How much can your life change in a year? A lot, it turns out. My new life motto is, “You’re only capable of your wildest dream”.
Okay, a year ago I was trying to write my first article for this super cool paper, Gippslandia. I was getting up at 4 am to milk 700 cows so that I could keep the doors of my Raymond Street Studio open. It was a space filled with random creative people creating randomly creative things.
My typical day was filled with conversation, experimentation, connection, inspiration, ideas, projects, concepts and images that I had no resources, time or energy to realise. At 3 pm I’d close the studio and head back to the dairy to ensure I could pay the next day’s rent. Super unsustainable, I know, but I was exhaustingly happy.
After scrubbing the cow shit off my arms, I’d spend the night trawling YouTube videos, reading book after book and intensively stalking any creative genius within a 350km radius of me (then stalking every reference these geniuses tell me about). I studied art projects locally and globally, as I tried to find the strongest models of sustainable art practice. This routine gave me enough inspiration to get up at 4 am and do it all again.
I was the happiest and most successful I’d ever been, but also acutely aware that my theory of ‘learning by doing something super ambitious’ was a steep, and potentially lonely, learning curve. I became aware of all the things I wasn’t and all the things I needed to be. This lead to the realisation that nowhere in Gippsland allowed me to learn what I needed.
With the closures of TAFE, it was becoming pretty clear that if I wanted a career in the arts, I’d have to go to Melbourne. I was broke, committed to my vision of the studio and exhausted. I’d never thought of living in the country as a disadvantage. We have clean air, free parking, stars in the sky, stillness and I’m surrounded by friends and family. I loved living in Gippsland. I didn’t want to leave, but to obtain the tools to create the world I dreamed of, it seemed inevitable. The only words to describe that feeling is absolute heartbreak.
I wasn’t alone, there was a whole generation of young creatives who couldn’t stop creating, but they had no teacher, no resources and no idea of how to progress. So I started TOPshelf to try and ease the pain they mirrored back at me. I still had no concept of community art, social enterprise, how powerful a grant can be, what it means to be a volunteer, how to get work into a gallery or what a ‘real’ arts education looked like. But I knew how to survive as a country artist, I had a shop and I’d successfully created the world’s longest photograph.
I found myself longing for a teacher or a mentor. Someone who could actually reveal to me a path in the arts, instead of somewhat blindly trying to determine the way myself, sometimes stumbling along the way. I felt like I was scratching at the doors of education ‘til my fingers were bloody stumps, begging me them to let me in.
At the beginning of 2017, I met a man in a purple suit – Bryce Ives. Bryce told me that he was the new Creative Director of Federation University Gippsland Centre of Art and Design (GCAD), which I’d never heard of, and that he was starting an arts education revolution. Shortly after, I found myself in the belly of the beast as an Artist-in-Residence at Fed Uni, while the faculty was undergoing the slow and painful shedding of a traditional academic art education and revealing a bright new model.
Now, I’ll take a pause to apologise to my editor, Tim. My original article brief was to interview the alumni of GCAD, which has a very rich history of being awesomely revolutionary in the 60s, 70s and 80s. I replied, “I couldn’t imagine anything worse… so I think it’s the perfect assignment”. My plan was to send the alumni two simple questions: “What did you love about GCAD? and “What did you hate?”. Considering that everyone I’ve met that graduated from GCAD has either described it as, ‘the greatest place on earth’ (pre-1990), or ‘where artists go to die’ (post-1990).
But I never sent it out. I just hurt too much. I don’t care what the arts used to be in Gippsland because it hasn’t been that way for 20 years. How can I spend my days hearing the glorified version of what an active artist state feels like? Especially when I have to get up everyday and figure out how to put fuel in my car to get to my beautiful studio at Fed Uni, where there’s more asbestos than students and the grounds are a graveyard preserving the memories of the ‘Boys Club’, who totally screwed us over when the previous funding dried up.
Regular readers will know that I’m dyslexic. Hence, I’ve always been outside of institutionalised learning, making me very realistic about my opportunities. Truthfully, even if I did move to Melbourne to enrol in a Bachelor of Art, I still didn’t want to learn about art that way. It’s largely why I didn’t continue my education after graduating from RMIT TAFE. I knew I couldn’t write 2000 words on my work without a mental breakdown. This motivated me to develop a pretty comprehensive checklist of the art education I wanted:
• Be based in Gippsland and free (or even better, it pays me to learn);
• Availability of equipment and space;
• Access to some of the best teachers in the world, that still actually make cool work;
• Create work that means something in the real world;
• Teach me how to survive, e.g. Dealing with councils, permits and getting grants;
• Be in a community that cares about each other’s work, not just who’s better;
• Pushing all the boundaries and being BOLD;
• FUN! Stress-free. No assignments and no reports;
• Open to everyone;
• Gives back to Gippsland;
Regardless of my insecurities, the hope of having an arts education in Gippsland was intoxicating for me and the people I mentored. I think it was this hope that gave me the strength to close my studio, become an artistic nomad and work on the projects across Gippsland that I’d been drooling over. I wanted to learn from these projects and then pour my new knowledge into TOPshelf.
The key projects were FLOAT, ALT_Art, GCAD, East Gippsland Gallery (clearly if you have capitalised letters in your project title it’s a winner!) Within a couple of months Gippsland was my arts oyster, ready to be explored by artists of all kinds. Four spaces became available, completely rent-free, and four influential people began supporting TOPshelf and showing me how to build valuable networks. Best of all was their endless availability to my questions.
I could ask my mentors anything, they’d explain it to me again if I struggled and when I hit dead ends, they’d help me find new paths. Organic opportunities opened up. I became paid to mentor, co-create,
project manage, facilitate workshops and speak, and I was even commissioned to do my first proper gallery exhibition! Most of this has happened in the last three months. TOPshelf was nominated with the YGAP social enterprise accelerator program and Random Hacks of Kindness to build the TOPshelf app for free. This year I’ve gained the arts education I dreamed of by building an art education system (that I’d wanted) for others.
To assist other Gippsland artists, here’s what I’ve learnt this year; featuring the projects and mentors that so graciously assisted me, and the knowledge I gained from them:
ALT_Art with Joh Lyons — ‘Space’
• Show up;
• A bit of space goes a long way;
• No good deed goes unnoticed;
• Be an oasis in the sea of bureaucratic bullshit;
GCAD with Bryce Ives — ‘Time’
• Everyone is 15% right;
• Persistent and reliance;
• Be a person who can give someone else a platform to be heard;
• A job can be impossible….and that’s totally do-able;
FLOAT with Andrea Lane — ‘Personalities’
• There is room for all;
• Find a cool, sexy idea;
• Make sure it looks good in photos for Facebook;
• Weekly catch-ups work wonders;
East Gippsland Art Gallery with Krystal Stubbs — ‘Teamwork’
• The gallery is owned by the people;
• Invite people in;
• Share the vision and will other people
to exceed it;
• Four white walls can set you free;
TOPshelf: PollyannaR — ‘Soul Goal’
• Do the one thing you want to do before you die NOW;
• Make a game plan;
• Do what you can then, find the person who can help for the rest;
• Work for them and if they can’t pay you, still work for them.