Bright coloured blobs pulse and surge across the screen. Jamie North watches and imagines his art coming to life. He’s tracking a storm system as it shifts across Lake Macquarie, waiting to see if his sculpture will get watered.
North, who grew up at Caves Beach and now works out of a studio in Sydney, creates industrial-inspired forms and then plants native fauna in their cracks and crevices. There’s a lot of wait-and-see when you make art that’s got to grow to realise the vision.
So, for a sculpture’s first few years of being, North is a bit of a helicopter parent.
“I have an ongoing interest in the care of the work. Every few months I’ll visit the work to see how it’s progressing because it’s always changing in response to the seasons,” he says. “So I’m quite keen to document as the work progresses. I photograph it. And if I know that there’s a storm, then I’ll check the radar and check the rainfall and check what it receives.”
His work Succession, installed at the sculpture garden at Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery last year after showing at the Sydney Biennale, is a cluster of dark totemic columns made of concrete blended with industrial waste. Ficus trees, planted by North, are slowly emerging from the upper reaches.
In an era when it’s on trend to vertical garden up glassy skyscrapers, North’s work speaks the contemporary lingo. But it has roots in things ancestral, recalling the industrial past of Newcastle which attracted North’s paternal great-grandparents to migrate to Australia from the UK.
“It’s always been in my head,” he says. “I spent a lot of time in the bush when I was growing up at Caves Beach, observing natural systems.”
He also developed a fascination with the flipside of that bush world, through his family’s generational connection with the steelworks in Newcastle. The contrast of travelling from Caves Beach to visit his grandmother in Mayfield “right up against the industry” formed an impression that is at the core of his sculpture works.
“It always felt quite mystical, the industry belching out big clouds. I remember at night going to the outside toilet and seeing these huge clouds, illuminated.”
The exploring youngster was fascinated to find slag, the waste product of heavy industry, lying on the ground around his grandmother’s home. When he started sculpting he knew he didn’t wanted to use material that was mined or quarried for the purpose. Rather, he determined to rely as much as possible on reuse materials.
“And I was kind of drawn to ashes and slag as components in a concrete mix from that attraction based in my early recollections,” he says.
North realised supply was a problem. There’s a lot being piled up at industrial sites, but it’s difficult for an artist to get access. “I did a lot of cold-calling, basically,” he says. The first to warm to North’s request was Eraring power station, on the shores of Lake Macquarie. He was allowed in to collect ashes.
Installing his Succession sculpture at Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery, where glorious fig trees attract bridal parties, has brought it to its natural home, to North’s mind. And not just due to the ficus connection.
“The sculptural form speaks to the power stations around there, and the work includes coal ash from the power station,” he says. Though, from a gardener’s perspective, things are “not ideal”, North notes. “It’s quite an extreme growing condition, sustained on concrete.”
But that is part of his point. “It replicates a natural occurrence of ficus growing at height, whether that’s in the bush or in the masonry cracks in buildings. That’s the thing about ficus, it’s very dynamic.”
While he watches expectantly for rain-bearing clouds tracking up the coast, North doesn’t abandon his work to the elements too early on. For the first stages of life there is a “discreet” irrigation system installed. His “insurance of survival” policy.
“Eventually the roots will drop down to find moisture, the roots will start to explore the sculpture. The imagined condition is that the ficus will start to envelope the work.”
As the ficus make their way towards self-fending, North has started work on a sculpture for the City of Newcastle.
The council offered him “about 40” giant blocks to do with as he will, mostly sandstone artefacts excavated during the decommissioning of the city’s rail tracks. That sculpture is due to be unveiled soon in the inner city area.