Beauty for Ashes

Beauty for ashes – a strange title.

I see beauty but where are the ashes? The ashes are not on the wall – or in the work, but all around us. In our lives, on our TVs and in our memories. As humans we carry images at an emotional level. We interact with everything emotionally. This is true of your response emotionally to this work. Wow, it is beautiful.

Oil painting of a rainforest with sunlight streaming in lighting the pond in the creek golden.
Beauty for Ashes: Figures in Landscape No.5

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But this also is a human paradigm. While many birds and animals visit me at my painting sites, none of them come , stop , wonder and in their unique heads say wow, that is beautiful. For them the thought is: where is the danger and where is the food? It is only humans that climb mountains for the view, and take time out at the river to soak in the view.

So what of death and the ugly?

In the natural world, if you will allow a division between human and natural, there is a constancy of the cycle of life. Even this painting captures decay, death in the trees. Mosses and fungi live on the decay. Zoom in and I’m sure you will also see this at the macro and micro levels. As I write this we are again thrust into the horrors of war – specifically Ukraine this time. As humans we react to our own created horrors. Then wash out hands of it – passing the blame to others.

Progress painting of Beauty for Ashes

What is Beautiful?

The idea or understanding of the beautiful is an imbedded human characteristic. It is linked intimately with the other unique human characteristic creativity. It can be more precisely understood by the term aesthetic. Recent studies have shown that the aesthetic is imbedded in our genetics and incidentally has no survival value that can be attributed to in an evolutionary sense.

Aesthetics also allows us to appreciate the ugly, the chaotic and amazing moments in life.

Beauty is culturally shaped, but cultural shaping itself is an expression of this core aesthetic.

Beauty doesn’t need or have to be realistic. Abstraction also feeds this need for the aesthetic. Simplifying and reducing the complex with reductionism.

We collect beautiful things as a counterpoint to the ugly. Its why we have design. Why we appreciate a beautifully designed car, or a simple vase.


The contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton, looked at beauty as portrayed in Western art history. He attributes the purpose and function of the beautiful in art is to bring hope.

We don’t want the ugly on our walls, nor the death. While I personally love Goya’s Third of May I would not have it on lounge room wall. It remains poignant as an art work to this day. But this paintings place is rightly in the museum as a national monument to a troubled past. A memorial and a reminder.

Francisco de Goya – The Third of May 1808 – The Prado Madrid (public domain)

Beauty is the counter point to the terror as it brings hope for tomorrow. A better tomorrow. A tomorrow of peace. Again it is only humans that hope. We think ahead and plan for a better tomorrow. Without hope and a future we can only despair.


There is an ancient Text called Lamentations. It was written, approx. 600 BC, in the midst of a city that had been reduced to ashes, not unlike the city of Mariupol is right now in Ukraine. The author sitting in the ashes and ruins of his home and pours out his heart, anger and grief.

Let me quote from the beginning and end of the text.

Oh, how lonely she sits,

the city once thronged with people,

as if suddenly widowed.

Though once great among the nations,

she, the princess among provinces,

is now reduced to vassalage.

She passes her nights weeping:

the tears run down her cheeks.

Not one of all her lovers

remains to comfort her.

Her friends have all betrayed her

and become her enemies.

Lamentations 1:1-2 Jerusalem Bible Translation

Joy has vanished from out hearts;

our dancing has been turned to mourning.

The garland has vanished from our heads.

because Mount Zion is desolate:

jackals roam to and fro on it.

But you Yahweh, you remain for ever;

your throne endures from age to age.

You cannot mean to forget us for ever?

You cannot mean to abandon us for good?

Lamentations 5:15-20 Jerusalem Bible Translation

In the poem, in 154 stanzas of devastation and despair ends on a few verses of tentative hope – a grieving plea – do I dare to hope.

Why Beauty for Ashes

Like the hungry thinking of a succulent roast – dreaming of the meal I would have once I get to safety. Hope is the essence of survival. So visually we also need images of hope. It’s why we love the sunset splashed with colours, night has come but there will be dawn.

The answer to these lamentations comes in the words of the prophet in next book of the Bible, written in exile after the total defeat of this nation. Yahweh will not forget nor abandon them. He will send his Spirit – his very self –

…to comfort all who mourn,

and provide for those who grieve in Zion –

to bestow on them a crown of beauty

instead of ashes,

the oil of joy

instead of mourning,

and a garment of praise

instead of despair.

Isaiah 61:3 The New International translation.

Hope, promise and fulfilment.

I was finishing this painting as the invasion of Ukraine started.

This painting, and for that matter every painting , photo, or memory of something beautiful, has the function of providing hope. Beauty for ashes.

Beauty for Ashes -Oil painting of a rainforest with sunlight streaming in lighting the pond in the creek golden.
Beauty for Ashes: Figures in Landscape No.5

I have been fortunate to sit in this beauty day in and day out. Tasked with laying it down in paint. It is not a photograph but a distillation of all that passed in those hours, days and months of bringing this place to you. In a real way the obverse situation of the poet who sat in the ashes of his city and life. It is distilled hope. It is real beauty – I can tell you it is not faked, but seen and felt. But then it is only a mere shadow of the beauty I saw unfold before me. It is still a painting.

The name for the painting came as people responded to seeing the painting on social media. The overwhelming response was – It is beautiful. So I give you beauty for ashes – hope for despair.

Remember Ukraine

Before I leave in the morning and when I return at night my screens are also filled with the ashes of the cities of Ukraine. This rainforest has been my hope and sanity. Yes, I do have flesh and blood in the situation. My precious daughter and family live in a city in southern Poland doing the frontline work of receiving and providing for refugees.

There is only one painting – and it is still available for sale, but I want to give you the opportunity of being able to download the image in high quality to go on your computer screens as a desktop image.

When you do please remember the Ukraine, in prayers, donations and help as you are able. And remember to immerse yourself in beauty as it brings hope.

Please follow this link to this painting’s page in my gallery. Scroll to the bottom of the page for the download link and directions for installing.

Terra Populous

Terra Populous explained

Speech given by myself as a part of the formal story telling time during the Terra Populous event held at Poatina on the 27th January 2019. Terra Populous is a collaborative event between the Village of Poatina and local First Nations Elders to reframe traditional Australia Day celebrations that were a part of the village of Poatina’s traditions.

Terra Populous day 2019
Terra Populous Day – Poatina 2019

Using the termTerra Populous acknowledges the fact that Australia was populated with many people before colonization by the British. It also acknowledges that many nations had sovereign rights which were ignored and deliberately made null and void but the use of the term Terra Nullus – land of no people. The people who populated this continent where given the descriptor aboriginal – a term used for all indigenous people globally. By lumping the people into one name this also took away the claims of the many nations that occupied this continent now called Australia. It is estimated that over 800 language groups existed on this continent at the time of settlement. Thus we can conclude 800 plus nations. For this reason I both use the term: First Nations and name the individual Nations of peoples I have lived among as mentioned in this story.

I also warn that the names of First Nations peoples who may have died are referred to in this story. I do this for they are real people whose are lives I crossed. For the same reason I have not sought to change names but use them with all respect.

My Story

I am Russell McKane of Clan McKean of Ardnamurchan, driven from our land in the Scottish clearances and forced to settle in Northern Ireland. In doing so displaced the local Irish that led to a centuries long conflict still bearing fresh wounds. I was not there but it has shaped who I am.

Tartan McKian of Ardnumerkan

The kilt my Dad and I made

Tartan is the McKean of Ardnamurchan.

I was married in this kilt.

I am a descendant of a third fleet convict Samuel Craft, who settled in the Hawkesbury, who was deported for an injustice, ripped from his own family and friends. Granted land he took over generations long yam farms to grow English crops. He was no doubt was involved in the ‘dispersion’ (read massacres) of local people groups. Samuel was the first white person to be rescued in a natural disaster on this continent. I was not there but I have shared in his inheritance, and it has shaped me.

I am a descendant of Irish orphan Bridget Hartigan, who was bought to Australia to populate the vast land with like for like. Ireland had enough potatoes to feed its people during the famous potato famine. But its wealth class just exported them and left the locals to starve. Another injustice that has shaped my history and who I am.

Irish Orphans Australia

Memorial to Irish orphans Sydney Barracks – Photo 2001 with our daughter Kirsty.

Early years

Born in Western Australia in the desert Town of Merridin, on the land of the Njaki Njaki Nyoongar nation. The first-born son of a minister in training.

Mum and Dad met and married in Alice Springs. Mum was court stenographer for one of Albert Namatjira’s trials. He signed a slip of paper for mum, we have it still. Mum was passionate about the injustice served in this case. Mum and dad also ran a little shop out of their lounge room for the people of Ernabella part of the Pitjantjatjara nation. It was possibly one of the very first indigenous art stores serving local people. It has shaped me and I am proud.

My first memory was of my first cup of tea. Seated in a circle at the back of a country hall near Esperance WA. Seated in a large circle of indigenous girls. I must have been aged 3. I had never been allowed to drink tea, Mum was inside, I was offered, I said yes, and enjoyed the sweet milky warmness. Sharing in this illicit act I did not know that the girls drinking with me were the stolen generation. They were being given a holiday at a mission run holiday camp. Tea is my blood.

Wave Rock, also known as Katter Kich by the Noongar Nation

My sister and I at Katter Kitch then known as Wave Rock a.1963, Land of the the Noongar Nation. Near where we lived at Kondinin WA.

Ignorance was grown.

When eight in the town of Narrogin WA, land of the Gnaala Karla Boodja Noongar Nations. There were some aboriginal boys in my class who played together on the oval, ostracized by the other kids. They came from the reserve. I asked mum what was the reserve? Mum with panicked tone simply said I shouldn’t play with them. Puzzled I figured it was something bad. I didn’t know that the reserves were that eras equivalent to our refugee camps, people herded together to be controlled.

I get Educated

Fifteen years later the small town of Dareton, NSW was my next point of contact. Home of the Barkindji, Barindji and Kureindji nations. I had become an artist and an educator. It was my first teaching job. Here slowly over three years I truly came to see and know discrimination and racism in action. This was a fringe dweller town. I did not know how at least 50 of my students lived, until the morning the health inspector ordered in the bulldozers to knock down their shanty dwellings and instantly 50 of my students were homeless. I vowed to be less ignorant. The incident features in the fourth episode of the TV series Women of the Sun.

My painting of river Gums at Dareton NSW
River Gums at Dareton NSW (my painting)

Over time the indigenous kids felt safe in my art room. One Monday morning I heard the Tailor twins talking in excited and hushed tones about the bones at the Perry Sandhills near Wentworth. I stopped and listened, stunned then asked.

The Massacres have contemporary impacts

They told me they had been taken by their grandmother to see the site of the massacre, over 200 people they said, bones, human bones lying bleached in the sun. Their Grandmother was there at the time, a little girl, who had escaped. I calculated it must have been in the 1930s. It remains unrecorded. These boys were truth tellers of oral history.

Some months later their father was dead. Killed due to racially motivated criminal medical neglect. I could use harsher terms. At this time, I learn what our First Nations people mean by sorry. Not a white man’s sorry, the glib excuse given to mum to avoid a smack. No sorry of the soul, lamentations strong sorry. This is the sorry I mean when I say, in this context I am sorry. This is not an old ancient scar of injustice this is a now pain, and present.

At this time I married Suzanne and am now proud father of three children and 4 wonderful Grandchildren , the youngest just 4 days old. But in the next part of my story I have gained a much bigger family.

My Skin

I am Jakamarra of the Evelyn mob of the Walpiri Nation, named because of relationship, welcomed into the Yuendumu community, given a place, and included in community.

Yuendumu park 1990's
Terra Populous
Yuendumu Park 1990’s

My skin name was because my sister worked there, my place in the nation because I was a teacher at Mount Evelyn Christian School. MECS was the first non-indigenous school in Australia to teach an indigenous language. MECS students have travelled in a pilgrimage each year and as a result I sat on the veranda and talked with old man Jumpajimpa Darby who was the last known survivor of the last recorded massacre at Colliston NT in 1930. Capstone College would not exist as it is without the vision and training I received at Mount Evelyn. I have not even begun to plumb the depths that being Jakamarra means.

I am proud to have designed and taught indigenous study units to many young people and helped them to understand their heritage. This includes the now indigenous lawyer who was the liberal candidate for Sydney. (Geoffrey Winters) He is very thankful for my teaching.

Yolngu Nations

In 2014 we lived in the land of the Yolngu peoples, A group of 17 nations on the northeastern tip of the Northern Territory. There Miriki, a fellow principal, showed me her tree. The one she planted as a young girl with her father in the grounds of the school at Yirrkala where she was then principal, A proud bilingual school where for the students English is a fourth or fifth language. Then I saw her silent and deep pain as I sat with her in a meeting where the then government announced closing the senior secondary part of her school, and to take away its bilingual status. To force English on students all because NAPLAN results did not bear testament to nor test the cultural richness these students had in their own languages.

Miriki's Tree Yirrkala School grounds

Miriki’s Tree -Yirrkala School grounds 2014

A Place of Shelter

This was only five years ago. I did not get see it play out. But found myself here, in Poatina, A place of Shelter. It is home now for Suzanne and I. We came as artists in residence, and stayed to start a school. In seeking to know this place and paint its trees I found myself walking among ancient Cider Gums, ancestors of the big river nation. These gums represent a rich cultural history of this place in Tasmania as a place of meeting, of festival exchange and celebrations; A place of the meeting of the First Nations of this land; A place of Terra Populous. I have walked that place with Aunty Patsy here and continue to learn at the feet of the elders.  

Even though older myself; I am still so ignorant of the richness that we all have inherited because we call Australia home. Because I have lived in 5 of the seven states and territories, I no longer feel State divides and jealousies. I am where I live. This is my land. Australia is my home. Tasmania is my home. I am Tasmanian, I am Australian.

One thing I have learned. Deeply learned.

We are one people of many nations and one nation of many peoples. We are and always have been Terra Populus, this is my story, my people, my place, and I am proud.


Mega Poatina tree drawing
Drawing – 8 sides to the Poatina Tree

‘Tree’ the name rings out across the dust desert playground of Bankstown Boys High. I turn around. Everyone knows me as tree. Sometimes nick names do more than stick. Trees have become my artistic life.

Why would I spend fifty hours passionately drawing this tree. Foolhardy I said to myself many times in the process. At the end I had RSI in the right elbow – restricting me for six months. You could call me an arborphile. I am passionate about trees and want to paint just about any tree given time in it’s company.


The Nick Name – Tree

I had moved to the city – Western Sydney – Bankstown. It was a big shock moving from the small country town of Coolamon. In Coolamon we had a very active Scout troop. It was tough competition with strong boys. I was known as one of the weakest. In fact I had been bullied quite a lot in the town. Thankfully not at scouts. British bulldogs was a popular game. Physical and rough as the idea was to make it from one side of the hall to the other without getting rugby tackled to the hard wooden floor on the way. One bit of advise ‘Skip’ gave was – if the guy was big tackle them low like a spitfire taking down a bomber.

Fast forward. My first night with my new troop. Third Bankstown. I knew no one. Game time and British Bulldogs came up. There was one big bruiser in the group. My heart sank – now they get to find out I’m a wimp.

The new guy

I got to be in the middle. I was the new guy. “British bulldogs come on through!” this was the challenge -The outcome was not as I had imagined. Well I bought them down with ease. One after the other. Early on I got the big guy. And again and again. Finally in frustration he called me Tree. – “Your tree! I’m going to call you tree from now on.”

Puzzled I asked why? The answer was rather comic. “Because you have branches everywhere.” At the time the Commonwealth Bank had a series of ads by comics Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. The banks was compared to a tree because it had branches everywhere. Every one laughed and from that moment I was Tree. The next day at School everyone was calling me tree. Wow it spread fast.

I learnt something else that night. I might have been the weakest in a bunch of strong guys but I had actually learnt to play the game well. In this new bunch I was respected instantly. Reputations are often made in an instance. Respect made it to the playground along with the nickname. And to my relief I was no longer bullied.


Trees in my art

As told in my story It started with a $2 paint set, 18 months earlier I had started painting and my early successes were with drawing and painting trees. But I mainly did general landscapes. Trees were present but often – as I did these from photographs, they were the design element to the left or right of the picture. Not the subject. In fact I particularly enjoyed painting the mountains and gorges of Central Australia.

Co-incidentally I started painting plein air on family holidays. First on our Queensland trip to Lamington National park. Then in South Australia’s alligator Gorge. Then finally on a trips to the Northern Territory – as my parents had moved to Alice. It was on these trips that I started to make observations about trees and they began to feature in my work.

Break through.

My first posting was at the last high school in the far west of NSW, Coomealla High. I was at heart a bush boy. I was Born in the wheat belt of Western Australia, in a heat wave. The bush did not worry me but the change of pace did. I was bored, trying to get my bearings in this small town. Just out of art school, I was wanting to get the lay of the land.

This led me to journeying out into the desert for drawing and painting ideas. One of my favourite locations was only a few kilometers from town. Fletchers Lake was a salt lake, and on it’s shore were myriads of dead things encrusted in the salt. I began a number of photographic documentary journeys on this lake.

Lunch under some trees

One day on a trip to Fletchers I saw patch of Mallee box trees. Thinking that this would be a perfect spot to get out of the sun and have lunch, I walked over to them. They turned out to be very old and gnarly Mallee Box trees with some wonderful forms.

Luncheon on the grass, About the inspiration for Russell's Art direction.
Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe inspired my figures in Landscape No.1 1980

As I had my break, my luncheon in this shade of the desert, these three trees reminded me of the Manets painting. Although flipped the trees take similar posture. I came to understand that in the Australian landscape we see trees from underneath their life giving canopies, not as a ornament to pastoral vista. Thus they populate the landscape with their immovable presence. Trees are sculptural three dimensional created living beings who know and survive and thrive in their environment. So my Figures and Figure in Landscape series began: In 1980 in the desert.

I came back and did drawings and then I did two unusual things. First I didn’t start small. No! 5 x 4 feet in size it was a studio work and I didn’t use a pallet knife. I think I wanted it to last so for the first time I decided to use brushes. The painting was company for me in the lonely evenings. I particularly liked painting late at night with the Ashes series broadcast from England for background noise.

The tree portrait

A trip on a house boat led me to my second big painting. We were moored to the Murray river bank at Boundary bend – out of Mildura. I had my drawing pastels with me. The view of the tree from on the river was spectacular.

It was my second year of teaching at ‘Coomey’ and I decided to provide some extra studio time for my art students in a weekly after school session. I needed something to do artistically. So working from my sketch I went big again.

Single tree in portrait style
Figure in Landscape No. 1 1981 4 x 4.6 feet

It is perhaps here that my photographic series work began to influence my painting. I decided that single trees would be painted in portrait style. But I also determined to establish some rules. Single trees would be placed central on the canvas as one would a portrait. I was already seeing trees as a human metaphor or presence in the landscape from my Dejeuner sur l’herbe painting. A further rule was that I keep the figures paintings front, as though sitting under the shade, but looking through to an open sky. But the singular figure would be with vertical background, as the bank above provided. This gave them a more studio portrait feel.

The Tree patterns were set.

My next painting was 6ft by 3ft. I had learnt something valuable – make sure the picture could be transported in the car. It was with the next one I began painting on site. I even made an easel to lug with it. It was the first brush painting I had taken plein air. Although it was a combination of on location and studio work.

Figures No 2
Figures in Landscape No. 2 1982

Unbeknown to me at the time the die had been caste. From this moment on I would only paint trees, (with two exceptions). Trees became my artistic driver. I had found both my style and my reason to paint. Forty years later I am still passionate about painting trees. I guess the nickname really stuck.