We are honoured to announce the family, Nunan-Cartwright,have been invited by the High Commissioner, The Honourable Alexander Downer, to exhibit our sculptures at the Centenary celebrations of Australia House in London, 2018.
We are so proud to be showing our art in the iconic Australia House, with our two beautiful boys, both men now, and esteemed artists in their own right, Jacob and Sollai. Amazing to be showing as a family and to feel the history of ourselves and the language we have each built up in our art, emerging into this exhibition. Michael and I have been dedicated since we met in 1981 to our path as artists, always allowing our dreams to be our guiding light in our uncertain world. I guess the family lineage of artists on both sides has made it easier to ignore conventional boundaries and we have all pursued a path suited to our own creativity and joy of being.
Our pathways have led us overseas to many beautiful countries where we have been influenced by the ancient cultures and traditions that peek through modern living and also an abundant natural world that connects us to the earth we live on. Currently, Michael and I live between Italy, France and Australia, while Jacob lives in Tuscany, Italy and Sollai lives in Berlin, Germany. As recent Australians, we have somehow emerged artistically free, without attachment to the cultural mores of the civilizations our families left behind from Europe. The culture we had to observe in Australia was the one belonging to the original people and this we have been deeply influenced by, though it is not our own. The source of this culture, its earthiness and honouring of earth, water and sky, has given each of us our strength in our own work, referring always to it and adding to it the significant archetypal meanings of life discovered throughout the world in all the great ancient civilizations.
Thus, with our connection to Australia deeply held in our work, the themes of our sculptures for this exhibition at Australia House honour the elements of earth, sky and water, the essence of our Journeys.
Sollai, our youngest son, arrived in Bagni di Lucca just before Christmas last year after a year in Montreal with his acrobat girlfriend, Danica. He had spent the year working on log cabins, stone chimneys and gardens up around the lakes and creating his sculpture carving alabaster and marble, in his city studio. Even though the experience was wonderful, bringing him in contact with an abundant wild life and contributing to the language of his art, trying to make money to live and still do his artwork frustrated him enormously. Then, to his enormous good fortune a lovely collector was encouraged to sponsor him in Italy to carve in one of the most renowned marble carving studios, La Cooperativa, in Pietrasanta for three months over the winter. Lucky Sollai! He was given accommodation, studio, stone, allowance and tools in exchange for artwork created there. More importantly, he was in the mecca of marble carving and had access to the knowledge and advice of some of the most experienced artisans in Pietrasanta – or in the world.
Michael, at the same time, took the opportunity to be with Sollai and rented a studio space in Studio Shakti in Pietrasanta for a couple of days a week. They’d meet up for lunch in the Croce Verde where they would devour a huge three course lunch with wine, water and coffee for ten euros each. After work they’d find a little bar to hang out and relax in, warming up after a long day in the cold. Mike got some great work done. I think he was a bit rapturous to be carving in marble again after so many years since the car accident when he was unable to do any heavy work. He actually forgot in his enthusiasm, the weights of stone. An average size piece, 90 x 90 cm, weighed about 180 kilos, fully realized when it came time to move it.
On one of the days returning to the studios to work after a weekend in Bagni di Lucca, Mike took Sollai up over the mountain pass from Castlenuovo to Pietrasanta. On the way they detoured up another mountain to buy carving tools from the ancient Milani factory in Pomezzana. This factory has been in the family for either 900 years or 9 generations – hmmm – our Italian is not that good! Nevertheless it is believed this same factory was making tools when Michaelangelo was in Pietrasanta. We visited this factory 30 years ago when we first went to Carrarra. In those days the factory was above the village and it is still there but now it has expanded and its extension is down on the road below the village. Its a wonderful experience seeing how these tools that have never changed continue to be made, though in slightly better conditions.
In the meantime, Sollai created a beautiful carving for his collector. Its size came to about a 100 x 100 x 40 cm in a a beautiful soft dusty pink Portuguese Rose marble. Sollai’s influences for his art are very organic and natural forms often found on one of his roving walks. This piece is also organic but is also reminiscent of the Ligurian figure heads and they must have lain dormant in his head because he has seen them on his journeys back and forth to Italy since he was a teenager.
‘My most loved expression is in the carving of stone. For me it is my prayer. Hours and hours listening to the rhythm of chisel and hammer bring me to a place of no return. The creation of form, the seeking of light within marble, its voice is the spirit of the earth and its poetry is infinite.‘ Sollai
Beijing is monumental. Masculine, strong and tough, some of the finest buildings in the world are here. Just arriving at Beijing airport is an amazing experience. Designed by Foster and Partners, the airport is massive and looks like it has just lifted itself gently from the earth, the roof line soft and undulating, but in its underworld, it vaults and soars effortlessly, like billowing material, pinned on towering white pillars.
One enters the city, vast as it spreads out over the plain and dotted with some fantastic contemporary buildings, to see the Forbidden City and its colossal walls and gateways, the great Tiananmen Square stretching before it towards the Temple of Heaven, broad strokes of rich colour and repeated pattern work, lifting the grey stonework from the earth.
Food is not all that makes the restaurant, and this is never more clear than at Capital M Beijing Restaurant. Situated on a corner of Tiananmen Square overlooking the monumental Gates to the Forbidden City, Capital M Beijing has not only a unique and rarified position but an ambience from design that makes the experience romantic and memorable and `the place to be’. The terraces outside are set up like little gardens, roses and ivy dripping and complementing teacups in pink rose and turquoise colours, pebble pathways and twirly iron chairs, the flower pots are hand designed and incised with Chinese cloud images and the views of the old city are wonderful, especially as sunset adds grace to the iron grey of Tiannamen. Inside, the restaurant is even more spectacular.
The designers, Debra Little and Roger Hackworth, (Dialogue ltd and Collaborate ltd) were faced with a huge task to transform a great ugly low ceilinged concrete space into what is today a wonderfully eclectic mix of mirrors and brass and geometric terrazzo black and white flooring, crazy fireplaces and designed furniture lifted from the forties. Michael Cartwright was commissioned to create a fifty metre mural on canvas, to be inspired by an old Chinese tapestry, to feature along the spinal wall of the restaurant. Red swirling Chinese clouds, giant blossoms and tortured trees, a rushing turquoise river sometimes burning from the sky above, wildflowers, grasses and rushes, thick fresh paint, all of it reflecting and double reflecting in mirrors and brass. It brings a lushness to the eating places whose colours are otherwise subdued and revives the hues of the Forbidden City, the rich reds and greens and yellows and provencal blues. The toilets are an absolute delight. The floors and walls in white terrazzo are incised in brass with a lovely old Chinese pattern. The cubicle doors are blood red and the outer doors in brass are adorned with blood red handles like old vines, these also commissioned from Michael. The bar is beautiful in brass and luminous green resin, the glasses rimmed in red, twinkling against the mirror ceiling. The place is sensuous. Attention to detail even in the etched metal pillars and the carved wood ceiling in the one high space of the restaurant. Absolutely gorgeous – and the food was pretty good too!
It was great going back this time to see the restaurant and Mike’s painting. When we were here before, setting up the painting, caught in the frazzle of tempers and undoing and redoing the installation of the painting, it was hard to put aside the emotions of two years of work finally going into its resting place. The anxiety at rest when finally we saw it all up, complete and beautiful and giving something truly magical to the space, working bountifully with the richness of design around it. But still, to arrive as a customer several years later, and to be greeted by its warm presence in the foyer and into the restaurant which had worn in a little and had acquired a personality through the maitre’d, was to see it with clear eyes. And we had heard such a lot about it from our own collectors and friends who had been in to dine, all declaring it to be a really special restaurant and the one they frequented always for special events.
Every day Mike would go down to the studio from six o’clock in the morning to paint this painting. He felt urgent about it. Anxious to catch the season as it awoke to greet the summer. He’d go out to the river to examine the new buds comparing them to his finds and sketches in the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. Michelle Garnaut, the creator of the M restaurants, prepared him for the painting, taking the time to show him the colours and the special trees in the walls and gardens of the palaces. On a wintry Easter she arrived at the studios with Debra Little, the designer, to inspect the painting so far. Michael was really nervous. He loved the painting and didn’t want to have to tell them that this is the way it had to be if they didn’t like it. They loved it. Michelle declared, ‘He knows what he’s doing – lets leave him alone’ and they did – just a few small objections from time to time to trees a little too stark for their liking. As things go with design, the wall measurements changed, especially after one of the big bureaucratic delays in working in the space, and some of his painting got discarded and others grew taller. One space grew to 5 metres high and Mike was forced to hand stitch new canvas to the original. At this time he rented an old theatre that had the height for his work and for several months he was up on scaffolding before he could see it whole again.
Its a great thing to create. In something like a restaurant or a building, there is such a lot of collaboration to be considered. It is not the master work of one – somehow the master has to be awoken individually in each collaborator so that the whole can be a masterpiece. And Capital M Beijing is a masterpiece. It is the collaboration of the dreamer, the designers, the artists, the artisans, the workers, the managers, the chefs and waiters and all in all it comes together to create a feeling of deep pleasure for the diner who remarks, the meal was fantastic!
Twenty six years ago we came to Italy. We came young, enthusiastic, wildly idealistic and full of promise. We were going to spend the rest of our life dedicated to our art and we were going to spend it becoming great. We had met two years before in our final year at art college. We fell irrevocably in love, we became pregnant, we married and Mike got work teaching and only two years later we were on shaking ground, wondering how we could continue this life together without our art. A good friend and former lecturer to Michael, took hold of us and told us to get out while we were young. Go find yourselves. Go and work in Carrara – that’s what you were going to do before you both met, NOW, before its too late. We went. Joyous. Impassioned.
We arrived in Carrara in January, 1984, the coldest winter in decades. We had little Jake, not yet two, and Teddy and Potty, strapped to our backpacks. We trundled the streets fourteen hours a day for a week before we finally found a little house in the mountains in a village called Ortonova. Here is an extract from a letter we wrote to our family at the time:
“Tramp, tramp, tramp through Fontia and we eventually find a lady who has a home free in Ortonova, however she doesn’t want to rent it because its in the process of being renovated and no shower, no hot water, poor little bimbo (Jacob) – they’re not very enthusiastic about us at all, but their son is and insists on showing us the house. We couldn’t believe it when we saw it. It was putrid, plaster, dust, machines everywhere, but it looked wonderful. We were ecstatic and I think we would almost have paid any price for it. It has one small bedroom which houses a bumpy bed and a small fold-up bed and a large mirror cabinet, pink ceiling, blue walls and crucifix. A kitchen, a toilet, and stairs, and the most wonderful studio you’ve ever seen. The top floor is one large windowed room that was in the process of renovation before we assured them we loved it just as it was …. $15 a week. Marble bench tops and sinks and window ledges and architraves and stairs. Views like you would not believe. Absolutely spectacular. On the way up the mountain from Carrara a magnificent range of marble grey mountains, ragged and pierced by quarries are half covered in snow, surrounds you, and tiny walled villages defiantly perch on mountain tops or nestle into a shoulder. We are just over the mountain top which greets these views and face yet another stupendous view from our windows which look down onto terraces, vineyards and olivegroves to a steep decent into little orange clusters of houses and spires. The village of Nicoli sits like a nipple on a mound like hill in the middle of a vast valley that reaches the sea and is broken by deep green rivers. Your heart is constantly in your mouth and the village people feel real and on the ground. You sit on the steps of the church in the village square and kids kick a ball around, ducking buses and cars on the way down and you think if they kick the ball hard it’ll be flying down the mountain. Somebody in deep baritone sings Santa Lucia and you feel privileged that you’re witnessing people living in a setting that’s hundreds of years old and that they are really only a small part of the whole long cycle of life and death. Australia somehow makes you feel bigger and grander than what you are…”
So that was the beginning of seven special months in the mountains of Carrara doing our art. It cemented us together as we found ourselves back on the path we always wanted to be on. Our adventures related themselves to our quests for our art and we grew closer from the fun of it all.
I have found some old letters and extracts from this time and I thought it might be interesting from an historical point of view to post them up, so over the next couple of weeks that’s what I will be writing about; our beginnings.
Life is a cool thing. Its funny, not everything is meant to be known to you as you go about life’s lessons, maybe if they were, we would be too cerebral about learning, maybe you have to take things in through the osmosis of the emotions, the brain, the body, so that you really know and evolve fully.
The last year has been a truly great year for me in my studio. It has been a bit like a year off to totally indulge in myself as an artist. No exhibitions to look forward to, no projects (promises, but nothing on the table), just me everyday in my studio pushing my boundaries. This year Mike got the projects and at the beginning of the year, he gave me a hug and said, go for it Shona, this year is mine for projects, get into your studio and stretch yourself. So I did what I have never really done before, consciously sought the inspiration that spoke to me most. I dug out books and photos of Cycladic art, visited museums and allowed the work to directly affect me, working directly in the style of its art forms. The work is very simple and plain, oddly proportioned and broad open surfaces. I love these works because they are deeply spiritual and related to the deepest emotions of human beings, the desires for longevity, fertility, protection, abundance. Cycladic works in their utter simplicity, speak to the spirit of mankind through the essence of the art form, not distracted by the beauty of physical reality, not clever or cerebral, but rustic, always speaking to the unformed world of the soul. This work has always attracted me, but I did not know why, until I allowed myself the time to work in it. At first my whole attention was not to copy, but to be influenced by it so that I could reinvent the work. But you can’t do this work in an objective way. It is not form for form’s sake. You have to partake and my woman vessel forms, became not just beautiful forms, but forms that embody abundance, fertility, the cycle of life. They carry the true wisdom of life. And my sculptures are heavily reflective of the Cycladic works, not reinvented at all, because they didn’t need to be, it was more important for me to be true to the spirit in the works, invest them with the essence of life’s desires.
This period of my work has made me understand more fully, what I am searching for in art and it’s why I have also always been attracted to Etruscan art, and some African art. It’s seeking the essence and embodying it in form. I have always been able to see very well, and it is a distraction, as the human form is beautiful, and it constantly calls me back to itself, the unconscious regard for proportion and visual beauty always wanting to take over from the essence of the work. When you look at early Etruscan art, you get work that has complete disregard for proportion, sometimes a deliberate decision to make the body very long, the arms and legs very short and the head a square, even the surfaces are uneven and roughly hewn, but it is a devotional piece, so the work is not about human beauty but about human essence. The work can be really austere, but the work haunts you, disturbing you and attracting you. You need that in art because it is not satisfactory to be beautiful alone, or to play a clever mind trick with you, or tell you a story. You need the recognition of yourself as a spiritual being.
Throughout history there have been the great masters who bring their art alive and somehow embody the spirit, the physical and the mind into a whole. That, for me is the ultimate in art; to capture it all without rules, to maintain the freedom of the artist to create, but to give it all to us, so that we resonate with the whole truth.
Overhead, on the verandah, Sollai is cementing the patch work of canals made for recent wires and plumbing, cheerful and gung ho, cement is flying from his flailing spatula. The garden is water ridden and the river is swollen and brown, but today the sun is shining and we pull the geraniums back out onto the walls – they had become so water logged we thought they’d drown. Glorious to see the swallows swoop and glide over the river, gobbling insects in the fresh glowing light.
Michael is standing back absorbing the triptych he has just completed for Morgon Stanley in Hong Kong. Its beautiful. A river scene. The bank full and pulsating with wildflowers and lush green herbs. The river gushing past, and on the canvas it looks fast, the colours almost tripping over themselves, glinting and dashing with that special light at sunset. The energy of the paint is fantastic and you feel part of early summer and its bountiful delights. He’s a mad man in the studio. How can he work so fast? At the end of every session he’s exhausted but emerges victorious, eyes shining, and then dumps on the couch and naps as quickly and intensely as he works. He says he doesn’t think about it – just does – complete trust.
Today is the 21st June and the weather is unseasonably cold and wet. People have lost their lives in the floods in Provence. We were just there picking up our youngest son, Sollai, from the airport in Nice. It rained so hard that we were completely drenched in seconds while walking on the Boulevard Des Anglais. Back here in Italy the weather followed us and for a week we are back in winter dreaming again of the sun and light summer clothes.
But still dreams are made. On the way back from France, Sollai ventured forth his dream of working in a marble studio in Pietrasanta or Cararra. We stopped at Pietrasanta enroute to inspect a bronze coming out of the foundry and casually asked the owner if he knew of a good marble carving yard for Sollai to start off in. They gave him their introduction to a carving yard they knew of, ‘Shakti’, situated under beautiful mediterranean pines, with accommodation as well, albeit an aluminium shed. He is so excited. Now he is back in Bagni di Lucca working his tail off so that he can afford the rates for his one month sojourn in Pietrasanta from mid July to mid August. Michael will happily go with him for a week to teach him some pointers on carving and set him on his way, as well as to enjoy some carving of his own. Summer carving in Pietrasanta, home to the great quarries that Michaelangelo discovered, beautiful stone tools, a city romantic and ancient, its walls climbing the hills above its centre, overlooked by great craggy mountains, olive groves, below it on the flats, mad industry and the sea, every day in summer a pushbike ride to the beach – the sculptors life.
Today this sculptor is back in her studio. A week away is sometimes a long time and today was joy itself. Its like coming home. This beautiful space under the old vaulted ceilings, bricks black with age, a cave to indulge in one’s fantasies, surrounding yourself with nothing but yourself. I love it when I come here. I come back to myself. And today I started a new series of horse and riders. I have been going regularly to my friend’s ranch where I have been drawing and touching and loving her beautiful horses. At last I am sculpting – from a Shona perspective – these noble creatures that for me express a freedom and at oneness with life.