Is Land: Edges defined by water
In early 2001 I moved from Melbourne to SE Tasmania, marking the beginning of a new focus in my work as a creative facilitator; in the years to follow, I became active in many community arts projects, and programs that linked creativity and community health.
I had just spent a month visiting a friend in Koh Tao, which was then a small island community in the south of Thailand. My friend had been living there for many years with his Thai wife and daughter, and was well-liked in the local Thai community; during my brief stay, he bridged me to some of the local Thai people, and through his endorsement they extended me a very warm authentic welcome. Of course, I was still a tourist, but when I expressed a genuine interest in contributing to their community, by way of reciprocation, they clearly held me in a more positive esteem.
By the time of my return to Australia, I had gained a very different sense of community and my place within it. I also had a sense in particular that the collective psyche of ‘island community’ was different to ‘mainland’ community – that the awareness of edges and boundaries on a small island (including the physical limitations of transport access, supplies, etc) created a stronger focus on community spirit, of sharing resources and so on. An island is a microcosm, a petri dish of human dynamics. Of course, a lot has changed in Koh Tao since my visit, and even while I was there the impact of western junk culture, increased tourist traffic, local corruption, and degradation of the environment were all becoming more apparent.
Nevertheless, my brief interaction with Koh Tao had a lasting resonance for me. It can be hard to find a sense of intimate community amongst the constantly competing signals of a city like Melbourne. For the first couple of weeks back in my familiar locale of Warrandyte (a bushy outer suburb of Melbourne) I experienced a kind of reverse culture shock. Strangers never smiled or greeted each other warmly in the street, and my attempts to do so were often met with suspicion. My familiar life felt hollow, and I became deeply depressed, and adrift within myself. Within a month I had packed my belongings into storage and moved to SE Tasmania, with nothing but a backpack, my guitar, and $20 in my pocket.
Community Arts: Birthing the Bruny Island Kids Artzone Festival
After WWOOFing for a couple of months, I found myself settling on Bruny Island, a seeming ‘island paradise’ just south of Hobart.
In 2001, Bruny Island was still largely untouched by the barrage of overseas (ie anywhere not-Bruny) real estate investment and tourism branding that was yet to come. The community back then was warm and diverse, an enclave of creatives and younger ‘alternative’ families alongside old farming families, with plenty of room for individualism, eccentricity and quirk. A 15-minute car ferry links Bruny to mainland Tassie, but there was a shared sense of being removed from the rest of the world, a sometimes dreamlike quality, as if the island would break its moorings and float away. The local school consisted of about three teachers and 30 students, very similar to the rural school I attended in the 70s (1 teacher, 30 students). In many respects this small but diverse community reminded me of the valley community of St Albans (NSW), where I spent most of my childhood. While far from tropical, the island was as environmentally diverse as its people – pristine beaches and temperate rainforests, windswept coastal cliffs and large areas of wild mountainous bush, Bruny offered a microcosm of Tasmania’s many natural features.
My initial impression of Tasmanian community was of human warmth (perhaps generated in response to the cold climate and the overwhelming scale of nature-to-human), and of willingness to share resources. On the back of my experience in Koh Tao, I wanted to engage with and contribute to this community; as always, I offered what I was best at, in this case my creativity, and my skills working with children. People were happy to share contacts, and I soon connected with a number of key people involved in Community Arts via their roles in local government; most of them were professional artists-turned-administrators, applying their knowledge to community work, running community arts centres, youth engagement programs and so on. I developed ongoing working relationships with some community arts leaders of the time: Jennie Gorringe (then of Moonah Arts Centre), Richard Bladel (and the legendary Kickstart Arts) and Jacquie Maginnis (Tas Health Service, tireless advocate for Arts in the Health sector). For the next five years my creative work was often as a facilitator to a wide range of community arts, arts & health, and community development projects.
As a newcomer to Tasmania, the early 2000s seemed to me a culturally-vibrant time for the state. Tas Regional Arts were still the state’s peak funding body for regional arts, actively supporting creative regrowth in Tasmania’s many damaged & isolated rural communities (TRA was forced to close down in 2017 – after 70 years of service to the community – due to aggressive cuts to Federal Arts funding by the Liberal government of the time). It was a period when the benefits of creativity for well-being and mental health (a core impetus of my work in Melbourne) were being recognised and supported more through government-funded projects. This was before the black sheen of the MONA dollar insinuated itself into everything, before Tasmania forgot itself to the curse of the tourist brand.
Soon into my first year on Bruny, I volunteered my cartoon workshops to the local school, which led to the school securing some Artist-In-Residence funding to have me deliver an extended creative program in the school (see Publishing Projects). As I built an ongoing relationship with the school community, a few parents told me there was a lack of organised activities for the local island kids during the school holidays, and thus was seeded the idea of a Kids’ Arts Festival. I had run arts-based holiday programs many times in Melbourne (though on a smaller scale), and seeing all the creative people within the Bruny community, I approached the local arts collective (Bruny Island Arts Adventure) and asked if they’d like to support a community-driven kids arts festival: a 2-week summer program of creative workshops run by local artists and craftspeople, in a format that encouraged parents to join in with their children (rather than treat it as a childcare program).
The first Kids Artzone Festival was held in January 2002 in the Adventure Bay Hall, and workshops included papermaking, basketweaving with local materials, creative movement, maskmaking, driftwood sculpture, drawing, body art, sand sculpture (Adventure Bay Beach just across the road) and more.
In keeping with the ‘Bruny vibe’ of the time, the atmosphere was very grass-roots, relaxed and informal, using minimal resources and, where possible, sourcing materials from the community and the island itself. Workshop activities offered familiar content but with some new twist that made them a bit more unique (something I’d always incorporated into holiday programs I’d facilitated in Melbourne). We avoided prescriptive formats, encouraging parents & children to experiment creatively together. Families from across Tasmania told us there was nothing like this – a children-focused arts festival – being offered anywhere else. Families visiting the island from interstate also joined in, and there was enough enthusiastic feedback to warrant planning for a second festival the following summer. The 2003 Artzone continued some of the previously popular workshops (basketweaving, cartooning, body art) and introduced new activities such as paper bookmaking, wire sculpture, wooden toys, and creating a labyrinth. The local Parks Ranger got involved with activities based on Bruny’s diverse environment, including making a lifesize sandsculpture of a Southern Right Whale calf; a local dad provided soccer skills for some physical exercise. There was also a local ‘twilight’ market, a film screening and a Fluoro Disco.
Thus began a five year process (for me) learning on the fly about organising an annual community festival, and discovering that even such a modest event as this requires a lot of work. In order to qualify the festival for arts grants & public liability insurance, I had to talk the local artists collective (Bruny Island Arts Adventure) into becoming a branch of Tas Regional Arts (met with resistance but ultimately of great benefit to the group). I learned about trying to convince sponsors and trying to source materials with no budget, about writing grant applications for funding that paid for other people’s time but not my own. I learned about dealing with uninterested councils, despite the fact that the festival was directly addressing the agendas targeted in their own prospectus (youth engagement, recreation, community arts, tourism, family engagement etc etc). I read numerous government reports and studies of other community festivals across Australia, trying to find what made them truly sustainable within a community. I also learned that in a small community, initial enthusiasm rarely translates into practical support during the months of arduous planning of the event, only in the week or two prior to the event. I worked full-time, unpaid, for most of each year, planning for the next year’s festival. Apart from one or two individuals helping where they could, there was no core team and mostly I felt I was carrying it on my own. I learned a lot in those five years, and I accomplished a lot as well, but mostly I learned not to do it ever again! (I had a momentary relapse in 2013 when I took on the thINK Drawing Festival – another wonderful creative accomplishment, and one that further strengthened my resolve to leave event organising to someone else!).
Typical to the evolutionary arc of an event like this, each year the festival became a little more polished, acquired a few more aspirations, but also became a little more unwieldy and complicated. After the first two festivals we reduced the two-week program to one week, with workshops based mostly on a themic thread (one year the theme was ‘Mermaids & Mutineers’). The week’s activities culminated in a weekend market and fluoro drumming performance and/or disco night – a community celebration. We added some features like a film night screening old cartoons, and more activities for teenagers, all of which added both participant value and administrative headaches. An inter-island arts exchange was created between Bruny Island and Flinders Island by inviting community artist Jon Hizzard to feature his african drumming workshops in 2004 and 2005 – integral to the Festival’s success but requiring more grant applications.
Bruny PS Residency / Bruny SeeDragon Project
Perhaps the most creatively-rewarding process for me was the development of the Bruny SeeDragon. The kelp forests in the waters surrounding Bruny Island are home to two larger relatives of the seahorse, the Leafy Seadragon and the Weedy Seadragon. I have always been drawn to seahorses, and only days before leaving Koh Tao I had an elaborate Thai-style mythical Seadragon tattooed on my leg. To have arrived on an island surrounded by these creatures seemed naturally (and symbolically) significant. Bruny itself seemed to carry a kind of mythological mystique, with its historical links to Truganini’s people and the visit of Bligh’s pre-mutinied Bounty (which apparently introduced apples to Tasmania). I began to conceive of a mythical figurehead for the island, a kind of Loch Ness monster, a local Dreaming akin to a Rainbow Serpent – a creature that somehow represented the underlying creative spirit of the island itself….a SeeDragon, ‘see’ as in ‘vision’. As this motif evolved, I imagined a performance, a Dancing of the SeeDragon, that would call to this spirit figure and awaken it from its long slumber, calling it back to its people.
To this end, throughout 2003 I provided an ongoing (unpaid) arts program at Bruny Primary School, working with the students to create a series of screenprinted fabric banners and windsocks, and a 12-metre SeeDragon puppet (loosely based on the structure of a Chinese dragon puppet), all of which would be used in a debut performance at the 2004 Kids Artzone Festival.
In a series of initial design workshops, we explored symbols from other cultures, and each student designed a simple personal graphic symbol that had meaning for them. We then hand-cut a series of paper stencils using these symbols in various combinations, and (with materials procured via an Arts & Health grant, thanks to Jacquie Maginnis) silkscreened these designs onto colourful fabric.
The easiest application of the symbols was creating the banners – rectangles of fabric with a dowel rod running across the top and bottom, then hung on chord from the top of a long pole. The windsocks however presented a few more challenges. I had spent many hours researching how to engineer functional windsocks; a local farmer-turned-metal-sculptor welded the circular frames and fixed them to long ti-tree poles in a way that allowed the windsocks to rotate freely; and a couple of local mums with seamstress skills took on the fiddly job of sewing the fabric into shape (awkward because of the floppy tapering cylindrical shape). Windsocks made only of fabric would be too heavy to successfully inflate with the wind, so each one was one-half printed cotton fabric and one-half a type of strong lightweight synthetic used by kitemakers and sailmakers (we were able to source some offcuts). The resulting 18 beautiful windsocks were donated to the school, and placed along the fence around the school’s perimeter whenever there was a special event such as a school fete or sports carnival.
The biggest job was designing and building the SeeDragon puppet. I had no experience in constructing anything on this scale, so it was all a very adaptive creative learning process. As I mapped my ideas on paper, I realised considerations such as weight of the frame, structural integrity, flexibility, visibility (for those operating the puppet from inside), all required problem-solving and tweaking. I made the frame for the Dragon’s head using thin lengths of locally-sourced bamboo and willow, which were gaff-taped together for greater strength, then carefully bent into the required shape. In a previous lesson, students had tie-dyed cheesecloth, which was then stretched and sewn onto the empty frame.
The poles supporting the Dragon’s body were cross-like, with a length of willow forming an arch over the top, and the body fabric was attached to the arch by a series of velcro tabs. The atmosphere inside the fabric tunnel was quite magical, the brightly coloured panels aglow with translucence; there was often that kind of cramped anticipatory excitement that I remember from the buzzy backstage room at primary school performances. Being an ‘arch-bearer’ was disorienting to the senses – each student relied on the one directly in front and behind, and all trying to flow with the motion of the ‘head bearer’ at the front. The kids did a fantastic job of bringing the SeeDragon to life.
The Bruny SeeDragon made its debut appearance in the 2004 Artzone Festival, and was very well-received. The local community drumming group provided the rhythm to a small but expectant crowd as the SeeDragon emerged and circled, and then was led dancing, along with the spectators, down to Adventure Bay beach, whereupon a kelp-covered King Neptune emerged from the water and addressed the SeeDragon, offering it welcome.
I secured funding to develop the performance a bit more ambitiously for the 2005 Festival, incorporating a community singing group, drumming, some choreographed dance and a storyline; I saw it to completion but I was increasingly frustrated by lack of resources and lack of adequate support from the community. There were other factors: a real estate boom throughout Tasmania meant an influx of foreign investors and cashed-up mainlanders, and young families who would once have moved to Bruny to give their kids the quality of life it offered, could no longer afford to. Well-off retirees and developers moved in, the community changed: more conservatively self-conscious and elitist about its ‘creative’ identity, the new mindset was entrepreneurial and Bruny Island soon became a Tourism Brand. By this stage, I was in burnout and the strain was taking its toll on my personal life, so I made the 2005 Kids Artzone Festival my last, though the community has appropriated the name for lesser programs since then. I left the island in 2006 and moved to Cygnet, only to observe a similar pattern (succumbing to tourism branding) unfold over the following 15 years.
Despite the personal toll involved in organising it, I’m still proud of what the Artzone Festival accomplished. We even had families from Melbourne returning to the island the following year, specifically for the festival. First and foremost it was for the kids, and I know it offered many of them a completely different creative experience – and a sense of authentic community.