In the 11 years he has lived by Australia's mighty Hawkesbury River, Joshua Yeldham has developed a personal mythology in which every tree, every snake and stingray has symbolic meaning.
He talks of lessons learnt from mangroves and their ability to thrive in difficult conditions; of owls as fertility totems; of crows that shriek to warn him about brown snakes when he paints in the bush near his home.
But for all his New Age vocabulary, Yeldham is a practical man. He knows how to make and fix things; how to steer his tinny along creeks to hidden bays that for most people are inaccessible.
He knows how to commune with nature without getting killed by it.
"That's what the Australian bush is like," he says. "At one moment, you're in splendour, the next you're being attacked by ants."
The more you surrender to Yeldham's intense, meandering, metaphor-strewn conversation, the more it seems to have a logical current. Of course creativity is like the growth of an ancient tree, roots reaching through the dark seeking nutrition.
Of course listening to nature will teach you things you didn't know.
For Yeldham, there's not much separating art from life. Living by the Hawkesbury just north of Sydney, the work he does, the way he raises his son and daughter with his wife, Jo, is all part of a quest to live in a way he finds meaningful.
Nature became part of that quest early on, when he was a privileged but unhappy kid in Sydney, bullied at school and failing in class because of dyslexia.
He remembers playing spotlight on his mother's hobby farm, hiding in the trees and staying out in the dark longer than the other kids.
It's a story he often tells when talking about his work – it has become a kind of fable about nature's redemptive power.
Another touchstone in his account of his life is his move as a teenager to a Swiss boarding school, where he learnt to climb mountains at night.
"Becoming a strong mountaineer changed my life," he says.
"I never knew what pushing through was as a boy; I just had tantrums and it always ended in giving up. Being in the mountains taught me that, wow, I can do things that I didn't think I could do. And that's what art is, really."
As an adult, Yeldham continued to seek out difficult landscapes.
Like the Venezuelan Andes, where he made a film, Frailejón, which won an Emmy and an Oscar nomination for best student film in 1993.
And the desert in central Australia, where he went to make another movie but started making art instead.
Yeldham's latest art works draw on his travels with family in Japan, Arizona and India.
"Over the last three years, we've taken some long journeys and it's starting to filter through into the work," he says. "We go and visit ancient cultures that have ritual and tradition with land."
And, of course, wherever he goes, he finds more symbols to wind into his art and private mythology.
In India, he came across a saying that resonated: "You have to learn to live with the snake in the room."
"In Australia, settlers have chopped the heads off millions of brown snakes because of fear," he says.
"In India, the concept is that they will learn to live with us if we learn to live with them. You have to learn to live with what you fear, learn to work around it."
Yeldham paints, draws, sculpts and carves, guided by a belief that life is driven by twin forces of creation and destruction. He encourages his children to discard many of the pictures they draw and paint – even the ones they really love – and does the same with his own work.
Often the surfaces of his paintings are riddled with holes and grooves. He carves patterns, slicing into intricately painted board with belt sanders and boring dots into photographs with power tools.
"I purposely destroy the parts of a work that I love," he says. "The reason is, if there's a part of the work I know is killer, I want all the rest of the picture to come up to that level.
"The river has taught me about creation and collapse – one is part of the other. You see it with bushfires. But instead of despairing about the destruction, use it to find the next seed of potential – to bring new life."
Yeldham provides these explanations for four of his top works, which are being offered as giclee prints through Fairfax Media’s The Store to mark Australia Day.
Prayer for Protection (2010)
“I make offerings to the owls up river. I paint owls to protect me. I understand they are a gate keeper with knowledge of the night, a place we hardly frequent. With their sonic hearing they survey land and animals. I carve their feathers into water holes and see mud flats and river tides in their faces. I bend cane in their eyes and drill their wings, adorning them with small pods, for they are the great seer in my creativity.”
Mother Tree (2017)
“For 11 years I have painted beneath an old grey mangrove tree not far from my home and my children have grown up playing in her roots. On thick handmade paper I carved her trunk into being with a belt sander, digging through the surface to reveal her topography. The mangrove leaves taste of salt. Somehow they drink the sea and expel the salt. I am always struck by nature’s intelligence.”
Surrender Tree (2015)
“Angophora Costata, pink gnarled and crooked. These trees survive in the shallow soils of the Australian bush, holding firm to sandstone. I paint and carve their limbs. I paint trees more than people. This beauty was burnt by fire. I often tell my kids the bushfire story about my creativity; in my sanding and carving of paintings I destroy beautiful parts that I have spent many hours on. In destruction I see new growth, new shapes and forms that guide me.”
Lovers Rock (2010)
“I painted Lovers Rock as she is warmed by the sun. In the foreground are shimmering mud flats and hundreds of small cane drilled through the surface to represent oyster leases. We visit this bay in the tinny and often see faces of birds in the sandstone. I feel people are disconnecting from nature, from wilderness. In some ways our wilderness only remains inside us, inside our creativity. That is why children are so gifted and free when they create and explore outdoors.”
- Yeldham’s exhibition Endurance runs at Sydney’s Arthouse Gallery until the end of February. He is represented in Melbourne by Scott Livesey Galleries.
- To buy a signed giclee print, visit thestore.com.au/yeldham; $20 from each sale will be donated to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.