Visitors to the Eurobodalla Shire are naturally attracted to its spectacular forests, coastline and beaches. But newcomers don’t always realise it’s also a region filled with creativity.
“People usually come here for the amazing remoteness and nature of the region, not realising there’s an incredible artistic underbelly here too; many artists are inspired by this pristine environment,” says Di Jay, co-chair of the annual River of Art Festival, which runs dozens of events across the region from 18-27 September.
Despite the well documented challenges of 2020 for the region (the year kicked off with the January 2020 bushfires just two months before COVID-19 struck Australia), organisers of this community-driven arts festival have harnessed their own creativity to ensure the festival will continue to highlight the breadth and depth of the area’s artists while adapting to a COVIDSafe environment.
The festival’s popular open studio program will still run, with organisers expecting around 30 open studios between South Durras and Bermagui. When combined with exhibitions and pop ups in all the major towns of the Eurobodalla, including Batemans Bay, Tilba, Narooma and Bodalla, it makes for a great excuse to tour the region by car.
“Most galleries are putting on something special this year,” says Di.
Di also expects art aficionados from across the country will enjoy River of Art’s new online component: a series of virtual open studios. These beautifully produced videos go behind the scenes with local artists, including two printmakers, a painter, a furniture designer-maker, a textile artist, a ceramicist, and a sculptor.
“People are curious, they love to see someone talking about their work and inspiration, playing with clay or wielding a paint brush to see where the art comes from and have the opportunity to buy,” Di says.
Resilience and renewal the theme for 2020
Unsurprisingly, the festival’s 2020 theme incorporates resilience. But the choice to focus on both resilience and renewal is very much at the heart of the work that will be on display this year.
“I know of several artists who lost their own homes and studios. They are still struggling to rebuild their lives and practices, but one was creating new paintings almost immediately after losing a house and studio he’d lived in since the 1970s. It is quite remarkable,” says Di.
She’s also noticing the theme come through in the work itself.
“I’m seeing artists who have been influenced in their practice since the fires – influenced by shapes, and colours, renewal and regeneration as they watch the forests being reborn out of the ashes. People have reacted in very interesting, creative and different ways,” she says.
An exciting addition is REVIVE, a new mural project set to capture the attention of visitors and locals across the region. The mural project received support from the Eurobodalla Shire Council’s Disaster Relief Fund, for five large-scale public artworks to be created across the region this year: two in Batemans Bay, one in Central Moruya and two in Narooma.
REVIVE is being curated for the festival by nationally and internationally renowned public artist Tim de Hann (Phibs), pictured. Each mural will celebrate community resilience.
In Narooma, Tim’s mural will feature on a two-storey wall at the town’s main roundabout, and feature marine creatures while another will emerge on the site of Narooma’s Oyster Festival. Here, well-known indigenous artist Cheryl Davison will collaborate with ‘Phibs’ on a large mural celebrating the significance of oysters as traditional food and feature Mount Gulaga.
Two more murals will be painted in Batemans Bay and another in the centre of Moruya; all communities impacted by bushfire.
Work on all murals will begin on 18 September at the start of the River of Art, and finish by sunset on 27 September, the festival’s close, allowing festival visitors to see how the artwork evolves over time.
“People can watch the muralists at work and still be physically distanced. It’s a wonderful way to engage people in public art despite Covid,” says Di, who says the murals represent the beginning of a public art trail that will be built upon each year.
Despite the obvious challenges of producing a festival during a pandemic, Di believes the difficulties of this year make the River of Art Festival even more important than usual. Happily, the popular Art on Parade will be back. Artists ‘marry up’ with a local business, which provides access to its shopfront to display their art during the festival.
“A lot of artists have been working under lockdown during Covid, and the opportunities to show and sell their work have been more limited. It’s incumbent on us as a festival, born out of a grassroots creative movement, to provide an opportunity for artists to showcase their work,” she says.