Jude Roberts gently tugs and lifts the end of a nine-metre roll of paper onto the banks of the Maranoa River. The rest of the roll lies partially submerged in the waters of a wide stretch, just upstream from the southern Queensland town of Mitchell.
In the late afternoon light, the river red gums lean towards their reflections in the still river, and Jude examines the marks the river has left on the paper. “That’s a lovely rich stain”, she points to a crimson mark edged with brown, “I don’t know what made it”. Other marks, like the sharp imprints of eucalypt leaves, clearly show their provenance.
Two days later she unfurls the roll on the construction site next to the new Mitchell bridge. The bemused, but co-operative, bridge project manager, Neil Braden, guides an 18-tonne Rough Terrain crane (known in the trade as a roughie) to the edge of the paper. Jude wets the tyres that are the height of a ten year old, then rubs them with charcoal. She steps back and the crane slowly moves on to and off the paper, leaving tyre tread marks behind. This roll, alone of the seven displayed, now bears the mark of a human artefact.
The other river-marked rolls hang several hundred metres up the main road from the bridge in the local gallery, the Mitchell on Maranoa, in Jude’s exhibition titled ‘Unravelling the Maranoa’.
The exhibition is one of ten arts projects located in the Murray- Darling Basin under the One River banner. The projects are part of the Centenary of Canberra. Canberra is the largest city in the basin, built around Lake Burley Griffin, which arose from the damming of the Molongolo River. The waters of the Molongolo eventually join those of the Maranoa in the Murray, downstream at Wentworth.
It is hard to escape the Maranoa River in Mitchell. To enter the town you must cross the Maranoa over the old bridge with a sign indicating that it was well below the floodwaters of January 2012.
Outside the gallery a river of pebbles wends its way along the pavement, the product of an earlier community art project that Jude was involved in. In January 2012 the floodwaters lapped at the steps of the Gallery, but unlike most of Mitchell it remained high and dry.
Down by the river Jude points to debris in the trees, five metres above the ground, left by the floods, and wonders at its impact. The Maranoa wends its way into so many conversations in town.
“It is really interesting talking about people’s passions and the river and where they are living and why, what they have to go through to live on it, the enjoyment they get out of it, the spiritual experience,” Jude says.
Jude’s work is a product of 21 years living in the town. Only someone with her deep knowledge and understanding of the river, with her familiarity with the locals and with their trust, could have accomplished her exhibition. It comprises two parts: the rolls of suspended paper, and the associated documentation. There are archival photographs. More recent photos documenting river side discussions and the paper soaking process are displayed above the relevant roll. Recorded voices telling their river stories run like a babbling creek. There is artwork from a school workshop. A series of satellite photos of the Maranoa is taped together the length of one wall – the subject of prolonged study by many visitors.
“The documentation is just as important as the work,” Jude explains. “In fact, if it wasn’t for that I think it would lose some of the impact.” On many of her trips she was accompanied by photographers. “It is very site specific, and [the photographs] show that process on the river and how those marks may have happened.”
“The soundscape is another form of documenting the moment, or the area, or the people I am with.”
Jude came to the area 28 years ago when she married a local farmer, Harry Roberts. She gave up her career as a commercial artist for life on the land and in the town. “I was involved over the 21 years I was here in various arts activities, public works and community art and I used to tutor drawing, particularly to children.”
Seven years ago Jude and Harry moved to Brisbane, where Jude undertook a Fine Arts degree, and is now engaged in post-graduate study. She mostly works with paper, drawing and printmaking. She can’t remember the first time she soaked paper. “Maybe by mistake I left things out near the creek bed and marks appeared. I like the idea of chance making that mark”.
Jude was keen to bring her new art skills back to Mitchell for the One River project. “I feel strongly about bringing those skills or just knowledge or ways of thinking back into these areas to share that with people and I think they respond to that. I get a lot of out them, too.”
She says community art projects bring a lot of people together, “people with different opinions on things. It is a way to bring those ideas together and to work collaboratively as well.” She enjoys seeing people who felt art was something distant from themselves, become surprised at what engagement can bring, “and they really love it. It is great with kids, you start talking about things that perhaps in every day conversation you wouldn’t talk about, like the One River project.”
Jude admits she was not sure how to use community engagement when she began the project. But as she talked to people, it grew organically. “I would be talking to people and they would say ‘I can take you to this great spot’ and I would think ‘OK that’s great’. Or we get a group and we might go down to a site.”
There were informal meetings and picnics down by the river. “We all sit around, share food, start a fire, boil a billy, and talk about the river and get people to think about it.” New understandings emerged as people listened to other perspectives. “It has been good and I have met up with a lot of different people and heard lots of different angles about the significance of the river.”
She met with a group of Gunggari community members down by the river, who talked about the significance of the river to them and the stories of their history. Another meeting was at the confluence of the Topaz, with local artists and property owners “and they had another perspective about the river”.
Jude chose seven sites, from a spring-fed river in the pristine Carnarvon Ranges to a historical river crossing that she has a family connection to. She uses 100 per cent cotton paper, which is tough, but it didn’t survive all the soakings intact. “The first one was left for five days and I lost one third of it. It disintegrated.” At first she considered re-doing it, but she decided to display the pieces nonetheless. “It certainly shows a time element too, which I am interested in. I was quite happy it did go like that.” The pieces have the quality of fine curled bark, and something of the turbulence and the flow of the river in them.
There have been thunderstorms and winds that caught pieces drying on the riverbank and lifted them like a sail and ripped them. To mend them Jude tore up Japanese Kozo paper, dyed some with charcoal and stuck the strips down with rice glue.
Each site had its challenges. She was particularly worried about the roll soaked at the headwaters, in the Merivale River. “It is a spring-fed river and it is very clear. I was thinking how am I going to get marks out of a beautifully clear river, but it is a very subtle. It has left the direction of the flow on the paper.” Other rolls were marked by leaves and mud. One of the most striking rolls features rust-coloured swirls, made on the underside of the paper by iron in the sand.
Presenting her art also had its challenges. “This is the first time this gallery has had something in it that hasn’t been framed and put on a wall,” Jude says. “In the beginning people were a bit confused about what I was doing. That is why I am glad it has been in the gallery there for about five weeks now, it has given people a chance to look at it and then realise ‘oh, OK now I get it’.”
Visitors stand and stare at the long water-marked rolls. They study the photographs and pay particular interest to the satellite photographs. Comments include: “The flood art is great with explanation”; “so very interesting, something I can relate to”; “very cool”; “lol awesome and perfect omg”; “a revelation”; and “the amazing Maranoa, well done”.
The exhibition ended, fittingly, with a flood of emotion. On the closing night, local Gunggari elder Lynnette Nixon told a story relayed to her by her grandmother about the Maranoa and floods; Aunty Irene Ryder talked about a childhood by the river, swimming and birthday parties. “The river has been a matter of life for us.”
Robin Stewart, a seven-year resident of the town, described how she was living the local saying that once you had crossed the Maranoa and slept on the other side, you will always return.
In the courtyard, out the back, the final roll arrives dramatically, held aloft on the scoop of a council tractor. It drops the roll and Jude hoists it up, the leaves and mud of the ancient Maranoa and the tyre tracks of the bridge builder on display as it unfurls. The Mitchell Marimbas play a song called “One River”, written by principal of the one-teacher 11-student Dunkeld School, Joy Foott.
Where our journeys meet
One River…flowing through the land.
Singing one song
Many hopes and dreams
To build upon
Flowing through one land.”
Jude reflects that it truly is One River, with many faces. “I didn’t realise how different each site was going to be, and that surprised me. Not only just the surrounds and the visual but the way I then had to approach the soaking, because of the flows, the depth of flow, what was on the riverbank, is it sand is it grass, what was around what could I add to it that? I wanted each piece of paper to come out in a different way. That was a challenge, but it evolved.”
The water that flowed over Jude’s paper, that flowed past the community of Mitchell, will make its way down to the Barwon, to the Darling and perhaps as far as the Murray and out to sea. It will water wetlands, sink into groundwater, it will evaporate, be drunk by livestock or irrigate crops, it will provide habitat for fish and myriad small organisms. It will be joined by other rivers, by water that has flowed through cities like Canberra, and wind its way through towns and past properties. And along its entire length it will bring life and stir the passions of the many who share in this One River.