Brett Piva remembers the awakening, the moment that eventually drove him to bring an end to his successful custom signwriting business and focus full-time on a new direction in making art.
It was about eight years ago, and he had gone for visit to his childhood home territory of Yenda, in western NSW.
"I just want to go fishing," he says. "Let's get in the tinny and go out fishing for a day my brother.
"We're sitting the boat and all I want to do is catch a cod and I haven't caught a cod in five years. He says, 'yeah, shame we can't eat it.' I said, 'What do you mean?'. He said, 'Don't wipe your face with water.' He said it had been ridden with blue green algae for the past five months. Couldn't even swim in the river. It just blew my mind that was happening."
The wheels of time and change turn slowly, but Piva marked the moment in his mind, that realisation the world he grew up in was changing, and not for the better.
Yenda's not on the Murrumbidgee River, but the river was close enough to home it was Piva's most revered playground as he grew up.
"The 'Bidgee was the one place we would go quite regularly," he says. "Once a month, fishing with your mates or with family... I had great memories."
Long a practising artist and signwriter, Piva has spent considerable time refining his skill in verre eglomise technique, with his detailed gold leaf on projects large and small drawing attention and success.
As he continued to explore artistic techniques, like nihonga (painting with natural pigments), particularly through residencies in Japan, where he was sharpening both his abilities and sensibilities, the state of the Murrumbidgee was still smoldering in the back of his thoughts.
In the process of exploration, art and ideas meshed. He spent a month on the 'Bidgee in June 2021.
"During daily hikes, I would forage for berries, clay, soils, river rocks to later be made into pigments," he says. "Some of the pigments were made on the trip. I also made a habit to collect snow, river water and charcoal from the campfire at each campsite to be used in all of the works."
The trip was a "residency" of his own making.
"I drove the whole length of the river," he says. "I only camped where the environment drastically changed, from like the snow environment to huge rapids through ACT, then calmer waters from Gundagai all the way to Wagga, and then still around Hay and Balranald."
He even went to the headwaters of the river, up in the Snowy Mountains, chuckling at the notion it could be so small you could jump over it, compared to his childhood of knowing it only as a mighty river to be feared for its width and depth.
Keen to break away from creating designs to meet the approval of others, and eager to grow his mark in the art world, Piva embarked on making work that combined the materials and perspective he had gathering on the river, with the knowledge and techniques he had accumulated over many years as an artist and in recent years through learning new ways at residencies in Japan.
The gleaming artworks, combining glass, gold leaf, reflections, pigment and other materials from the 'Bidgee feature in his exhibit, Epitomes Shared from a V Bottom Tinnie, which opens on Saturday, September 16, at Straitjacket Gallery in Broadmeadow.
"I've been working very hard to create something truly unique and different and personal to me, so I think that difference of being personal to me and close to me is going to be the biggest thing," he says.
"I'm trying to mess with tradition, I suppose, but using still all those techniques. Introducing a lot more new stuff."
Piva's work reflects a basic desire to contribute to the discussion about how we live.
"What affects me the most is the fish stocks," he says of the 'Bidgee. "Native fish, we've always respected - if they were too small, we'd throw 'em back. If they had eggs, we'd throw 'em back. If they were too big, we'd throw 'em back because they were breeders. That was absolutely everything in the river.
"Now, you can barely catch a cod in many places. You can barely catch any yellow belly [golden perch]. You are constantly catching carp or the native fish stocks are dying off...
"For me, painting this is a way I can express my feelings on the environment, but also get people to question their own environment and how they can treat it better."
Brett Piva and Anthony Cahill, Straitjacket Gallery, September 16- October 8.