The Painted River

Leo Robba, Between the Trees – The River, 2006

Perhaps Leo Robba’s (1962-) view of the Hunter River at Maitland was a presage of his future research. Since painting this view in 2006 for the exhibition View of Maitland from the riverbank (with apologies to Jan Vermeer and View of Delft) at Maitland Regional Art Gallery (MRAG), Robba has gone on to complete a PhD that explored the ways in which artists have used designed landscapes to symbolise human interaction and connection. The riverbanks at Maitland are themselves a designed and engineered landform, built up as a levee to protect the city from catastrophic floods.

Robba has combined his career as a practicing artist with working in graphic design and visual journalism for major Australian newspapers. His academic research examines the potential of design to create meaningful cultural change relating to human health and wellbeing and the long-term stewardship of Earth’s natural systems.

Robba’s participation in the View of Maitland from the riverbank (with apologies to Jan Vermeer and View of Delft) exhibition was a kind of dry run for his later work. Along with fellow artists, he participated in a public painting of the Hunter River that resulted in multiple artworks paying tribute to Vermeer’s View of Delft.

In 2017, Robba built on the idea of connecting art and environmentalism in his collaboration on the Painted River Project; a public painting event that reimagined people’s connection to the Parramatta River through the creation of multiple artworks that expressed a more sustainable future for the river – one that makes it clean and healthy enough to swim in.  With its strong current and questionable water quality, the Hunter River at Maitland has probably not been swum in since the closure of the West Maitland floating baths in 1893.