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Artist Interview: Beth Thornber

Artist Beth Thronber stands in front of her large scale comission It's Flamin Hot Darl
When
2023-12-21
Author
Murray Art Museum Albury

Beth Thornber is a First Nations artist and curator of the Wiradjuri people. Her multi-disciplinary practice employs a visual alphabet of animal, plant, and human motifs to consider themes of historical and environmental impact on the post-colonial landscape.

This email exchange between Beth Thornber and Andrea Briggs MAMA Curator, First Nations, took place during December 2023 and discusses Thornber's large scale commision painiting It’s flamin hot darl.

A man looks up at a large mural of a bird, fish bones, snake and trees painted in red, brown and pink colours

Q: Can you tell us do you usually work at such a scale?

No, typically I work in my studio on stretched canvas that at their largest measure 1.5m x 2m. This work is by far my largest painting to date.

Q: It’s flamin hot darl is such a fun and quirky title. Can you tell us a bit about the title and where it comes from?

As kids we often played on the riverbank or in the long grass in the paddock during the summertime. It’s flamin hot darl are words of warning from my mum to be cautious of the extreme heat and the beginning of snake season. I think that language is closely interwoven with memory, and can bring about nostalgia, inducing moments of playfulness from the past. Darl is a word of affection used by mum and it was often the final word in many phrases of caution and care we were told before spending time at the river. The banks of the Milawa are a place of growth, full of memories of fishing for Yellow Belly in the belting heat, and riding stick horses with my cousins along the bank. It’s also a place of extremes; death and rebirth, fire and flood, and despite all this remains resilient and everlasting.

Q: This painting is part of an ongoing body of work that you say began as a child at your Nan and Pop’s house. Tell us more about that connection and how much influence your nan and pop have had on you and your art practice

The best storytelling of my childhood often happened at Nan and Pop’s house. Pop would tell wild and lyrical stories about the Milawa (Murray River) and Nan would sing country songs before we went to sleep. Pop was never one to let the truth get in the way of a good story and as kids we would listen intently, drawing the animals and scenes described onto his back with cheap markers, while dancing and acting out these stories in the loungeroom. I’ve always revelled in children’s art and the uninhibited expression and innate disregard of structure and proportion it adopts. There is a liveliness that comes from young hands and a sort of naivety to how things are ‘supposed’ to look. In many ways my paintings seek to reclaim those early memories and stories drawn onto Pop’s back.

Men and women with white paint on their face and arms in motion in front of a large landscape mural

Beth Thornber
It's flamin' hot darl, 2023
Murray Art Museum
Image by Jeremy Weihrauch

A black bird painted on a brown wall with two stripes in red and pink below it

Beth Thornber
It's flamin' hot darl, 2023
Murray Art Museum
Image by Jeremy Weihrauch

A brown snaked with a long blue tongue painted on a brown wall with a pink strip above its head

Beth Thornber
It's flamin' hot darl, 2023
Murray Art Museum
Image by Jeremy Weihrauch

A fish skeleton painted onto a brown wall with a red strip behind its head

Beth Thornber
It's flamin' hot darl, 2023
Murray Art Museum
Image by Jeremy Weihrauch

Q: Can you talk about the imagery in your paintings – the significance of the shapes, colour and forms, and how you would best describe your style of painting?

My paintings are a rejection of the traditional colonial renderings of this land. Instead, they depict the gutsy, cracked earth of Pop’s Country. I think about the imagery within my work as a sort of visual alphabet constructed of animal, plant, and human motifs that I have an affinity with. It’s flamin hot darl includes the waagan (crow) that personifies wisdom and an omnipresence as it watches over the river. Someone once told me that you never see a dead crow and they have a superpower to scavenge and survive throughout harsh summer months. The waagan is a symbol of the resilience and tenacity of Wiradjuri Country. Snakes also feature heavily within my works and are a reminder to take care, to watch your feet, to tread lightly on Country, and to listen to the words of your mum.

Q: You are a Wiradjuri woman and have exhibited at several galleries now including MAMA, Substation in Newport, Hyphenated in Melbourne and Urban Smart in Tasmania just to name a few. What advice would you have for emerging First Nation artists in the artworld.

Ask for help when you need it, and even when you think you don’t. I was fortunate to have some great mentoring from strong First Nations female artists that shared their experience. If you are willing to listen, you can learn from them and connect with their stories and practice. Connect with your local mob and arts organisations. There are many avenues for putting your work out there and people that are willing to support you to do so, whether it be writing a grant application, applying for an exhibition, or reaching out for a residency. Learning how to write about your work is also a great skill and yarning about your practice to other artists, mob, and friends can help with this.

Q: What do you hope viewers will take away from viewing this work?

I hope they feel the heat of their own summer memories and time spent on the river. I hope they recognise the life force of the river as well as its vulnerability, and show yindyamarra (respect), treading lightly and with care.

Pink text on a white wall with sun light beaming over it and a glass door to the left

Beth Thornber
It's flamin' hot darl, 2023
Murray Art Museum
Image by Jeremy Weihrauch

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