Nostalgic wonderment hits me like the scent of home every time I visit a rural area of Victoria. It may be my first visit to a town yet l feel an immediate connection to the sight of the vast surrounding land and romantic ideology of a quiet life.
Memories of testing cattle fences with tentative hands and digging through paddocks and wandering along old railways for discarded pieces of industrial metal, interesting skeletal parts, or other natural treasures flood my mind and confuse the experience of visiting regional areas as an adult; I intuitively want nothing more than to explore them in the same invested enthusiasm as my younger self would have done.
Needless to say that when invited by Ararat Regional Art Gallery to facilitate a zine workshop as part of children’s week, I was immediately excited about the prospect of a road trip – my personal desire for adventure and curiosity toward community structure and townships is unquenchable!
I always relish having the opportunity to engage with youths in a rural community. Having lived in Gippsland when I was younger, I felt conflicted in my position – free as a bird to explore the local realm on my bicycle and yet still quite isolated from the rest of the world. I want to give them a platform to voice their opinions, encourage other rural kids to think critically and utilize this medium to express issues concerning them; in doing so we can all discover more about their lives, their positions within their community and how mainstream media effects their choices and ultimately shape what they consider important. I want them to feel important, connected, relevant.
Day #1 : First impressions. Upon arriving in Ararat it is clear that while some things never change, there are aspects of rural living that seem so modernly out of sync with how I recall country towns to be. The old main street is dotted with the essentials: bakeries, pubs, post office and an IGA, however larger clothing chains and fast food outlets have also moved in.
Pulling up to the Town Hall, where the Regional Gallery was situated, I was immediately drawn to the old building. Australia considered a young country by comparison to other European settlements, we don’t have as many heritage aged buildings as other countries, however, fortunately rural towns seem to preserve their foundation buildings quite well, so there are often interesting places to visit in theses areas – Ararat is no exception.
Entering the gallery space was quite a different air from the exterior. The high ceilings and clean walls were hosting some brilliant ink sketches by a local artist Lily Mae Martin as a feature exhibition. The curves of the bodies were unabashedly realistic, as were the detailed landscapes that captivated clearly the love of the bush obviously frequented by the artist. There were other installations in the front room: local children collaborated on a sculpture that stood proudly beside the front desk – in fact the desktop itself was an installation artwork too. I was genuinely impressed with the variety of work on display.
Wendy was working at reception when we arrived. She warmly introduced herself and invited me to join her for a coffee. As we became acquainted we spoke at length about our own artistic pursuits and local ideals; the truths of rural living not being entirely perfect, distance, disconnection, of the hardships and complexities that those who have never lived outside a metropolitan area will struggle to comprehend, of the ways the strength of a collective persons means something so much richer when it’s a necessary structure for a successful community, and the feelings when faced with the parallel differences v’s similarities of my then childhood and the present insularity of these small populations. It was a warm welcome, wonderful conversation and insight to the area which I thoroughly enjoyed. The coffee hit the spot too, it had been a long drive.
Although the workshops were now to be held at the high school as an incursion, to best make use of the time allocated for each session, I was shown through the different areas of the art center and gallery and I was informed of the anticipating renovations that promise to offer more in the way of facilitating better performing arts as well as an expansion of the gallery space. I plan to return next year, I’m interested to see how the new development turns out.
Exploring. With plans now in place for the following day, we checked into the motel down the road and established what we needed to, before heading out to investigate the town a little more. Anne (fellow creative comrade come travelling adventurer) and I walked and drove the back roads counting the empty boarded up warehouses, marveling at how many stores don’t open on a Monday (food outlets included) and generally investigating
down alleys behind the main street photographing graffiti and interesting roof lines and stray cats.
Eventually crossing the railway tracks, map in hand, driving down every dead end and side street we fancied, we theorized about the lives we could have in the various homes we passed; not a single cliche was left unaccounted for. We passed the botanical gardens, the bowls club and found numerous adorable country frontage properties that warranted photographing, as well as some sadly abandoned (and therefor necessary to investigate) eerily overrun properties – including the old mental hospital grounds.
J Ward/Armadale. The high blue stone walls of J Ward stood unnaturally still against the trees. We unintentionally walked into a tour while surveying the perimeter of the external walls, noting little details in the masonry work, window bars and doors. I was intrigued by the existence of the building and it’s history. While contemplating the past inhabitants lives, an old swing set in the neighboring community garden creaked in the wind, singing in high pitched soundtrack to our wandering minds through its rusty joints. It was all a little too beautiful and surreal until the tour guide spoke to us. We hesitated before moving on. He’d broken the eerie ambiance; the moment passed.
“J Ward started its life as a goldfields prison in 1859. When the gold ran out in the mid 1880s the prison buildings were acquired by the Lunacy Department as a temporary housing for the Criminally Insane. The County Gaol then became a ward (J Ward) of the Ararat Lunatic Asylum where the most depraved and most dangerous men in Victoria were housed in horrific conditions under the highest security”
We continued on driving until we found a strange set up.. large lawns with building structures dotted through it – the signage looked new, but the buildings didn’t – it looked deserted. Curiosity got the better of us.
After a quick investigation of the broken windows, old barns and curious industrial looking things, we met back up and together drove down a dirt road that took us past a string of some rather quaint old dwellings. They were well kept, but had been boarded up; warning signs posted on the front doors.. Perhaps these were previously occupied by the physicians that tended to the inhabitants of the hospital? Grounds keepers? It was a odd sight, to find these tucked behind a series of old worker sheds and an abandoned school/block facility..
Seeing as there was no one in sight, we pulled over to check out the long school-like building which was overgrown with such dense foliage growth that it obscured the ramp entrance to what we assumed to be an old school building. It turned out to be a lemon tree. I climbed it to try and get a better view of inside, but it wasn’t much to look at. I decided that the exterior promised much more than the interior could ever live up to. In the end, we left thinking it must all belong to the one property, including that of the neighboring Asylum.
Perhaps it’s worth noting, for those of you who are not this way inclined, let me assure you: we didn’t hop any fences, or ignore any KEEP OUT signs and we certainly didn’t damage any property. It was purely indulging our natural investigative curiosity. If you’re a misfit at heart, you’ll know why we couldn’t resist.
Winding down. Given the oddly ‘closed on Mondays’ trend of Ararat eateries we ended the day with a trip to the IGA and a slap dash dinner of nachos and beer back at our motel room. Skimming through old magazines and reading past our bedtime in the hushed silence in our room, with no one but ourselves, was an indulgence a couple of mums like us sorely needed.
Day #2 : WE CAME HERE TO ZINE. The next day we packed the car and I headed to the school on foot while comrade Anne went to the local library.
Marian College I was assured was a modern, progressive secondary college. A lovely old structure, however logistically difficult given the number of stair cases traveled with the awkward weight of my zine library! I was fortunate to occupy a home room adjacent to a photocopier so the sessions output could be collated and bound in the one session, which is always a bonus. The classes I was disrupting were Year 8 English and the Year 9 Photography class so I felt good that the curriculum wouldn’t suffer too much as we’d be incorporating writing and imagery into our zines. I was accompanied by their Art/English teacher, a colleague and Wendy from the Gallery for the duration of the workshop. The combination of input from various perspective proved helpful and meant there were many hands to assist one on one for much of the session.
The theme for this years Childrens week was “Children have the right to reliable information from the media” a theme that I was eager to address through the sessions.
The physical format of a zine was such a foreign concept to these kids. None of them (admitted to at least) read any publications on a regular basis. So when I spoke to them about using this opportunity to vocally oppose mainstream media views and aesthetics, they knew of magazines and comics (and had a vague awareness of their local paper) but didn’t feel the allure of legitimacy toward the predicament of feeling misrepresented or share my excitement for potentially publishing anything that would challenge the status-quo.
Although they were more interested in mastering the typewriters and perfecting their washi-tape borders, by the end of both sessions the participants had all made a considerable effort in grasping the purpose of the exercise. The photography students incorporated some of their own images into their zines, however only a few touched on topical subjects they wanted to discuss; feminism, power, class warfare.
Even if the majority of resulting content perhaps seems trivial to more seasoned readers, the popular school-yard standard ideals held by regional youth of today is no less relative than theirs were/are. Indeed understanding youth-culture is important to their identity; deeply instilling values they will uphold or challenge as they grow into their older selves, who, will intrinsically enrich their community and others futures in turn driven by what they discover from each other, as well as from within themselves, as teens.
Talking to young people and allowing them to be themselves always teaches me more about myself than I am prepared for. It’s a beautiful trade off; listen, share, learn. I truly love what I do.
Upon leaving. As soon as the town disappeared from the review mirror and the plains of grass filled paddocks stretched alongside us Anne and I were already plotting where our next road trips would take us. I can’t wait!
Thanks. I would like to take this opportunity to again thank Wendy and the Regional Art Gallery of Ararat, Marian College and faculty for inviting me into their spaces to share zines with the students and also for their friendly hospitality.
I would recommend travelling to Ararat and it’s neighboring towns for a day trip to explore the historical sites and artistic communities. Take a drive past the city and explore these larger than life areas in rural Victoria.
If you live in a rural area and would be interested in A Zine Thing visiting your town, please get in touch (firstname.lastname@example.org) we’d love to talk to you.