This year’s Heysen Prize winner honours a man who came to Australia illegally in the 1920s and planted a celebrated rose garden in the Riverland, which was admired by many and won awards.
The work Fritz and the Rose Garden is by local textile artist Sera Waters whose grandfather, Fritz, is the gardener in question.
“My main vision of him has come from a hand-coloured black and white photograph picturing him with a dog sitting in his rose garden,” Waters says. “We used to ask about the photograph as children but it has only been as an adult (and more recently) that I have come to realise the immensity of what he did and what that photo represented; jumping ship as a young man to build a life in a country where he had no family and no real connections, and to pour his energies into a rose garden, even before he had a home. In many ways I researched his life and this garden, and made this work, to try to understand his motivations more.”
Fritz and the Rose Garden is the largest piece Waters has made to date and to create it she had to let go of her “control and tendency towards perfectionism”.
“There was a letting go and giving over to the will of the materials,” says the Adelaide Central School of Art lecturer and University of South Australia PhD candidate. “Made of braided rags, stitched into a rag rug, mixed with felt and laborious needlepoint areas, meant that it was pieced together from segments and did not take shape until the final construction stage. While there is an element of risk in working this way I also find working beyond my ability to plan or control is exciting and rewarding.”
Sera Waters, Fritz and the Rose Garden (2016)
Waters, who also has work in the current Art Gallery of South Australia trench art-inspired exhibition Sappers and Shrapnel, says she believes all migrant stories are important and her grandfather’s is “one amongst millions in this country”.
“Through my art practice I delve into the fascinating (sometimes perplexing or troubling) stories from my family history, but my family history is no more special or significant than any other – all families have tales worth telling when one starts digging, and the majority of Australian family histories begin with migration. But you could see Fritz’s migration story as encapsulating the motivation and outcomes shared by many migrants; he came because he was escaping growing unrest, he contributed to his community in the Riverland, he had a family, he was caring, clever and literate, and he became fiercely and proudly Australian.”
Waters says it was an honour to be selected as a finalist for the biennial art prize, as “2016 was more competitive than it has been to date”.
“And to win, amongst the strong field of artists (many who are friends and colleagues) came as a great surprise – a very welcome one,” she says. “I believe strongly in the arts and arts community of South Australia, so to win a prize linked to the legacy of Hans Heysen means a lot to me.”
Heysen Art Prize for Landscape Exhibtion, installation view
The studio member of Thebarton’s The Incinerator is preparing to hold a major solo exhibition at Hugo Michell Gallery at the end of next year. She says Fritz’s rose garden is no longer around however the garden fence still stands.
“Fortunately the current owner is working to remake the garden despite much of the structural landscaping being lost over the 80 years.”
To Waters, the lost garden represents her grandfather.
“I don’t know if he had a garden in Germany, but it strikes me as unusual that a young man would cross the globe to plant and maintain an award-winning rose garden of his own volition. I can’t help but think this was an antidote to the destruction he had witnessed on his homeland, and a means to plant his roots for a new home in Australia – literally. In this way it is a celebration of home and beauty, specifically an imported European version of beauty, and testament to a hard work, courage and determination.
Yet, I also recognise the garden is out of place, a thirsty garden in a semi-arid land, upon land that was stolen from its original Aboriginal custodians.”
Is Waters commenting on today’s political climate in regard to refugees with the piece?
“I look beyond the contemporary political climate surrounding refugees today. Instead I am concerned with the plight of refugees as people, as individuals who have been forced to seek refuge for the same reasons as my grandfather; a man who came to Australia illegally on a boat because he had no other choice – he had rightly sensed that staying in Germany after WWI was not a safe option. He was given refuge and for that he was very grateful and we continue to be generations on. So from my heritage and my humanity, I say welcome.”
Header image: Sera Waters, Fritz and the Rose Garden (detail.) (2016)