From the Lighthouse by Judy Johnson

9th November 2021

photo of Nobbys beach and headlandWalking the incline up to Lighthouse Arts, sunlight splintering off the water, feels somehow ceremonial. As melodramatic as it sounds, all of my senses are telling me I’m heading upwards to a space where things will be more rarified, and have more clarity. I can only compare it to that anticipatory tingle that hints at a remarkable writing day to come. When I reach the top of the hill and look around at the stupendous view, I have the weirdest feeling the cottages already knew we creatives were coming. That they’d been waiting for us to show up for decades, and had put out the blue-skied welcome mat.

I’d already chosen my desk. Outside the window, the whitewashed wall with the ocean slapping gently below, gives me just enough view not to distract me from my work. If I turn my gaze a little to the left and look up, I can see the Fresnel lens in the lighthouse turning 360 degrees like an owl’s head, keeping its multifaceted eye on everything. It rotates day and night but doesn’t light up until dusk.

I let my mind wander at first; watch a pelican fly over and think, with that huge pouch, it should have got the gig of delivering those storybook babies instead of the stork.

Suddenly, an idea comes from nowhere and I start typing. The words flow and flow. I could weep with gratitude. I haven’t had this instant ignition for a long time. It could only be this environment sparking me.

My fellow residents are mainly writers, but we have two musicians in the sound-proof studio, a printmaker, and a photographer moving around the site like a friendly seer, trying to harness the incredible light. It’s great to catch up with them at lunchtime in the sun outside. We talk a bit of shop, but mainly about how lucky we are to be here.

If you have a residency (and yes, you do want one!), take a jacket. The weather turns quickly; the wind whips up. Don’t let this put you off. Tumultuous beauty is a potent elixir. Drink deep.

16th November 2021

Lighthouse Arts 16th Nov Clusters of dragonflies 

hover outside my studio window. When the Artists-in-Residence come together at lunchtime, we comment on the sheer number of them. There are sometimes bad connotations when insects appear en-masse: plagues, pestilence, famine. But dragonflies are harmless, unless you happen to be a mosquito, and beautiful. They are suspended on air, hovering with precision.

Their pre-cursors, griffinflies, were much larger and more formidable. They had 30 inch wing spans and they once flew over this same headland.

Back then, two hundred million years ago, Nobbys-Whibayganba was part of Gondwana. The promontory where us creatives gather today was then an island lush with tree ferns, climbers and mosses. Geologically, this was the Carboniferous period, 150 million years before the dinosaurs. A time when only griffinflies and other large insects occupied the skies.

I have a contingency plan for if, one day during my residency, I have writer’s block.

I will walk down the hill to the beach, turn around and look up at the strata of rock that comprises Nobby’s Whibayganba. I’ll realise then how the patience of rock tells its old, old story in layers. How much time it takes for good ideas to form. How the earth itself is the permanent artist-in-residence here.

I’ll see in that strata, twenty layers of solid tuff, made from the ash of active volcanoes, laid down 255 million years ago.

I’ll observe the seams which formed when carboniferous forests, swampy and dense, gave rise to large deposits of peat; how this transformed into lumps of coal which the Awabakal people, much later in time, gathered for heating and cooking.

And much later still, that same coal would fuel the major industry in the Hunter.

The dragonflies are still hovering over the grass outside my studio window, their small wings tilting like solar panels to capture the warmth of that ancient star we call the sun.

Take up a residency here. You’ll find it easy to be creative when beneath your feet, time has never stopped telling its epic story

25th November 2021

Lighthouse Arts 25th NovI couldn’t attend my Tuesday spot this week, so I’m here on Wednesday. I meet a whole new group of residents; have lunch with a visual artist, a printmaker and an author. We all agree this location is magical. That even when we are not creating, imagination rises like a high tide inside us.

We’re not alone. Frances Thompson in a 2011 article in the Newcastle Herald said : ‘Anyone who has lived or worked atop Newcastle’s famous headland says the place casts a spell.’

Les Stevens was the last signalman on Nobby’s Whibayganba. He lived in cottage 2 with his wife, Julie and their children, between 1887 and 1997. They loved being located high above Newcastle. But Julie also remembers the terror of the earthquake, when there was an enormous thud and the whole island moved. She looked down over the city, and it was covered in dust.

The Awabakal people believe earthquakes are caused by the giant Kangaroo who lives deep inside this outcrop. Every now and then he gets agitated and jumps around. When his huge tail crashes against the earth, it makes the rocks fall and the ground tremble.

The elements have always been unstable. It’s easy to observe in the weather up here: one minute calm and clear, the next the wind whips up, the air is electric, and steel wool clouds scrub the sky.

I for one welcome the uncertainty of what the alchemy in nature, and also in my mind, will offer up next.

Elizabeth Gilbert in her book, ‘Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear’ describes the essential ingredients for creativity this way: ‘courage, enchantment, permission, persistence, trust.’

The Lighthouse site takes care of ‘enchantment’.  A residency offers ‘permission’. The sense of welcome supplies ‘trust’. All you’ll be left to come up with on your own are ‘courage’ and ‘persistence.’ So what’s stopping you from applying.

1st December 2021

Lighthouse Arts 1st DecMy gratitude to Lighthouse Arts for giving me this residency is unwavering.

It’s not just the location at Nobbys-Whibayganba, stupendous as it is. It’s also a combined imaginative energy that is palpable when creatives gather here.

At ten in the morning when I hear someone pull up their chair in another room, or start up their laptop, I am like one of Pavlov’s dogs, except I don’t salivate for food, my mind is primed to write.

Albert Einstein put it simply: ‘Creativity is contagious, pass it on.’

Outside the perimeter wall, a huge tanker is being guided in through the heads by three or four small tugs working in unison. The tugs seem modest and unassuming, but without their guidance the huge vessels couldn’t negotiate the dangerous harbour.

I see a parallel with the art we create. We mostly work alone, but almost always we need nudges of encouragement and feedback from others to keep us off the rocks.

The mercurial weather is playing tricks again today. It was raining when we arrived, but now at noon the sea is beaming radiant-blue from ear to ear. A kestrel almost imperceptibly seesaws its wings to hover with amazing stillness over some fish in the water below. It’s a mastery of aeronautics. So much more than the sum of its parts. The wings and the puffs of breeze together creating something transcendent.

And speaking of other-worldly, NASA has named an outcrop on Mars after Nobby’s Whibayganba, which I take as further evidence that this place has an unfathomable resonance. The Martian version looks like this outcrop in shape, but is a mere baby in comparison, only 4 million years old.

It makes me want to tweak Einstein’s quote: ‘Inspiration is contagious, pass it on…all the way across the Universe.’

I won’t in my lifetime get to see Nobbys-Whibayganba’s younger brother on the red planet, but it doesn’t matter, because this place has branded itself on some part of my own inner space.

If you become an Artist in Residence here, it will do the same to you.

7th December 2021

Kite surfers confetti the sky above Nobby’s beach. Looking down from this elevation it seems as though scraps of fabric are bobbing, veering and diving all by themselves. It’s not until I descend to the break wall that I see the strings of the kites are being pulled by surfers below.

I’ve been thinking about creative balance and how hard it is to come by in our artistic lives. Some creatives I’ve spoken to up here wait to begin working until they are inspired. Others believe that a daily habit of work whether they feel ready or not, keeps the mind focussed on generating stimulus for their art.

Both are legitimate ways forward, but maybe a combination of the two is best. To keep a kite flying steady, four forces must be in balance. Lift must equal weight, and thrust must equal drag. Maybe keeping an artistic practice steady over the long haul requires innovation to equal curation, and compelling force to equal introspection.

French author, Andre Gide put it another way: ‘The most beautiful things are those that madness prompts and reason steers.’

The Lighthouse was built in 1854 to provide a much needed navigational aid. No madness about that prompt. It was an intensely practical decision. And though the lighthouse grew into its own allure, the way some women grow more beautiful as they age, its beauty was incidental to its task. 

Scratch the surface and it’s easy to see why we are fascinated with Lighthouses. They are motifs and symbols for enlightenment and guidance. And yes, balance also. Human kind has always sought safe passage through the unpredictable elements around us. Our lives are spent attempt-ing to keep our small, frail boats steady in the gale.

Lighthouses are also romantic, I suspect because they remind us of the need to seize the day, to feel sensually alive while there is still time.

Take a residency at Lighthouse Arts. I can’t promise you romance. I can assure you, you will feel both creatively in balance, and fully alive.

16th December 2021

Lighthouse Arts 16th DecToday is the last day of my Lighthouse Arts Residency and I can’t believe how swiftly the time has disappeared.  More swiftly even than the seabirds that crisscross the sky above the ocean like small arrowheads.   

A reporter from the ABC was here this morning. With his camera and fluffy microphone he interviewed us Artists in Residence.  He asked us in turn about our experiences.  What our residency had meant to us and our practice. 

I’m not sure what my fellow creatives said.  I’m not even sure what I said. Whatever it was, it would have been articulate enough and enthusiastic but it couldn’t have expressed my deepest feelings about the experience of being here. Those are not really translatable into words.   

Nevertheless, let’s start with gratitude: that this place and this opportunity exists for the creatives of the Hunter.  That I have been here and working at my craft. That my time will not be assessed by an accountant for its financial viability or my work expected to meet KPIs.  That the sensory experience of sea and sky, with all of its restless meanderings, is available to me just outside my desk window. 

With gratitude comes responsibility.  I now feel a responsibility to try to help keep these residencies going.  To fight hard for this extraordinary space. 

Nobby’s Whibayganba has had to endure many changes, including being reduced in size by almost half in 1855 to build the lighthouse. But the injuries it has suffered over millennia is a story only the Awabakal people can tell.   

All I can know, is how the sun glitters on the water, and falls in glorious patterns on the surface of the grass.  And all I can think of is the glittering gold seams of Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery. 

Perhaps the American Painter Robert Henri has found the words after all for my experience of a Lighthouse Residency:   

‘The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.’  

Every day I have spent up here has put me in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.  And in this world of monetary values, that experience is without price.