• Grace Cobb

Shadowing Tom

Updated: May 3, 2019

I was six years old when I first met Christine Porter. Bright eyed, I watched my Grade One teacher move across to the blackboard with a kindness and sensitivity that every young child could hope for. Even then, there was something different about Miss Porter and here, 28 years later, I can still see that kindness, compassion and sensitivity in the artwork that she creates.

Words and images by Erin Corish

Life is an intrinsic journey of coincidence and meaning and I don’t doubt for a second that this woman has once again become a focus point in my life, that may go beyond the words here. Myself as Editor, her as Artist yet, as we talk, it’s impossible not to remember that classroom years ago. It is perhaps this relevance that first becomes obvious in the story subject for Christine Porter’s new exhibition. She

has embraced a project where past and present collide in a beautiful collection of artwork that, through time, is somehow different despite the subject remaining the same.

Her exhibition, Shadowing Tom, is a series of paintings of the two shearing sheds at “Newstead” near Inverell on the northern tablelands of New South Wales. The original shed was made famous 120 years ago when Tom Roberts, a regular visitor to the property, used it as the basis for his large painting “the Golden Fleece”. This painting was also called “Shearing at Newstead” which is why, one day about twenty years ago, she recognised the name and wondered firstly if it was that same “Newstead” or indeed if making artwork about this could be a possibility.

“For years it was in the back of my mind. I heard rumours that it was a Victorian shed; I imagined exhibitions and opportunities,” says Christine. “An invitation to show at the Inverell Gallery was the perfect opportunity to follow a dream.”​​

To prepare for this exhibition, she spent several days in late 2014 drawing on site at both the original shed and the “newer” shed on “Newstead”. She did prep drawings for what would result in 30 watercolour paintings of both sheds – a major body of work. The old shed was

hot and quiet. It hadn’t been used for several years and the rumoured ghosts weren’t to be seen. “I was conscious that this was more than just a shed. I was very aware of the importance of this shed in the pantheon of shearing shed paintings. And at the same time, I was aware that it didn’t look the way it did in Tom Roberts’ time.”

Christine is well rehearsed to the feelings in shearing sheds. She painted her first shearing shed in 1984 and next year will celebrate having painting 100 different sheds throughout Australia. Our family property, “Mundine”, once owned by Sir William Gunn, proudly sits on Christine’s list. “I absolutely love waking up every morning and going to paint. This has been an exciting project - something akin to

a coming of age event. I’d like to consider the challenge of painting even more of the important sheds across Australia’s heartland, though the small family sheds, especially ones still in use, are still my favourite. I see my role as artist as being the purveyor of memories - some sort of historian’s apprentice.”

A full-time artist since 1991, Christine left Goondiwindi in 1996 after working here as a teacher, a profession I came to know her well as that bright eyed six-year-old. She pursued a visual arts degree, has two etchings in the National Gallery of Australia and has continued to win prizes all over the country.

She has had the privilege of visiting the United Kingdom on a fellowship creating artwork about the various sheep breeds she encountered – never straying from the country influence that embodies her work. “I consider myself a watercolourist first and foremost, but since 2007 I’ve called myself an artist as well – which means I get to choose any material to tell whichever story catches my eye at any given time. 2007 saw some major changes played out – about how I thought and wrote about art, the subjects I portrayed, even the materials I used. But it’s still me underneath all that hype. Just me sitting at the kitchen table telling you a story.

Often it’s a story of rural Australia, and usually it’s about the physicality of that world. But for all the hierarchical implications of making art in the provinces, apparently provincially, it’s my story, and for me that’s what being an artist is all about.”

Her latest series is years in the making. From the initial idea twenty years ago; to the first tentative approaches made to the current owners to get their permission to create this work; from the few days on site which was followed by nearly 6 months of painting and another two solid months developing the mixed media work, this project has been an important part of her own development as an artist.

“I painted my first shearing shed in 1984. To think, thirty years later I would be sitting in one of the most famous shearing sheds in the history of Australian art – it felt such a milestone for me personally.” “This is a career exhibition. The title of this show “Shadowing Tom” is about how the word shadowing means following, but it also has other meanings,” says Christine. “Sometimes it feels that every shed painting I paint references the work of Tom Roberts. Has my work been living in his shadow all these years? This last two years I have certainly been shadowing his, with all the off-site research I did.”Tom Roberts’ painting “The Golden Fleece” is now on permanent show at the New South Wales Art Gallery. Christine visited it there, but the exciting part of her research was being allowed access to Tom Roberts’ sketchbooks at the state library. It was an astonishing experience to see and handle the small books that he used to prepare his major works. She went to Canberra too, to the blockbuster exhibition there at the National Gallery, and saw other work at the National Portrait Gallery. ​​Seeing “The Golden Fleece” in the context of his career made Christine’s visit to “Newstead” all the more poignant. Exploring the shed he’d painted, referencing Tom Roberts’ presence there, resulted in a body of work in three parts. Christine painted thirty paintings of the two sheds as they are now, created a series of 3D pieces and a printed suite of drypoint etchings. The 60 pieces together form a narrative of how individual moments of time and space can map the history of a site. ​​

“In 2016, we can not relate to that painting the way Tom Roberts intended in 1894.

As the audience we might be involved with sheep and wool, or we might be artists or we might just like looking at pictures, but we can only ever read the image in relation to our own lives. And our lives are so very far away from the version of grazing and art-making that he tells us about,” says Christine.“ I enjoyed making the artwork about how the sheds look, but the act of sitting down and drawing what I was seeing changed how I saw both this shed, and how I related to his painting,” comments Christine.

“So I chose ten images from my sketchbook to draw onto perspex sheets. By scratching, engraving and sand-blasting my drawings into the surface, some areas became opaque. I then constructed boxes with this perspex drawing as the face. On the back wall of the box I placed a postcard of “the Golden Fleece” so the audience is literally looking through my drawings to see his image.”

This shearing shed is typical of many. It was built at a time when the sheep industry carried Australia on its back: when our wool warmed the world. Land use and markets have changed. As the artist, Christine is often the last one in before the bulldozers. Her work describes the final shearing, the flock replaced by herd, the loss of respect for an industry that placed the Australian economy on the world stage.

Christine explains: “I meet people from the cities or coastal fringes and hear their mis-information and mis-understandings about agriculture and grazing. It is a gradual and inevitable amnesia that describes the true balance of power in a country that still needs to feed itself. This work is not deliberately nostalgic.

It’s about real people, real places. It’s about how, despite those lifestyles being trivialised by mass media and hijacked by tourism, for so many Australians this is still home.”