Cookie and Gavin McDonald with Leonie McKenna at the Arts Central Queensland Inc presentation in Rockhampton
Cookie and Gavin McDonald with Leonie McKenna at the Arts Central Queensland Inc presentation in Rockhampton

Mt Morgan grandmother inspires award-winning essay

THE YEAR is 1993 and Lesley Synge is “transfixed” by one particular painting out of the many on display at the ‘Recollections’ exhibit in Yeppoon’s Mill Gallery.

It evokes, for her, the Mt Morgan of her childhood when, on holidays to her grandmother, Molly Doherty, she would cross the Dee River bridge.

She would check out the mangoes on the neighbours’ trees, and talk to the couple who grew cumquats to sell the jam which kept the local ambulance going.

Mount Morgan (1993) by Dell Nash, detail. Oil on canvas, 677 cmh x 1002 cmw. Purchased 1993 (Lesley Synge's collection).
Mount Morgan (1993) by Dell Nash, detail. Oil on canvas, 677 cmh x 1002 cmw. Purchased 1993 (Lesley Synge's collection).

The bold modernist painting, by Zilzie woman Dell Nash, represents the ‘higgledy-piggledy civilization’ which nurtured the author, a town where she scattered her grandmother’s ashes three years prior.

A hardscrabble town where the locals “(drape) their stories around them, like familiar blankets that are riddled with holes but serve the purpose.”

Ms Synge buys the painting and takes it home with her.

It’s the 1960s and Leonie Nash has stacked her motorbike out along the back roads to Zilzie – the kick start has fallen off. Nestor Svendsen turns up in beat up old truck and gives her a lift to her home which is, in every room, in every direction, packed to the gills with her Mum’s creations.

“Every wall space is filled, and there are four or five paintings in every bedroom,” Leonie (now McKenna) said.

“Dad has constructed a huge, two-bay shed outdoors, half of which is supposed to be his, but that’s a joke, as Mum’s paintings gradually take over all the shed and then the garden.”

Ms McKenna rememberes visitors remarking on the garden which is filled with sea glass and metal locusts.

Come 2020 and Lesley Synge, undertaking a women artists’ biography workshop at the GOMA in Brisbane, suddenly remembers that she made the trip to Dell Nash’s Zilzie home after buying the painting.

2018 winner of the Lorna McDonald Essay Prize, Lesley Synge, took out both first place and highly commended in 2020
2018 winner of the Lorna McDonald Essay Prize, Lesley Synge, took out both first place and highly commended in 2020

She remembers “Dell’s alert pixie-like face” and “a quirky front garden filled with the sea flotsam”. She recalls the “very pleasant” Cliff Nash who provided his wife with “both support and studio, the essentials of personal infrastructure”.

“Dad was very quietly spoken; he was conservative where she was colourful and vibrant,” their daughter said.

Leonie’s husband built a shed too, to house the enormous collection of work Dell Nash left behind after she passed away in 2016.

Ms Synge makes it her personal mission to discover more about the life and work of Dell Nash, an undertaking made more difficult by the restrictions of COVID-19.

She makes phone contact with members such as Carmen Beezley-Drake of the Central Qld Contemporary Artists established in the 1970s. She reads the Morning Bulletin front page feature of 1985 when Nash won the Bundaberg Sugar Company Award. And she traces the recent dearth in interest in regional women artists, condemned by “perceptions of parochialism” to only show and sell their work locally.

The result is a splendid biographical essay which won Synge a highly commended award in this year’s Lorna McDonald competition. (She is also the first-place winner for another piece about a Mt Morgan miner).

As she was unable to attend the presentation, held in Rockhampton in November, Synge reached out to her subject’s daughter Leonie to accept the prize on her behalf. And after so many decades and distance, the two women’s lives at last became intertwined.

The author Lesley Synge at home in 1993 with the Dell Nash Mt Morgan painting which inspired her essay
The author Lesley Synge at home in 1993 with the Dell Nash Mt Morgan painting which inspired her essay

“It was a wonderful, personal tribute,” Ms McKenna said.

“I’m busting to meet her; we have such a similar family with generations of grandparents and great-grandparents working in the gold mining industry up at Mt Morgan.”

“We spoke on the phone for over an hour and she’s still in contact with a lot of people who were in the art world when Mum was making her mark.”

Ms McKenna admits she’s overwhelmed with the sheer bulk of creativity her mother left behind. It’s not just the canvases themselves but journals and colour slides, Morning Bulletin articles and scraps of paper which comprise an archive of Dell Nash’s endeavors.

There’s a shipping container full out at a cousin’s place in Blackall, as well as the various works scattered throughout regional galleries and private collections.

It could have been worse. Much of Nash’s work to 1996 was catalogued by Sue Smith (then Courier Mail art critic, now CQUni’s Art Archivist) for a mid-career retrospective at Rockhampton Art Gallery. It included titles such as Tanby Pineapple Farms, Emu Park Houses and Spirit of Blackdown.

Nash told Smith she hoped the works would awaken “feelings of reverence and protectiveness” towards the ancient Australian landscape.

For her daughter, it’s now a matter of how to keep Dell Nash’s and her contemporaries’ legacy alive.

“My son and I sat down one night and scanned Mum’s acquisition awards and it nearly killed us,” Ms McKenna said.

“Lesley intends to put Mum’s biography on the Design & Art Australia Online website, a research tool for art researchers.”

Ms McKenna prides herself on her loving family and said her nine-year old granddaughter had inherited a “latent artistic talent” for detail and perspective.

Having relished meeting writers and musicians at the Lorna McDonald prize presentation, hosted by Arts CQ Inc, Ms McKenna resolves to “expose myself to more cultural stuff… but we love our laidback coastal lifestyle.”

The 2020 Lorna McDonald Essay Prize was awarded in Rockhampton in November
The 2020 Lorna McDonald Essay Prize was awarded in Rockhampton in November

It is fitting that Dell Nash’s legacy be brought once again to public attention by way of the Lorna McDonald Prize.

Ms McDonald bucked the traditional role of a dutiful stay-at-home minister’s wife to travel widely around Central Queensland, bringing its various characters’ stories back to life.

She was awarded an OAM for writing with her trademark accuracy and integrity.

It remains to be seen whether the Dell Nash collection can be preserved as a testament, not only to its creator, but to women artists in regional Queensland generally.

Nash was careful to leave much of it with family, and her daughter is similarly interested in bequeathing the collection for future generations to see and enjoy.

“May the institutions charged with preserving our heritage renew their understanding and commitment to works created in regional Australia,” wrote Ms Synge in the conclusion to her award-winning essay.

“It’s not too late to ensure that the remarkable flowering of Dell Nash and her contemporaries in Central Queensland are treasured within the communities they sprang from and shared with the wider world.”

Read the 2019 Lorna McDonald prize-winning essay from Nicola Apps, a nostalgic look at young love and loss, here.

Lesley Synge, also the 2020 winner, wrote of her great-grandmother’s experience in surrendering her children to the Neerkol Orphanage in the first-prize essay in 2018. You can read that here.



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