Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Another day in paradise at Balmain's Dawn Fraser Baths

When I was swimming around Cockatoo Island on Sunday morning, the bushranger Captain Thunderbolt was on my mind.

Captain Thunderbolt aka Fred Ward was imprisoned on the island for stealing horses. In 1863 he escaped by swimming the 600 metres or so to shore. He emerged from the water at a place in Balmain that became known as White Horse Point.

Some say the name was inspired by Captain Thunderbolt's girlfriend Mary Ann Bugg, who was waiting for him on a white horse. While the romantics would like this to be true, the name is more likely to have been inspired by the white horses that appear on the Parramatta River when the southerly winds are up. An alternative explanation is a rock resembling a white horse rearing up that used to be prominent on the point.

If Captain Thunderbolt had scrambled ashore 19 years later, he would have noticed a new addition to the point: Balmain's new tidal baths. For the first year of the baths' existence they were named after their location at White Horse Point. In 1883 they were renamed the Elkington Park Baths after the park above, which honours a former Balmain mayor.  Also known as the Corporation Baths, in 1964 they were renamed after local champion Dawn Fraser, who learnt to swim there.

When swimmers gathered at the 130-year-old pool on Sunday for the annual 2.5km Dawny to Cockatoo swim there was a carnival atmosphere similar to the early days. Just like the swimming tournaments of the 1880s and 90s a band was playing as patrons enjoyed the after-swim barbeque and fresh fruit from Harris Farm. 

We were just missing the novelty events that were a feature of the start of the season carnival during the last two decades of the 19th century.  As well as a 'handicap race of 750 yards for all comers', club members could join in events like 'hands-tied behind the back', 'swimming in clothes', 'diving for objects' and 'underwater distance diving'. There was also a 'smokers' race' and the annual duck hunt involving swimmers catching ducks released in the pool.

Renovated and heritage-listed in the 1990s, in recent years the Dawn Fraser Baths have returned to their glory days. They survived many years being surrounded by heavy industry, polluted waters and threats of closure. They have emerged with a new lease of life into an era when the harbour's waters are cleaner than ever;  when art exhibitions and film festivals have replaced ship-building, prisons and industrial schools for girls on nearby Cockatoo Island.

As the Lizards, a group of 50 to almost 80-year-old men, who spend their mornings in retirement at the pool say: "It's the best place in Sydney; it's paradise!"

Dangling my legs over the edge of the wide timber boardwalk and looking up at the vista of jacarandas, towering palms and magnificent fig trees, it's hard not to agree.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The art and soul of the swimming pool

Visiting some of the Art and About exhibitions and installations in Sydney last month got me thinking about art at pools. The motto of Art and About is 'art in unusual places', and from 21 September to 21 October that's what you find in the city's parks, lane ways, streets and malls.


"We try every year to use places we haven't used before," said creative director Gill Minervini in an article in The Sydney Morning Herald. "We're always looking for new spots," she said. 

If Minervini and her team considered pools they would find that art is already a feature at a number of centres. 

By the 50-metre pool at Cook and Phillip Park Aquatic Centre in the city are eight murals by Sydney artist Wendy Sharpe depicting the life of Australian swimmer and performer Annette Kellerman.

The 'bold and sensual' studies tell the story of key events in the life of the 'Diving Venus' including becoming NSW 100 yards freestyle champion in 1902 and competing in the annual Parisian swimming race on the Seine.  Other panels portray her arrest for indecent exposure on a Boston Beach for wearing her self-created one-piece cossies,  her daring and exotic aquatic feats in shows around the world, and her rise to stardom in silent movies like the mythological underwater film Neptune's Daughter.

Swimming a slow backstroke is a relaxing way to view the paintings and take in the life of this trail-blazing Australian, who believed emancipating women from the chains of neck-to-knee swimming costumes was her greatest achievement!

Another pool with an artistic side is Leichhardt Park Aquatic Centre in Sydney's inner west.

In the native garden leading to the entrance are seven glass installations by Bronwyn Bancroft honouring the original indigenous people of the area. 

Called 'Weavings of Light and Life' they represent the land and foreshore, food collection, fishing, song-lines, kinship, a shield protecting lands and family, and water.

The Bundjalung artist said she deliberately chose glass as the medium for the panels so that the sun's rays would interact with the designs throughout the day. The works also connect beautifully with the native plants around them and are a colourful welcome to visitors to the pool.

A few kilometres up the road, a striking blue mosaic welcomes patrons to the Annette Kellerman Aquatic Centre at Enmore Park.

Near the entrance a chrome-plated brass ribbon designed by artist Julia Davis wraps around the building, connecting with the surface of the pool and reflecting the light and movement of the water.

In the foyer area is a glass sculpture inspired by the figure of Marrickville-born Annette Kellerman. Created by local artist Mark Wotherspoon, Silver Screen Mermaid depicts the shapely curves of a mermaid figure.

The almost two-year-old centre also features a remnant of a mosaic from the original Enmore Pool. It's displayed in one of the pool's outdoor areas and shows people of all ages communicating, diving and relaxing around water. It also features greetings in community languages.

The use of vibrant colours, spots and stripes and interesting shapes gives the centre a lively and creative edge that appropriately reflects the artistic spirit of its namesake.

I wonder if next year's Art and About will venture into the aquatic spaces of the public pool?