Making Art On and With Country

“Learning about where you are and who, and what else is here with you, is fundamental to beginning to create a world where contemporary and ancient knowledges become.”

Dr Red Ruby Scarlet

Two beautiful stories – one from Garigal Land, one from Gadigal Land – illustrate how sustained, cyclical, reflective art projects led children and educators to connect and become with Country.

Our first story begins on Garigal Land with a series of questions: Where is Garigal Land? What do we already know about it? 

With clay in hand, children were encouraged to represent their observations of the world around them. As they moulded bug homes, rocks, bee hives and snakes, the children’s fingers became familiar with the textures and affordances of clay.

From here a new series of questions arose: What grows on Garigal Land and how can we look after it? Through visits to the local community garden children were introduced to bush tucker foods, which became the subject of more moulding and creating with clay. 

“We then used white clay to create small bush tucker berries, with the children pinching, squeezing, rolling and creating these small round shapes. What we loved about using the clay was that, once hardened, they would become a resource within the classroom and had increased longevity.”

Weaving together the threads of a space investigation with the Garigal Land project, children and educators were inspired to ask: What does Garigal land look like from space?

Educators introduced bird’s-eye photographs of the local area, and the connections between these photographs and Aboriginal symbol systems were drawn. Children’s knowledge of their local area – the roundabouts, the trees, the roads, the parks – was mapped out using Aboriginal symbols. 

Back working with clay, educators and children found that Aboriginal symbols could be shaped between their hands. Children’s coils, spheres and elongations were placed together piece by piece, creating transient collaborative artworks. To children’s surprise, when they photographed and viewed these collaborative artworks from above, new images and meanings emerged! One artwork looked like a bird, another like a snowman, and another like a woman sitting cross-legged.

“Now that our clay work has taken on new heights, it feels that we are only at the beginning our clay mapping. It is through repetition and frequent exposure to this medium that we will be able to delve further into the possibilities of clay and develop a special connection with the clay that is connected to our land.”

In this first story we see a conversation of materials and places and relationships – a constant cyclical back-and-forth and over and under of ideas and connections and resources. For the children and educators at this centre, questions led to clay led to community gardens led to photography led to Aboriginal symbol systems led to more questions and more clay then back to Aboriginal symbols.

This evolving art project was not contained neatly within a box labelled “clay work” or “Aboriginal symbols” or “space”; all of these and much more were tools for thinking about the question of connection with Country, and for expanding children’s sense of belonging to Garigal Land. 

Our second story unfolds on Gadigal Land, and the cycle of learning begins at the Australasian Nature Photography exhibition, at the Australian Museum:

“The children were appalled by images of animals caught up on human-made rubbish. We  had watched plastic rubbish travelling down the canal by our school and flow into Sydney Harbour.”

The photographic artworks motivated the children to take action to protect the sea creatures affected by plastic pollution. The storybook Tilly’s Reef Adventure by Rhonda N. Garward, and two artworks of turtles by Yorta Yorta and Wemba Wemba artist Ray Walker – Saltwater Dreaming and Freshwater Dreaming – steered the children and educators in the direction of creating a turtle artwork; a giant light sculpture made from plastic milk bottles; the materials themselves an activist statement, repurposing waste and drawing attention to its abundance. 

“As we constructed our sculpture, the children continued to revisit Walker’s art, using it as a guide for shape and form. Many drawings and paintings were created as we tried to get to  know ‘turtleness’, alongside yarns about turtles, and what they mean to us. These conversations linked back to our connection to Gadigal Country and the importance of caring for the land on which we live and play.”

For these children and educators, their ethic of care for Country grew as they read stories, engaged with artwork by Aboriginal artists, and shared their knowledge and concern for their local environment. The creation of the collaborative turtle sculpture allowed their conversations and investigations to unfold, shift and grow together.

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