There’s something about Steve Baird’s artwork that captures your heart and makes you want to know more. This Australian artist has had a lifelong love of painting, and in his latest works titled ‘Horse Myths’ he takes us into the mysterious world of mare, The Fair Maid of Perth.
I was born to an artistic family that valued experiencing the Australian landscape and historical narratives, as adventurers, discoverers and recorders. I developed an early interest in a bigger view of the world around me.
University study and city life confirmed my passion for getting out into the natural world, and formal education was abandoned for a life of knocking about the bush, as a carpenter, builder, designer, horseman, writer and artist, forever restless and looking for new horizons. Along the way I developed a lifelong habit of recording my observations and adventures in journals.
My images and ideas have their genesis in the natural world. Observing and recording the lie of the land, the lines and marks of place, as drawings and colour sketches in watercolour, gouache, pastels and inks.
I use photographs to capture the textures, colours and line of places and features while the stories and sense of place are recorded in words. These complex snap shots are recorded in travel diaries, raw, live documents of place.
Back in the studio, I write the subject on the walls in words, with photos and drawings scattered about to bring the “sense of place” to the easel. Studies for paintings are created mostly in pastel on paper where design and colour can be explored and ideas tried out.
Mostly working in acrylic paints on board or canvas, I build up grounds of colour and texture to lay down the land. The features of the landscape then populate this ground with paint, scoured line, drawn line, sometimes text and texture to create the place.
Buried in the layers may be natural formations, images of cultural marks on the land and stories of human interaction.
In my Horse Myths project, horses associated with well-known Australian historical narratives become the principal characters, immersed in the landscape of their misadventures.
The people are stripped from the images, and using the historical sketches of the day as motifs, the horses and the landscape enrich each other.
My artistic practice is driven by a passion for storytelling, of landscape giving context to events, and narrative enriching landscape.
In 1874 horse ‘The Fair Maid of Perth’ mysteriously disappeared in the Australian outback while on expedition with explorer Ernest Giles. The horse was never found and this series by Steve Baird titled ‘Horse Myths’ is a tribute to the mare.
The scenes depicted or alluded to in most of the paintings following are of various places in Central Australia and the Western Deserts, as first described by explorer Ernest Giles on his 2nd expeditionary attempt to cross the Australian continent from the settled areas along the overland telegraph to the Gascoyne region in Western Australia in 1873-4.
This region is the traditional country of the Australian Aboriginal Anangu, Pitjantjatjara, Yankunyjatjarra and Gaanyatjarra people’s.
In this ‘Horse Myths’ series, the focus is on Ernest Giles’ horse, a mare named, ‘The Fair Maid of Perth’. The mare disappeared in the Australian Gibson Desert in 1874 in mysterious circumstances and is the subject of these paintings.
Gregory Patent Compass
In 1873 Ernest Giles expedition was in dire trouble. He instructed off-sider Alfred Gibson to take horses (The Fair Maid of Perth) and his beloved Gregory Patent Compass, and return to the depot to raise a relief party. Gibson, The Fair Maid, and Compass were never seen again.
The misadventures of Ernest Giles and the ‘Fair Maid of Perth’ was, for these Aboriginal people, their first contact with ‘white fellas’ and what would become a cataclysmic shift in their relationship with country, their culture and the wider world.
There were clashes, violent exchanges and blood on the sand. Important waters and places of great cultural significance were despoiled.
The mystery of what happened to The Fair Maid of Perth pales into insignificance against the human tragedies that followed. I have been privileged to be able to visit these places as a guest of the Custodians of this mostly remote and special country and acknowledge their generosity and vast connection to their traditional country.
Ernest Giles was a man of his times and his writings are overtly descriptive and wash the whole experience of landscape in a romantic and adventurous way.
Many places are given names suggesting a European acardia and his sketches often depict features far grander and monumental than reality. This has informed the form and palette of my landscapes.
I have used the icon of the Fair Maid of Perth to populate the landscape with a visitor, an observer, to mark a time of change.
Up To Their Eyes In Feed
When Giles returned to the area a few years later, he came across a little lake with water in it. He named it Tommy’s Flat. Giles imagined that perhaps The Fair Maid of Perth had found her way there and regained her strength and condition.
The FMOP stencil is based on the only recorded image of the actual mare, as depicted in illustration 27 “The first view of the Alfred and Marie Range” in Giles’ book Australia Twice Traversed – the Romance of Exploration. In these works I have placed her in the landscape of her misadventures, wherever Giles mentions her in his book.
The FMOP stencil I cut out on the tray of Toyota Landcruiser somewhere down the Canning Stock Route and started leaving spray stencils in the sands of the Gibson Desert, where the image would blow away and disappear, leaving no trace and inviting conjecture and myth making.
FMOP has bolted a few times since and stencils have showed up in street art, and as photo bombs in exhibitions around town and eventually in these works.