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Drawn to art.

Artist and curator Melanie Caple shares insights into the immense power of art to lift our spirits.

Sep 29, 2022

Words: Gippslandia

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An artist with many hats, Melanie Caple has recently co-curated the Fragile Earth exhibition at Gippsland Art Gallery, Sale, while continually invigorating streetscapes across Gippsland and Melbourne with her large-scale murals and examining nature’s finest details in her oil paintings.

Given her talents in creating striking artworks at such diverse scales, as well as her experience in curation and arts management, Melanie is perfectly positioned to highlight how art can lift our spirits.

"We as humans are all equally drawn to things that make us happy or excited or confounded."

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How art supports community groups.
Over the past 10 years, I’ve witnessed more emphasis on the arts in community spaces. Where traditionally communities might have come together through sporting events, more people are attending festivals, visiting exhibitions and partaking in community art projects.

In times of community crises, artists respond – whether that’s through donating works for fundraising, performers doing telethon gigs or musicians playing for emergency-affected communities.

Less tangibly, I’d argue that communities can only really exist through shared cultural touchstones. As Australians, we get the references in films like Top End Wedding; as Victorians, we picture the sights conjured by Paul Kelly’s ‘Leaps and Bounds’; as Gippslandians we recognise places and faces in the collections of the Gippsland and Latrobe Regional galleries. The art of a place helps us to identify ourselves in communities.

At a township level, I’d say that art brings together people with similar interests and skill sets, fostering community connections. You only have to look at Mirboo North’s recent Winterfest, or how the Gippsland community took ownership of their showing of the Archibald Prize, to see that.

How public art benefits communities.
I often think that people don’t notice the absence of beauty in a space until that space is filled with something beautiful. Public art takes neglected and under-appreciated spaces and transforms them. This catalyses community pride and introduces art to people who wouldn’t otherwise experience it. You rarely see a single work of public art in a community; once they experience the beauty and benefits of public art, communities often go on to commission more works for their area.

Art can trigger healthy discussions on pertinent issues.
The Fragile Earth exhibition that I co-curated with Louisa Waters is the perfect example of how art can generate awareness about social, cultural and environmental issues. It’s not a new phenomenon: Picasso’s Guernica, Ai Weiwei’s controversial works, Midnight Oil, Archie Roach, Fiona Hall, and Ben Quilty – artists have been giving creative voice to the issues they grapple with for eons.

The beauty of approaching these issues through art is that it can make them less confrontational than hearing a polemic from a politician or a dire news story. A gallery creates a safe space to exchange views, have intergenerational conversations, about highly emotive issues.

How does creating art benefit your own health?
Creating art keeps me sane! I don’t know what I’d do with all the myriad ideas that are constantly swirling through my brain otherwise. I’m really lucky to work full-time in the arts. My creative outlet is also my employment.

Creating art also helps me physically. I was diagnosed with MS (multiple sclerosis) at the end of 2018. It predominantly affects my right side, particularly my painting arm. It stopped me in my tracks, truth be told. It took me a while to find a new way to create that was less physically onerous for me. Curiously, painting bigger has proved to be easier on my body than the fine, detailed works I used to create. I can still paint like that, but not often and not for long. Whereas I can – and have been – painting murals regularly.

Is there a difference for you between creating and curation?
Throughout my childhood on a farm in Nerrena, I was surrounded by family who took pride in working hard. I think I inherited a practical work ethic and that was behind my switch from a Masters of Fine Art to a Masters in Arts Management. That decision has paid off in spades.

Project managing the Archibald Prize when it came to Gippsland was a career highlight. I get enormous satisfaction helping creative people put their works into the public realm.

Why should we be surrounded by art in our own homes?
Have you ever walked into a house with bland, off-white walls? No paintings or photos or prints or books. It’s spooky.

We as humans are all equally drawn to things that make us happy or excited or confounded.

How has a career in art changed you?
It gives me purpose and makes me happy. I want people to appreciate beauty, to feel inspired, challenged and enriched. I’d have been making art regardless, but this way I get to make art, work with other artists and get paid for it!

You can learn more about Melanie and her uplifting artwork at her website and Instagram.

Gippslandia - Issue No. 24

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