We Are Dookie
I’m driving through Central Victoria and whilst traveling between Violet Town and Shepparton I land in a town called Dookie. The surrounds there are a saturation of yellow painted in fields of canola crops, wildflowers, gumtrees, big skies, and brighter-than-bright sunshine. This is the gorgeous and surreal quality of a town about to step into the limelight.
On the main street you’ll find the Memorial Hall, the pub, the Dookie Emporium, the Post Office, another road with the footy club on the left, and a quarry on the right. Then you’re out of town. With no more than 350 people, Dookie is a small farming community in the Goulburn Valley region with strong links to the Yorta Yorta people, book-ended by the mountains of Major and Saddleback.
Within this juxtaposed history of place there’s most definitely a tale or three to tell. Personal stories that connect with Dookie are seen as central to the vibrancy of the town. The Dookie Arts collective recognised this and after securing funding through the Regional Arts Victoria’s Small Town Transformations grant they employed artist and community worker Helen Kelly to direct the upcoming major art event Dookie Earthed. Kelly was born and bred in the area and has been welcomed back to work with the town towards a new phase of creative growth, a celebration of multi art practice, using film as the springboard and a theme that’s linked to geology and our relationship to the land.
The beauty of making real time community based art is that it forges new links with both the general public and it’s immediate environment. Helen Kelly is passionate about sharing interesting ways of making art and presenting cultural practice for and with people. She’s known for responding to place in ways that are a little left of centre, and her work on this project is amplified to eleven because of her personal history. Helen Kelly grew up just outside the town and has now come full circle.
Helen’s personal story is as concrete as it can be for a white Australian. She’s a fifth generation Kelly from the area; her dad’s family came out in the first fleets as free settlers, becoming farmers in St James. She lived on a farm just behind Mount Saddleback, north east of Dookie. Economic hardship took the family off the land and into the agriculturally based Dookie College. As a toddler, agriculture was her creative play. Her connection to the area is solid as a rock. I ask her how art fits in.
Helen exclaims, “What’s art? I didn’t even know what art was!” Art practice was not named in this world. Playing with the honey on her toast at breakfast is her most vivid memory, linked to the influence of having a foodie for a mother, where only the best local honey would do. The slow drip of this sweet viscid fluid was her first experience of art as play. The patterning and swirls activated a creativity that has stayed with her ever since.
Living on the campus of the agricultural college kept Helen’s family linked to farming, and during the holidays the kids did the jobs that agricultural students usually did, so she grew up working in the poultry, the piggery, the dairy, and the horticultural area. Helen was grafting fruit trees at twelve years old, and also worked in the local shop. Vegies, meat, eggs and milk all came from where she lived. From the age of nine she would travel north to work on her brother’s share farms. Art was no part of her childhood, but community and the land certainly were.
The resilience and flexibility learned from this kind of hands on upbringing cannot be found in books, and it rings true through her current art practice. Kelly is an artist who has worked with different mediums over the past ten or so years, and as such her practice continues to defy labelling. She’s worked as an artist in glass, sculpture, installation, and also worked in collaboration with Paddy O’Sullivan and her children on a travelling circus to the South Australian town, Maree. Recently she’s collaborated on video works, predominantly with Jim Coad’s Video Architecture projects. Her arts-based business is called unqualified, and delves into conceptually based solo and collaborative artworks.
Helen’s thinking lends itself well to collaboration, and she’s been inspired by many artists, significantly by a work she made with Tasmanian light artist Jasper Da Seymour, where place was investigated using abstraction. When I first met Helen she was working in glass, but even then her work was driven by ideas connected to landscape. I discovered different ways of seeing through glass, but also through the etching and lines on its worked surface. In her adopted home town of Castlemaine, Helen maintains the honour of renting the near-legendary inaugural studio space at Lot 19, and in some ways her work forms a legacy for the artists who currently reside there. It’s hands on, celebrates beauty, follows the heart, and connects meaningfully with environment.
Although Kelly has worked with many regional festivals in the past, including Junction Arts in Launceston, the Alice Desert Festival and the Castlemaine State Festival, it’s rare for someone to grow up in a small town in regional Australia and then come back as the Artistic Director of a large-scale art event. It’s empowering and very much a symbiotic relationship. Even though the personal history is already established, it’s been over twenty years since Helen’s been to Dookie.
“It’s incredibly interesting being able to come back as an artist and help to create this event,” she says. “I’ve had a lot of experience at a lot of different levels, but I’ve never done anything quite like this! At first I didn’t know how I was going to approach it, but to my surprise it’s been exactly the same process as I use when making a commissioned glass window or a sculpture. An amazing experience so far.”
Dookie Earthed is a meandering twelve hour art event that will start at high noon to finish on the last strike of midnight. It will explore new ways of experiencing theatre and art, primarily through use of a natural amphitheatre, being the terrain of the local quarry. “The quarry hasn’t seen action like this since it closed down eighty-odd years ago”, muses quarry owner Paul Tricky, and Helen likens Dookie Earthed to that quarry, where the materials to be extracted from the land are creative. Focus will be on the history of the town, the art making process, hidden stories, and the psychology of environment. There will be a festival quality, aiming for an ethereal, gentle overall tone.
They’re digging up the town symbolically and physically. The people who live here are responsible for reinvigorating this town. The community is the self appointed medium for this artwork, and Kelly supports this in her own role. She’s fascinated by geology, different stories, and the links that emerge. She is using these ideas to enhance the strong sense of community that already exists. She’s celebrating art as language. Recent experience working in aboriginal communities has fed this passion. “I’m starting to understand the ways that indigenous culture is based on language. We have such a linear view of time; I’m fascinated by what is actually created with language. It’s all about where you put your intention and energy.”
Helen is bringing in a few artists to work alongside the locals; it’s a very small town full of very busy people. This is the nature of regional towns, where resources are stretched and local artists are often in demand, with their fingers in a few different pies. Yet there’s a symbiotic relationship between workshop activity (including ABC Open) and the final event happening on October 4th. The artists are feeding each other, and feeding into the skills of the town.
An example is provided by a group of filmmakers who are working on a very special project entitled Flowing Earth Fertile Land – Impressions of the resources & community of Dookie. It’s directed by Davide Michielin and produced by Denise Martin, with Clive Willman also part of the team. They’re working in collaboration with Yorta Yorta people, exploring the geology of place. This short film was specifically commissioned to inform the rest of the artwork and will have its world premiere at Dookie Earthed.
For such a small town, there’s a myriad of interesting tales to tell. Projects being showcased during Dookie Earthed are zoning in on these stories through digital telling. One project involves the kids from Currawa and Dookie Primary Schools, who are investigating and drawing work based on native seeds, that will be animated by David Jones and Jillian Pearce. Then there’s a brilliant collaboration between students from Dookie College, sound designer Russell Goldsmith, and the Dookie Men’s Shed, called The Cashel Industrial Orchestra. These projects and an intriguing photographic exhibition by local artist Serana Hunt have tapped into some incredible people, from a famous 1950s fashion model through to a charming Italian monk from a monastery based in Dookie. Serana’s project is called Dookie Behind Doors and she’s been knocking on every single door to make photographic portraiture that will be projected onto the silo in the middle of town during the event. Flame food will be available on the main street, and Jamie Lee has programmed live ‘dirt music’ on the Skate Park Stage. There’s a walk with unexpected art that will lead us to the quarry, where a program directed by Ian Pidd called Theatre of the Earth will unfold into the night. It’s all about movement and conversation. Good times.
Dookie Earthed promises to fully embody the town on the first weekend of October. This concept, combined with the dynamics and connectivity of a small town is going to make for an incredible experience. Grab your map, pack your tent and head on up there.
Dookie Earthed is brought to you by Dookie Arts with support from the Yorta Yorta corporation, Connect Integrated Systems, the community of Dookie and the Regional Arts Fund on Saturday 4 October 2014 – dookiearts.com
Regional Arts Victoria’s Small Town Transformations – smalltowns.rav.net.au/
Klare Lanson is a writer, poet, performance maker, and sound artist, and currently presents Turn Left at the Baco every Saturday night on Castlemaine’s community radio MAINfm. Her current project is called #wanderingcloud