“In 2020, the year we all had to stay home, it suddenly become clear that those practices based in the domestic sphere, become some of the most vital actions to stave off the anxiety that sprung from a global pandemic. Inspired by the traditions off our foremothers, there was a collective resurgence in everything from baking bread to embroidery, as things tilted out of the norm and towards uncertainty.
Capitalising on the revival of these creative practices, the postponing of exhibitions due to the closure of the Riddoch Arts & Culture Centre, and the desire to connect and share stories, the Telling Tales project was born.
Among our postpones programs for 2020 was the Country Arts SA touring exhibition Domestic Arts by Sera Waters. Sera who spent a large part of her childhood in Mount Gambier, and whose connections to the region remain strong, has a long and impressive history as a textile artist. Significantly, the Domestic Arts exhibition demonstrates not only her sensitivity and dexterity with textiles, but also with her frank and heartfelt personal settler history.
Intended to show simultaneously with Sera’s work, local artist Jo Fife was set to deliver a solo exhibition, displaying a major body of work that came out of a mentorship with renown textile artist, Kay Lawrence.
In contemplating postponing both exhibitions and looking for opportunities within new conditions, it turns out we had all the ingredients needed. Between Jo and Sera’s textile practices and their shared history in the Limestone Coast of South Australia, we could set-up a collaboration that would connect our community in new ways.
Realising that the Walkway Gallery in Bordertown, was scheduled to have Sera’s exhibition during this time of closure as well, and that Country Arts SA who were touring the exhibition would have goals and interests to us, I set out to establish a five-way collaboration between the Riddoch Arts & Cultural Centre, walkway Gallery, Country Arts SA, Sera Waters and Jo Fife.
Together, we came up with a project that proved to be far more successful than any of us though.
Telling Tales, as the project became known, started with a call-out and assembling of embroidery packs that could be sent out to people who registered. The call-out included anyone who had a connection to the Limestone Coast and a story to tell about their family history, town history, a folktale or strange event, to register for a pack and embroider their tale with materials provided. We agreed that the pack would contain some fabric, thread and an instructional card.
The fabric we chose were old drop sheets, steeped in the hundreds of exhibitions shown within the walls of the Riddoch Gallery. The thread in each pack, included shades of blues and greens, colours iconic to this region. In this way, the materials would reflect not only the origins of the project but would tie all separate works together when Jo and Sera assembled them.
When we began the project, we considered that 30 returned entries would be a success. Quickly, we realised as more and more packs were being posted out, we would need an assembly line to make enough for all the interest we received. In the end we had 80 returned entries.
In the Telling Tales project there is a story about a woman who, in her youth, dressed in her mother’s finest clothes to collect honey from the local hives, only to have a narrow escape. People reminisced about driving with their families to Mount Gambier to visit the Blue Lake during holidays and the family in-jokes and stories they would tell.
There are stories about losing gum boots in the mud, neighbours who contributed to the communities and lives around them, memories of attending local school, children describing their favourite places to go when they are happy or sad, the stories that connect Boandik peoples to this place, and grandfathers who built a road between Bordertown and Kingston, overwhelmingly the stories were about families, connection to place and generational memories.
People’s generosity in contributing to this project, and the heartfelt, personal stories that poured out, along with the care and time each person put into their embroidery, was a delight. Each story read, and every embroidery assembled, brings us a little closer to our community, captures the personal and heartfelt tales that fall out of the pages of history, swallowed by time and outsider’s perspectives on what is important.
Telling Tales feels like an ode to those domestic arts practiced by our foremothers, whose care and creativity not only kept homes together, but were artists and makers without ever being celebrated for it. And it feels like a community sharing something that was bigger than anyone’s person’s story, but is part of the fabric, the history of the people who live here, in the South East of South Australia, and their collective contribution to this place.”
The Riddoch Arts & Culture Centre