OVER the past few months, as John Adam has worked feverishly on his new Western Port series in his Surf Beach studio, his thoughts have sometimes turned to the community of artists dotted around Phillip Island and Western Port.
He pictures them at work in their own studios: his near neighbour Carolyn Goldberg just down the road; Warren Nichols and Sandra Peeters at Ventnor; Nicolas Day at Tenby Point, across the bay; and Peter Walker in Cowes.
Next week, the seven artists will come together for an exhibition at Saraghi Gallery in Cowes that at once expresses their love of the coast and bay, and their fears for its future.
Celebrating Western Port and Phillip Island is a fundraiser for the Preserve Western Port action group, with half of sales to be donated to support the group’s campaign against the Port of Hastings expansion.
The multi-award-winning Adam initially planned a solo exhibition to raise funds, but expanded it when he saw the depth of feeling among his fellow artists.
He reflects sadly that it doesn’t seem to extend to the great bulk of island residents who remain wilfully ignorant about the proposed port and its likely impacts on the bay and island.
“The last few years I’ve come to think that protecting the environment is the most important thing of all. I’m in my 80th year and I think in the rest of my time I’ve got to get serious about it.”
When he first came to the island, in 2000, he knew little about the bay except that Henry Bolte had once likened it to the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial area.
He lived in Rose Avenue, quite close to the beach in Cowes, so he spent a lot of time wandering around on the sandbanks taking photos and making drawings. In the early 2000s, he had two exhibitions: the first, called Beyond Rose Avenue, based on Western Port; the second, a series of paintings of the weathered old wooden groynes built along the beach between Cowes and Silverleaves.
Earlier this year, he went on a boat trip organised by Preserve Western Port, across from Tooradin to the proposed port site and down to Tortoise Head. Some of the watercolours he did from that trip will be in the exhibition.
“I have a much better understanding of how fragile those areas are and the effects that dredging might have, especially on the northern beaches.
“Some people say it’s all rubbish but once it’s gone we’ll never get it back. This is a wilderness area that should be preserved at all costs.”
Adam said many artists would be reluctant to drop their prices for an exhibition in case it reflected on their “going rate” but the seven artists involved didn’t have a qualm.
“I could have got many more artists but it’s quite a small gallery so I had to stop. Just kept it to seven. We’re going to fill the gallery.”
As for his own works, he’s done a couple of political paintings but most are realistic scenes. “The idea was to make it accessible to people who don’t necessarily have a lot of interest in art.”
Carolyn Goldberg, who also lives on Surf Beach, walks on the beach every day, even in the depths of winter. In fact that’s one of her favourite times “I take a sketch book and draw and think isn’t this wonderful. Everyone you meet around here, we look at each other and say, “Aren’t we lucky!”
It was on one of her walks that she bumped into Adam and heard about the exhibition. It came at the right time, she says.
“It’s a thrill for me to be able to do my bit. It lifts me out of my despondency. I get so angry I can’t even put it in words, but I thought that’s something I can do.
Like many people, she had wonderful childhood memories of holidaying on Phillip island, but hadn’t visited for years until about 15 years ago when a physiotherapy client asked if she wanted to use his holiday house. “I came down and it was just gorgeous. The smells reminded me being a kid at the beach.”
She realised she could sell her house in Melbourne, buy a little beach house on the island and have enough left over to buy some painting time too. Since then, her art has fallen into two sections: her desert works and her Western Port works.
Phillip Island’s landscape isn’t all that interesting, she says. It’s the coast and the sea that matter, and she fears the worst if the container port goes ahead at Hastings.
“It’s not just because we don’t want it in our back yard. The island’s for everyone. All the families that come down in summer, all the people who come to see the penguins. In this day and age, when people are glued to their computers and phones, it’s fabulous to see people absorbed in watching these little penguins – the wonder of it all!
“And we’re going to ruin it. Once it goes, we can never get it back.”
Warren Nichols and Sandra Peeters are much more recent arrivals, having moved from Hobart to Ventnor in 2011 to be closer to their families and to work full-time at their painting.
While Peters’ works are predominantly figurative, many of Nichols’ are directly influenced by Western Port as he captures the continually changing light conditions and movement on an expanse of water.
He said they were delighted to take part in the exhibition “in recognition of the fragility of the marine environment within Western Port”.
Celebrating Western Port and Phillip Island is at Saraghi Gallery, Café Lugano, 71 Thompson Ave, Cowes, from Saturday, July 26-Sunday, August 3 (except Tuesday). Works by John Adam, Josephine Allen, Nicolas Day, Carolyn Goldberg, Warren Nichols, Sandra Peeters and Peter Walker. Half of sales will go to Preserve Western Port action group. Laura Brearley will open the exhibition at 2.30pm on Sunday, July 27.