Nathalia artist’s scent of place and time

By John Lewis

Who doesn’t love the smell of freshly cut grass? Or that particular scent of the dry earth just after a cloudburst? Or the tang of the ocean from a clifftop?

John Lewis spoke to Nathalia artist Kristen Retallick, who has harnessed the primeval power of scent to evoke memory and nostalgia in her most recent artwork.

For her latest exhibition Sensing Place, Kristen has converted a small caravan to create a space for memory with nothing more than scent, small rocks and a few images.

Step inside Kristen’s caravan and the smell of native grass tinged with bush gums and river water magically wafts through the air, evoking somewhere just on the edge of memory — perhaps a childhood fragment or a forgotten holiday.

Sounds of the bush — cockatoos, insects and flowing water — created by her sister Sara float past.

Kristen Retallick, 38, at home with her two children - Meabh, 3, and Darcy, 5, Redmond.

The scents come from a wall cabinet with a single glass phial, a vapour diffuser in a corner and some round clay stones infused with perfume on a small table.

On the walls are paintings of desert landscapes and printed notices with information about something called petrichor — the earthy aroma produced when rain falls on dry soil — and how scent is linked to primitive animal and human behaviour around birth and feeding.

“My strongest memories come from places along the Murray River like Ulupna Creek and the waterways around here,” Kristen says.

“I spent a lot of time camping there with my family and friends when I was younger — and those places have remained in my thoughts.”

Kristen Retallick's caravan and artworks were exhibited at the 2020 Shepparton Festival's Dookie quarry event earlier this month.

She also has a strong childhood memory of waiting for her mother to finish her game of softball.

“I was in a shed which was used to store Ducat’s orange juice and I could drink as much as I wanted. The memory of opening that soft fluffy cardboard and tasting and smelling it soaked in orange juice is still really strong.”

Kristen, 38, grew up on her parents’ property at Katunga and went to Numurkah Secondary College before heading to Ballarat to gain a BA in Graphic Design at Federation University.

She went on to spend time in central Australia to become inspired by the desert landscape and indigenous art practices.

She also travelled to Europe and the United Kingdom where she discovered her Cornish roots before heading back to Melbourne to study for a Masters Diploma in Education at University of Melbourne. For five years she taught art and visual communications at Wheelers Hill Secondary College.

Kristen Retallick's prints are influenced by the landscape she experienced in the Northern Territory.

The birth of her first child, Darcy, five years ago prompted a return to her northern Victoria home.

Kristen is now curator at Nathalia’s The G.R.A.I.N. Store gallery, operated by renowned arts mentors Bill and Veronica Kelly.

“When I left the area I thought ‘there’s nothing here for me’.

“It took me 20 years to come back and discover that things have changed — there’s now a whole lot of interesting things happening in the arts.”

When Shepparton Festival creative director Jamie Lea asked Kristen to respond to this year’s theme ‘Evolve’, the result was Sensing Place and the caravan.

As well as traditional two-dimensional artwork, Kristen Retallick's caravan contains scents and diffusers, and a soundscape to evoke memories.

She worked with perfumer Rebecca Young, who distilled oils from local native grasses and eucalypts to create a distinct sense of place. Among the oils are hints of patchouli, oakmoss, violet leaf, tomato leaf and white cypress leaf — local to Shepparton.

“I hope when people come in here they have an instant feeling of nostalgia and memory of specific experiences,” Kristen says.

“Scent is so powerful — babies find breast milk through smell, animals sense danger through smell and although it’s not proven, smaller animals are believed to use smell to find water after rain.”

Kristen’s scent-filled caravan was open at the launch of the Shepparton Festival earlier this month and at the Dookie quarry choir event. She asked people to write down their responses and said she received really positive feedback.

Kristen Retallick's paintings from her 'Returning to Land' series in 2019 were about the Murray River landscape, but used her desert experience to illustrate an emptiness we may end up with if we continue to pillage the land.

She had planned to travel around other 2020 Shepparton Festival events with her caravan and then present a special dining experience linking food and smell — but the coronavirus pandemic put a stop to all that.

“It is disappointing it all had to finish — but I do feel lucky to have been able to present my work twice, which is more than other festival artists were able to do.”

For now, she is hunkering down with her family and in her home studio where many of her ideas come from. She remembers time spent at Yulara near Uluru in central Australia as inspirational.

“It was landscape I'd never experienced before. And it was the first time I experienced the separation between white and black Australia.

“Visually, I couldn't get enough of the colours and how different it all looked to where I come from.

“It was also good to be forced to slow things down. You were isolated and couldn't just go out and get a loaf of bread. You had to live differently.”

It remains a powerful memory for Kristen; unfortunately, it's now an experience familiar to the whole world.