Updated: Mar 31, 2021
Last Sunday Peter and I attended a community gathering in the 130 year old garden at the home of one of Australia’s most celebrated artists. It was one of those glorious autumn mornings, with the sun blazing in a blue sky, as if it hadn’t got the memo that summer was done, yet in the shade the sunless-cold was instantly chilling. Typical Southern Highlands. We were reminded of why we love living in the Southern Highlands, and that it is so much more than four seasons, heritage houses and beautiful gardens.
The history and natural beauty of the Southern Highlands are significant attractions, but our life here is equally enriched by the kind of people that this aesthetic attracts. Recent local research into the value of arts and culture described our residents as “makers, creators, participants and audiences for arts, culture and heritage.” Sunday's gathering reflected that description, and everyone in the crowd was there to celebrate and protect our community. At times like this the joy of belonging is unsurpassed.
After the lockdown last year people from nearby cities came to visit in droves, longing to breathe in the space and natural beauty that is so abundant here. Visitors always help me to see with fresh eyes and like many Australians I fell in love with what is right under my nose all over again. Since then I’ve felt a heightened sense of belonging and on Sunday many of the people who make my heart sing were there. Belonging, it seems, also activates a willingness to fight for and protect the place we love to call home. It makes sense, the joy of belonging makes us more motivated to act to protect what we love.
The night before we had dinner with friends. Patsy had recently attended our Home Grown weekend retreat and was excited to show us her plans for her new veggie garden. “This is why I love living here” Patsy said, “there is always something to learn.” She’d prepared a delicious slow cooked meal which we shared at her table after touring and discussing garden plans. “This is what I really love”, she said, “savouring slow, home cooked meals at home, with small groups of friends laughing and debating anything and everything. Living in this rural heaven has taught me the value of this lifestyle, and the value of true friends.”
The slower pace of life here is a blessing, it is true. People have time to cook, to enjoy long leisurely evenings and lively dinner debates. Another friend at Patsy’s table was a local artist, and one of the debates was about the value of the arts in our community. Well, it really wasn’t a debate, we were all on the same side, it was more of an exploration. Painting by Scott Pollock, Yawky Yawks from Maningrida
It was one of those ephemeral dinner party yarns that solved the problems of the universe, but in the morning when you try to retrieve the keys points, they’re nowhere to be found. As the morning fog lifted, however, I did find enough clarity to propel me to attempt to share the essence of it, hoping that it wasn’t one of those ‘you had to be there’ moments. So, here’s the gist of it.
When I was a young woman in an Escada suit and Manalo Blahnik pumps, working in corporate Sydney, I suspected that artists were demiGods who lived in a space somewhere between humans and the divine. Musicians, painters, writers, poets, dancers, performers, I thought, must have done heroic things in past lives to have deserved such a blessed existence this time around. ‘Creatives’ too, seemed similarly blessed with the ability to see what other mere mortals couldn’t see. My heart would skip a beat and I’d hold my breath in awe whenever I met ‘an artist’ and never knew quite what to say to them.
Music has always been a part of my life but I was not exposed to art beyond the skerricks I was taught at school. Creativity, making and crafts were big in my childhood too, but not visual or performing arts. In Otara, NZ I lived in a suburb that still had cows at the end of the street, and in St Leonards, Tasmania we lived on ten acres in a small rural village. My best friend’s Dad started Design Tasmanian in the late 70’s, way ahead of his time. Paralysed with fear in the presence of so many demiGods, all I could do was artist-watch from the shadows at the exhibition openings.
Now that I am a grown up I know that artists are indeed a kind of demiGod - mortals whose talents and abilities approach being divine. Sitting at Patsy’s table, where everyone was an artist or creative, I realised I wasn't in Otara or St Leonards anymore.
What's more, apparently, there are more artists, as a percentage of population, in the Highlands than anywhere in Australia! There is a local research project afoot that is attempting to measure the value that our artists add to a community, and how the cultural capital of the arts adds to individual, social and economic wellbeing. That conversation goes back at least as far as to Plato. Many of the best things in life, however, can't be measured, which is a limiting factor when one is trying to create an economic argument. How do you measure, for example, the long term impact on children of exposure to the arts? How do you measure the relationship between art and belonging? You can only really attempt to measure their consequences, like measuring the impact on health and wellbeing between people who report a deep feeling of belonging compared to those who don’t.
How do you measure the impact of creativity and art?
Those at Patsy’s table all know that creativity, artists and aesthetics feature highly among the reasons why we all live here, and they are also factors at play now with the mighty push of tree-changers moving into the region and jacking up real estate values. Therein lies the rub.
When I say artists, the definition is broad, there are artists and writers who work as gardeners, celebrated national icons, professionals who do earn a living from their art, those who are found regularly in their studio out the back, but still have a day job, and those who always loved ceramics and are finally getting their hands in the clay - and more.
Artists tend to move to a place where they can find the space and time to work. For some affordable housing is key. Like the Shamans who reside at the edge of the village, with one foot in the wilderness, and one foot in society, artists often live where society and nature meet. Many of the artists I know have left Sydney because accommodation and studio space were no longer affordable. Or, they yearned for the ‘head space’ that rural life offers, and a less hectic pace of life for themselves and their families.
When artists converge in places where the lifestyle they seek is more accessible, their presence contributes a richness, diversity and energy that lifts and inspires the community they’ve moved into. Anyone who is familiar with Robertson over the past few years will have witnessed a remarkable transformation, sparked by the opening of SHAC, the Southern Highlands Artists Collective. With what felt like a whoosh, Robertson was given the breath of new life and soon many existing and new nearby businesses began to thrive, as did the artists themselves. The subtle and obvious impacts of the SHAC included a boost in the value of local real estate, and traffic. Not being able to park outside Moonacres is barely worth a grumble, especially when the bigger impact is that now housing is becoming less affordable.
So, in essence, we were pondering over our slow cooked meal, artists make the places we live in more interesting and more beautiful. They breathe new life into a place by contributing to the intellectual, artistic, and creative fabric of life in the form of literature, music, and poetry, enhancing our enjoyment in leisure and quality of life. This, in turn, attracts droves of people who are seeking a better quality of life, and then, the demand of the flock pushes up prices, puts pressure on public infrastructure and pushes out the artists. Covid too is part of this equation, driving prices up as city folk yearn for space and nature.
Penny Simons, Artist in Residence, The SHAC
Here, in the Wingecarribee this is of the utmost pertinence right now as we are being called to vote in our local Council elections in September. Here is a moment to recognise the power of arts and cultural resources in society and to bolster them to promote community well-being by protecting our artists and cultural capital. We only need to think of Bali and Byron to see examples of what can happen to places, and what can be lost.
Already I know of two artist families who have left or are planning to leave the Highlands. It’s not only affordability that has led to the decision to leave, it is the increased traffic, lack of parking in the main centres, and the speeding up of the pace of life here. What drew them here, what drew us here, is under threat.
Artists have heightened powers of observation and are finely tuned in to the aesthetics of nature. They often see what we don't or can't because they slow down, reflect and take the time needed to do their work. They do what Mary Oliver said so eloquently, “Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.” It is no surprise then, that artists are often passionate about sustainability too. Without a doubt all of my artist friends are acutely aware of both the beauty that surrounds us here and the dire need to fight to protect what we have. Not just to protect pretty places for more wealthy people to come and enjoy, but because we need to be conscious of the impact of decisions made in the interests of progress. The Highlands is experiencing a period of rapid growth and this is an ideal opportunity to reflect on the kind of growth and development that we want, to protect that which we most highly value.
I for one want to put down roots here, and plant forests that I may never see fully grown. I want to work with the community to co-create the kind of diverse, vital, connected, creative, thriving and sustainable environment that we all want to live in and enjoy. I want to live in a place where farmers and growers are celebrated for the beautiful local food they produce, where the people that cook and preserve that food are valued, where all those who take care of us and the places we live in are cared for and appreciated. I don't want to build a wall and close our doors to newcomers, I want to welcome even more diversity. I want to learn how to belong to this Country. I want to live in a place that values the earth as our home and art for art’s own sake and artists for what they contribute, even if it can't be entirely measured. Those who enjoy living here have evidence enough.