Residency Report: Vanessa Berry

On my first night at Gunyah there was a bright full moon. Beneath it, reflected in the bay, was the moon's silver path, which shimmered with the movement of the water. I looked out over this scene, wondering how being here would shape my thinking, and what kind of reflections I would go on to make during my residency. Places shape thoughts and actions, and residencies draws attention to this exchange: the relationship between the atmosphere of the place and the artist's own mental weather.

The next morning I set up a desk by the window where I'd been looking at the moonlight and unpacked my bags of materials. I'd come with two projects to work on, one a manuscript that's reaching completion, and another that's so new it is mostly a set of scribbled notes, and vague thoughts I need to do hard work to chase after. Both of these stages, end and beginning, require courage and confidence, although they require different levels of attention. The manuscript I examine carefully to consider how its pieces work together, as I engage in the careful work of editing it into a whole. For the new work I set meticulousness aside. The important thing was to open up my thoughts, take a notebook down to the water's edge, let my ideas shift and collide. In this way I divided up my days, between the 'desk work' of the manuscript, and the 'jetty work' of the new project.

On residency an artist is lifted out of their routine, their familiar places and habits and constraints, and has space to consider their practice. Most days I found myself sitting by the jetty, beside an empty black flowerpot over the mouth of which a small white spider had spun a web. Each day it was at the centre of a newly-spun web, the pattern slightly different from the day before. Writing, rewriting: the spider was my companion in contemplation.

As the water lapped at the rocks I thought about my intentions, of what I do and how I might continue or modify it. The practice of writing is an exchange between self and world, and made up of activities that bring them together. At its most broad this is everything the writer does, their continued experience and all the interactions that come with daily life, observing and feeling, balancing moment with momentum.

As well as writing and thinking, I went out walking, gathering a sense of place on this Worimi country of North Arm Cove and balancing out the quiet, concentrated energy of writing. On the suburban streets I was particularly drawn to the houses and their architecture. North Arm Cove is a secluded place, and the houses were built as retreats, and to be open to the natural environment they are surrounded by. As I walked, I collected my favourites.

One of the things that I find particularly rewarding about walking is that each walk forms a story, with particular moods and details, so I thought that I'd include a walk story to end this report, as a way of describing my time at Gunyah as it unfolded.


Walk Story, Gunyah, 11th August 2020 

At the desk by the window I look up, over the bay. In the days I've been here I've seen it smooth as a mirror, with the silver track of the full moon reflected in its night surface. I've seen it high and lapping the rocks at the shoreline, seen its ripples extending out as if it's a shivering skin. On the day the storm front came through it was turbulent with low, rapid waves, which raced in towards the inner cove as if in a great hurry to arrive. Today the bay is calm and grey, tinged a slight gold as the afternoon settles. While there's still light I decide to go out walking.

As I turn the corner, out into the road that follows the water's edge, a kookaburra looks down from a high branch, turning its attention from the ground, to me, then back to the grass, studiously hoping for insects. I like their solitary, concentrated attention to observing, and today feel something of an accord with this approach, for the way that I have been working: concentrating on reading my manuscript, looking out for the details that have a life and energy to them.

I pass holiday houses with names like "Stray Leaves" and "Nightjar's Rest" and "Whispering Tides", with their wide windows and balconies, good positions for watching the water. I follow the road down to where it crumbles to an end beside a small beach. Like the other days I've walked this way, two dogs run up to greet me. The first time the younger one had rushed up barking, and I'd veered away, but then the older dog had come up and sat by my side, looking up with an imploring expression, and I knew they had accepted me. Today they bound around me, the young one carrying a fish in her mouth as if it's a great prize, until I reach the end of their territory and they stand as if at an invisible barrier, watching me walk away.

At the top of the hill is an A-Frame house, perched at the back of a wide front lawn on which a flock of corellas are grazing. More fly in, making nervous bleats, then turn down to tear at the grass. Behind the house is the edge of the bushland that extends across the headland. I walk until I reach a path that leads into the bush, a dirt road still muddy from the previous day's rain. At the corner is a wooden post with two blank wooden road signs pointing towards the forest.

A century ago, there were plans for this forest. Reading the history of the area on the Gunyah blog I'd found out that in the early 20th century this area was destined to be cleared for the building of a city. In 1918 the plans drawn up by Walter Burley Griffin for Port Stephens City were approved, and lots offered for sale. But the plan dwindled when the 1930s Depression hit, and all that was ever built of the city are the roads, which carve out trails through the bushland, marked by blank signs.

Walking on the paths I imagine Burley Griffin's plan overlaid upon the land, the ghosts of parks and civic buildings. It is hard to imagine the place other than how it is now, with the tall bloodwoods and stringybarks, and purple pea flowers and sprigs of native orchids in the undergrowth. Imagining the map of what it could have been I thought how the land was carved up, with the colonial mindset of land as space to be renamed and repurposed, as it has been across the continent. I walk here on Worimi country, holding onto the understanding that a city is only something temporary or provisional.

Thinking this, letting thoughts trail out with the rhythm of my steps, I follow the bushland paths until I'm back on the sealed stretch of road that follows the shoreline. The kookaburra has moved on from its perch and the sun is lower in the sky. I turn back to Gunyah, to the desk and my notebooks, with the walk's new thoughts to record and observe, hoping within them there is a quiver of something that I might take up and take further.

My time at Gunyah was precious and rewarding, a chance to write, think and dream, and connect with the abundant creative energies of the house, land and environment. Thank you to Kath and Gunyah for your support and generosity in having me on the residency. It is a privilege to have had Gunyah influence my work and thinking, and to now carry the work and insights from my time here with me.

Vanessa Berry

August 2020