Smoke & Souvenirs

Words by
Amber Creswell Bell
| April 9, 2014

Julie Paterson is, as she describes herself, a ‘textile designer turned painter’, using her art practice to inform her textiles. Well known for her coveted textiles company Cloth – Julie championed ‘Australiana’ long before it was à la mode, printing designs evocative of native botanica, landscape and indigenous art onto fabric by hand, in the old fashioned way.

Her aesthetic is in fact less about ‘aesthetics’, and more about what they represent. She states, ‘the designs I make for Cloth are very personal to me and reflect my creative journey. They all have stories and their own reasons for being. I am very connected to the landscape so my design work ultimately reflects that. There are messages in each design in some form or other about respecting the land and treating it gently’.  Speaking to Julie, you can tell this to be every bit for real.

While Julie lives by the beach her creative studio is tucked away in the NSW Blue Mountains – an area of vast natural beauty, inspiration and peace. Any person – artist or not  – would struggle not to draw inspiration from an area such as this. It is such beauty that renders the Blue Mountains a tourist magnet, a natural inclusion on the to-do list for any visitor to NSW.

When fire ripped through the area in October 2013 it was utterly devastating- physically, emotionally and financially. It destroyed 210 houses and burnt over 65,000 hectares of bushland – much of the area lying within the Blue Mountains and Wollemi national parks.

Julie’s latest work, Souvenirs, is an exhibition of landscapes on found materials, repurposed from the scrapheap, op shop or reclaimed from the ashes of the fires that hit all too close to home. The exhibition explores the ways in which certain objects hold memories and meaning for us. Julie explains that this new body of work has been ‘hanging around’ for a year now. She says,

It began at Hill End last Easter and continued on with the idea of keepsakes or souvenirs – I took some corrugated tin and a few paintings of Hill End landscapes on the tin back with me and they were so evocative that I kept thinking about this idea more and more. My partner, Amanda, is an op shop freak and kept bringing home teak bowls mainly made in the Philippines – you know the sort – 1970’s style. Completely overlooked items. I painted a local Blue Mountains landscape in one and immediately knew I was onto something! The idea of a one-off souvenir on a mass produced bowl is kind of incongruous. So Amanda kept buying them and I kept painting them. The bowls make up about half the show. The rest is from the experience of meeting Katrina – a woman whose house burnt down to the ground, and finding all the metal things in the ruin of her home.

Julie recalls a day last November, when Katrina walked into her shop. Knowing Julie was from the Mountains she told her about her Mount Victoria home that she had lost in the fires and invited her to see what was left of it before the bulldozers came to clear the rubble. The invitation was accepted, though Paterson did not expect to find anything to take away other than perhaps some charcoal and a few poignant photos. Instead as they sifted through the ash together they discovered many small metal things all ravaged and twisted from the heat, now rusty from being exposed to the elements without a roof.

Tins of burnt art equipment
Destruction at the Mount Victoria house.

Struck by the innate intimacy of the objects – such as the underwires from the owners bras, bed springs from her brand new bed, casing of her grandmothers hair brush and mirror, old tins that stored her record needles, crayons, her fathers medals and good tea – Julie could not help but be moved and inspired;

Painting from memory and from what I saw in the rusty burnt metal of her possessions was quite a personal experience. Using watercolour and beeswax on metal also is incongruous almost contradictory. The watercolour and the rusty tin is all preserved in the wax, but would wash off or melt off in an instant if it were in another fire. The frailty of that I think makes these pieces work.

Collectively the work in Souvenirs asks us to consider the landscape we live in – both its beauty and terror – and the way we capture our experience of it in the objects we treasure. These works on tin transform the debris of the recent fires, giving the objects a second life and a new meaning. As an Ambassador for the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife, Julie says that her message has always been to appreciate and value the natural world. She says,

I grew up in the countryside in the UK – I was used to running around in the fields with welly boots on making up my own fun and that is still very much my headspace. That’s why I like the mountains I think. It’s a bit chilly, damp and muddy. Perfect for me to go a bit feral.

Julie Paterson’s Souvenirs exhibition runs from the 12-26th of April at Hat Hill Gallery, Blackheath.


Watercolour and beeswax on various tins found in the remains of Katrina's house
Souvenir bowls.
Julie Paterson in her Blue Mountains studio. Photo by Sarah Norton