An artist’s salute to the fallen

As COVID-19 crippled Australia in autumn last year,a woman could be spotted picking up dying leaves from the gutters of inner-city Sydney.

“I felt these weathered,disintegrating leaves just echoed our collective experience in autumn 2020,” says artist Jennifer Keeler-Milne,who this year became a 10-time finalist in the prestigious annual Dobell drawing prize.

“I loved their shape,patterns,textures and colours. They were mainly brown,but I’ve imposed the autumnal palette of colour in my paintings.

Artist Jennifer Keeler-Milne in her studio in Newtown.

Artist Jennifer Keeler-Milne in her studio in Newtown.Nick Moir

“We didn’t know where COVID was heading then. But like those leaves,we weathered.”

Autumn&Spring is Keeler-Milne’s first painting exhibition for seven years. The Melbourne-born artist is best known for her works with charcoal on paper.

“The Art Gallery of NSW has 49 of my charcoal works in its collection,” Keeler-Milne says. “Most of them of desert plants from a trip I took north-west of Broken Hill. But I wanted to return to colour - the colour you only find with oils.”

Her autumnal paintings in this exhibition are both delicate and emotional.

They depict the circle of life. As each vein struggles to survive,the leaves - like some individuals in COVID - eventually break down,providing the compost that enables new growth.

“Life slowed down during COVID,a quiet,transitional space in our lives,” say Keeler-Milne. “Each small leaf I found on my walk from home to studio was different.”

If autumn 2020 was challenging,winter 2020 was worse.

Running her own drawing school,she felt responsibility for her students. Confined to Zoom and other interactive platforms,Keeler-Milne confesses the course was “largely me checking in to see if they were all OK. Some are more vulnerable than others”.

Then came spring.

“After getting through winter,I felt this urge to create something around wattle. It’s uplifting,glorious and native.”

With the 2021 Dobell prize fast approaching,Keeler-Milne createdWattle 2020,a large (180 x 114 cm) charcoal work drawn on yellow prepared paper.

And her fascination for wattle continued into oils. Her large work,Spring Wattle III,entered for the Wynne Prize,will hang in the Salon des Refusés exhibition at SH Erwin Gallery from June 5.

“Yellow,the predominant colour of the wattle,has been a joy to use,” she says. “It suggests the sheer pleasure of coming out of a tough winter,expressing a sense of luminosity and celebration.

“The wattle,our national floral emblem,matched our communal springtime emotion of healing.”

Has this global pandemic had any positive sides?

Yes,says Keeler-Milne. “We’ve all had to be more attentive to our neighbourhood,forced to slow down,and look.”

Autumn&Spring,Jennifer Keeler-Milne,Australian Galleries,June 22-July 11.

Steve Meacham is a freelance writer.

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