Damsels & Dragons on a Painted River

Lucy Culliton’s finished piece at the Lake Pillans Painted River Project

Archibald Prize Finalist Lucy Culliton’s finished piece at the Lake Pillans Painted River Project

Story and photos by Tracie McMahon

What do an Archibald prize finalist, an industrial ruin and aquatic insects have in common? During the Painted River Project at Lake Pillans it was an opportunity to document the extraordinary world of our waterways, including a real time underwater survival challenge.


Key Points:

  • The Painted River Project aims to connect people to waterways through art, starting conversations, and encouraging us all to look a little deeper.  
  • Healthy waterways are critical for aquatic species and healthy cities.
  • We can all help to keep our planet healthy by ensuring the impacts of urban settlement such as rubbish, stormwater and urban runoff are kept out of natural waterways.

I don’t know about you but when I Google, “Things to do in Lithgow this weekend” I’m not expecting to find: ‘Paint with an Archibald Prize finalist and check out waterbugs at Lake Pillans.’ Up until the 1990s, the Blast Furnace and the dam beside it were a pile of bricks and mortar, weeds and willows, bearing the scars of early twentieth century industrialisation.

Today, thanks to decades of work by many, Lake Pillans is a functioning wetland, space of community, and as Dr Ian Wright, Associate Professor in Environmental Science at the Western Sydney University enthuses, home to an extraordinary diversity and volume of aquatic life.

A damselfly drying its wings at Lake Pillans

A damselfly drying its wings

The Painted River Project

The Painted River Project is the ‘brainchild’ of Leo Robba: an artist, designer and academic. It began in Parramatta in 2017 with a goal of “highlighting the importance of healthy rivers and water catchments … seeking to communicate this message through community interaction.” The idea has expanded into the regions, with events in the Blue Mountains, Moree and a previous event at Lake Wallace in 2022.

The event at Lake Pillans drew an audience of local and interstate artists, and others like me, who were just curious and keen to watch artists at work. But it was not just about the art.

There was also a table set with a microscope, pipette, and a tray of aquatic life that Dr Wright had graciously waded into the lake to acquire. And there was much to see. As I took my turn at the microscope, I was stunned to find a damselfly voraciously hunting anything smaller than itself. As it darted to the other side of the petri dish, a caddisfly timidly emerged from within a hollow twig, checking both ways, then frantically gathering algae, covering itself in a desperate attempt to survive.

art and science at the painted river project

A fellow participant checking out the action under the Microscope

I was so stunned by the action I sought out Dr Wright to ensure I was not attributing human behaviours to the random actions of these tiny creatures. He was a bit hard to track down as he wove his way amongst participants, asking them about their work, what they were hoping to capture and sharing his extensive knowledge of aquatic life.

Connecting Art and Science

The impromptu question and answer sessions were as intriguing as the underwater action, and I almost forget my question. One participant was cradling a section of reeds from the edge of the lake, documenting its delicate features as botanical art. Dr Wright explained that the reed is often ‘cut’ by bugs to create a home for shelter, protection, or reproduction.

Another was capturing the colours and textures of the water on a windy day. She told me, “I am not an artist, just having a bit of fun.” The Oxford Languages definition of art is: “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination.” Seemed to me, today she was an artist.

There were works created with bamboo and ink, palette knives, watercolours, pencils, charcoal, on boards, paper and in journals. Each of them recorded the individual’s response to the site and the waterway. There were questions about artistic technique, water life, water quality, local conditions and sharing of knowledge about the health of our local environment.

Chelsea Walsh capturing the textures and colours at Lake Pillans Painted River Project in 2023

Chelsea Walsh capturing the textures and colours at Lake Pillans.

Todd Whisson from Queensland, capturing the light and shadows on the grassy hillside with a palette knife.

Todd Whisson from Queensland, capturing the light and shadows on the grassy hillside with a palette knife.

david carroll at the painted river project

David Carroll using pastels to capture the variation of colours in the trees.

Annie Herron at the painted river project

Annie Herron uses bamboo and ink on ever-extending paper to capture the delicate lines of trees and reeds.

amanda holman painting at the painted river project

Amanda Holman travelled from Orange for the event after attending a previous event in Moree. The ever-changing clouds on such a blustery day featured in her landscape work.

Bunny Griffin, capturing the play of light on water.

a nature journal of Painted River Project 2023

My own nature journal of the day.

Sharing stories

One participant mentioned a recent sighting of platypus in Coxs River, near Wallerawang and Dr Wright was thrilled when another produced video footage. He remarked that Charles Darwin’s first sighting of a platypus was at Wallerawang in 1836, and the sighting was a precursor to his later theory of evolution.

My question seemed a bit dull by comparison, but Dr Wright was happy to answer and confirmed that yes, I was not imagining things: life underwater is a game of survival. And it is not only between the water bugs, but the impact of being a tiny player in a world with a city on its perimeter.

He said we were fortunate to see so much variety and activity. This Lithgow event also included a workshop for local schools involving water sampling and documenting the presence of indicator species.

Samples were taken from Farmers Creek at Oakey Park, just below Farmers Creek Dam #2: one of Lithgow’s Water Supplies. The workshop tests revealed the water to be “exceptionally high quality and able to support an abundance of aquatic life”. He said we were fortunate to have such high-quality water in the area. It is a testament to the actions taken to improve what was an industrial wasteland.” 

Caring for Lithgow’s waterways

The project also aimed to draw attention to the need for continual care of our waterways and ensuring the health of water is prioritised in future urban planning.

“Water and our river systems are the foundation of healthy cities and human well-being.” – Leo Robba

The introduction to the event highlighted the work of many to restore and care for Lake Pillans over many years, but the work is never finished, and often events such as the Black Summer Bushfires or flooding can undo earlier work.

Lucy Culliton, our artistic lead for the day, with deep family connections to the Kanimbla Valley, agreed. She pointed to a copse of eucalypts towering overhead. Her brother-in-law, Boris Hunt, assisted in planting these as part of rehabilitation works in the mid-1990s. Beneath them, hundreds of seedlings planted earlier this year by Landcare, poked maroon and pink leaves from beneath tree guards.

Tree plantings on the edge of Lake Pillans.

Tree plantings on the edge of Lake Pillans.

Dr Wright pointed out there are many things we can do to protect the health of our waterways and we can all play our part. The Painted River Project is about slowing down and focusing on the water and its inhabitants. As I followed the path of a hovering dragonfly over the lake, I saw the odd can, torn plastic bag, and cardboard box dotted amongst the reeds. The water that runs off properties and streets (urban run-off) contains both visible and invisible contaminants.

Thankfully, the results of the water testing suggested Lake Pillans had not been adversely impacted on this day. But this may not always be the case and we can all help.


Take Action:

  • Ensure domestic rubbish is secured for appropriate collection and disposal.
  • Ensure urban run-off drains into the pits and pipes that connect to the stormwater management system for effective treatment.
  • Check and clear gutters and drains regularly so they do not overflow into natural waterways.
  • Plant appropriate vegetation in backyards, to slow down and minimise run-off from hard surfaces.

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Want to know more?

Local councils and Landcare organisations are a great place to start if you want to know more about your water, where it comes from, and how to keep it healthy. Here is a sample of information from Blue Mountains and Lithgow City Council and links to some of the other events and initiatives aimed at creating awareness and improving the health of Lithgow’s waterways.

Lithgow City Council – About our water. https://council.lithgow.com/water/about-our-water/ Explains the sources of Lithgow’s drinking water, ways to save water and water quality indicators.

Blue Mountains City Councilhttps://www.bmcc.nsw.gov.au/environment/waterways Includes the Water Sensitive Blue Mountains Strategic Plan and information about Council’s water monitoring program. The Blue Mountains has some of Australia’s healthiest streams. Find out how everyone can help to protect them.

Farmers Creek Management Plan https://council.lithgow.com/services/farmers-creek/ Contains details of the agreed rehabilitation and management plan for Lithgow’s key waterway.

Planting for Their Future. https://lithgowlocalnews.com/bushcare-at-farmers-creek/ Native vegetation planting along Farmers Creek waterway to provide habitat for Gang Gang Cockatoos and native fauna.

Citizen Science at Lake Pillans. https://lithgowlocalnews.com/citizen-science-at-lake-pillans/  A brief history of Lake Pillans and the goals of citizen science, together with the results of a Bioblitz at Lake Pillans in March 2023.

The Frogs are Calling https://lithgowlocalnews.com/the-frogs-are-calling/ Frog monitoring at Farmers Creek as part of FrogID week in November 2023.

Lucy Culliton paints Lake Pillans

A one-minute reel where you can watch Lucy’s painting come to life:

This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

News From Around The Region

Dr Judy Friedlander is the founder of @plantingseeds which runs a B&B Highway Program to support pollinators. Watch the full video on our @bluemountainsplanetaryhealth YouTube channel and read the full story in Lithgow Area Local News (links in profile) #people4pollinators #threatenedpollinators #citizenscience #nativeplants #B&BHighway #lovebirds #lovebats #lovebutterflies #lovebees #rewilding #pollinators #biodiversity #planetaryhealth #bioblitz ...

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#intergenerationalplay #communityconnections #play #blackheath #bluemountains #planetaryhealth
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In April 2021 Blue Mountains City Council became the first Council and government entity in Australia to commit to integrating Rights of Nature (RON) principles into its operations and practices. Yesterday we were thrilled to be able to spend a few hours with Susie Talbot, an Australian lawyer, based in the UK, who was visiting on a Churchill Fellowship to explore the implementation of Rights of Nature in different parts of the world. It was inspiring to hear how she has spent decades using the law to achieve transformative change in relation to complex socio-economic and environmental challenges. In 2020, she founded the Anima Mundi Law Initiative to strengthen the intersections between human rights and ecology, and to encourage the practice of law in alignment with planetary realities and collective consciousness. Projects include the creation of a ‘Rights of Nature Toolkit’ and we look forward to working with her into the future. You can read more at her website: https://www.animamundilaw.org/
Photo: Susie Talbot standing in front of Scott Marr`s artwork in the Planetary Health Exhibition space.

#rightsofnature #earthjurisprudence #anewlegalstoryforanecologicalage #ecologicalage #churchillfellowship @churchillfellowship #animamundi #humanrights #ecology #planetaryhealth
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Nelson Mandela once said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”; and William Butler Yeats, the great poet, said “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” If you’re a teacher, educator or involved in education in some way in the Blue Mountains the staff of the Blue Mountains Planetary Health Initiative would love to meet you next Monday 20th May when we join the Blue Mountains Sustainable Schools Network to see how we can all join forces to urgently accelerate the change we need to restore the health of our planet. 3.30-5.30 at Faulconbridge Public School. RSVP Beth Healy DirtMum (details in poster)

#sustainableschoolsnetwork #collaboration #planetaryhealth #environmentaleducators #artteachers #englishteachers #musicteachers #allteachers
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About Tracie McMahon

Tracie lives, writes and walks on the unceded lands of the Dharug, Gundungurra and Wiradjuri people. Born in Lithgow, she and her family have spent most of their lives living and working with the people and places of the Lithgow area. Her passions are nature and community, which she pursues through story, art, and volunteering in Lithgow and the Blue Mountains.

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