Artist-in-Residence explores Port Arthur’s literary heritage

January 31, 2007


Tasmanian artist Brigita Ozolins is currently Artist-in-Residence at the Port Arthur Historic Site, supported by funding from Arts Tasmania. She will be using the time to develop two projects inspired by the life and work of Henry Savery, Australia’s first novelist.

Savery is buried on the Isle of the Dead at Port Arthur. He was born in Somerset, England, in 1791 and was transported to Van Diemen’s in 1825 for forging bills of exchange. Ironically, he was given work at the Hobart Treasury.

In addition to his largely autobiographical novel, Quintus Servinton (1831), he also wrote Australia’s first collection of short stories, The Hermit in Van Diemen’s Land(1829). The works themselves are not considered to have great literary merit, but are significant because of their unique status as ‘firsts’, their descriptions of the transportation system and their autobiographical nature. Savery was freed in 1832, but on re-offending was sent to Port Arthur, where he died in 1842.

Brigita continues, “My own love of books and writing, which often feature as themes in my art work, has fuelled my interest in Savery. Here is a criminal – a forger – who also loved literature and is in the unique position of being Australia’s first writer of fiction.

“I am intrigued by the ways in which the relationships between fact and fiction, the forged and the real, the copy and the original, relate to Savery’s life as a writer and convicted criminal. I am also interested in the way in which Savery portrays the experience of penal life at Port Arthur in his largely autobiographical novel.”

One of the projects Brigita will undertake during the one-month residency is the creation of an artist’s book based on Savery’s life and novel. She hopes to find a suitable location for displaying the book on site once it is completed.

The second project is the refinement of a reading and writing performance inspired by the site and its relationship to Savery’s novel, to be presented as part of the Port Arthur Project, an exhibition that will feature in the 2007 Ten Days on the Island festival.

Entitled The truth shall make you free, the performance will involve repetitive reading and writing for a number of hours per day in the Separate Prison Chapel. The aim of the performance is to symbolically release Savery from his tragic past through reading out and writing over the pages of his novel, Quintus Servinton.

Brigita says she is very excited about the possibility of spending one month creating art work at one of Australia’s most significant historic sites.

“While Savery may be known to experts in Australian literary history – or to those who happen to have taken the tour to the Isle of the Dead on their visit to Port Arthur – he would be unknown to the general public and the many thousands of other tourists who visit Port Arthur Historic Site annually. I believe that my performance and artists’ book, once completed, would help to make Australia’s humble literary beginnings known to a much wider audience.”

Brigita Ozolins will be in residence at the Port Arthur Historic Site until February 26.

The Port Arthur Project will be on display at the Site between March 16 – April 11. For more information, visit the Ten Days on the Island website.

Artist Brigita Ozolins at work on a previous project

Artist Brigita Ozolins at work on a previous project

Her work is motivated in part by her love of books

Her work is motivated in part by her love of books

Pages modified by Brigita's work

Pages modified by Brigita’s work