Finding beauty in bleak times

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Artist Toni Mullholland

A rhino in Southern Africa lies dehorned, and a garden of Eden on acid erupts. A painter and photographer guide this process through visual storytelling and emotional strength.

Artists in Newcastle are producing works that examine climate change on a local scale, by using varying technical processes to uncover beauty in the bleakest of times.

Ann Maree Cuthel and Toni Mullholland are students at the Newcastle Art School who have created artworks that emphasise the effects of bushfires, open-cut mining, drought, and urban expansion. Their goal is to encourage prevention.

Toni is a passionate animal rights activist in her early 60s from South Africa who is currently creating a triptych art piece using oil painting that focuses on an ecosystem in the Upper Hunter Valley and the species that are being affected by open-cut mining, bushfires and urbanisation.

Having retired six years ago from working in child protection, Toni undertook a diploma in Visual Arts at Newcastle Art School and is now completing the degree course. Her passion for wildlife conservation is a result of her previous travels to KwaZulu-Natal Park in South Africa.

“I saw these two rhinos soaking up the sun on a cold wintery day, but one had been dehorned; I was heartbroken when I saw that,” Toni said.

“If I did sell my artworks, I would donate any profits I made to the Taronga Zoo Rhino Conservation Project.”

Toni is a huge admirer of environmental journalist Miki Perkins, who inspired her current work with a news story from the Sydney Morning Herald that she read in December 2020.

The story – a “tale of how a lonely button wrinklewort found love” – depicted the endangered species of the flower known as the Wrinklewort, which was unable to cross-pollinate due to human-induced grazing practices.

“It was what got my project going,” Toni said.

Toni’s first panel depicts a utopian setting comprised of the spot Tail Quoll, Brush Tailed Rock Wallaby, Regent Honeyeater, and the Swift Parrot, which contribute to what she describes as “a garden of Eden on acid”.

The second panel showcases a catastrophic setting, whereby grazing, open-cut mining, and urban expansion have destroyed the utopian setting. This uses a colour similar to Sidney Nolan and Russell Drysdale’s red earth palette.

Of her medium Toni says, “you don’t get the same brilliance with acrylic paint; oil allows you to trigger greater memories and emotions in the viewer”.

From this, her third panel will be used to recognise the animals as extinct species, existing in a museum, by using the ideas from Australian painter Kate Bergin who has previously drawn from museum specimens.

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Ann Maree Cuthel is a 53-year-old freelance photographer, who is profoundly deaf and uses photography to communicate her thoughts and ideas visually.

Ann Maree Cuthel with two of her photographs

She is intending to complete a 100-page book comprising all the environmental photographs she has taken from the bushfires and drought occurring in Newcastle and the surrounding area. It will include a series of black and white photographs which she had showcased in September last year at Newcastle Art School.

These photographs depict the environmental processes of rejuvenation and resilience that have been occurring in the forests since the end of Australia’s devastating bushfire season.

“I find photography and art are highly linked with emotions,” Ann said, the beauty of which she says, “lies in seeing something special in the most ordinary of places”.

To capture these monochrome photos, Ann used a Nikon D750, using a 24-70 lens.

“I set up my camera and focus on zero, that’s my hero,” she explains.

Ann took her most notable photograph at Johns River, where a 64-year-old woman had died in the fires.

The photograph captures the moon’s reflection off the river stream

“There was no warning, no messages, no SOS,” Ann said. “After the fires in Canberra, when the government had set up a state-wide emergency service to alert people. Unfortunately, for that little town it didn’t work out and the people were trapped and couldn’t get out.”

She is hoping to incorporate photographs taken at Keepit Dam near Tamworth during January 2019, depicting the low levels of rain. Ann said that “during that time the towns were only allowed 30 litres of water a day per house, whereby the dam at the time was pretty much empty, recalling it at 4%”.