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Ballarat Exhibition Explores Environmental Legacy of the Gold Rush

A current exhibition at the Eureka Centre Ballarat examines the environmental impact of the Victorian Gold Rush.

Overburden, an exhibition of recent drawings by Ballarat artist, Lily Mae Martin, will be on show until 2 August 2020. Overburden addresses the legacy of Gold Rush mining and explores our relationship with, and perception of, the natural world.

Through close observation of the landscape around Ballarat – one of Victoria’s most alluring Gold Rush cities – Lily Mae has uncovered what she describes as evidence of past catastrophic environmental exploitation and destruction caused by mining during the Victorian Gold Rush.

This exhibition is a step outside of the norm for Lily Mae whose art mostly focussed on the human form but she was inspired by the environment around her after a move to the country in 2016.

“I had never really engaged with the natural environment, especially Australia’s unique natural environment and my work usually focussed on figurative and exploring what it means to be a woman,” Lily Mae explained.

“But since living in the country I have been trying to explore the landscape, as well, and it’s been an attention within my own work.”

She added that depicting the environment on canvas had been a progression over a long period of time.

“I will do a body of work exploring the figurative, secretive aspects and then I will do a couple of landscapes and they just never sat anywhere, I guess, so it was good just to have focus on it,” Lily Mae said.

What started as depictions of the Gold Rush era in the Ballarat region became more of a focus on the environment when a friend had remarked that the forest depicted in her drawings looked very young.

“The reason is due to the impact of humans, in particular the Gold Rush,” Lily Mae said.

“I would like people to walk away from the exhibition and consider it part of a bigger conversation, mostly about what we have done to our environment.

“I did the research and went on site with a couple of historians’ over the last year and there are a lot of works that didn’t make the final exhibition because I wasn’t happy with them.”

Through walking and drawing, Lily Mae began to understand how the landscape had become heavily impacted by mining and transformed by earthworks – abandoned mine shafts, mullock heaps, and the abundant evidence of sludge that once clogged water systems.

She also discovered areas where mining had occurred that seemed almost entirely reclaimed by nature.

Eureka Centre Ballarat Manager, Anthony Camm, said through working with contemporary artists, it was possible to explore history from a fresh perspective.

“We know that cities like Ballarat were built on the wealth of the Gold Rush, but through this exhibition Lily Mae has explored the cost of that mining to our environment. She connects this past damage to current concerns about the environment, with reference to climate change,” he said.

Lily Mae has been a professional artist since 2008, after graduation.

“I have always drawn and painted and started to take it more seriously and professionally when I was about 20,” she said.

“I was working at the National Gallery Victoria and I had a very unique opportunity there where I got to meet a lot of the practicing artists for a group show at Fed Square – just going in and visiting their studios – arts admin in very interesting but I wanted to do the art making.”