The wide brown land of the escarpment country beyond the Adelaide Hills is an unlikely setting for a creative collaboration. TIM LLOYD reports.

WHEN artist Ken Orchard returned to South Australia after an absence of 10 years, he chose to paint the rainfall shadowlands. The back of the Adelaide Hills, where annual rainfall dips below 500mm, has always had a fascination for Orchard.

It is that dry country that forms the high eastern escarpment looking down on the Murray Plains. It runs from Strathalbyn, north through towns such as Palmer and Truro.

"From the ages of nine to 18, I went out to the Cooinda rise (in the Mallee), where relatives had a farm, and you can look back from there and see fill Barker and the escarpment country to the north," he says.

The rain-shadow escarpment has a fascination for many artists, but none is quite so enthusiastic as sculptor Greg Johns.

Two years ago, he bought 160ha of the escarpment near Palmer. He has called his property the Palmer Sculptural Environmental Landscape, and has developed several sculptures which he has carefully placed among the great boulders that dot the landscape.

From his land, you can look out across a 270-degree panorama that includes the Coorong, Mannum and the Murray Mallee.

"You can call it the classic Australian landscape," says Johns. "Palmer is big sky country and can look like the Flinders Ranges even though it's the Adelaide Hills."

He wanted the freedom to place some sculptures in the landscape, but he has also energetically set about conserving the country.

He says the bare, bounder-strewn Palmer landscape was created within five years of settlement.

"The original sheaoak forest was totally removed to fuel the copper and gold mines, the Murray River paddle-steamers and farm stoves," Johns says. He says it will take 20 years to renovate the land, and he is in the second year of a five-year plan with Trees For Life involving large-scale direct seeding and tubestock planting.

Already, Palmer has had a marked effect on his work. Johns has always worked in steel and never made an installation, but his latest art includes Corridor 1, an installation in wood - blackened with his blowtorch - and broken stone, both elements speaking of his Palmer property. Greg Johns got together with Ken Orchard when Johns saw Orchard's recent paintings and immediately recognised the big sky; the long horizon.

"I invited Ken up to Palmer and he started doing some drawing up there and he loved it," Johns says. It seems a logical extension that the two should collaborate on an exhibition which opened at BMG Art on the weekend and is titled Palmer Landscapes.

Orchard, now 43, spent a decade mostly in New South Wales where he was head of the printmaking department at the Faculty of Creative Arts at the University of Wollongong.

Before that, he had made his name as an artist, mostly as a print- maker. But when he decided to move back to Adelaide in 1999 with a family including two infants, he returned to making art rather than teaching it.

While he is noted for his woodblock prints and diverse subjects, it gradually struck him how much of his life has been spent drawing and painting landscapes.

"Another friend of mine, lan Hamilton, and I started doing field work at Strathalbyn last year," Orchard says. The two chose the traditional approach to landscapes, of making sketches out in the field, before completing the works in the studio.

They staged an exhibition at Strathalbyn during the year.

Encouraged by strong interest and good sales, Orchard made a deliberate decision to concentrate on painting in the rainshadow zone between Strathalbyn and Cambrai.

He says his time at Palmer is the second stage of a maturing project.

"I am gradually re-acquainting myself with the area," he says.

"The bones of the landscape there are visible; it's a fabulous place for linear drawings. Some of the things I have been aware of out there are its dominant element of barrenness, dryness, fragility, britfcleness ... It is very interesting from a painting point of view."

Gradually, Greg Johns's property is turning into a focus for artists. Despite the almost complete lack of any amenity on the property, about 10 artists have worked there.

Johns is planning an official opening of the property next year during the Adelaide Festival, in a. project be is planning with Aptos Cruz.

Sculptors around Australia and overseas are also becoming interested in the possibilities of the place with the big Sky.

Tim Lloyd. June 2003

"Big sky country" The Advertiser. Tim Lloyd. June 2003