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Young artists take the lead

When one first meets Asha Duggan and Lily Mae Martin, what becomes obvious is that they are two very different young women. Asha, older by three years, is a lot more reticent and speaks in a thoughtful manner. Lily, on the other hand, is garrulous, or, to use her own word, ‘opinionated’. What brought such distinct personalities together? Art.

They are the first young people to complete the Rudder Project, an art-mentoring pilot project based at the Artful Dodgers Studios and run under the auspices of Gateway, a Jesuit Social Services’ program. The culmination of Asha and Lily’s participation in the project was a successful exhibition held in Melbourne earlier this year.

It was a dream come true not only for them, but for artist Sally Marsden, who spearheaded the project. A long-time practitioner of community cultural development, she had been looking for ways to enable young artists, who wouldn’t otherwise have the means to establish a career in art, to move into the field.

‘One of the hardest things about studio participation is that it is a successful model,’ she says wryly. The Artful Dodgers Studios has proven strategies for engaging young people and sustaining their participation in activities that prepare them for employment and educational and community outcomes. The next step, Marsden felt, was to disengage—to help them move out of the program with the skills and confidence to create their own future. She was also concerned with passing on community cultural development skills to a new generation of artists willing to work with marginalised young people. Thus, the Rudder Project was conceived.

Duggan and Martin were chosen from eight applicants and matched to artist mentors Jacqui Stockdale and Laura Woodward. According to Duggan, creating art preceded the mentoring relationship: ‘As soon as we get into the same room, we make art. We don’t really say, “You’re mentoring.”’

While Marsden takes a different view, she confirms that what differentiates art mentoring from other models of community-based mentoring is the focus on artistic results. In the case of the Rudder Project, this covered skills required for an art career such as business, research, computer competency and time management.

Duggan was clear on her expectations of the project in this respect. ‘I wanted to know if it was possible for me to take a leap out of my structured lifestyle and learn something that I really wanted to do,’ she says. ‘I wanted to structure an exhibition and document it completely so once I finished the program, I could look over my notes and reapply the situation whichever way I wanted.’

Although Martin also took the project as an opportunity to create a body of work, she had not been certain about what to expect. She discovered affirmation.

‘Being part of it made me realise that my opinions, as harsh as they can be at times and as much as I chuck them in people’s faces, are valid and important,’ she says. ‘I do have some good ideas.’

This articulation of ideas is at the heart of community cultural development, Marsden explains: ‘What it’s really about is working with communities in a way that assists them to articulate social concerns, issues, their cultural life, creatively and culturally to a broader community. Art is language and has equal weight to verbal language. It is important because it operates on different levels.’

Duggan understands what this means. Not a loquacious person, she expresses herself freely in symbol. ‘I put teeth in some pictures when I try to make myself aware of the direction I’m going,’ she says. ‘My experiences come through the surreal imagery in my work. It’s like a sheet that nobody else can understand but which I use to reflect on the next picture. It
constantly changes.’

For Martin, art is a response to what she observes as being under-represented or undervalued. Growing up in a home dominated by males led her to an appreciation of the strength of women, particularly her mother. ‘In society,’ she muses, ‘a lot of people favour men and I don’t get it.’ Her penchant for drawing feminine images may thus be seen as an artistic way of correcting the imbalance.

A work called Bunnies, on the other hand, is her attempt at drawing out irony from the way people find rabbits ‘cute’ but might not necessarily look after them properly. ‘People piss me off,’ she quips. ‘That’s probably why I draw bunnies.’

Duggan, on the other hand, describes her art as documentation. ‘Every different phase of your life can be illustrated,’ she says. ‘When you have a person’s life work at the end of their life, you can see the development of eras and influences. It’s like a time capsule.’ This is also her approach to portraiture. ‘I’d like to do portraits of the people in our time, like Magda Szubanski. I want to create an artistic way of remembering her so 20 years from now, people will see what went on.’

Despite their differing styles, Duggan and Martin have built a solid peer mentoring relationship. ‘The big joy, and I think the big surprise for all of us,’ says Marsden, ‘is the friendship that developed between Asha and Lily. Visual artists often work in isolation and can feel isolated. When you are able to collaborate with another artist, it’s really exciting stuff. It’s a myth that artists have to work alone.’

Another myth that Martin feels should be broken is the idea that art is necessarily highbrow. ‘Art is a form of entertainment as well. It doesn’t have to be serious and important all the time,’ she says. She deplores the notion that art is inaccessible. ‘That’s what some art galleries make it out to be. I don’t dress “normally”, and when I go into big galleries they make me feel incredibly unwelcome. It doesn’t feel like art is for everybody. But it is.’

Indeed, this may well be what the Rudder Project and other community cultural development initiatives iterate: that art, in its various forms and as a repository of ideas and values, belongs to the people from whom these emanate. ‘The essence of community cultural development,’ says Marsden, ‘is that it is owned by the community.’

In this sense, it is not only the artistic outcomes that have made the project a success. According to Marsden, other results are equally positive and tangible. ‘From my observation, for example, I’ve seen Asha not just artistically grow, but personally grow—there is confidence in herself.’

Asha agrees that the experience has had an impact. ‘It made me go after things that I wanted but never knew where to find. It created a path that I could follow instead of running around.’  

Fatima Measham is a freelance writer.



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