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Artist In Profile | Louise Cooper

In 2014 the NSW Government Department of Family and Community Services Office for Ageing, partnered with Regional Arts NSW to deliver a one-off devolved funding program to pilot creative ageing projects in regional NSW in 2014-15.

The program objectives included:

Projects from three Regional Arts Boards – Southern Tablelands Arts (STARTS), Eastern Riverina Arts (ERA) and Western Riverina Arts (WRA) were given $15,000 each.

The Western Riverina Arts project, For Prosperity’s Sake – a partnership with Leeton community groups including the RSL, CWA and Rotary – has been facilitated by artist, Louise Cooper.

Robyne Young asked Louise about her involvement in the project, and found a writer who believes in the healing power of listening.  

I ran a creative youth holiday project last July, through that I was meeting older people in Leeton who wanted to record their stories. I got talking to the Regional Arts Development Officer, Derek Motion, about my interest in storytelling. From that initial discussion the idea for this project grew. Western Riverina Arts submitted the project idea and it was accepted.

Your arrival in Leeton in February 2014 seems to have been more a matter of happenstance than planning. Is that how it was?

I’d been living up in Tabulam in the northern part of NSW in an old timberyard and decided that it was time to move on – I didn’t know where I’d end up. I like to travel, to see Australia, explore and learn the stories. I’m originally from Melbourne but I’ve lived in many places: Nimbin, Grafton, Glen Innes, then backpacking all the way up to Townsville too. I like small towns and their stories. I came to Leeton as a hitchhiker. As a hitchhiker you learn that people love to tell their story and that you need to have a gentle listening ear. Naturally humans are storytellers. I also think sharing your life story can be therapeutic, that sense of connection and being valued – listened to. I try to be that gentle listening ear and always ready to learn.

This project is very much grounded in the sharing of stories. Do you find people are revealing to you quite personal and sometimes even painful memories? How do you cope with that?

I have had people start crying during interviews or get flustered and forget. I’ve also had people tell me things ‘off air’ that they don’t want recorded. It’s important that I am respectful of this. I’ve had to delete entirely a couple of interviews I’ve done. This can be hard when you’ve just spent a couple of hours collecting their story, but it is their story. It’s important to stay respectful, turn the microphone off for a few minutes if need be. I remember when I started out, I thought maybe I’d need my own counsellor to help me through the process of listening to so many stories, but it’s been fine – an intensely human, natural experience.

Have you always had this interest in people’s life stories?

I am really inspired by the living history books and the classical approach to education. Living History books are accurately portrayed novels of historic times and places. The Classical Approach to education uses the timeline of history to guide people through an education in all human endeavours. In order to understand now, we must first understand the past.  As an ex-home schooling parent, I am aware of the lack of Australian history materials. I have a focus on being able to deliver Leeton and its residents’ histories in an interesting way, easily readable way. I really like that these stories are told in the first person. My passion for philosophy is another guiding force. This project is founded on the premise that Age is Opportunity to Experience, Experience is Opportunity for Wisdom. Questions of how we should live, what experience and wisdom is worth collecting and passing down, what can we learn from our elders are key elements.

Leeton is a young town, only founded in 1913, so if someone has been here 50 years, they’ve been here for half of that time and witnessed the developments and changes. As well as their own experience they also pass down the stories of their parents and grandparents. I love that Leeton is a town full of opportunities for those prepared to have a go, there’s not an old guard. The Mayor came here as a fruit picker, the Deputy Mayor came here as a Refrigerator Salesman – their stories are both featured in the book.

Through the interviews I’ve been able to build up a picture of the town. I’ve been really surprised by the amazing quality of the stories! I’ve heard about how the area was settled and built up; a Wiradjuri elder who grew up in the bush; transportation from horse and sulkies to the car; how the local supermarket began as a fruit cart on the side of the road. As well the impact of the Depression and the origins of the jagged farm boundaries; the truth behind the Aussie folk hero, the swagman; and I even learnt about an international cricketing career. Also there are stories of the small schools that I love so much!

Apart from the interviews to record the stories, you’ve also introduced people to a number of new artforms that reflect your own arts practices. Has this been successful?

I did offer some self-publishing and creative workshops. The creative workshops included zentangle self portraits, calligrammes, decoupaging, stencilling and even spray painting. We also did a bit of a tour in partnership with community transport that drove us around so we could do a photoshoot of Leeton’s iconic buildings to document Where our memories were made. But it’s been the one-on-one sessions recording seniors stories that have proven far more successful. I have fifteen stories in total from these one-on-one sessions which will be transcribed, edited, illustrated and bound into an amazing book. I’m confident that it’s going to be a success. We are already getting pre-orders from as far afield as Queensland. There’s some great Australian history in it!

Have there been any surprises for you during the project? Any people you expected to meet, but didn’t?

You know I started out hoping to speak to some old bushies in their Akubras. I suppose I haven’t quite gotten that, but each interview has taught me so much. Being a newcomer to town, it’s been a really exciting way to experience the town and get to know it deeply.

Each interview has been so interesting. I’ve heard tales from all over the country and world that span over a century: firsthand accounts of some of the most pivotal moments in Australia’s history.

Louise, schoolchildren will also be involved in the project. How important is the cross-generational aspect of For Prosperity’s Sake?

I think the title of the project really reflects the priority to pass down the stories and wisdom for today and tomorrow. I think that lifecycle and passing the knowledge between the stages is vital for a healthy society. That’s what my practice focuses on intergenerational community development. I still feel like at 28, I have so much to learn from my elders. The last two questions I finish each interview with are: What do you believe are the most important values in life, and what advice would you have for the younger generations of today?

I think we have a lot to learn from our elders; the senior members of our communities. We need to sit down on the floor, cross our legs, pretend we’re back in school and get ready to listen.

The book and website launch will be held at 6.30pm, Friday 26 June at the Leeton Multipurpose Community Centre.

Find out more about the project – www.facebook.com/forprosperityssake

 

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