Elizabeth Ann Macgregor views the overall winning artwork, Lulu by Michelle Hawkins. (Supplied: Elle Borgward)
It is a town that usually resembles an abandoned colonial village of stone, but each winter the Pilbara town of Cossack transforms into an artists’ mecca for the Cossack Art Awards.
Thousands of tourists, grey nomads and aspirational local artists pour in to admire the works hung across the historic, hand-made stone walls.
Now in its 25th year, the awards have attracted renowned art figure and director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Elizabeth Ann Macgregor OBE, alongside previous Cossack winner Joshua Cocking and Indigenous artist Bianca Beetson of the Gubbi Gubbi people of Sunshine Coast.
Artists are keen to have their work recognised since the awards became a significantly acquisitive show on the national arts calendar.
Uniquely, only the first 300 artworks submitted are accepted — resulting in an eclectic blend of professional and amateur art on the walls.
Rugged landscapes from above
Painter Douglas Kirsop, a watercolour and oils man, visits the Pilbara each year and this year won the $8,000 Painting Pilbara Landscape category with his stunning aerial view of the country taken from a flight out from Port Hedland towards Karijini National Park.
Kirsop said he was attempting to capture the textural richness and ruggedness of the topographical view of light on land.
“I managed to restrict it to a more minimal gestural looseness and let it play back to me over time,” he said.
“I’ve always wondered what the Impressionists would have made of this country you know, being confronted with a landscape which is so vast.
Pilbara Aerial by Douglas Kirsop won the $8,000 prize in the Painting Pilbara Landscape category. (Supplied: Elle Borgward)
“You’re trying to capture the scale of something which, when you’re confronted with it the first time, is very different from a European landscape which has been organized for centuries.
“Here, it hasn’t changed an awful lot.”
‘The sea is really turquoise’
Port Hedland artist Helen Komene’s career started copying comic books as a young girl.
Later in life, the Pilbara inspired her to take up pastels to paint the coast and the red rocky landscapes between Port Hedland and Newman.
“My favourite subject is absolutely the seascapes up here. Pardoo Station, 80 Mile Beach, even as far up as Broome, the sea is really turquoise,” she said.
“I spend a lot of time looking at the ocean, working out the reflections, the way the oceans move.
“Everyone thinks that pastels have to be blended … it’s a really fine balance between making stuff happen and letting stuff happen on the page.
“When you come down, you don’t blend as much and you really start to draw with the pastel and use finer strokes or longer strokes. It’s really more of a drawing technique.”
While seascapes are her favourite subject, she is keen to explore a “working man” theme in her future work, focusing on the people to give the Pilbara a voice through her painting.
Conceptual art on paper
Pilbara artist Carrie McDowell won the $8,000 Works on Paper category with her piece On the Land.
“I was very excited, I did not see it coming. I was inspired to enter as the Cossack Art Awards are a wonderful community event,” she said.
On the Land by Carrie McDowell, winner of the Works on Paper category. (Supplied: Elle Borgward)
“The maps I used for the work were thrown out by the Mines Department. While mining damages the country in a spiritual way, it has also given a huge wealth.
“I have been very influenced by the Yindjibarndi people I work with and have always been fascinated by their aerial perspective of the land.
“It’s my whitefella interpretation of the land. They don’t have maps but they get around better than we do.
“When I am stitching away I am just in the zone, not working literally.”
The stitching depicts waterholes and the tracks depict the bulls’ impact on the land — a double-edged sword according to Ms McDowell.
“While they damage the land environmentally, they have been significant in the development of the Yindjibarndi people through their relationship to the pastoral industry as cattlemen,” she said.
McDowell has a sense of humour about a couple of minor vehicle accidents with cattle on the roads in what she calls “an intimate bovine relationship”, a term coined by a friend.
“I feel I understand the Yindjibarndi people through my work with them as an art teacher and facilitator. The Fortescue River area around Ethel Creek and Nullagine is their story that I now understand.”
Powerful portraits from the bush
This year the Best Overall category was won by Michelle Hawkins, a charcoal artist who studied at the Angel Academy in Florence, Italy.
Her winning work Lulu is a portrait of Margaret Mary of the Northern Territory.
After spending some time with Ms Mary on the floodplains, teaching her how to drive, Michelle photographed Margaret Mary before turning it into a charcoal drawing.
“I love to hone into the detail and create that perfection using the charcoal stick. I just think it’s magical,” Hawkins said.
“I think it also links in beautifully to the Northern Territory, the quality of beauty in the Northern Territory.”
Storytelling now forms an important thread in Hawkins’ journey to the Northern Territory from Paris and Melbourne since the death of her father.
After working with a fashion photographer and an opera company, Hawkins has chosen to take on a more personal journey to learn about Indigenous culture where storytelling is key to passing on knowledge, culture and language.
Iconic unionist’s story painted
Greg Taylor chose to paint the Aboriginal rights activist and communist Don McLeod (1908-1999) in a whimsical portrait.
Greg Taylor’s artwork Don McLeod’s Dream won the $8,000 Portraits category of the 2017 Cossack Art Awards. (Supplied: Greg Taylor)
“Don McLeod was a different sort of white man — one of the leaders of the Pilbara Strike of 1946 which was a movement to get equal pay for Aboriginal workers on pastoral stations,” Taylor said.
“He was also a member of the Australian Communist Party … I heard a story that he once travelled to Russia and was gifted 100 seeds from the black forest.
“He sewed the seeds into the lining of his jacket and managed to get them past our customs officers. Later, he planted a little Russian forest at Strelley, but the saplings were uprooted in a cyclone.
“It made me laugh to think of Don McLeod as a seamstress and a botanist. Perhaps he thought that his life wasn’t going to be enough and this absurd, fated forest would be his legacy.
“I thought that a childless man might be inclined to plant a forest at a certain time of his life.
“I was mainly thinking about this man who had devoted his life to helping unionise Aboriginal people to achieve a semblance of equality, who had this conviction and who was willing to go further than you or I.
“Who would go to lock-up and court. Who would take off his shoes for someone and leave himself with none.
“It’s much more complicated, of course. His life and legacy are contested like any history. I wrote his name in Cyrillic because I thought he would get a kick out of it.”
Indigenous collective impresses judges
Taylor is also the manager of Spinifex Hill Studios in Port Hedland and works closely with William Gardiner (Nyaparu) who won the $8,000 category Painting by Pilbara Indigenous Artist with his piece Thurla Glass.
Thurla Glass is the nickname given to Gardiner due to his poor eyesight.
According to Taylor, Gardiner — a Nyangumarta and Warman man — also draws on his early experience with the 1946 Pilbara Strike.
He often paints images from his jackaroo days on Pilbara and Kimberley pastoral stations.
William Gardiner (Nyaparu) and his partner Katy Nalgood at the Spinifex Hill Art Studios in Port Hedland. (ABC: Joseph Dunstan)
“This is my life story that I’m telling you … some of these paintings that I illustrate is just to show that that’s how we used to live, mostly around this Pilbara area to Marble Bar,” Gardiner said.
“I like to draw this sort of things … I’m [teaching] my grandchildren to understand old sort of things like this, and my children they already know.
“After the [1946 Pilbara] Strike we were working there in Strelley and Moolyella, camping in the creek and trying to get a mineral out of the hills.
“We didn’t have a white colour body and we couldn’t go everywhere we wanted. We got chained up, around the neck sometimes. We didn’t get money for work.
“These are the sorts of [reasons] why we started the business of the Strike. We were a hard people out there. We got made hard by our lives.”
Taylor said the artwork of Gardiner offers an “almost miraculous insight into a largely underwritten and overlooked history and are a precious legacy for the nation”.
“Sometimes described by Gardiner as “drifters”, his subjects are typically cattlemen or mineral men who appear to be in between one thing and the next.
“The men, often alone and outside on a big landscape, sometimes come to us with specific names, but they more often preserve their anonymity.
“What is more consistent is their tuckered-out, worried expressions and teetering postures that imbue his work with a vertiginous air.
“While the strikers and their families were empowered through their movement for equality, the reality of the hard yakka that came with their relative freedoms is laid bare in these portraits.”
Fellow Spinifex Hill artist Doreen Chapman won the $10,000 Best Artwork by Pilbara Artist category with her untitled work described by the judges as “Abstract meets realism; deliberate, competent naivety”.
“As a deaf woman, painting is a crucial medium of communication and storytelling,” Taylor said.
Chapman is a Manyjilyjarra artist who has spent the majority of her adult life in Warralong, a community 120 kilometres south-east of Port Hedland.
She began painting with her mother and first exhibited with Martumili artists in Newman in 2010.
“Little girl she start painting, Warralong. She looking … looking … she quick painter. Quickly, looking, looking. No fishing, no hunting, no car. Painting, painting every day. You been bring ’em, she painting, painting, painting!” her mother, Maywokka May Chapman, said of her daughter.
Of the 300 entries in the awards, 121 were by Pilbara artists.
The 2017 show has also seen the inaugural Red Dirt Camera Club exhibit alongside the main event.