Kelly Leonard is a Mudgee-based weaver and is one of the participating artists in the Art of the Threatened Species project, a partnership between Orana Arts and the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.
Tell us a bit about yourself, please.
I am a regional female artist and a product of my environment. Growing up in Mudgee during the 1970s I was reading feminist theory and listening to Patti Smith on vinyl. In the late 1970s — courtesy of Gough Whitlam’s free education policy — I left home to attend an art college at what was to become Charles Stuart University in Wagga Wagga. Here I met my weaving teacher, Marcella Hempel, a German Master Weaver who had studied under Margaret Leischner, a former teacher in the Textiles Workshop at the Bauhaus Design School in Germany. Marcella instilled in me a philosophy of weaving and a discipline of working.
In my mid-thirties I went back to study a Masters in Visual Art at the Canberra School of Art ANU as it was one of the few places that still had European floor looms and where I could combine weaving with theory. It is still important to me that I am able to frame my work with theory — it helps to place the work in a context.
In my mid-forties I went back to university again to study a Masters of Arts Management at the University of Technology, Sydney. I was the only student there who came from a craft background, most of the others were from music or theatre. The degree was useful when working in the community development sector.
I have travelled and contributed to community development craft projects overseas both as a volunteer and in employment with small non-government organisations. My interest is in working out strategies for communities where I am not needed, where the people can run their own projects. Other areas of interest have been in cooking and operating restaurants and broader community development.
How do you describe your style of art?
My art in the past two years has moved from a traditional craft based medium to one that is highly conceptual, collaborative and moves across artforms responding to the environment. My work is very much informed by environmental philosophy which provides a context for both making and showing the work.
At the moment I weave what I call props for the environment which are placed in site-specific locations around my hometown of Mudgee, photographed and then removed. The locations are chosen because they are under stress from the impact of the open-cut coal mines operated by big coal mining companies. The images are exhibited online and one of my goals is to develop some alternative broadcasting methods to reach a wider audience in the near future.
I am not that interested in making objects for traditional galleries anymore, although this may change. The work I make is pretty much process-driven and I derive a lot of satisfaction from thinking of the environment as a collaborator and audience.
Actually, there are a number of regional artists who work in a similar way, making work to be placed in the environment and I see these numbers growing as the impacts of climate change increase.
You are clearly inspired by nature and place — can you tell us how the landscape influences your work?
A deep empathy for landscapes at risk from the impact of coal-mining and global warming informs my work. My work often uses stitched text to deliver messages about the importance of caring about the local environment. I photograph the work in the landscape to explore the relationship between land and weaving.
Some locations informing the work are the Munghorn Gap Nature Reserve, Wollar, The Drip, Bylong Valley and Ferntree Gully.
I make work in Wiradjuri Country; I walk on traditional land. I hope the way I work is respectful. I try to be. I try to consider all aspects of a landscape by: how it smells, tastes, feels, sounds, how the light is filtered through the trees. The landscape is geological, cultural, historical and it is also a feeling. The landscape is not passive, it is full of things that watch me work and it is also a collaborator, helping me to shape the work.
And as your Art of the Threatened Species focus, what draws you to the Regent Honeyeater?
In some way, it didn’t matter which species I was paired with to develop artwork about as they all face similar threats from the impact of climate change, habitat loss, and things like the introduction of predators.
I have been looking for the Regent Honeyeater since moving back to Mudgee, my hometown, in 2016. The Regent Honeyeater was known historically to visit a remnant of woodland called the Munghorn Gap Nature Reserve, near Wollar, not far from Mudgee and an image of it sits on signage in the reserve. The area backs onto one of the open-cut coal mines, Wilpinjong. It is a place where my Grandfather used to live. I have spent a lot of time in the Munghorn, listening and looking, simply being there. My artwork over this time has become embedded into the environment, weaving material and ideas together.
My interest is probably not so much about the physical and behavioural characteristics of the bird, but about the variables, the entanglements within a real and political environment. At the moment, I am in a state of suspension not knowing if the Regent Honeyeater will return to the Capertee Valley (one of the last breeding habitats) this year because of the drought.
Recently, six birds were sighted in the Hunter’s Botanical Gardens near Newcastle, and one bird in Brisbane. Speculation is that the drought is forcing the birds out of the woodlands to the coast for food. Maybe I will never see the Regent Honeyeater in the wild. There is a breeding program for the bird at Taronga Park Zoo in Sydney.
My hopes for the future of the project is that it generates empathy not only for the species that are threatened, but for all species. We don’t know what the impact of the loss of the Regent Honeyeater will be. It may be that species of trees disappear as the Regent Honeyeater is an important nomadic pollinator. I hope by creating visibility, the project highlights just how fragile the ecological net is.
You are very busy at the moment, with lots of travel and residencies. Can you tell us a bit about your current creative projects?
I have just returned from the Arts Territory Exchange Residency in Italy. ATE is a global network of artists responding to their local territories, beginning with a simple correspondence program with another paired artist. My collaborator in the project is Norwegian artist, Beatrice Lopez and we have been developing work for a year via digital and postal means before meeting physically in the residency. It was great to meet Beatrice and work on some ideas we had about performances designed for two people in the Italian landscape.
I have been selected for Cementa Contemporary Arts Festival to be held in Kandos in November 2019, along with collaborators Jo Roberts and Jason Richardson from Griffith. We are developing a project called ‘Medium - A Collaborative Space’.The idea is to develop a space to make, listen and re-imagine connections with others. We will meet up in Kandos in January to stitch ideas together for the Festival later in the year.
I am also making work for the Art of the Threatened Species residency, curated by Dr Greg Pritchard. Twelve artists have been selected to make work about ten threatened species. It is a collaboration between the Office of Environment & Heritage, Create NSW and Orana Arts as part of the NSW Government’s Saving Our Species program. The work will form part of a group exhibition to be shown in 2019 at the Western Plains Cultural Centre, Dubbo. Other contributing artists are: Nicola Mason, Cathy Franzi, Amanda Stuart, Anna Glynn, Bec Selleck, Bridget Nicholson, Vicki Luke, Tullulah Cunningham, Alison Clouston, Peter Boyd, Peter Dalmazzo.
I have just started developing more work in an on-going collaboration with artist and writer Julie Briggs, who is located in Narrandera. We will be making work about the landscape in response to experiencing a performance held at Artlands Bendigo recently.
You have attended Artlands and Artstate conferences, both in 2018 and in past years — what benefit are these events to a regional artist wanting to engage with the sector?
I can’t stress enough the benefits of the regional conferences to artists. As a regional artist you need to go and find the people who will feed and support your practice and to whom you don’t have to continuously explain yourself. This is especially the case if you are working in a contemporary and conceptual way. The conferences provide a context for making work regionally and also provide connections regionally and internationally.
Artlands Dubbo 2016 activated my art practice in a whole different direction. I heard theatre director, Wesley Enoch speak about making five new connections with people when you walk out the door, which I literally did. One of those connections was with Dr Greg Pritchard, who has acted as an informal mentor for me ever since.
I have just returned from Artlands Bendigo 2018, where I am still processing a range of inputs. One of the key messages for me was thinking about ways small communities can themselves become cultural producers for a range of reasons — creative and social reasons — not just economic.
The conferences also have attached exhibitions and festival programs which are a great way to see what everyone is producing, to see the context in which you make work. I recommend any artist to check out various options to get themselves to a conference via grants, presenting, volunteering or gatecrashing!