James Parker and John Whitney: No Bridge too Far

Above: James Parker, Undalya Bridge, 2017, wallpaper intaglio print, 27.5 x 40 cm

James Parker and John Whitney celebrate the bridges of South Australia in their art-making.

Imprint: What is the origin of the idea for this show and how has it been developed?


James Parker:  The show started because John had a stroke, I thought a project would be a good thing to help him get back into creating (this was a folly, he drew me a series of hospital implements from his bed a day or two after being admitted – machines that go ping, bed pans and various walkers, chairs and canes.) Anyway we thought it a good idea.  The bridges theme came from the fact that I am besotted with bridges I grew up 50 metres from a beautiful bridge in the mid-north of South Australia. I have had three other exhibitions about that particular bridge, the Undalya “Basket Bridge”, this beautiful arched iron bridge features four times in this show.

The other feature that directed the show is that John and I love a road trip. We took quite a few over the two years it took to put the show together. We also incorporated our own trips (mostly work related) into the collection of bridges. I had spent time in the south-east of the state and also into the APY lands.  Anywhere we went we asked the locals about interesting bridges, sometimes they took us out to see them, sometimes we would just find them while aimlessly wandering around back roads.  We photographed 220; the concentration was very evident once we had mapped the sites. We constructed a map wall in the gallery with pins and a different coloured ribbons for the three types of bridges: foot, railway and road. The ribbons ran from a pinpoint on the map to a photograph of that particular bridge. This wall became one of the most popular exhibits in the show. The majority of sites were along the length of the Mt Lofty Ranges, with Strathalbyn, Burra and Spalding having the greatest concentrations.

John and I have not portrayed the same bridge within the show although we both drew a majority during our research. John has concentrated on drawings, both pen and pencil, whilst I have used a variety of techniques just as the original bridge builders did.  I incorporated brush and ink, various intaglio techniques, large encaustic paintings and ipad drawings.

Imprint: Is it a challenge to get two artists working together in this way?

JP:  John and I have worked together many times as artists in residence in primary schools over the past ten years so we know each other’s strengths and each other’s passions. We have often taught in the same class at the same time, tag-teaming on technique, theory, history or poetry. It seems natural to us as to where each of us will step forward and the other retreat, the same happened here, I like to think of the bridge as a more social beast whereas John views them as engineering, architectural and practical (although beautiful) things.

Our interests are the same but our attitudes to their portrayal are quite different.

I think that it also helps that we are both completists.

Imprint: Can you discuss some of the issues or hurdles that arose during the making of the work?

JP:  There were very few, matter of fact I can’t think of too many at all. We had one big disappointment in that we couldn’t find the time to get to the wonderful Algebuckina bridge which crosses the Neale river near Oonadatta. We also couldn’t find an old bridge in Reynella that we were told existed. We will keep searching.

Imprint: What are the sorts of responses that might be elicited from viewers?

JP:  I think viewers will be surprised at the variants in the bridges, and that there are so many, also that we live in the driest state on the driest continent and here we are making a show about bridges, an engineering and architectural feature that is typically associated with water.

Imprint: What was the role of printmaking in this show?

JP: There a few different techniques used in the show namely drypoint, collage intaglio, linocut and monotype.

I am a terrible editioner – I don’t have the patience for it. (I have been known to, though). So there are only a couple of prints that are editioned. I prefer to vary the inking on each pass. I have also printed monotypes over dry points.

I have constructed two prints in the show by collaging together various textured wallpapers and printing them as intaglios. Because some of the wallpaper is flocked I have to coat it first with shellac – this gives a very murky plate tone which I quite like, they are difficult to print as different papers hold the ink differently, so you have to be very gentle in rubbing some areas and a little harder in others, this means identical prints are really quite hard. I class them as monotypes.

There is also an older book I made a few years ago in edition, which I bind differently each time I sell one or exhibit. It is made with using old typeface and lino prints.

I liked experimenting on the plates trying different techniques to see what gives the right feel or atmosphere for a particular bridge. Was the bridge sitting harsh and hard on the landscape or was it murky and damp when we visited?

The various printmaking techniques gave me the tools to find the right solution.

Imprint: What are your favourite bridges?

JP:  1. Undalya Basket Bridge. 2. The five-arch Railway Bridge on the Spalding to Burra Road. 3. The ruined wooden road bridge in Bruce. – Andrew Stephens

No Bridge Too Far is at Gallery 1855, Tea Trea Gully, until 10 June. www.teatreegully.sa.gov.au