Nic Mason and Art of Threatened Species

Nic Mason on her Art of Threatened Species Residency Up close and personal with the Brush-Tailed Rock Wallaby

Interview by Portia Lindsay, Orana Arts

Can you tell us a little about your background and how you came to be involved in the Art of Threatened Species project 

With most projects there’s usually a patchwork of back stories. Just a little of mine is that art and science are my things. I‘m really interested in our natural world and throughout my life I’ve often sought out hybrids – people and projects – that marry these two fields. 

My background is in conservation and land management. I have worked in conservation and land management roles for 20 years in local and state government, for the not-for-profit sector and as a private environmental consultant. Many of these roles involved threatened species management. In mid-2016 I left my job with national parks to focus fulltime on my art practice and I headed to the Australian National University to dive into some post-graduate studies in painting. 

During this time, I also created a number of bodies of work focusing on conservation themes. Following all this I packed up my three children and partner. We spent six months in a cultural exchange where I painted in France. And it was whilst I was at an artist residency near Paris — thanks to NAVA and the NSW Artist Grant that helped me be there — I promised myself that I would not do any applications for future projects. I just wanted to stay focused on where I was at: the place and people and my painting and drawing. And then flying into my inbox came the call for EOIs for the Art of Threatened Species project. And so, I buckled and broke my promise to myself, left the present and delved into the future with an application. But I’m really glad that I did! 

Image 1: Bilby, (bilbi) rocking and waiting 2016, oil on canvas, 76 x 76 cm. Exhibited as part of WILD, Nic Mason’s solo exhibition in Cowra Regional Art Gallery in 2016.  Image 2: Fox, fox, wallaby and wombat 2017, oil on canvas, 40 x 40 cm. Exhibited as part of STILL, Nic Mason’s solo exhibition at Tablelands Artists Cooperative Gallery in Bathurst in 2017. 

Why are you focussing on the brush-tailed rock-wallaby in this project? 

I had previously been involved in some conservation programs for the brush-tailed rock-wallaby and it was one of the species in proximity to my local area. I also knew a number of the amazing people who had worked for years within conservation programs around this species. 

Each artist working within the Art of Threatened Species project was paired up with a threatened species, population or habitat and with a science specialist from this field to work with. The project kicked off in April 2018 when most of the artists and scientists met up in Canberra. It was terrific for me to meet scientist Dr Deborah Ashworth, from the Office of Environment and Heritage, who manages many threatened species programs across the state, including the recovery programs for the brush-tailed rock-wallaby. 

This wallaby was the threatened species that I was paired up with for this project and with Debs involvement and expertise, I was supported in making plans for my self-directed residency, linking me with other specialists working with the brush-tailed rock-wallaby and enabling research opportunities and field work. 

What have you been up to in this residency? 

The first field outing for me in this project was in May 2018 when I accompanied Deb for some biannual monitoring of the Jenolan population of the brush-tailed rock-wallaby. I learnt more about this iconic species — listed as endangered in NSW — their habitat, the threats to them, the programs set up for their recovery and the workers who manage them. 

Image 3: A wallaby’s condition being checked during monitoring at Jenolan. Image 4: Out in brush-tailed rock-wallaby habitat during monitoring at Jenolan 

Last century the population of brush-tailed rock-wallabies in Jenolan had crashed to a bottleneck of only seven individuals. With concerted efforts of sustained fox control and a captive breeding program, the population in recent years has grown to over 100. For the first time since the 1950’s brush-tailed rock-wallabies are again being sighted in the Grand Arch at Jenolan Caves. It’s one of the positive stories of what is happening right now in threatened species recovery programs and offers some hope for other brush-tailed rock-wallaby sites and other species recovery programs. Also, of note is the fact that the same amazing and dedicated national parks officers have been managing this population since the late 1990s. 

This self-directed residency project has also afforded me the opportunity to go behind the scenes at the Australian Museum and get up close with some specimens. I've been able to really look closely at skulls, bones and pelts of the brush-tailed rock-wallaby. Up close you really see the short toenails at the ends of the soft and grippy feet pads – for this species to easily bound over rocks – it gives much more of a deeper understanding. And in spending time drawing these details one really gains a deeper sense than through just looking. 

Talking with Dr Sandy Ingleby and Dr Mark Eldridge, the scientific staff at the Australian Museum has been pure gold. In particular, Mark has done some terrific research into the genetics of the brush-tailed rock-wallaby. This research has been instrumental in the current management and road to recovery of this species. 

Each specimen has tagged information linking it to time, place and people. And, it was with such tags on specimens in the Australian Museum that one of life’s little coincidences occurred: I came across some specimens that had been collected by Tony Rose — an old neighbour from my childhood, a national parks ranger and amateur taxidermist. I still remember heading into his shed with all its smells and curiosities. It was there that I started some of my early questioning about life and art and science. 

Image 5: Drawing behind the scenes at the Australian Museum a brush-tailed rock-wallaby skull collected from Jenolan Caves in 1987.  Image 6: Drawing behind the scenes at the Australian Museum with a brush-tailed rock-wallaby specimen. 

Office of Environment and Heritage staff have included me in related activities in my region such as me joining in at a Western Rivers Environmental Educators Network held in Bathurst. They have also been generous with sharing documents, plans and data on this species. Some of the story of this creature’s demise I have found truly gobsmacking. These wallabies were once considered a pest and product with records of over 500,000 brush-tailed rock-wallabies killed in a 20 year period for the pelt trade more than 100 years ago. 

It was during my second trip into the field looking at the population of brush-tailed rock-wallabies at Jenolan that the staff shared something interesting in one of the individuals trapped. Thyme, one of the wallabies trapped during this monitoring session, had a prominent white blaze on her chest. This is unusual for the population at Jenolan and shows the genetic diversity growing in the population. The population had become inbred due to the crashes in population size. As a response to genetic testing a number of brush-tail rock-wallabies from breeding colonies with variable genetics were released into the population at this Jenolan site. 

One of the curiosities of management is the naming convention used for this population – all individuals born in the population are given a name starting with the letter T. And so it was clear that Thyme had been born at Jenolan, offspring from broadening the genetic pool. 

During my time out in the field monitoring this population I was also generously included in the naming of two new wallabies. So now out there are Tiko and Trish. 

I have also had the opportunity to share presenting with my peers about the project at Artstate Bathurst, 2018.

Images 7 & 8: A typical looking brush-tailed rock-wallaby without a white chest blaze from the Jenolan brush-tailed rock-wallaby population and Thyme born in the population at Jenolan sporting her variant chest blaze. 

What’s next in this project for you? 

This first half of the residency and embedded research phase I have been focused on spending time with people, places, looking at specimens and being in the field with the brush-tailed rock-wallabies — in doing these things I have been drawing and pondering much too. 

My plan is to let this immersion feed my work, where I can respond to the uniqueness of the brush-tailed rock-wallaby, its story and the universality of species loss and vulnerability. I am interested in the possibilities of enticing new ways of thinking through connection and engagement in art. 

Among other things, I have done some simple sketches of scats (wallaby poo), as I find them - quite character filled. I’m not too sure yet if I will build more upon these as well as many of the other ideas I have. I am focusing the last part of the residency more on my creative response, with drawings and paintings and possibly some sculptural elements too. 

Above all I am thinking about how I can make art in this project that will do justice to the themes, to add to the discourse in a compassionate, engaging and thought-provoking way. 

And I’m really looking forward to seeing what the other artists create, with the exhibition opening at the Western Plains Cultural Centre in November 2019, possibly leading into a touring exhibition. I think both scientists and artists are dedicated to asking big questions and seeking ways forward. I hope some insight is to be gained from these collaborations; that the project leads to further collaborations; and that the exhibition from this project gets an opportunity to talk with many others in heading far and wide. 

Images 10 & 11: Brush-tailed rock-wallaby scat drawings, charcoal on paper.