It’s always an adventure to find La Trobe’s alumni. Rhyll Plant was discovered on paper in this year’s Castlemaine State Festival open studios program, then in person down a dusty, corrugated back road, up and down and around the hills and valleys of old gold ground.
She waves us down out the front of Speargrass Studio; a purpose-built building beside her home with views over the valley and bush beyond. Inside, it’s all ply timber floors and big map drawers, printing presses and works on paper, and the intriguing tools of the printmaker’s trade.
When Rhyll was 16 she purchased some of these old tools from a clearance sale. Their patina appealed to a girl with a love of the handmade, although she was clueless as to their purpose.
“I carried them around with me from share house to share house for the best part of 30 years,” Rhyll says. “It wasn’t until I was at uni when this guy turned up with the same tools that I learnt what they were.”
That uni was La Trobe in Bendigo, that guy was Hanging Rock-based artist and guest lecturer Tim Jones, and the tools were for wood block engraving. “I like to think they found me,” Rhyll says, who quickly developed a passion for the time-honoured art of carving pictures into timber blocks for printing.
Rhyll enrolled to study a Master of Visual Arts in 1995 thinking she’d discover the painter within, but found her heart lay in the printmaking room. “For me was just really strong, it drew me in. I loved the technical side of it, particularly the wood engraving.”
It’s not surprising when you learn of Rhyll’s past. She was born and raised on Phillip Island and grew up with a family who loved, and fostered a love of, natural history. For a young person with artistic talent, that was expressed as botanical illustration and precision pictures of shells and fish.
Rhyll volunteered with Museum Victoria at 17, gained employment as a technician and trained as a taxonomic illustrator. She’s been illustrating for the institution for 50 years. In 2013 her work featured in the museum’s exhibition and book The Art of Science. “I’m rubbing pages with my gods,” she says. Think ornithologists John Gould and John James Audubon. Rhyll’s pages explain how she “uses spirit specimens, briefly extracted from a jar stored for perpetuity in a museum shelf, as subjects for her visual puns”. The main artwork published here is Rhyll’s ‘Plaice Mat’, the fish being between knife and fork. It’s a prime example of the humour often expressed in her art… for further specimens see the book she published with her graphic designer son, If You Knew Sushi, a ‘scientific’ exploration of the many varieties of soy fish, and a cheeky comment on single-use plastic tat.
Despite a successful creative career, a university degree was calling. When Rhyll enrolled at La Trobe her twin children were six years old, she was ready to do something for herself, and encouraged by a friend who was pursuing the art course. “I had a ball,” she says, “It was fabulous. It was a lovely balance of a wonderful exploration of stuff that interested me, but also hands-on making. I dragged it out for as long as I could – 10 years – and I even repeated subjects I’d done at other institutions.”
Rhyll finished her studies with a thesis on the art of printmaking and a new career as a printmaker in arty Castlemaine – the Mount Alexander Shire is known to harbor Australia’s highest concentration of printmakers per capital. Although very few of them work with wood.
A visit to Speargrass Studio is an education not only into Rhyll’s world, but as to why the art form is rare and special. Rhyll says she spends a lot of time giving a potted history of the rise and fall of wood block printing. It’s all part of her philosophy of sharing her uni years. “The masters was such a valuable thing to do that to keep it to myself seems wrong,” she says.
For Rhyll, it’s the process of making the work that’s most valuable. The sourcing and sawing and cutting of wood, the hours spent engraving, music playing, lost in the making. She says it gives her “everything from grief to meditation”.
“It’s very satisfying. A famous painter once said that art works are just the unwanted result of a fabulous process.”
In Rhyll’s case however, the works are far from unwanted, and hence, post-studies, she has become one of the region’s celebrated artists, taking regular part in one of Australia’s best-loved regional cultural festivals.
Visit Rhyll this weekend at Speargrass Studio where wood engravings, linocuts, nature prints and screen prints line the walls, at 191 Happy Valley Road, Castlemaine.