Our Eltham - Artistic Recollections / by Nerina Lascelles

From fire to flood, from gold mining to wheat harvesting, from the horse and buggy to the motor car and from Shillinglaw Cottage to the Eltham Library, ‘Our Eltham’ is a celebration of life in our Shire since the opening of the Eltham Cemetery more than 150 years ago.

Depicting scenes of life in and around Eltham, this collection offers us a deeper connection to our area through a series of visual narratives of our past, our environment and our community. Historic photographs ignite an impression of what our forefathers may have witnessed during their lifetimes as pioneers before, us while indigenous flowers and plants symbolically connect us to life and nature in our local area.

The Eltham Cemetery Trust commissioned this project as part of its ongoing vision to offer our community a fresh and unique relationship to the Cemetery and confirms the Cemetery Trust’s commitment to the continued support of local artists.

Our Eltham is a collection of panels that were collaboratively created by artist Nerina Lascelles and ceramicist Linda Detoma. The associated landscape was designed and constructed by Leigh Wykes with ironwork by Neil Carter. All contributors to this installation are residents of the Eltham area. 

The official unveiling of the project commencing at Montsalvat. September 21, 2017

An art object is like a time capsule...

....a portal to another time and place, it reveals insights into human behaviour, beliefs, dreams, habits and ideas. Art has been created by humans for humans across hundreds and hundreds of years because it can inform us, stimulate us, uplift us, inspire us and offer us an enriched view of life. That is what we hope to achieve with this work.

I have lived Eltham and the surrounding area for nearly 50 years. What drew me to this project is the wonderful opportunity to offer a fresh perspective of the rich history and beautiful landscape right here on our doorstep.

And, as with a time capsule Linda and I hope that we have brought the Eltham Cemetery Trust's vision to life and helped to make the story of historic Eltham, relevant to the present and to the future generations who will enjoy this work. 

Visitors to the cemetery reflecting on the collection of 31 panels at the opening.

The Eltham cemetery is a time capsule as well. It was established in 1858.  It is fascinating to ponder on what life would have been like and how life in the Nillumbik area has changed over more than 150 years. A reflection on historic imagery and story enables us to understand what our fathers and their fathers may have witnessed during their lifetimes. Historic imagery also allows us to contemplate the myriad of colourful tales that our dearly departed forefathers, now at rest within the Eltham Cemetery, would have perhaps told. Historical imagery offers us today, a connection with our past.

Great Hall Montsalvat with Donkeys, 1963. Photographer John T Collins

Leigh Wykes, renowned throughout the Nillumbik Shire for his talent as a designer, builder and stonemason, and who is here today, designed and constructed the 50 metre, curved stone wall in the cemetery upon which this series of panels was then to be displayed.

Leigh Wykes visited my art studio some 18 months ago.

Leigh had also met with we'll know local ceramicist, Linda Detoma and suggested that Linda and I meet and discuss the idea of potentially working in collaboration on the project.

My artistic practice combines influences of the ancient artwork of the orient and the reverence that Japanese artists, poets and monks displayed towards the natural world around them.  Over recent years I have featured Australian elements in my paintings, endeavouring to reflect a similar sensitivity towards the natural world here in Nillumbik. 

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Native flora and foliage features in my work

Perhaps it was the use of indigenous native flora and foliage within the layers in my work that struck a chord of connection with Leigh, like the inclusion of the typically Eltham round Red Box Gum leaves or the soft, misty green of the silver wattle that grows on the banks of the Diamond Creek.  Perhaps it was the bright yellow pom poms of Golden Wattle that cheerfully heralds the beginning of Spring at the end of a long Winter. Perhaps what Leigh recognised in that moment was a celebration of the bush treasures that surround us in Eltham; the beautiful native plants of varying shape, texture and colour that remind us of our own sense of home and place in this unique part of the world.

Historic map of Eltham

The process of creating this series of panels has been an unfolding journey,  each panel has seemed to take on a life of its own. Historic research, a series of interviews, sourcing local photos and on-site photography took me out of the studio on what felt like a treasure hunt. As each tale unfolded, I was able to sense a deeper and deeper personal connection to life here in this Shire. A connection that I hope has been relayed through this body of work, and a connection that I hope my 2.5 year old son will also experience as he grows up in this area.  

The newly installed body of 31 panels at the Eltham Cemetery

So to describe what this commissioned project actually looks like, “Our Eltham – Artistic Recollections” comprises a series of 31 ceramic panels, each measuring 70cm x 60cm, which have been installed into a rusted steel balustrade that runs above a 50 meter stone wall in the cemetery. 

The panels depict designs which incorporate a multi-layering of imagery including local landmarks of significance and of a collection of native plants that are indigenous to the Eltham area. 

A selection of tiles fresh out of the kiln after their third firing

Technically speaking, each panel is made up of 15 handcrafted ceramic tiles that piece together like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, to picture the overall design. The panel designs have been created digitally with some of the designs containing more than 90 layers of imagery.  The digital designs are then transposed into a decal (or transfer image) which is produced using glaze materials, that when fired, the image adheres permanently to the tiles. Metallic or Iridescent luster is later applied before a final firing. Each of the 465 tiles in the project have been fired up to 5 times before being mounted, grouted and installed in the cemetery.

Eltham, Shillinglaw Cottage, 1963. Photographer J T Collins

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Kangaroo ground War Memorial Tower, 1930's

View at Hurstbridge, photographer Rose Stereograph Co.

As mentioned, the subject matter within this series of panels largely comprises a range of photographs of scenes and sites in around Eltham.  

Some of the historic structures may be recognisable to you as many are still standing today: for example (Shillinglaw Cottage by the library, the War Memorial at Kangaroo Ground or the Monash bridge in Hurstbridge) 

These scenes may remind you of stories that your mothers, fathers, grandmothers or grandfathers may have told, or possibly some of your own memories and stories are ignited when you visually connect with a familiar place. I loved sharing completed panels with my family: here and abroad, and listening for their memories of the Red Rattler or the Eltham Barrel etc…..

Eltham Trestle Bridge, 1981. Photographer G.L.Coop

The Barrel Restaurant Main Rd, Eltham. Photographer Peter Willie 

The use of indigenous flowers in the panel designs symbolically reconnects us with our local area. Native wildflowers and foliage also represent the beauty of the natural world around us. The little jewels that seem to miraculously arrive from the invisible and for often a relatively short period of time gift humanity with their physical beauty. To witness the life of a flower – from a small shoot, to then bud, flower and over time the wilting and falling of that flower, allows us to reflect upon our own life span and the life cycles of every physical form on the planet.

The sweet smelling Chocolate lily or Dichopogon strictus

Local species reconnect us to our area without any reference to a particular decade or period. A chocolate lily remains a chocolate lily regardless of the invention of electricity, the motor car and bitumen roads which have physically changed the landscape of the area over recent centuries. A gum tree remains a gum tree over the passage of time yet due to its long lifespan can be perceived as a silent witness to the changing environment around us.

This project has been like a dipping back into a time capsule for me: a glimpse back into the past of "Our Eltham" and bringing it to the present day. Today we offer it as a gift for future generations to enjoy.

Perhaps reflecting on the collection of panels in “Our Eltham” may reawaken in you a sense of connection to this area, offering you your own individual experience of home and place in this unique part of the world.

On behalf of Linda and myself, we’d love to extend heartfelt thank you to:

  • The members of the Eltham Cemetery Trust and secretaries Rita and Julia for the wonderful opportunity to undertake this commission and for all of your support every step of the way.

  • Thank you to Leigh Wykes for your vision, support and unwavering belief.

  • Thank you to also to the Eltham District Historical Society, Eltham Library and Andrew Ross Museum who, amoung others kindly granted permission for the use of our selection of historic photographs.

  • Thank you to John and Eillish at Decal Specialists for your assistance and expertise.

  • To Amanda Gibson for your wonderful talent with the design and layout towards the book

….. and everyone else who has contributed to this project over the last 18 months.  The incredible support from so many members of you, the community only strengthens the project title, Our Eltham.

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