Guest review: Elena Gomez on Janine Burke’s Source: Nature’s Healing Role in Art and Writing


Allen & Unwin
November 2009 (Aus)

The meticulous research that went into this book is a testament to renowned art historian Janine Burke’s passion for art and its influences. In Source, she explores the resonating impact of nature and environment on the works of various writers and artists of the modern era. I have to admit, as soon as I saw the names Pollock, Woolf and Hemingway on the front cover, I wanted to read this. Burke’s eight brief essays offer biographical insight into the artists, while maintaining her overall theme: all artists and writers are recreating their own personal Eden – finding peace in the natural landscape they most identify with.

For American painter Georgia O’Keeffe, Eden is the desert of New Mexico, where she found not only an environment in which she could create her best work, but also solace from the heartbreak of real life in its vastness. Similarities can be found between Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf: each seeking out water, whether it be on the island of Key West, or the seaside town of Cornwall. Each, also, ending their own life, in their search for Eden. Jackson Pollock was known for his trance-like state when painting, and while his chapter focuses largely on Pollock’s alcoholism, Burke acknowledges the impact of his time in Springs, Long Island, with an evident reverence for his work.

Source offers a fascinating look into the role of nature in art and healing (as the subtitle of the book spells out pretty clearly), but what makes it interesting is the tenderness with which Burke writes about the people featured, particularly the final artist: Aboriginal painter Emily Kame Kngwarreye. Burke travelled to Nairobi, England and Key West, but this chapter, where she visits Kngwarreye’s home in the Northern Territory, offered the most personal story, partially rebutting the niggling thought in my mind about the fact that there was only one Australian artist. It’s occasionally frustrating to read, as some of the famous paintings Burke mentions aren’t actually pictured in the book, and at times the writing lacks the element of critical thought, but, if you don’t mind a little gushing here and there, Source is a touching read.

Elena Gomez is an aspiring writer, blogger and journalism graduate turned publishing noob. She discovered she could write when she won the QLD Courier Mail Young Reviewer of the Year Award 2000, age 12, with a review of Luke’s Way of Looking by Nadia Wheatley. She now writes for

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