When John Bokor was preparing to take up an artist’s residency on the wild south coast near Bermagui, New South Wales, in May this year, he filled his car with enough art supplies for the two-week stay. As well as boxes of paint, Bokor packed three expansive canvases for working indoors and a bevy of small boards for painting in the dramatic landscape where the icy winter winds were just gathering pace.
But the small boards remained untouched throughout Bokor’s stay at Umbi Gumbi Artist-In-Residence, located in the spotted gum forest bordering Cuttagee Beach. In the end, he didn’t do ‘a scrap’ of plein air painting.
‘I envisaged that I would, but I just wanted to walk and think,’ Bokor said.
Instead of pictures of windswept headlands of the beach where he walked every day with his wife, writer Kirstin Bokor who shared the residency, Bokor returned home with paintings of domestic still lifes assembled from objects he found while fossicking in the Umbi Gumbi house. Who knows? Perhaps that distinctive green teapot was used by artists and writers who stayed at Umbi Gumbi in years gone by? Brett Whiteley, Michael Dransfield and Richard Neville were just some of them.
For Bokor, such objects were very much part of the Umbi Gumbi story and fabric.
‘I’d just take things out to the studio and make a mental note so I could put them all back where they belonged,’ he said.
The yellow book that appears in the paintings was about John Olsen, while the loaf of sourdough was from Honorbread in Bermagui, where the couple also bought wonderful seafood to cook at night.
While Kirstin stayed in the main house and wrote by the fire, Bokor painted in the nearby studio, entranced by the complete silence that was suddenly shattered every afternoon by kangaroos that crashed and thudded down the gully. They came so close that Bokor expected them to invade the studio, but they never did.
The three Umbi Gumbi paintings are on view in Bokor’s exhibition, ‘Still Lifes and Interiors’, at Nicholas Thompson Gallery in Melbourne, along with a suite of smaller canvases completed back home in Bulli, New South Wales, but directly inspired by the residency and informed by the many photographs that Bokor took of the assemblages he put together there.
The three big paintings – Umbi Gumbi still life, Two apples, and Green teapot – were started in Umbi Gumbi and finished in Bulli.
‘I put everything that I could in them, which is often how I paint,’ Bokor said. ‘I put more information than I want to have at the end, and then I edit it out and take things out.’
Melbourne audiences are less familiar with Bokor’s work than in Sydney, so the artist decided with Nicholas Thompson to include several older paintings for reasons of context. These include the large picture, Hendrik and Julianna’s sitting room (2014), depicting the Sydney home of artist and influential former Art Gallery of New South Wales curator Hendrik Kolenberg. The painting has a shifting, living quality, thanks to Bokor’s layering and editing which gives the objects permission to breathe rather than nailing them solidly to the spot.
For Bokor, the Umbi Gumbi residency came when Australia was first coming to terms with COVID-19.
‘It really kind of refreshed me and recalibrated my whole headspace,’ Bokor said.
Umbi Gumbi offers residencies to artists, writers and musicians. The property was once owned by Frank and Mary Brett, Mary being a relative of the artistic Boyd dynasty. A cooperative property since 1978, Umbi Gumbi is now run by Frederic Jeanjean and Jessie Connell.
Elizabeth Fortescue is a Sydney-based arts writer.
Nicholas Thompson Gallery
18 September to 16 October 2021