Ash has been used in art forms ever since man had a relationship with fire.
Senior visual artist Nigel Hewitt, collected ash from bushfires across WA and Tasmania to create a political portrait of contemporary Australia, in his new solo exhibition Recinder.
WA bushfires are very common, but how exactly did you come up with the idea of using ash as a way of expression through your art?
Throughout my career I’ve always been searching for new mediums to create a voice in my art. I often go out to the landscape just to relax and get some inspiration, and there is a particular part in the Jon Forrest National park where I do a lot of writing, there was a time when a large fire went through that particular area. So I went back into that forest, that once was so magnificent, and it was basically reduced to black and smouldering pools of ash. So when I saw that, I thought, maybe I could do something with that to re-create a landscape that’s been lost, and that’s where it originally started from.
You collected this ash from WA’s and Tasmania’s bush fires; did you pick specific ashes from the fires that had a particular story behind it?
Yes, and that is very important. I like to get into fires that have been destructive, because they talk to people. For example in Tasmania, there was a very significant fire that was created by dry thunderstorms and it was very representative of climate change. So lightning started fires everywhere in this very fragile environment. I went into those areas as soon as I possibly could, by creating work around that loss, and the way those particular environments speak to people, it gives my work a bit more emphasis.
Tell me a bit about your process, when you collect the ashes how do you make it all happen?
That’s an interesting story in itself, if I can get into a fire early enough, whether these pools of ash have been burnt for days, you can collect ash that has all the carbon taken out of it, which becomes very white, and that is the bottom area of my tonal value. By collecting different monochromatic ash, I can then take it to the studio to filter it, and be able to mix this ash to get the tones that I need. I usually work with 5 to 6 tones, and that’s enough to create a very strong representational image.
When I had the ash in the studio, I thought to myself how on earth am I going to apply it? Through a six year period and many visits to the hardware store, gathering bits and pieces, and the use of an engraver to vibrate the ash out through a small venturi. I made out a tool that can actually help me draw lines, and it has become crudely refined.
Tell me about the images itself and the meaning behind them.
The images represent pictorial realism, so when you stand in front of them they look quite photographic. I previously have taken many photographs of these areas, to then develop my work using the ash. For example, the rainforest in Tasmania is quite extraordinary; when you look at it there is a sense of life and death. There are trees that have fallen hundreds of years ago, and out of those trees, covered in musk are other trees trying to grow through; that is the most wonderful record of survival. That became a particularly important subject for my work, because I am creating these works out of something like ash that goes back to the earth and recreates life again.
How long did it take you to create these art works?
It has taken me up to 2 and half months to complete a work, but it can vary a lot, because I am working with ash, and it’s a medium that is basically dust. In other words, you can’t mix it with any other mediums like polymer or oil based mediums, because it looks terrible. Also, these images are quite large and have to be broken into nine panels so that I can cover the whole surface. Therefore, it really becomes vulnerable to environments like wind and even sneezing and sweating.
Nigel Hewitt’s inspiration came from Zhang Huan’s incense ash exhibition, at the Versace Gallery in London 12 years ago. However, what drove Hewitt to pursue this show was his deep concern with the environment, and how the world is losing so many species and much of the forests. He believes his art is his voice, and through this exhibition he hopes he can be able to transmit this important message to everyone else.
You can find Nigel Hewitt’s exhibition at the Gallery Central in Perth, from 2-19 May.