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Cementa 17| An Interview with Artist Miriam Williamson

A once flourishing cement works town, Kandos (pop. 1,200) is located 3.5 hours from Sydney between the towns of Lithgow and Mudgee. The town owes its existence to the plentiful supplies of limestone and coal in the region, which supported the former cement plant up until its closure in 2012. Losing a defining industry is a challenge for most communities; however Kandos has become a site of revival and re-invigoration in the form of the biennial contemporary arts festival, Cementa.

A homage to transformation and Kandos’ industrial roots, Cementa brings together urban and regional artists for four days of artworks and site-specific activations. This year’s festival sees Blue Mountains artist Miriam Williamson return to the area to create an installation in Paul’s Paddock, attached to the former convent.

Regional Arts NSW’s Katelyn-Jane Dunn recently had a chat with Miriam about her artwork, Kandos, and making art in the regions.

Katelyn-Jane Dunn: Hi Miriam, thanks for the chance to have a chat! To start off, can you tell me about your art practice and influences?

Miriam Williamson: My creative practice originated in post punk and ambient music with many collaborations over decades with various sound artists including Itch-ee and Scratch-ee and Pelican Daughters.  While I chose sound over visual art I maintained an interest. Visual influences were mostly from the Americas including artists Doris Salcedo and Agnes Martin.
My early visual work was based on our relationship with domestic animals as a commodity.  I then began researching the empty chair movement around the same time that I inherited an antique bed from Hill End in which my Mother was born and died.  This peaked my interest in inter-generational heirlooms and their material representation of spirit of those passed.
KD: What’s your connection to the town of Kandos?

MW: My grandfather Arthur Yates moved there from the gold fields in Hill End in 1923.  He bought land at 12 Russell Road and built a temporary bag hut dwelling on the site.  He worked firstly in the coal mines and then the cement works.  He eventually built the home that still stands today and is occupied by my cousin Terry Yates.  His father (my Uncle Bill Yates) also lives on that land.

I was born in Kandos and at that time there were 14 of us in the house.  My parents later moved to Bathurst but we retained a strong connection visiting our Grandparents in school holidays.  Since moving to the mountains from Sydney nine years ago I’ve visited more regularly and was more than surprised when the first Cementa was held.  I’d never imagined Kandos as a venue for a contemporary arts festival.  To me it was family and industry.  I feel a strong bond there to those who have passed and hold many happy childhood memories.
KD: It’s exciting that participating in Cementa is returning home for you. Can you tell me about your artwork for the festival?

MW: My work for Cementa is titled Bag Hut.  It references the original dwelling my Grandfather built using some of the same materials including hessian, corrugated iron and lard, in a contemporary context. Bag huts were common during the great depression as people became more transient looking for work and shelter outside of the city.  Not unlike now in some ways as people are forced out of the city by the high cost of living. You can still come across sheets of corrugated iron in the Gardens of Stone and surrounding areas that were part of these structures

The work is a collaboration with my partner artist/designer Brad Allen-Waters.  Together we have broken the elements down to create a sculptural representation of an impermanent habitat that will house the familial ties and links to place.  The structure holds a sense of claustrophobia, a very ‘tight’ space as described by my Uncle.

The work represents displacement and uncertainty yet is a signifier of the home and the ability of people to construct a domestic environment under adversity.
KD: Bag Hut uses solar prints and solar power; what is the significance of the sun for you in this work?

MW: The theme for Cementa 17 is landscape.  I lived in the Central West during a terrible drought in the 1970’s – early 80’s that has had a lasting impact on many communities.  I remember long periods with little or no rain and endless sun.  My Grandfather kept a rain gauge on the old tennis court at Russell Road and I have his little notebook of his rainfall recordings throughout this period.  They were recorded in the old points system  (1 point = 0.254 mm, and 1 mm = 3.94 points).  There seemed an irony in using the sun to etch the imprint of the rainfall data.  These prints will be displayed on the inner walls of the bag hut.  The solar panel will be used to power the audio component.

KD: Bag Hut clearly has an intergenerational component, with facets of the work stemming from the recordings and lives of those living and deceased. Can you tell me more about this intergenerational echo?

MW: The work draws on three generations of my family.  My Uncle Bill now aged 93 still recalls living in the bag hut and I was fortunate to be able to record his childhood memories of the dwelling and the town.  This recording will be a component of the work.  My Uncle recalls a concentric circle similar to a wagon wheel, of well-worn pathways that led from these dwellings in the surrounding bush to the Kandos cement works.

The rainfall recordings are in my Grandfather’s handwriting and go up to the time of his death in 1981.  In addition copies of pages from my Grandmother’s 1913 autograph book from Hill End filled with aphorisms from family and friends from the surrounding area will be displayed.

KD: Now I know you’re based in the Blue Mountains. What is your experience of being an artist outside of major metropolitan areas?

MW: The initial motive for moving west was the affordability of housing and work space.  We moved here to reactivate our artistic careers. In the nine years that we have been here the artistic community continues to grow as others do the same.

The formation of Modern Art Projects (MAP) in the Blue Mountains has been a turning point for contemporary art here.  With a focus on exhibiting outside of traditional gallery spaces MAP has installed shows in private homes and historic buildings.  They have built a connection amongst contemporary artists forming a bridge between regional and metropolitan artists and audience. Which is funny considering the Blue Mountains is part of the Great Divide.

Brad Allen-Waters and I have also opened our studio to other artists to exhibit by establishing an Artist Run Initiative – The SLAB.  We have now hosted several shows of local and Central West artists including a large Modern Art Projects (MAP) show.  It is very community oriented and supported by many artists pitching in to make these events successful and fun.  On the downside the challenge, as for many artists outside the metropolitan area, is the opportunity to get work shown in the city.  Collectors are often based in the city and there is a very limited market outside of that.

KD: Lastly, do you have any final words for our readers?


For more information and the 2017 festival program, visit Cementa17 runs from April 6-9 2017 in Kandos, NSW.