It could have been Whroo Forest, or Waranga Basin or her Rushworth art studio — but in the end it is Angie Russi’s garden that wins out. JOHN LEWIS finds out more.
It’s a chaotic half-acre of greenery with ferns, agapanthus, emu bush and a crowd of other native and exotic plants and bushes competing for space with ceramic birds and birdpeople, real birds and a beatific stone Buddha.
It is enough to make you want to sit down and take a deep breath.
‘‘My garden is really my sanctuary,’’ Angie says.
‘‘I like surprises in my garden and so I’ve made it into different rooms. I like the idea of discovery and journeying along connected paths.’’
But it was not always like this.
When she bought her house in Rushworth 35 years ago, the backyard was a big, flat, patch of gravel.
Angie arrived with a menagerie of dogs, cats, a billy goat, nanny goat and a horse — then she began to create her garden.
‘‘It was really my farmyard — I’d brought my childhood farm with me,’’ she says.
Angie grew up with her Italian father and English mother on a 80ha sheep and dairy farm at Harston.
She remembers being surrounded by wildness, animals and the cycle of the seasons.
‘‘I spent a lot of my childhood looking at birds,’’ she says.
‘‘My father was a bio-dynamic farmer — who very much operated with nature.
‘‘There was a swamp with birds and frogs, enormous flocks of ibises and banded teals and you could hear the rails nesting at night.’’
Her voice softens.
‘‘You don’t see that any more,’’ she says.
Birds have become permanent obsessions in Angie’s art — and in her garden.
She can rattle off their names and calls and habits with ease.
For the past few years she has lived with five guinea fowl who wander freely around her jungle garden.
She said her then-husband arrived with the exotic birds in his car after a photographic assignment for Grass Roots Magazine.
‘‘I became enthralled by the patterns in their feathers. I didn’t intend for them to make their home here — but they’re still here,’’ she says.
Her fascination with the bug-eating spotted African birds goes a long way back.
‘‘Many years ago — when I was eight years old I was invited to a birthday party for one of my friends on another Harston farm,’’ she says.
‘‘There was a flock of about 50 or 60 guinea fowl in the paddock over the fence and when they moved they looked like one organism.
‘‘ I was totally transfixed by them. I was craning my neck over the fence to see them. People were telling me to go and join my friends — but I spent the whole party watching these birds.’’
Today the guinea fowl follow Angie around her garden and keep her company in her ceramic studio where ceramic versions of them have become her signature pieces.
Angie is lucky enough to spend two days a week in her studio creating ceramic art.
For the rest of the week she manages the increasingly successful Kaiela Arts indigenous gallery in central Shepparton.
Her connection to indigenous culture also began on her family farm in Harston.
‘‘We had shearers who would come every year — from the Atkinson and Briggs mob,’’ she says.
‘‘My job was to bring them morning tea and they would sit me on their knee and tell me a story.’’
Today she helps nurture indigenous artists from across the region and has helped exhibit their work in Melbourne and Darwin.
But her garden and the outdoors are always beckoning.
‘‘Being attached to a chair in an office is not my natural habitat — but it’s what makes the wheels turn I suppose,’’ she says.
Waranga Basin is another favourite great escape.
‘‘It has so many different moods. Sometimes you could think it was an ocean bay. On the hot days I go there and throw myself in the water — it has bays and coves and lots of birdlife,’’ she says.
‘‘It has its own specific seagull, which breeds and lives just on Waranga Basin,’’ Angie says insistently as she sees my eyebrows rise in surprise.
‘‘It’s true. There’s an island that gets exposed when the water drops — it’s called Seagull Island.’’
Birds are an eternally fascinating theme for Angie.
‘‘They’re amazing — they’re like really well-groomed little people,’’ she says.
‘‘They’re well dressed and stylish, they make beautiful nests and they sing.
‘‘They’ve been a central part of so many cultures since ancient times. They’re go-betweens. They live like messengers between the earth and the heavens.’’
Back in the garden, Angie sits next to an earthbound smiling stone Buddha brought from Asia years ago.
‘‘I give him a pat and a smile when I pass. My philosophy is that everything is living,’’ she says.
‘‘I planted my garden to be a jungle, I’m not a zealot about what types of plants I grow — whether they are native or not.
‘‘Whatever grows in Rushworth is a bonus,’’ Angie laughs the laugh of a raucous bird.
And her birds laugh along with her.