entitled Shifting Horizons displays a new vibrancy in her work and a delicacy that draws the viewer into an intimate dialogue between one world and another.
angels, saggar firing raku clay 8cm high (Shifting Horizons 2016)
angels, saggar firing raku clay 8cm high (Shifting Horizons 2016)
Kay's army of ceramic angels, like the ancient burial warriors who "protect the soul from calamities on earth and in the afterlife", exist between two worlds. They are a metaphor for spiritual and secular elements in our contemporary societies. She sees them as "messengers of communications", maybe "in control of the natural forces."
cline 3, mixed media on rice paper 140x280cm
repository #1, mixed media 40x70x10cm (Shifting Horizons series)
It is a realization of the innate and genetically determined affinity of human beings with the natural world in an ancient context. At this pivotal point between life and the hereafter she stimulates important dialogue - political, biological, cultural and philosophical - that can help to change human behaviors towards our cultural heritage, other species and the environment.
She reminds us that our very humanity depends on it.
Words: JOMO (Jo Moulton) https://www.linkedin.com/in/jomoaustralia/
Images: Leslie Wand http://www.lesliewand.com.au/
See also: http://www.hannakay.com/
Hanna exhibits in Sydney with Janet Clayton Gallery Paddington NSW https://www.janetclatongallery.com.au/hanna-highlights