When you stand in the streets of Lightning Ridge you can quite easily imagine it as a lonely mining outpost filled with men searching for that elusive shot of brightness hidden deep in the earth. But being an artist, like opal mining itself, takes time and perseverance before you can succeed.
For artist John Murray this comparison is a mirror to his artistic success. The landscape is challenging and only time and perseverance have led to the successful gallery and art practice that is filled with light and humour.
In Lightning Ridge perseverance is the key and the small town draws people from all walks of life and all corners of the globe to try their luck in the dusty, rocky hills of the region. But for John this is the place he has called home for the last 30 years and has seen it emerge as an outpost ‘just filled with men and a few families’ to a thriving town full of creativity and community spirit.
As you look around John’s gallery those rocky ridges and the vast open plains of the region are an inspiring light in all his work. Big or small, the canvases are dotted with rocky landscapes, laughing galahs, sleepy dogs and tongue-in-cheek titles that echo the dry humour that can be found in country NSW.
Working in a remote community has many challenges and to run a successful and viable gallery within such a community has taken years but is one decision, he and his wife Viki, do not regret.
When I came here originally it was a choice of Lightning Ridge or Tasmania. I thought about Tasmania and went no, too cold so I chose the Ridge. I’d struggled to be an artist in Sydney and in between rent, food and fuel it was all too much but all I’d ever wanted to do was be an artist but I didn’t really fit into the mainstream art scene in Sydney. So I left and travelled overseas but because of this deep seated love of art I came back to Australia. But, when I got back I tried Sydney for a while but it was unrealistic and as a young bloke I thought it would be more sensible to just get a van and find some land and work from that.
Following his nose to the dusty fields of Lightning Ridge was a long walk from Sydney but John said he was continually drawn to the community and how different and accepting everyone was.
When I came here I could get a plot of land for $12.50 for a year so I built a shack and started from that. Everyone was very welcoming and there’s just something about the area that just draws you in and when I came out here I just loved it.
Starting from a dusty shack to a home studio and now onto a professional gallery John said his first big decision for the gallery was tapping into the tourism market and creating inexpensive limited edition prints of his works as a way of formal income and drawing people in to explore the space.
I wanted to make my gallery people-friendly. I didn’t want it to be a one that you go into and you’re too scared to talk. I wanted it to be one that is friendly and welcoming to the average person.
Filled with light infused images, sun drenched skies and iconic sayings such as ‘what a galah’ and ‘budgie smugglers’, his artworks become literal translations with John saying all his inspiration comes from around him.
People out here just have this fabulous sense of humour and hilarious sayings. Sometimes I’ll hear them and I’ll think gee that’s funny and then I’ll be driving off and all of a sudden I can see how that saying will match an image and how I will create it. Most of my art comes from the titles. Not the other way around. But mostly I want my art to be fun and enjoyable.
Welder Tim Parsons, Stan Single (Stanley’s namesake) and artist John Murray with the sculpture.
Welcoming and with a smiling face John seems to create art that makes people smile and enjoy what he creates. His most recent smile-worthy project is far from lofty highbrow fine art and more waste to art with a sculpture of an emu made from assembled scrap steel and car parts standing proud and tall (a whole 18 metres) on the Castlereagh Highway 10km out of Lightning Ridge.
Named ‘Stanley’, John says there are already plans for emu chicks to sit alongside Stanley, and to encourage creativity the Walgett Shire are currently holding a competition for ‘Sculptures Along the Highway’. This proposal would be for community members to submit applications regarding sculptures to be created to sit along the Castlereagh Highway throughout the shire and Walgett Shire would award cash prizes for the top five to assist in construction costs.
John says it’s an opportunity to bring visitors to the region and promote creativity.
We’ve got this massive wide open land and there’s already proof that it works. Look at Stanley! I mean, I don’t know if the sculptures will all be as big as him but you look at the nature of the average cocky and they always want to do bigger so I feel they’re definitely going to be noteworthy. But if people are feeling unsure we could also have a cross collaboration of artists creating on private land. I just think it would do so much for our small towns.
Passionate about promoting the region and creating artistic opportunities John says the sculptures can be created from anything and can be as individual as the person themselves.
I can’t wait to see what everyone will put forward (to the Council) and to be able to spread this project into the other shires that the Castlereagh Highway covers. What’s not to like?