Sculpture on the plains

I was feeling restless, and wanted to break out of the mould by going further afield. One day in April, I lined up a trip to Tabulam, a place that I hadn’t visited in years, to see the Fire and Stone sculpture park run by Keith Cameron. It was a warm and largely cloudless day.

After passing Tabulam on the Bruxner Highway, the land turns grassy and rolling and the sign for Plains Station Road appears on the left. From here it is another 17km to the park, distinguishable by the yellow mailbox and the sculptures close to the gate.

Keith was generous enough to show me around and discuss his work for a few hours. Most is made from metal, about 90% of which is recycled material largely obtained from clearance sales. In addition to the cost savings that this offers, where an item has only a small flaw he believes in saving it from being thrown away. We both share a dislike of the modern culture of planned obsolescence.

His indoor works are housed in a large metal shed with mesh on one side for letting in natural light. Mostly abstract, these are often assemblages featuring mechanical items such as gears and bolts. Some are reminiscent of Dada and Surrealism.

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One experimental work features a stainless steel box that has been dented by having different calibres of shotgun pellets fired at it, for an interesting effect. I can’t keep my glance away from a small cubbyhouse made from orange light covers picked up cheaply as a bulk lot.

In Keith’s view, the materials want to express themselves in a particular way, and his role is to tune into them and facilitate this process. Certainly his best work has a way of making everyday junk look beautiful and mysterious, and he has a special interest in items such as Celtic or Viking tables that can cross over between the sculptural and the utilitarian.

As a sculptor, his works have been used in public art. Several have been purchased by Lismore City Council, including the butter churn at Riverview Park, Lismore, and another at the Carrington Street end of the Star Court Arcade. This collaboration with an Aboriginal artist represents a three-way meeting between the river (represented by the waviness in the stainless steel), the land, and Aboriginality.

A large fabricated work involving an axle attached to a single wheel was inspired by the old wheels that Keith regularly spotted lying around at properties with clearance sales, and is a metaphor for agriculture. This was on display in Lismore for a month, outside the Lismore Regional Gallery on Molesworth Street.

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Then there is the large goanna that was purchased by Lismore City Council, but was later caught up in controversy when a desire was expressed for it to be installed in Evans Head, a place with a strong goanna association. It is yet to be displayed.

Keith’s partner Marion is an artist who likes experimenting in diverse media, including oils, acrylic, brush and ink, pastels, and pencil drawing. Some of her work is on display, and I am fortunate to briefly witness her at work in her studio.

Despite having previously hosted the Tabulam Art and Music Festival, the site has had a relatively small number of visitors, largely the result of being geographically removed from tourist hotspots nearer the coast. This low patronage in turn makes it an economic challenge to maintain the outdoor sculpture area, keeping the grasses at bay. Until recently, visitors were charged $10 to look around, but now the park is officially closed. There are For Sale signs along the front fence, and the couple plans to move to the Lower Clarence area. The larger sculptures are probably too large to be worth moving, and Keith hopes that the next owner will leave them in the landscape.

The outdoor section began when the shed started overflowing, and Keith looked around for somewhere to keep his work. These creations are loosely grouped in a small section of the property, which can be reached by following a gently rising track up to the top of a low hill. On the way, we pass a stone sculpture that was erected with the help of a crane operated by a nearby bridge construction team.

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At the top are well-constructed rock walls and structures built by Keith from a vast quantity of dug-up rocks that had been left there in rows by the property’s previous owner, an American named Carter Johnson. A snakeskin has been left on one of these rock stretches.

Beyond, sculptures include a giant black metal spider-like construction that was assembled by a local steelworker, a geodesic dome stupa structure, and one of the tall chairs with high backs that Keith is fond of making. Being five metres tall, this one is difficult to fit inside the shed. Despite have being rust-proofed, the outdoor sculptures begin to develop rust anyway, and Keith talks about beautiful Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas that are destroyed after being created. Maybe the best way to make peace with the elements would be view disintegration as an extension of the artistic process. Keith says that the best sculpture photographs are taken in mist, and perhaps this is due to the diffuse light.

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There is only one most place left to explore: the tower. This forbidding-sounding structure is actually a circular steel silo cattle feeder that was derelict when Keith arrived. Later it was relocated to its present location and overhauled. Conspicuous from the front driveway up to the house, it consists of a couple of indoor levels featuring Keith and Marion’s work, plus an outdoor upper deck area with a picnic table.

Surveying the land from this vantage point, with the forest behind, a pair of amorous horses affectionately nuzzle one another down below. The conversation ranges across a number of artistic initiatives, including:

  • The lavish Damanhur underground Temples of Humankind complex near Ivrea, Italy.
  • Ferdinand Cheval’s fantastical naïve art temple in Hauterives, France.
  • Edward Leedskalnin’s Coral Castle in Florida, built single-handedly, without the use of machinery, from huge blocks of stone.
  • The Museum of Modern Renaissance in Somerville, Massachusetts.
  • A ruined Spanish Castillo near Innisfail in Queensland, today belonging to Paronella Park.
  • The Burning Man festival, held in the Nevada, which includes numerous quirky and often interactive artworks dotted across the desert.
  • James Turrell’s land art project at Roden Crater, Arizona.
  • John Piccoli, an Australian artist who constructs unique sculptures made from spanners despite the challenges presented by using a wheelchair.

In a few of these examples, there is a common theme of the lone individual devoting their life to stubbornly pursue a unique and ambitious artistic project. To an extent, perhaps this is the role of every artist, regardless of the medium in which they work.

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