Rare insights into Robyn Collier art

In a 40-year career painting nature, Springwood’s Robyn Collier has plenty of funny stories to tell.

But her one as an artist-in-residence aboard a cruise ship at Raft Point on the Kimberley Coast is a pearler.

“It was quite an experience, painting plein air on board,” she wrote in her blog.

“The boat swinging on its anchor presented quite a few difficulties, along with moving shadows. The subject, starting off in front of me ended up at my back … the light kept moving. Good fun at first, but after chasing around with my easel on several occasions it all got too much.”

But painting in challenging situations comes easily to Collier, one of the Mountains’ most prominent, enduring and adventurous Australian wilderness landscape painters.

She has been producing her contemporary realism paintings since the 1970’s, combining a love of the outdoors – that longstanding love of bushwalking in often very hard to get places – with her art.

And she’s proud to have abseiled and canoed to destinations she’s wanted to capture with her brushes – occasionally with a TV crew in tow. Now snorkelling for her art is her latest challenge in her quest for interesting subjects. When she’s not doing that, she has been known (in the not too distant past) to wrangle brown snakes for WIRES locally – but that’s another story. She has deeper, more serious concerns to discuss.

Because soon the 68-year-old Springwood artist will reveal her proudest moment – the unveiling of a poignant exhibition of paintings called Burragorang the Lost Valley which follows the launch of her first book, with the same title, last November.

Her exhibition of the doomed valley, which was flooded to shore up Sydney’s water supply, will be opened on March 24 by Jim Smith, the great historian of Blue Mountains bushwalking and author of 17 books.

Former Greens leader Bob Brown has also agreed to travel up from Tasmania to be part of the event. Brown also wrote her book’s foreword, which is now for sale in Mountains bookstores.

Brown writes of the importance of Collier’s body of work, marking the life of the valley, as a “compelling cameo of the world at large”.

He calls the Burragorang “a New South Wales equivalent of Tasmania’s Lake Pedder” and Collier’s paintings “a time capsule of a very special part of our nation’s heritage … a cry for the rescue of the valley”.

“There is a huge disjunct between the average Sydneysider’s support for protecting nature and the average Sydneysider’s waste of water. Starting in the 1950s, that need for water required the flooding of the Burragorang, the stunning valley of the Giant Kangaroo, which Collier has visited over many decades. The valley now faces more extensive flooding, including flooding more Aboriginal sites, from plans to raise the Warragamba Dam wall a further 14 metres”.

Brown says “Collier is on the side of angels … a wiser, more water-efficient Sydney could easily go into the future without further desecration of the valley”.

Collier herself says few younger people realise that before Warragamba Dam was built, the township of Burragorang was “a thriving farming and tourist destination – close to Sydney and breathtaking in its beauty”.

“If it existed today, no doubt it would have become a peak tourist and development opportunity, competing with the Blue Mountains.”

Lake Burragorang lies within the Greater Blue Mountains world heritage area, 65 kms south west of Sydney, near The Oaks in the Macarthur region. 

In the 1950’s about 170 families lived in the Burragorang  – an Aboriginal word meaning ‘home or place of the giant Kangaroo’ – when they were forcibly removed by the government of the day. They were told their valley would be flooded when a dam was built to grow Sydney’s water supply. It followed a bad drought through the 1930’s and 40’s. The government informed them their properties would be submerged by the dam's waters or they would be cut off from road access.

“It was a huge price for the people to pay for the water we now drink and waste with such impunity,” Collier adds.

Collier’s father, Brian Baigent, who was a well-known artist in the 1970s and 80s, painted the valley before it was flooded in 1958. It was something that had not made much impression on Collier in her early twenties, after she spent her formative years away from him when her parents split and she moved with her mother to England. But he fostered that early obsession with the valley.

“Burragorang was an amazing holiday destination, there were lots of guesthouses, there were farm areas, churches, horse riding. It would have been fantastic today were if it were still there, but of course Sydney needed a more substantial water supply,” she said.

“It all went under the water and I always thought nothing was left, but the water only went up to a certain level and it allowed a lot of the Burragorang Valley to remain visible.

“When I went first in in 1973, I visited Yerranderie, an absolute true ghost town which had been cut off from Camden by the waters of Lake Burragorang. And then I went in ten years later with the same rangers and I was just blown away with what was left – there were roads, remains of the old school, houses, shearing sheds, there’s still a lot there.”

Collier’s father was painting in the Burragorang “when they were digging up the coffins [in the church grounds] for reburial in Camden”.

“St Joseph’s Church was a rendered church and was not dismantled. One  of the old churches is still underneath and still lies at the bottom of the lake.”

She visited the lake in 2016 after a long battle to get access and travelled over that spot in a boat, imagining the life that was once lived 65 metres below

“Just knowing it was there was kind of spooky.”

Collier has returned to the valley many times in the past four decades – her first chance with a fellow member of an art group, who was then the head of the Forestry Department in 1973 –  and many times since.

“For years after I was allowed regular access to paint this beautiful place. In those days, visits were easier with the Water Board.”

Collier’s latest work on the Burragorang has consumed her for the past four years.

“It took that long to get entry permission and finally the boat trip on Lake Burragorang.”

One of the requirements of the trip was that she swim fully clothed for some distance before they let her in for her art studies. She was so angry by the delays, she marched up the road to Springwood pool that day and jumped in fully clothed while a pool marshal signed off her forms.

Most of the works in the exhibition were done from her recent trip and taken from photos. She only had one on-site painting opportunity because she was with the rangers and there were strict limits on the time spent in the forbidden area.

“As an artist Robyn is invigorated by the challenge of the painting of more difficult and intimate subjects. However always mindful that it is a painting that she is creating, she rarely relies on one photograph alone – which is the aid, not the end result”

Anne Flaherty

“I had to rely on photos. I had one little paint session when I went in one day over lunch, nothing very saleable. Because you are going with rangers and you have to be out by 4 o clock or they send out search parties.”

The art book has a limited print run and she hopes it may become a valuable collector’s book. 

“It is one of a kind  – never to be copied as very few people now can gain access [to the valley].”

At Collier’s book launch in Springwood last year she was delighted to see some of the families who had lived in the Burragorang Valley, families who have admired the lengths Collier has gone to to continue that four decade long love affair with the valley. 

She hopes many Mountains residents get to enjoy this special part of the world through her paintings and hopes her art “might change the way we feel” about the valley. She is not expecting to ever be able to return.

RobynCollier with the Wanganderry Walls behind.

RobynCollier with the Wanganderry Walls behind.

“A lot of Aboriginal stuff is going to go under again, a lot of the Kowmung will be flooded on and off ...” she says of the area’s future.

Collier is represented locally by Lost Bear Gallery in Katoomba. The painting exhibition opens on March 24 at Lost Bear Gallery when the book will also be officially launched.

Robyn Collier looking towards Coleman's Bend in the valley.

Robyn Collier looking towards Coleman's Bend in the valley.

USING A CAMERA WHEN WORKING REMOTELY

Collier’s publicist and friend Anne Pike-Flaherty said “Robyn’s love of walking takes her to some very special and isolated places – most too long in distance to carry heavy painting gear”. She takes many photos, that show “the interplay of light and shadow or the unraveling of a complex pattern on water, the fleeting moment of a cliff turning purple in the late light” and then recomposes the subject in a new way as a painting later.

“Her real love is traveling to remote areas – wilderness subjects and areas of difficult access being her special niche.”

Anne Flaherty

“Her real love is traveling to remote areas  – wilderness subjects and areas of difficult access being her special niche. As an artist Robyn is invigorated by the challenge of the painting of more difficult and intimate subjects. However always mindful that it is a painting that she is creating, she rarely relies on one photograph alone – which is the aid, not the end result.”

“Most of what she has learned has been learned from the observation of nature and constant hard work – being a self realised artist. Having spent many years painting en plein-air, she then graduated to studio work and subjects requiring more time and reference while still retaining the Alla-Prima technique (direct painting, wet-in-wet).”

Collier’s works hang in galleries around Australia and overseas and in private and corporate collections worldwide including Japan, Germany, USA, Canada, U.K. Russia and France.