As one of the many contemporary veteran artists featured in Persona, it was an honour to recently open the show in Bright.
Thank you to the wonderful Tony and Renata Strachan for your friendship and enthusiastic support and engagement with contemporary veterans. By bringing the show to Bright, you have helped kick off Personas regional tour, as well as celebrate the centenary anniversary of Bright RSL. Congratulations, Bright RSL and thank you for your support also. Thanks also go to the Bendigo Bank, and the Bright Art Gallery and Cultural Centre for hosting this show.
Congratulations Tanja Johnston and the team at the Australian National Veterans Art Museum (ANVAM), photographer Michael Christofas, and writer Gabriel Holmes for this incredible creative collaboration. Through Persona they really do provide a glimpse into veteran artists and our Personas as creatives.
At the invitation of the Victorian Veterans Minister, this physical exhibition opened in the Queens Hall of the Victorian Parliament House in March 2022. The online Persona exhibition was launched in Brisbane later last year. This online collection online showcases 44 veteran artists with accompanying narratives which help create broad national public awareness. I very much encourage you to explore the extended show online.
Earlier this month the Persona book was launched at the Governor General's residence in Kirribilli – you can pre-purchase the book. Persona now commences its regional tour of Australia, first stop Bright!
Many think being in the defence force and being an artist are opposing interests. I find that I often get a surprised response when I tell people I used to be an Army Officer, but now I'm an artist! But, like many veterans, I had always wanted to be an artist. When my mum asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I said I wanted to be an artist. She responded that I should join the Army! I thought I'd appease her by applying, thinking I wouldn’t be successful because I was ‘too arty.’ Imagine my shock when I got an Australian Defence Force Academy scholarship! Thinking that I was only young once, I decided to join the Army and go to Canberra to train to be an Army Officer. A few years later, in 2003, I graduated from the Royal Military College – Duntroon as a Lieutenant.
Throughout the 20 years that followed in the Army, I found time to draw, go to exhibitions, and do the odd art workshop. In my job as an Army logistician, I travelled around Australia extensively – living in Hobart, Darwin, Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra. I crossed the world for work; the Pentagon, NATO HQ in Belgium, the UN HQ in New York, and the Ministry of Defence in London to name just few. I met royalty in Jordan, historians and archaeologists on the Western Front, and a 'Fuzzy Wuzzy Angel' veteran whilst walking the Kokoda Track in PNG. I deployed to the Middle East three times, once to Kuwait and twice to Afghanistan.
The last deployment saw me travel extensively, meeting Afghans trying their best to protect their state from the Taliban.
In 2017, when my daughter Imogen was just two, my veteran husband, Imogen’s dad, died. Andrew had also enjoyed this Army career as well, but had been badly injured on a Special Forces course, which left him with a broken back and stolen dreams. In the wake of his death, I completed my Masters at the Australian War College, continued to take on challenging jobs and promote. My grief told me to keep going lest I lose anything else.
But the toll of working in the full-time Army and being the sole parent of Imogen after all we’d been through, started to weigh after a couple of years. Eventually, at peak sadness, in 2019, I spoke to a veteran friend who suggested I study art full time. Art, after all, had been my first love. So I used a work trip to Melbourne to concurrently visit art schools. The ADF ran an AARTS program for six weeks, which I was fortunate to attend, and that helped me establish the portfolio I needed to apply for art schools. At that time, I met Tanja and Mark Johnston from ANVAM, and they helped me imagine a new happy life for myself and have been incredible mentors and practical helpers along the way.
To help find this new life, I walked the 700km Camino de Santiago in Spain, an opportunity to try to resolve my past and say hello to an art-filled future. Walking in nature, sleeping rough, carrying my pack daily, meeting people from around the world – I was grateful to the Army for the skills I'd received. I was also immersed in the arts in this fantastic cultural site.
I got into both Melbourne Art Schools I’d applied for. I selected RMIT, and last year I graduated with a three-year undergraduate degree in Fine Arts. This coming week I start my Honours year, and in November I will exhibit my first solo show.
Despite the Melbourne Lockdowns happening three weeks after Art School commencing, I attribute the new peers and discipline of the course in helping me successfully transition out of Army.
Expression through the Arts is a powerful tool for veterans to forge a new, positive future – to find new friends and purpose. For me, it was a game changer. I have found inner peace and a new like-minded community of veteran art practitioners through the arts. Some of my new veteran artist friends are in the photos surrounding you.
I think what Michael has done with his Photography has captured the happy transition for me from Army Officer to Artist. This colourful smiley photo really does capture my true Persona.
But Persona isn't about just one image, or one narrative and certainly not only mine. Community asks that we go down into ourselves with vulnerability and then stretch outward in solidarity with others. The making of Community builds on individual stories and grows communal stories. Through Persona you can read the narratives of many veterans, all with stories as textured and diverse as the photos seen around us. It is these communal stories that link people together. Persona captures these stories, honouring the veteran arts community; and we are proud to have shared them with the beautiful community of Bright.