Ember Fairbairn likes to spend as much time as she can in nature – observing, connecting, meditating. Not only is it good for her mind, body and soul, it’s also the principal wellspring for her art.

“Nature always brings me to a place of safety, a place of home, and a sense I’m being held by something greater than myself,” says Fairbairn, who completed a Master of Contemporary Art at the Victorian College of the Arts in 2019.

The artist loses herself in the lengthening shadows of native forests, and plants herself on rocky outcrops to trace the horizon line. She feels the silkiness of new leaves, hears the dry crackle of twigs, smells the fragrant earth beneath her boots.

Then she returns to her home and studio in Doncaster and lets the process of painting give gradual form to the thoughts and emotions that being in the natural environment inspires within her.

“For the first time, I’m living in a suburb and I’m not that jazzed about it,” she laughs. “So I’m wanting to maintain and explore the sense of connection I have with nature.”

Stone Gods Adorned in Time celebrates that connection with seven oils on board that shift and shimmer in diaphanous layers of white, yellow, orange and green, sharpened here and there with eruptions of pink, blue and purple.

Each painting took six to eight weeks to complete, a process that begins with the artist giving herself over to the mysteries of intuition and letting the feel of the paint determine what she does next.

“At first, you need to let go as much as you can,” she explains. “Then, as the layers build up, it’s more about being analytical and logical in your subsequent choices.”

The layers are laborious, comprising thousands of tiny visible brushstrokes, each mark a moment in time. As they are laid down, their uneven edges combine to reveal protean shapes, and the painting’s composition begins to materialise.

“If someone asks me what sort of painting I do, I usually say large-scale abstractions, but I am also somebody who works with the idea of land and belonging,” says Fairbairn.

“When I’m painting, I’m asking myself questions like, how do I fit into the landscapes I inhabit? How do I connect with them and make them real and meaningful?”

Once a painting has legs, Fairbairn often has a battle on her hands between where she wants to take it and where the painting wants to go. Experience has taught her the painting generally knows better.

“It’s about trusting the work and sensing when to stop, because it’s talking to you,” she says. “When you’re on a journey with a painting, it becomes its own little entity – it’s alive. If you insist on total control, you’ll kill it, and it’s so easy to do.”

Fairbairn’s visual language favours ambiguous form. Her paintings put one in mind of the dappled bark of spotted gum, a craggy escarpment in sunlight, or a foggy view through bushland. What they all share is an atmosphere that instils in the viewer the feeling of being surrounded by, and part of, the natural world.

“This exhibition is about heightening our senses to honour something important,” says the artist. “I’m thinking about the sublime and deep time and how stone and earth are like immortal gods, whereas we are just these fleeting moments.”

Tony Magnusson
September 2023