‘Overburden’ addresses the legacy of Gold Rush mining and explores our relationship with, and perception of, the natural world. Through close observation of the landscape around Ballarat - one of Victoria’s most alluring Gold Rush cities - Lily Mae Martin has uncovered evidence of environmental exploitation and destruction caused by mining during the Victorian Gold Rush.
Lily Mae’s artistic practice has mostly focussed on the human form. However, in 2014 she moved to a home near the Waterloo State Forest and the proximity of nature demanded an artistic response. ‘In the silence, the distance, I found myself asking questions of myself and, crucially, my practice: how can I understand the landscape, and by exploring it through my art, what exactly am I exploring?’, she said.
On completing a series of drawings of the Waterloo State Forest, she was surprised when a friend remarked that the forest depicted in her new drawings looked very young. ‘This struck me as I realized how much I hadn’t really thought about the landscape itself but had been focusing instead on how I could speak through it. But of course, the reason the forest is so young is due to the impact of humans – in particular, the Gold Rush’, she said.
From initially viewing this wilderness as pure and unadulterated, she began to see it differently: as profoundly impacted by the history of Gold Rush mining activity. Her new-found knowledge inspired a deeper investigation into the forgotten environmental mining disasters across the Victorian goldfields, culminating in the creation of the drawings features in the Overburden exhibition.
These recent drawings are the result of a year of focussed research and site visits throughout the Ballarat region. Through walking and drawing, Lily Mae began to understand how the landscape had become heavily impacted by mining and transformed by earthworks - abandoned mine shafts, mullock heaps, and the abundant evidence of sludge that once clogged water systems. She also discovered areas where mining had occurred that seemed almost entirely reclaimed by nature.
Lily Mae’s exquisitely detailed pen and ink drawings have their genesis in on-site sketches that were further developed in the studio. Her use of black and white brings to her drawings a strong metaphoric association with truth-telling. Through the close observation of nature and her dedicated act of drawing, Lily Mae strips away nature’s veneer of regeneration, bringing traces of environmental degradation to the fore and revealing the past trauma lurking under the surface of the land.
Lily Mae describes the inspiration and impetus for the project: “Overburden is a collection of work about how mining the earth for gold has permanently altered and reshaped the physical landscape. So much about history is about the human story - but we so rarely ask about the stories of the land. What about the environment in which we live; what do we value and what do we throw away? What do we put in museums and what is left on private farms, in state forests? Now more than ever, it seems all the more urgent to notice what we don’t notice.”
Image: Lily Mae Martin, ‘Sludge, Creswick’ 2019 (detail), ink on cotton paper, 76 x 56cm. Courtesy of the artist and Scott Livesey Galleries