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Regional Art Stories Stay true

Alana Hunt on Karla Dickens visit to Regional Assembly

It was only the second time the second cohort of Regional Assembly had gathered. And our special guest, the Wiradjuri artist Karla Dickens, called me the day before in a bit of a flurry. She said she didnt want to just talk about herself for two hours—"who'd wanna hear that?!” she said (quite genuinely) on the phone from her home on Bundjalung Country near Lismore in northern NSW.

Karla said if I wanted someone who was going to inspire others to take the path of an artist, she was the wrong person. I said we didn't need inspiration, but honesty. She wanted to know more about what this "Regional Assembly” really was.

Drawing on the title of a John Berger book, I like to think of Regional Assembly as something akin to the shape of a pocket. A pocket that we fill over a year with a spirit of creative interpersonal generosity. Where societal pressures to "compete” are transformed into comradery and, perhaps someday, collaboration. And where the seeds of artistic exchange that are sown now will really only bear fruit in years to come as part of a growing cultural ecology.

We are a varied lot. The second iteration of Regional Assembly brings together 10 creative practitioners from India, Sri Lanka, Kashmir and unceded First Nations territories across Australia. We dance, we write, we film, we stitch. We conceive things, materialise them, and share them in the world. We all inhabit various degrees of distance from (and proximity to) conventional centres of cultural capital; we are at various stages of life; and we navigate various forms of isolation and community. We are:

Amala Groom, Wiradyuri Country / Bathurst, NSW
Abdul Halik Azeez, Colombo
Arie Syarifuddin, Jatiwangi, West Java
Frankie Snowdon, Mparntwe/Alice Springs, NT
Jacky Cheng, Yawuru Country / Broome, WA
Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal, Woombah / Yaegl Country, NSW
Kate Just, Dja Dja Wurrung Country / Castlemaine, VIC
Katie West, Noongar Ballardong Country / York, WA
Paribartana Mohanty, Orissa and New Delhi
Selena de Carvalho, lutruwita / Tasmania
Zahid Rafiq, Kashmir

and me, as coordinator.

Although Karla was adamant her visit to the online studio space of Regional Assembly would not inspire, I think that everything she shared with us fanned the fire in our bellies. And that, for me, was a certain kind of heaven.

Karla was enthralling. Without any sense of fanfare, she held us with a kind of unvarnished wisdom that fuelled her every word, despite frequent attempts at self-deprecation. And through this process of collective watching and listening—as Karla shared deeply frank reflections on her life as an artist, and its course through different parts of regional NSW—I think the Regional Assembly cohort also came to learn a little more about each other. Through the questions we asked. Through the expressions our faces pulled on the grid-of-zoom at particular moments in time. Through the laughter we shared. And the silences we maintained.

The first thing I wrote down that day as Karla spoke, is that she is a profoundly private person with a public practice. A condition that resonated with a few of us, no doubt. People always want to know more, she said. And she spoke about how she finds herself constantly navigating that distinct public pressure a private person feels in the public sphere.

Despite this tension, she went on to share with us (relative strangers) so much of her life—childhood, her period as an (accomplished) teen criminal, drug use, the first property she owned, motherhood. Karla shared with us that she didn’t speak for three years—mostly at art school after recovering from drug use—and it was during this period that art became a vehicle for her to have a voice. Art provided a broad and layered language for all that words could not articulate. And art became a new form of addiction. A good kind of addiction (mostly!). As a relatively solitary person, Karla said, the art world often functions for her as a connection to the outside world. A necessary one. There is a fine line between connection and isolation, she concludes.

Karla never had plans to be a professional artist. She said it happened because of people. People who have supported her with little bouts of encouragement and little bits of money. Two things essential to keeping the essence of an artists life rolling along. The fire stoked.

The birth of Karla's daughter became a catalyst for her to make art as work. Art as farking work, she repeats. In part, because she couldn't find employment doing much else.

Her words reminded me of the loss of my own full time job in the arts after my son was born. It was devastating. But it made me try to make my art my job. Like Karla, I did apply for other work. I did a brief stint of manual labour on a local vegetable farm. I like growing food, so I didn't mind that work and it helped me to think more about the relationship between agriculture and colonisation. I applied for jobs at the local library, and dreamt of being around books all day. And I applied for a part-time-permanent-well-paying-position-in-admin at the local hospital. I never got an interview at either place, which hammered the ego. But those rejections also kept me, like Karla, on the path of being an artist.

There is a scarcity of time—Karla laments—there is never enough time! But there is also a need for some kind of domestic stability. This need for a home competes and combines with the need for a creative practice. And there is still never enough time. This is the contradiction. This is where, she says, myths need to be busted. There is never enough time. And thats how it is.

A "healthy work/life balance” is not really an option for Karla. She says she has come to accept that. There are waves. And riding them well depends in large part on the importance of conversations with good friends and fellow artists.

You need people you can talk to about the workings within the art world. Karla says she speaks most days to Blak Douglas. No wonder then, he captured her so well in his Archibald winning work Moby Dickens. His references to the false ceiling of government, to the precarity of the arts, and the ferocity of mother nature—all fitting with what Karla is telling us.

She returns frequently to her love of the visual. When you're tired and unresponsive, she reiterates, if you're sick of talking—visual language is a reprieve. It's refreshing. And powerful. But while talking about the power of the visual, Karla rarely shows us any images of her work. Instead she shares her life. An image of young Karla at art school; outside the house she built in the bush; winning an award; with friends and mentors; beaming in motherhood. And while Karla talks about how she doesn't particularly like speaking and how she's a very private person, she keeps speaking to us—artists are the shamans of today, she says—never missing a beat.

Getting down to business, she describes how the commercial gallery sphere is shaped by an awkward financial and artistic dance that is a constant site of struggle. How do you discuss money, she asks, when the work itself delves into deep and vulnerable places? Commercial galleries must attempt to understand artists in this awkard space with a sense of safety.

You can feel our zoom-room start to tick. Commercialism?!

Intuiting the questions bubbling in the room Karla says, stay true to yourself. Don't waste time trying to become what you think the art world wants. It's too changeable. She tells us the hardest, gnarliest and most confronting work she's made, has sold most successfully to institutions. At the moment she's out collecting cane toads for a new body of work. Previously the rubbish tip has been her preferred art material supplier. Low cost sources she recuperates into artistic gold.

As our time together draws to a close, Karla concludes by stating that living on the edge, on the periphery of the centre gives you permission to command your own time, and decide how you want to be an artist. I take this as a metaphor for the artist's condition generally, and simultaneously a more literal fact of the great benefits of regionalism and remoteness.

Alana Hunt

Alana is an artist and writer, who also coordinates the Regional Assembly program for Regional Arts Australia.