“I’ve been tearing up all my work from the past 40 years and re-arranging it into new stories,” celebrated Australian artist Frances Luke casually drops into the conversation.
She has plenty of material. As an artist, Frances has been described as prolific more than once.
Then the Black Summer Bushfires began their insatiable burn through the Far South Coast where she had kept her studio for about 15 years.
Unlike those of many of her contemporaries, her studio was mercifully spared. But the experience seems to have triggered an existential review of her life’s work.
“I came home and all this work – prints, test proofs, dozens and dozens of them, draws everywhere packed with all these pieces – was still there,” she says.
“I could’ve lost the lot. And I had prepared myself for that – to come back to nothing.
“I knew I needed a new perspective on everything. So, I’ll keep a few important prints – but everything else has to come out of the draws and be reborn.”
Without a hint of hesitation, she is tearing up the cache of coveted works and re-arranging it into a fascinating new series of collages – a process she finds “cathartic”.
But her aplomb is not to be confused with destruction.
“The fires changed all our lives, including the lives of these works. I realised it all had to be re-written now. They will become part of a whole new story,” she says.
“Some of the works are 30 or 40 years old, some newer; and I never know what they’re going to become.
“It’s like these characters are meeting for the first time. I’m putting them all in a boat together and sending them down the river.”
Frances says while the fires did untold damage to the South Coast and “rocked” the community, its beauty remains a profound inspiration.
“I had always worked figuratively until I moved here,” she says.
“One day shortly after I arrived, I went exploring around the cliffs at Mossy Point. I was awe-struck by these extraordinary, honeycombed structures. I used to love climbing them and I’d sit and sketch for hours.
“But a lot of the South Coast is like that. Every cliff you see around here, every headland is different from the one you’ve just left. It’s the river, the little bays, the mangroves and the life that’s in and all around them.”
This is perhaps why, according to Frances, the region is a magnet for creatives.
“When I arrived down here, it felt like I’d come home,” she says.
“A lot of other creatives I speak to feel the same way – artists, musicians and writers seem to be drawn to this part of the coast.
“Some people underestimate what’s out here, but we have an extraordinarily high concentration of good artists, writers, musicians – it’s a wonderful hub of creative activity and this is often the case in regional areas.”
Her claims may come across as the gushings of a devoted local artist – but when you consider the scale of the upcoming River of Art festival, there might be something to it.
Running from 16 to 26 September, the festival has attracted more than 90 exhibitions, workshops, open studios and performances – and counting.
It all culminates in the laser and light show “Luminous: Art After Dark”, said to be the calibre of event generally reserved for Australia’s metropolitan capitals.
Frances will be among the artists opening her studio to the public for the occasion – with her collages on display.
Until then, she will be teasing apart layers of 350 gsm paper containing decades of her works, and re-assembling the fine layers into new amalgams.
If you’re keen to check them out, or for more information on the River of Art festival, visit the website.