Manly Dam Project

Manly Dam Project

Melissa Smith reports on an extraordinary project around a water catchment near Sydney Harbour.

3 December, 2019
In Exhibitions,
Printmaking, Q&A

From top:

Melissa Smith, Silenced Flow (detail), 2019, intaglio collagraph print, 56 x 304 cm

Melissa Smith, Reaching into the stillness, 2019, intaglio collagraph print, 76 x 56 cm

Melissa Smith, Eva’s walk II, 2019, intaglio collagraph print, 76 x 168 cm

The Manly Dam Project has been inspired by the Manly Dam Reserve that is a unique landscape rich in natural biodiversity, shaped by the interventions of engineering and science. Once the source of drinking water in Sydney’s north, freshwater continues to flow from the catchment to the sea. Along with a rich Aboriginal cultural significance, the area’s European history is layered with stories of social and recreational activity. Adjacent to the Reserve is the Water Research Laboratory (WRL), a facility of the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, UNSW Sydney where international research is undertaken.

Katherine Roberts, Senior Curator – Manly Art Gallery and Museum and Ian Turner, Professor and Director of the WRL have curated the Manly Dam Project. Eight contemporary artists were invited from a variety of practices to create new work inspired by place, history, water management and engineering. Four of these artists collaborated with engineers from the WRL.


As one of the participating artists I had the opportunity to develop a new body of prints in response to the biodiversity of the Manly Dam Reserve. On visiting the site in late March 2019 the invited artists were privileged to spend a morning walking through the bush land, guided by Aboriginal Heritage Officer, Karen Smith. She introduced us to some of the vast number of flora and fauna species and generously explained the significance of this area to Aboriginal culture.

Situated in the middle of suburbia, Manly Dam Reserve provides a sense of quietness, layered in its own history and stories. The impression of Curl Curl Creek remains on the floor of the dam as evidence of the time before the wall was built to capture a water source for a growing town in the late 1800s. These waters, now still harbour vast colonies of microscopic plankton species that change with the seasons, unseen but an integral part of this uniquely diverse environment. Susan Fenech, Professional Officer at the University of Technology, Sydney provided me with images of a range of plankton that had been collected from Manly Dam for research. These minute animals were integrated into the design for my work, Silenced Flow.

The prints I have created reference these layers from the micro to the macro in the water and in the depiction of the shifting perspective of moving through the bush land; the eye drawn to points of focus close by and others in the distance.

I returned to the site again in September in the hope of catching the annual bloom of the wildflowers, which are most prominent on the eastern side of the Dam. I wasn’t disappointed; I discovered a myriad of different varieties that punctuated the bush and sandstone shelves of the landscape with colour and texture.

My prints aim to represent these contrasts and layers. Panoramic views of the water caught through a veil of trees endeavour to represent a sense of peace and understanding found through listening to this landscape. This site is a unique place of refuge and sanctuary found in the middle of an urban environment.

The title for several of the prints in the exhibition reference ‘Eva’s Track’, one of the tracks in the Reserve. With assistance from Librarian, Rose Cullen from the Northern Beaches Council, I discovered the origin of the name of this track. Eva was a migrant who came to live in Sydney having been driven from her home in Silesia in the mid 1950s. She developed a strong interest in the native flora of the Reserve where she found peace in her daily walks. Due to this interest, a friendship was established between herself and a local ranger, and at one stage when there was a track upgrade; he recommended her name for one of the tracks.

Eva sought solitude in her walks through this landscape and was captivated by its beauty. My own engagement with this site imbued the same reaction. The intaglio collograph prints I have created intend to represent calmness in their colour palette while the complexity of the layered marks define the diversity and richness of the Reserve.

Each of the artists has made an individual response to the site. The exhibition will occupy the entire Manly Art Gallery and Museum venue and the visitor will be able to engage on a number of levels, through a variety of media, with the Manly Dam Reserve and the important work of the adjacent Water Research Laboratory.

The Manly Dam Project is at Manly Art Gallery & Museum 6 December-23 February

Participating artists
Shoufay Derz,
 Blak Douglas, Nigel Helyer, David Middlebrook, Sue Pedley, Melissa Smith, Cathe Stack, Nicole Welch

Participating Engineers
Ian Coghlan, 
Chris Drummond, Francois Flocard, Mitchell Harley, Alice Harrison, Tino Heimhuber, Gabriella Lumiatti, Ben Modra