Driving up to Joshua Yeldham’s home studio on Sydney’s northern beaches, the road curves and meanders alongside the Hawkesbury River, today turquoise and glistening in the midday sun. Yeldham’s ‘studio forest’ among the gum trees is in keeping with his whole ‘raison d’etre’ of immersing himself in nature. This filmmaker turned artist creates works that cross boundaries between art and craft, painting and sculpture, landscape and abstraction. The source of his inspiration is his surrounding environment – Yeldham journeys up river by boat exploring the gullies and creeks, sandstone cliffs and rock surfaces, bird life and mangroves, which he then translates in a type of creative alchemy into remarkable images. These topographical visions are slowly built up by painting, rubbing, sanding and carving onto board and fibreglass – creating both vast and panoramic, intimate and intricate views of nature.
His physical and visual journeys over the past decade have taken him on solo expeditions through the inland desert of NSW, to the fertile river regions on the Eastern seaboard. Yeldham’s eloquent and masterful artworks constantly push new boundaries; yet always convey an ongoing reverence for the forces of nature and cycles of life. Drawing on the devotional ceremonies and rituals of Eastern mysticism, he attempts to convey a kind of spiritual communion with the natural world, which can then be shared with the viewer.
How do you start an artwork?
I have my blue paint and brush and I just close my eyes and think of the river and the escarpment. Then it comes to me and I make a gesture with the paint. You let go of the brain; you don’t have to think any more, it’s actually guiding you. But it’s guiding you in ways that you could never orchestrate intellectually. So that’s why no painting is the same.
Is it an intuitive process then?
I don’t plan a picture – there’s no sketch. I start with a form of calligraphy and then I start carving and what carving teaches me is similar to what the Australian bush teaches me and that’s about destruction and erosion – like the wind eroding the rocks. The belt sanders that I use eat away images and you experience a level of loss and through
loss you have to pick out beauty again, so it becomes a tug of war. So my wind, my erosion is this tool (the belt sander), so something as aggressive as that is eating away my painting.
Do you think your work inherently comes from nature?
It just comes from me. My sense of feeling at times so removed and alien from the landscape and searching, craving for a connection. I feel like I’m a hybrid of Western influences and Asian influences, African influences – it’s also the primal power of making and using my hands.
They almost have a ritualistic dimension don’t they?
They do. When you become aware of nature’s cycles, you can trust that no matter what you do. I think that has had an enormous impact on how the work evolves for me. The process of being a white westerner with not much ritual base or religious base, how do I cleanse myself or give myself some kind of ritual. Making art is my process.
Much of your artwork in recent years has focussed on fertility symbols. Does this have a personal resonance?
Yes, I was told that I couldn’t have a child, so we had to cross the bridge into science. I was a cystic fibrosis carrier and couldn’t conceive naturally. When you go through these invasive processes, I felt I’d lost all control. So what I had to do was form a kind of ritual – I started to make fertility objects. I had a vision of an owl where I saw the owl as stealing our embryos, so I made offerings to the owl, which came from my time in Bali, where you continually make devotional offerings. You ask guide me, protect me, those basic prayers of protection and forgiveness. So you cleanse yourself every day in order to cope, that’s why I made these things.
You often use the owl motif as a kind of totemic figure.
With the infertility, I realised that I was building a new mythology to cope. I started to make them, not as killers but kind of as landscapes. I started to make offerings to them and when I did it, bang we got pregnant.
What inspired you to start painting?
I found an old grave from the 1800’s and it said ‘Eliza – her charity covereth a multitude of sins.’ She had been a prostitute; a priest had found her
and buried her in the desert. In time I started making paintings to her. All my work was about her sensuality with nature; I wanted to reclaim her and bring her back into nature and get rid of the harshness of men; honouring her. She became a feminine guide to the landscape. I felt incredibly free painting in the desert. I was no longer touching a tree or an object, I was touching my paper with my hands, and I was working with oxides from the soil.
The move from film-making to art-making – was that a conscious decision to have the freedom to make art no matter what?
Totally – it’s a matter of $2 versus $200,000. With the first show I had back in 1996, I bought a ream of paper and took it to the desert and every day I made a painting, then put it back in the box. I showed them to my sister and mum who had just opened a gallery and they went, ‘wow’. An artist then pulled out of a show, so they said ‘let’s give it a go’.
Have you always had this wanderlust?
Much of the time I felt incredibly isolated. I worked so hard to make my first film and then I came back home and went to the desert and there was this nothingness. I led a nomadic existence. Little things became teachings. Then I went on this last big stint in the desert where there were watersheds. A lot of the early work is about the search for companionship with someone and when Jo came along there was a lot of work about female companionship.
So this prompted your move to the Hawkesbury?
Jo and I stopped going to the desert and moved here, because I spent some of my childhood on the river and I knew this was a place that was always immensely powerful, but I didn’t know why. This is in a way like a new playground.
You’ve moved from a very arid desert landscape to a very lush region by the river. It’s almost like moving from barrenness to new life and fertility. Does this reflect your change in personal circumstances?
Yes – falling in love and trying to conceive. It was a real shift period. I kept coming here. The desert was the mother ocean; I always knew that it used to be the ocean, but it was an ocean of silence, nothingness, zero.
Coming here – was sea life, washing waves, cleansing, blessing.
The palette has now also changed.
There’s a very narrow palette range because in this area the lower part of the Hawkesbury is just blue waters and the upper part is mud- dy browns; so I have stuck to that palette for the last three years. I’ve also been trying to learn about carving and line work and I’ve always been very curious about why so many cultures around the world use dot work and line. When you start making there’s such an alchemy in the process that it just rivets me.
In the latest series, many of the works are even turning into musical instruments!
Yes, some of the works have strings and make melodies. I’m making them musical to say thank you. This is the thank you period – the victory. I also liked the idea that people who own the artwork might come home from work and might spend a few minutes tuning or plucking the strings and making a melody.
Some of your new work also involves painting and carving on hand-made paper.
That’s right. I’ve bought a paper mill so I can make my own paper; I plan on making the paper on my boat. I can sail up river and make the paper, so I can put plants, leaves and things in it. It’s a whole new chapter. Maybe when I see you in a couple of years I’ll just be a paper maker!
So what lies ahead?
After the upcoming show I have a year to paint for my next exhibition in Hong Kong. They’ve organised for me to paint on a boat in Southern China. It’s a region where David Hockney used to paint. We start making the paper in about 2 months and then in 6 months ship it to China. I’ll arrive with my belt-sander and ink, ready to start work!
An extract from ARTIST PROFILE, issue 13, 2010 // written by Victoria Hynes