Local legend and personal reflection commingle to moody, painterly effect in Melbourne artist Ella Dunn’s new exhibition of oils on canvas, Skimming Stones.

“This body of work was ignited by listening to a podcast about Margaret Clement, aka Gippsland’s ‘Lady of the Swamp,” says Dunn, who graduated from VCA with a first-class honours degree in drawing and printmaking in 2017.

Rendered in a muted, earthy palette of green, brown, orange, black and white, the 12 paintings imagine scenes from the eccentric life and unsolved disappearance of the riches-to-rags society heiress, who, along with her sister Jeanie, resided in a decaying mansion, Tullaree, surrounded by waist-deep swamp at Tarwin Lower in Gippsland.

Following Jeanie’s death in 1950, the squalor of their living conditions became apparent and Margaret gained a degree of notoriety as the ‘Lady of the Swamp’. “She would traipse through the swamp carrying her shopping bags,” says Dunn.

Margaret vanished in 1952, sparking a media frenzy and much speculation in the community. According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, she was declared legally dead in 1954, and an inquest in 1980 returned an open verdict. To this day, her remains have never been found.

“I was drawn to this woman who spent the later part of her life as a recluse, who had no children of her own, and who lived in a way that is not the expected ‘norm’ for a woman at the time,” muses Dunn.

“But my work is always about more than one thing, so I began to put myself into the story as well. I was thinking about the isolation and loneliness that comes with being an artist, how you separate yourself from friends and family to make art alone. I often like to blur the line between my own personal experiences and a fictional or partly obscured narrative.”

While careful not to over-research, Dunn did allow herself a peek at newspaper photographs of Margaret, the mansion, the surrounding swamp, and detectives searching it following her disappearance. “But I didn’t look at too many images and I haven’t been to Tullaree because I wanted my imagination to make up its own story.”

The paintings were also nourished by poetry Dunn was reading at the time, including Her Kind by Anne Sexton, “which is about women being perceived as witches”, as well as Mirror by Sylvia Plath, “in which the poem’s narrator is a mirror”, she says. “They’ve all fed into and informed this body of work.”

Dunn tends to work “quite quickly” on multiple paintings simultaneously. “I bounce between them, and between painting and drawing, which remains a key part of my practice. I’m always filling up my studio walls with texts and drawings as a way to generate ideas.”

She creates her paintings through the application of many thin layers of oil pigment diluted with various glaze mediums. “Sometimes I sand back the layers or scrub them back – it’s very intuitive. I like to test out new mediums and ways of doing things,” she says.

Dunn paints in a loose and lyrical manner, leaning in to atmosphere and visual ambiguity. “I don’t like images that are too fixed. I’m reminded of something the American painter Amy Sillman once said: ‘Art is for perplexing you, so that everything is maybe something else.’”

Tony Magnusson
September 2023