Each year during spring tide or muttonbird season, Aboriginal Tasmanian artist Lola Greeno travels to her Cape Barren Island birthplace in Bass Strait to collect the precious blue-green rainbow kelp shells that wash up on the shore. It can take three weeks to gather enough shells for her 2 m-long ceremonial necklaces, known as maireeners, and much of the rest of the year to thread them. Time and patience is part and parcel of being an island artist, says Greeno: "It's this thing of foraging and walking around and collecting."
In an age of instant gratification, the painstaking artistry of Tasmanians like Greeno is balm to mainlander eyes. Her exquisite maireeners join the work of 25 local printmakers, furniture designers, weavers, potters and glass blowers in the "Response to the Island" exhibition. Unveiled at Tasmania's recent "10 Days on the Island" arts festival, the show runs through April 29 at Hobart's Long Gallery. Earthy and cerebral, it not only re-imagines Australia's isolated island state, but contemporary crafts as well. "A lot of people think that craftspeople don't have ideas, that they're only interested in skills and materials," says exhibition organizer Grace Cochrane, a senior curator of decorative arts and design at Sydney's Powerhouse Museum, and author of The Crafts Movement in Australia: A History (University of New South Wales Press).
Like Linda Fredheim's clever replica of an 18th century cabinet of curiosities, which examines the relationship between the natural histories of Tasmania and Patagonia, "Response to the Island" is a rich store of knowledge and history. Michael Schlitz's etchings appropriate the drawings of voyage artist Arago, who accompanied the French explorer Louis Freycinet to Tasmania in 1818, showing how the island has been colonized by European eyes, while Greg Kwok-Keung Leong's "singing" quilts voice the forgotten history of the 19th century Chinese tin miners who worked in the state's northeast. As print- and cabinetmaker Patrick Hall says in the show's catalog: "Cabinets and islands like Tasmania are places where you put things-convicts, luggage, things unwanted or best forgotten, or things special and worth preserving."
The natural environment is inescapable in a place as small as Tasmania-"I was at the GPO today at lunchtime and big trucks were going past with bits of forest on them," says printmaker Raymond Arnold, a teacher at the Tasmanian School of Art in Hobart. And "Response to the Island" showcases an artistic sensibility highly tuned to the wilderness. The painted thylacines that adorn Michael McWilliams' recycled colonial meatsafe, and Irene Briant's elegiac wire-mesh emu, stand as mute witnesses to Tasmania's destructive past, while the Huon pine and tiger myrtle bowls and trays of Peter Meure and Lynden Prince act as superbly crafted arguments against woodchipping: art as conservation.
Other artists seem less concerned with parochial issues. John Smith's voluptuously curved cabinet, Marrawah Ripple-Malibu Swell, 2001, is a reminder that the Pacific which laps Tasmania's coast also reaches across to California, where the artist spent a residency last year studying the architecture of Frank Gehry. Tasmania's isolation "gives you the time and the space and the sense of quiet to contemplate the broader picture," says Smith, head of Hobart's pioneering Centre for Furniture Design.
Sometimes it takes an outsider to see a place more clearly, and Sydney-based curator Cochrane, who spent much of the '70s and '80s teaching and studying art in Tasmania, presents a clarion vision of the island state. It's there in the white crystal cliffs of Frenchman's Cap, etched onto zinc plates on Arnold's kitchen table, and in the glacial translucence of Les Blakebrough's bowls, fashioned from the artist's specially developed "Southern Ice" porcelain clay. What emerges from "Response to the Island" is a sense of place as palpable as the raindrops on the Derwent River, filmed, then inkjet-printed onto 160 canvas panels in Troy Ruffels' Location III, 1999. For island artists like these, it's a labor of love.