ON a map, Dora Creek squiggles from the feet of the Watagan Mountains to the south-western shores of Lake Macquarie.
Yet through the art and life of Judy Hooworth, that beautiful waterway has flowed much further, reaching the other side of the globe. And it has coursed deep into her soul.
As Hooworth tells me over lunch in Morisset, “I got into this relationship with this piece of water.”
Judy Hooworth has turned that relationship into stunning quilts. From the trees along the banks to the patterns and reflections on its surface, the creek ripples and swirls across the quilts she creates. The results are not just abstract landscapes but also portraits of love for a place.
“It’s moody,” Hooworth says of the creek. “You can go down there and it can be grey, it can be dismal. And then the next day you can go down there, the sun is out, the water is sparkling, and it’s green. It’s just an incredible body of water. And the patterns created on the water really intrigue me. It’s an incredible little piece of paradise.”
Through Hooworth’s quilts, people all over the world have developed a relationship with Dora Creek. At the international Quilts=Arts=Quilts exhibition, which opened at the end of 2015 in New York state, her work was awarded “Best of Show”. That work was titled Rainy Day, Dora Creek #13.
“I just thought ‘Ah!’,” Hooworth recalls. “To think this little part of the world was on show. I was really proud of that.”
While she is helping put Dora Creek and Morisset on the world quilting map, very few know where these places actually are.
“I have to qualify it and say, ‘I live two hours north of Sydney’,” she laughs.
Not that she minds. Until 2003, Judy Hooworth had no idea where Dora Creek was either.
JUDY and Richard Hooworth had decided to sell up in Sydney. Their three children had grown up, and they didn’t need the big house in Terrey Hills anymore. The Hooworths resolved to move north. They just didn’t know where to.
One day in 2003, while driving up the freeway, they saw a sign to Morisset. They took the turn, having never been there. Hooworth warmed to Morisset’s look of being a town, because “I’ve always had this huge fear of living in a never-ending suburb”.
They found a small cottage that had a “really nice vibe” and potential – meaning, it had room for Hooworth to build a studio. They bought the house; and that was before Judy Hooworth went for a walk and found Dora Creek just a couple of minutes from her new home on the fringe of Morisset.
“I became really entranced with it,” she recalls. “I could go down every day and it would be different. And it seemed to reflect how I was feeling.”
Long before she discovered the creek as a source of inspiration, Judy Hooworth had become a renowned quilt-maker and textile artist. Born and raised in Sydney, Hooworth always wanted to be an artist or an actor.
At just 15, she was accepted into the National Art School. She stayed four years but didn’t quite finish the course. However, “when I look back on the training I had in those years, it set me up for everything I’ve done since”. Hooworth pursued her art when she married and had children.
“But I found it really difficult to paint when the kids were around,” she explains. “Working with fabric was really easy. And I found out once I got into it, I found it so absorbing, and I like the tactility of it. I liked what you could do with it.”
Quilting is usually associated with home, particularly bed covers. An intricately patterned quilt can represent insularity. But Judy saw quilting as something that could broaden her horizons. She turned traditional patterns into something contemporary. Or, as she puts it, “a lot of, ‘What if I do this? What if I do that?’.”
People loved how Hooworth sought answers in fabric to those questions. She had a quilting business with a friend, she taught, and she exhibited. From the mid-1990s, in an artistic variation of “coals to Newcastle”, Hooworth was invited to exhibit in major shows in the United States, as well as in Britain and Europe. She was published in international quilt books and has written three of her own.
So by the time she and Richard discovered Morisset and Dora Creek, Judy Hooworth was a respected name in the quilting world. Life and art were going well. Then it unravelled, when Richard Hooworth died in 2009.
“It had an enormous effect on me. I’d lost my mother eight weeks before he died, so I think it was a double whammy,” she recalls.
Hooworth threaded her grief through her work. She created a series of 32 quilts for a major exhibition in Britain. The series was called Black Water. They are beautiful, mesmerising works, but plopping onto the fabric, and bubbling up from the depths, is raw emotion.
“I found what was coming out was this really dark, very graphic, angry stuff,” she says. “We’d been married a long time. We’d just got to the stage in our lives where it was really good, and he was happy, and we liked living here. Everything was good. Then, suddenly, it ended. So I was angry.”
To help accept an ending, Hooworth sought beginnings. She joined a local poetry-writing group, she travelled widely, finding inspiration in ancient cultures such as in Uzbekistan. But she would always return home, back to her studio stacked with thousands of pieces of fabric, and to the creek with its bottomless reservoir of ideas.
Hooworth would walk its banks, photographing and observing, particularly the bird life – “I’ve seen 32 different species”. She would walk home, sketch and write about what she had seen, then plan, plot and create. If quilts equal comfort, then the creek has been Judy Hooworth’s quilt.
Yet lately, Hooworth has been ruffled by observing her beloved creek being changed. She particularly doesn’t like the way the vegetation along the bank has been cut back – “there’s a lot of gentrification now”. As a result, she considers her quilts to be documents recording what is being lost. Still, that discomfort is helping push the artist to think about venturing beyond the creek.
“I could go on making quilts about Dora Creek for another 10 years, but I just feel I’d like to do something more,” she explains.
But Hooworth adds the creek will remain in one shape or another. In November, she will have an exhibition at Timeless Textiles in Newcastle called Down the Creek.
For the creek, she says, is “just an integral part of living here”.
CHANGE, as Judy Hooworth well knows, is not just integral to art but a part of life. She has just turned 70. Indeed, she and her twin sister are still celebrating the milestone with a string of parties and events.
“I’ve felt like I’ve been transitioning,” she says, explaining that feeling has also been feeding her desire for “making different sorts of quilts”. While the artist has “other ideas circulating”, she is not sure how that will translate onto the fabric. And Judy Hooworth finds that exciting.
For to her, quilting is not something you do to pass time later in life; rather, it helps you affirm life. So with her needles, textiles and imagination, Judy Hooworth will continue to create and explore.
“I don’t want to grow old boring,” she says. “I just want to keep working in the studio until I drop. I want to keep doing this!”