Published On: February 5, 20241281 words6.8 min read
Coastal Connections: Sydney to Port Stephens

How a Childhood Connection with Sydney Has Shaped Our Current Art Collection

We have been exploring some new native plants in our ‘Southern Melody’ art collection that are found further south from Port Stephens and Sydney through to Melbourne and the Bass Strait. The strong coastal connections that Jacky and I developed in our ‘Coastal Path’ artworks have been integrated into our new collection alongside native plants that are found further inland. I put together this interview with Jacky so that I can gain a better understanding of her time spent in and around Sydney as a child both on the land and near the coast and how that really influenced her relationship with the landscape.

Kerrin: You recently told me that you were actually born in Sydney. I knew you had grown up in that area but I didn’t realise it was your hometown! Can you tell me a little bit about your early life in Sydney?

Jacky: I grew up in West Pennant Hills right at the base of Berowa Valley Reserve. It was such a beautiful area, I remember leaves covering the roads, so many trees to climb and daily walks across Berowa Creek and through the park to catch the bus to school. We had a blue tongue lizard that lived in our yard aptly named “Bluey” who made us all have to watch our step when we were in the yard so as not to give it an unsuspected squish. 

Kerrin: You mentioned recently that your family had land along the Hawkesbury River. Can you tell me how that played a part in your early life?

Jacky: My mum had seven brothers and one sister and as a unit, bought land and built cabins along the Hawkesbury River in Lower Portland. This is where we often went to spend weekends with our family or holidays with the extended one. 

Kerrin: How do you think that influenced your connection with the land?

Jacky: Much of our time at Lower Portland was spent exploring the edges of the Hawkesbury. Taking our old canoe and discovering long-forgotten abandoned and overgrown bridges. Here my siblings and cousins and I would find marshes and flowers and vines and wove them into wreaths and rubbed mud all over us for camouflage. The drive after Sackville to get there was always memorable. Winding roads with a steep descent on one side. When I wasn’t suffering motion sickness and taking advantage of chuckit-buckit #1 or #2 in our Tarago, those winding roads through the densely forested area (which were similar to tropical landscapes from memory) were the part of the journey that made me open my eyes and feel like fun times were imminent. The property itself was covered in sweet gums (liquidamber). We used to throw the spikey dried fruit at each other for fun and when Autumn arrived and the leaves fell we would use them to build leaf walls around the outside of the trampoline to make a cubby.

Kerrin: So your Dad was then posted further north. How did that go for you as a family? How did you stay close?

Jacky: Lower Portland was a great place for us to continue to go all through our childhood to our later teen years. Getting out of the humdrum of life was much appreciated by all of us and it provided a beautiful space for us to spend with the extended family. 

Kerrin: So then you moved to Port Stephens. What do you remember about that time? How did that shape your connection with the environment?

Jacky: Being only two and a half hours north of where we lived in Sydney I still remember as a 10-year-old observing the difference in flora when we first drove to the new place we would live. The drive through the sandhills and Anna Bay was littered with flannel flowers and it was quite a sight! Mum’s family are all in the nursery business so different plants, native and introduced have been pointed out to me throughout my whole life. She was as enamoured by them as I was and after that first year, we never saw them again – but, they lived on in all the folk art she painted. 

Living in Port Stephens came with the explorations of coastal mountains and beaches. Beaches littered with Bitou bush, spinifex, pigface and warrigal greens. We loved walking up Mount Tomaree and going up Gan Gan lookout and admiring the giant Gymea Lilles that framed the gorgeous beaches below. I think living by water – be it rivers, lakes or beaches brings the perfect formula for the imagination to thrive. The property I grew up on as a teenager was 7 acres in the sandhills leading into Port Stephens – Worimi lands and the home of the largest sand dunes in the southern hemisphere. Walking through the scrub near our property you would come across huge ancient middens filled with shells poking out of the bracken. When I wanted some time to myself I would take a backpack, a campfire jaffle iron and my dog and go disappear into the bush, build a small fire in the sand and cook two toasties – one for me and one for my dog. I would sit and just be. I still do this today regularly, (not lighting small fires) but take myself out to the scrub and just soak in all the sounds and smells and shapes and movements, like Superman looking into the sun. 

Kerrin: And now, do you spend much time in these landscapes? Do you ever go back? And how do you share that connection with your family? Are they now building connections with the same places you did as a child? 

Jacky: The desire to live on the property we’re on now comes from my positive experiences as a young person living on acreage and surrounded by nature and my parents experimenting with growing and permaculture practices. The resilience that was learned and the connection to nature I got from living in the bush is something I want my children to experience and I reckon they know more than they think already about different plants, their uses and seasonal water harvesting! 

Last year when I drove through the sandhills I saw flannel flowers again for the first time since the year we moved there. My Mum sold our family property quite a while back because it was too much to manage on her own but now lives by the beach and has opened costal connections for my kids whenever we go to visit. The drive to her new place not much further away, is bracketed by stretches of banksias and blackbutts. They go kayaking or sailing with their uncle and look for oysters on the rocks. Take torches out to spot the crabs on the beach at night and have a good laugh at the corellas acting silly. It’s a great place for the world to meet your imagination.

It has been lovely to hear about Jacky’s younger years and I feel like it’s been really valuable to gain a strong understanding of the different landscapes that have influenced her throughout her life. The natural environment plays such a big role in our lives and our art and these early experiences really set the tone for how we see ourselves within the landscape now. Having such a strong connection to Sydney, the Hawkesbury and to Port Stephens really led us to working with native plants from those regions in our current art collection. And being able to explore these coastal or inland natives through art has only strengthened that connection.