Friday, 6 December 2019

Outback Patron of the Arts

In March 2018, I spent a few days in the remote Queensland town of Normanton, awaiting the weekly run of the Gulflander train.

One morning, killing time, I visited the Three Tribes art gallery, and for the first time the ferocious dogs near the old town well declined to bark at me.

Were they asleep on the job, or was I slowly becoming accepted as a local?

The front of the gallery was locked, so I walked around the back and found an open-air shed with a dozen or so Aboriginal women creating art at tables.

Shenane was the gallery manager, who I'd met briefly the day before at the town's Visitor Centre. She had a no-nonsense manner I associated with the aunts of PG Wodehouse books.

“I don’t have a staff member to run the shop at the moment,” she said, opening up the gallery for me. She explained the women were mostly making art as part of a work for the dole scheme.

“Better than doing something pointless like weeding,” I said.

It struck me as a good idea, the artists building skills and creating works to be proud of, as well as earning a commission from sales. And it provided another way for tourists to spend their dollars in the town, which was always a consideration for remote places with limited amusements.

There was an array of work on the walls, in both contemporary and traditional styles. One large portrait with a lot of black was painted by a woman who’d suffered from depression, said Shenane.

I turned over a small glazed bowl shaped like a gumleaf (see image at left). It was $3, so I decided to buy it.

Then I noticed a framed painting on the wall above the till, about 50 centimetres square, featuring brightly coloured handprints framed by dots (see image top right). It was only $30. I bought that too.

While I was encasing it in some bubble wrap Shenane had found, she ushered in a young woman. This was the artist, Stella. We had a chat about the work and how she had created its elements, and she went away beaming.

“That was her first sale,” said Shenane, dropping the aunt-like demeanour and smiling.

I rarely make impulse buys when travelling, obsessed as I am with travelling light. Now I had to work out how to get the art back to Melbourne.

The staff at Normanton's general store gave me an empty cardboard box to encase it, which I bound with a large amount of post office adhesive tape. I dispatched it to the mercies of Australia Post, feeling good about my impulsive role as patron of the arts.

I returned home safely two weeks later. So did the painting.


Three Tribes is located at 85 Landsborough Street, Normanton, Queensland. See more details at the Bynoe Arts Centre website.