Monday, May 12, 2014

Special Collections Fossickings 36: Capturing a passing era: the Val Russell sketches


"Cardwell Residence" 1969
Some of the treasures of Special Collections come in unremarkable guise - a recent donation arrived in two large plastic tote boxes. Inside were forty sketchbooks containing hundreds of drawings by Atherton artist Val Russell who, for nearly half a century, captured the essence of North Queensland’s built, natural and rural environment in a variety of media. The donor was Val’s daughter, Ellen Danaher, whose recent biography of her mother, “Sketchbooks: an artist’s life on the Tableland”, is also held in Special Collections in the North Queensland Collection.
"Peeramon Hotel" 1975
The drawings contained in the sketchbooks became the foundation of her finished works. Here can be found delicate sketches of small-town streetscapes, tumbledown cottages, remote farm buildings, shop-fronts and churches – many now vanished and perhaps recorded nowhere else but in her art. Titles like “Awaiting demolition” or “Closed down” indicate her sensitivity to the fate of many old buildings which had once seen better days, though her sketches of more contemporary buildings also capture the essence of place.  Some sketches are accompanied by newspaper cuttings giving details of the building’s history.  Others display her fascination with natural forms – gnarled tree trunks, twisted roots, wind-blown palm fronds or she-oak foliage – while family holidays resulted in evocative land and seascapes.
"Old Playhouse Theatre - South Johnstone" 1975
A North Queenslander through and through, Val was born in Ayr and at age nineteen married Eric Russell, a young soldier from Charters Towers. In 1946, despite plans to try their luck in Sydney, a job offer for Eric saw them move to Atherton. This was to be Val’s home for nearly sixty years; it was where she raised their three children and developed her appealing artistic talent.
"Corner Store - Trinity Beach" 1968
During her long life Val produced over 1200 works of art, nearly all of which were sold to buyers from around the country and even overseas. From the 1960s she was exhibiting regularly and successfully at art shows and galleries around the north. At the same time her efforts to establish a local art society and art gallery in Atherton, represented a major contribution to the cultural life of her community.
"Abandoned Cottage" Irvinebank 1974
The context and detail contained in the sketchbooks is considerably enhanced by associated material. Surely this artist had the mind of an archivist! Workbooks date back to the diploma course she took in the 1960s and the history of each of her finished works is meticulously documented. There are also revealing manuscripts of her mostly unpublished writing: poetry, memoirs, letters and what she called “random jottings”.  Special Collections is privileged to become the custodian of this important archive.
"Strangler Fig" 1984

1 comment:

David Robertson said...

Val was my father's cousin whom I never met unfortunately. I am enjoying reading Sketchbooks and learning about her.