A chat with our artist – Michael Sheill

The Oasis Rainbow has been really lucky to have visiting artist and Jeparit born and bred Michael Sheill spending time in Rainbow.

Michael is a renowned environmental artist who has created a range of artworks in deserts, dry lake beds, trees and waterways.

He was education officer at Horsham Art Gallery from 2008-2011 and has a PhD in Environmental art. His large body of work includes circles of stark white bones on red sand, clay painted tree branches, the depiction of a huge platypus on a dry lake bed and woven balls and shapes in wire and vines.

Michael works with everyday objects including branches, vines, rusted old wire, animals' bones, clay and rocks. He has been a bit wired since arriving – well getting accustomed to wire which he is planning to use on his garden sculptures.

Find out what he has been up to and what he is planning during his time in the Mallee

What are your ideas for making sculptures in the Rainbow district?

The ideas for the work that I am thinking about are really evolving out of the conversations that I have been having with the locals. Having people be so open, friendly and willing to chat has been really great. Not only is it very welcoming but it also gives me a basis for creating work. I feel that is really a vital part of the process. I don't think that coming in with a concept for a work and imposing it without some basis for understanding leads to the creation of good work. For example having chatted with Ron Ismay and others it is very obvious that Lake Albacutya and the want for water are a constant source of conversation.

Also following a chat with Diane Dickson about her family's history as commercial fisherman on the lake I feel that I should do some sort of work that responds to or references that. I have a few ideas for what that might be. One is possibly a woven barb wire canoe, with the wire being sourced from local farmers' junk piles. In terms of placement I am thinking about suspending the piece up in an old red gum. That idea came out of a chat with Belinda Eckermann when she talked about a mini cyclone that had passed through the area relatively recently and some people's farm equipment ended up lodged in trees.

The other possibility I am thinking about is working with the community to make a large clay boat that would ideally be either on or near the lake (assuming we can get the appropriate permissions. The idea is that the clay would harden but would not be fired. This would make the work susceptible to rain and the return of water to the lake. The boat would almost be like a gauge of water, awaiting its return at which time the boat will break down and disintegrate back into the lakebed. I have another two ideas also for major works.

One is for a geoglyph (a huge drawing done directly into the surface of the land). For that I am thinking about doing a drawing of a baby. I am really personally connected to this idea as I grew up in the area I feel there is a real connection between people and place that extends across generations, we nurture and care for the land and it nurtures and allows us to grow. The other piece that I am considering will probably be a more permanent work at the Oasis site.

For that I am again considering the water system and its lakes, along with the night sky and enormous panorama of stars. It would probably be an overhead piece that people can walk under that traces the sequence of overflow lakes along the terminal end of the Wimmera River (starting with either Hindmarsh or Albacutya).

Not surprisingly this idea has evolved through conversations as well, those being with Ron Ismay and Mal Drendel. Of course creating all the works that spin through my head might not be realistic but I think that at least this gives you a sense of what I am considering at the moment.

Are you looking for any Help?

At the moment probably the greatest help is conversations.

Hearing stories of history and people's experience of place really gives me something I can relate to and have artwork evolve out of. I am really keen to give a lot of opportunity for locals to have input into anything that artists might be doing.

Throughout the year I am planning on bringing up other artists and I am hoping that they will work with different parts of the community.

Having said that though I am sure that as the year progresses I will be looking for more assistance at different times.

Do you need anything ?

Much like the previous question I don't really need anything at the moment but as the ideas start to take form I will probably need to access to materials. That is a fancy way of saying that I hope people will let me raid their junk piles.

Already I can see that I will need a sizeable supply of old rusted fencing wire, probably both barbed and straight. I would be after the stuff that farmers have probably used in the past and then removed and are unlikely to use again.

How can people help?

There are probably a few things people can do to be involved and help out. The Oasis site is a major undertaking for the town and I can see that as a community centre it will be hugely beneficial a long way into the future.

I think that if you have a bit of time and energy and are not afraid to work then heading down to the old primary school on a Wednesday to chat to Adelle about when the next working bee is or finding out what you can do there will be really helpful.

I know that there is a date in early October planned for the relaunch of the site. So it would be great to have as much done as possible before then. I am hoping to take a few weeks off work over the coming months just to come up and help out.

Actually I do have another request for how people can help out, I have set myself a bit of a personal challenge that I would like to do a new artwork at least every fortnight if not every week. So far I have been working on a series of black and white photos relating to the silos and railway line. Hopefully I can pop them up at the Oasis building.

The next ones I am keen to do are a series of drawings that relate to the Wimmera sky and in particular the clouds. So I guess my request would be if you have or can take any photos of clouds in the Wimmera sky that would be great.

You can either send them direct to me at enviro_art@yahoo.com.au or drop them into Adelle and I will copy them when I am next in town. Even clouds at sunset would be great and hugely appreciated.

What has been the biggest enjoyment about coming back ?

So far it has really been the people. It’s funny, now living in the city you spend most of you time surrounded by people but completely disconnected to them. It seems you really need to go somewhere where there is so many less people to actually feel connected. I feel less isolated and more a part of something here in Rainbow than I do in Melbourne.

What has been the biggest surprise about your return?

Probably the optimism of people in relation to the Lake and water. Don't get me wrong I wasn't expecting to come up here and find every one down in the dumps. But I am blown away by the fact that when people talk about Albacutya there is just this sense of confident certainty that it will refill again this or year or maybe next.

No one is fazed but the decades of dryness - in fact it is used to illustrate the pattern of expectation. I find the confidence wonderful and kind of elating. I can't help but be happy around it.

How does it feel coming home?

This probably sounds a bit corny but it feels slightly and weird and at the same time kind of wonderful. I guess you would just say that it’s really comfortable, it fits like your favourite jumper that you haven't worn in a while but as soon as you slip it on it just feels right.

I have spoken to Mark my older brother and he is keen to come up later in the year too to do a flute concert in town. He says the same thing that getting back up there to that Wimmera Mallee country feels very much like coming home and being able to relax. I can't see me ever really breaking ties with this land I think it will always be a place that I return to.

At the moment I am coming back weekly to work with the year 9/10 art class at the high school and also the students at Yaapeet Primary School. The kids are exploring making their own Ephemeral Environmental Artworks and we are hoping to create limited edition artist books for the school libraries and for Oasis. After the work with the schools is complete I would like to keep coming back about every 2-3 weeks throughout the year until at least October.

After that point I will play it a bit by ear as it will depend on the best schedule for creating and delivering artwork. In terms of who else I am bringing with me I have quite a few artists in mind. Some people may already have met Jeremy Kruckel he is a Canadian photographer friend of mine.

He is one of three photographers that I have spoken to. There is also Liss Fenwick and Felix Wilson who are both doing photography work at Universities. All three do night time photography as part of their practice which I think could be really interesting under that Wimmera sky. I have also spoken to Georgie Mattingley and Jennifer Ferguson about doing art projects up in Rainbow.

They both have very broad practices so they could take the work somewhere really interesting. Having said that the reason I asked them particularly is that they both do work that is linked to people and locality. I imagine that they will really look to the community as a way of grounding their artwork. I also recently met a drawer named Steven Christie whose work I found particularly engaging so I am keen to chat to him about his interest in heading up to Rainbow.

As I mentioned my brother Mark is keen be involved to so I am trying to sort out some dates for him to come up and do a recital. I know that he is planning on performing at the Wesley Performing Arts Centre in Horsham on the 6th of August so it will probably be after that.

#michaellshiell #artist #OasisRainbow #Sculpture #Jeparit #environmentalart #Oasisgarden #RonIsmay #BelindaEckermann #wire #water #drought

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The Small Town Transformations program is a Victorian Government initiative delivered by Regional Arts Victoria.