Speech at the Launch of the Hope: From Robe to Riches Art Exhibition

Transcript of speech by Dr Joanne Sullivan at the launch of the Hope: From Robe to Riches Art Exhibition held at the Gum San Chinese Heritage Centre in Ararat, on Sunday 24 September, 2017.

Welcome to the Hope: From Robe to Riches Art Exhibition. This exhibition tells the story of the journey of Mei Ling a 19 year old Chinese woman who traveled from Southern China to the goldfields of Victoria in Australia in 1857.

Each painting in the exhibition depicts a scene of significance for Mei Ling and the 14,000 others who walked 440 kilometers across an unforgiving, alien Australian landscape to find a better life.

If you have watched the video series on YouTube you will know that it is also a story about the founding of Ararat and death on the Goldfields.

Sadly, today there are 300 graves of people like Ping and Mei Ling in the Ararat General Cemetery that do not have headstones.

Introducing the first Everlasting PaintStory

We have created this PaintStory to tell this hidden part of Victorian history and to raise awareness of what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land.

My name is Joanne Sullivan and I am the Director or Stellar Ideas,  the creator of Everlasting PaintStories.

A PaintStory is a story told in paintings. The artists work to a script. And the script evolves as we interact with people in the field.

A core part of this PaintStory process is the artist being willing to paint en plein air—to go out and paint in the wild—and to share their work as it progresses, on social media.

Going out and sharing; creates the feedback loop that allows us to find and develop the stories worth telling.

People know that artists are good at looking, but in this type of project an artist must also be good at listening and responding to feedback.

Today you are seeing a milestone in a story that began in May last year. This is not the end of this story. We will add to it over time, send the exhibition around Australia and eventually to China. And in this way it will become everlasting.

Acknowledging contributors

So who is behind such a grand production? Everyone in this room was involved in this story. Everyone here has played a part in bringing it to life. In this room we have:

The artists.
The people who the stories are about.
The people who want these stories told: Our hosts and the media.
And supporters: our families; sponsors; patrons, art collectors, appreciators and the wonderful volunteers in our communities that have made all this possible.

So let’s all give ourselves a cheer for the excellent job we have done so far. Hip Hip Horray. Hip Hip Horray. Hip Hip Horay.

Concerning the people whose story we are telling

The descendants of the walkers, the settlers and the people who experienced all the events described in this exhibition in the room today.

Mayor Paul Hooper has spoken of the importance of this story to the communities of Ararat and surrounds.

And there are dignitaries here from all the cities along the way including Robe, Casterton, Ballarat and Bendigo.

The Honorable Mr Hong Lim has come down from Melbourne as a representative of the people of Victoria, especially the Chinese community.

In the sixteen months that we have been painting we have talked to all these people and many others along the way and have woven their various parts of the story into our script, which you can now see depicted on the walls of this wonderful Great Hall.

Concerning our hosts and the media

The Hope: From Robe to Riches Art Exhibition is going on tour. We want to bring this story to as many Victorians as we can. We hope to increase awareness of this part of our history with it’s completely relevant story of migration, survival, hardships and fellowship.

Undoubtedly Victoria is going to have a great influx of new migrants over the next few decades due to the growing needs in the world at large. I hope this story helps our people to find a kind and generous way to absorb these new members of our communities.

The journey pauses here at the site of the Canton Lead but we eventually want this exhibition to travel to Taishan, the sister city of Ararat and the place where most of the Chinese miners were born.

The Rural Council of Ararat has generously hosted this launch of this first Everlasting Paintstory and made its services, facilities and staff available to support the venture. Especially John Watson, who pretty much hung this whole exhibition by himself (with a little help from Norma and I).

Looking at attendance today and seeing how the media has embraced the project, I think that from a tourism perspective alone this project has been a great success. Apparently every room of accommodation in town was booked out last night. Even the one with the ghost, Clive.

Thank you to the ABC, WIN TV, The Ararat Advertiser, The Chinese Post, and The Chinese Melbourne Daily who are all present and have assisted in bringing this particular PaintStory to a wider audience.

Mr Bart Borghese a highly accomplished ARIA award winning Film Maker is here today to document our journey. An artist in his own right, Bart is planning to create a documentary of this process for film and television audiences.

Concerning the artists

Of course none of this would be possible without the amazing talents of the artists themselves. The paintings in the exhibition are not for sale. Each artist has donated their time and these pieces to the project to raise awareness and to participate in the first Everlasting PaintStory.

To me this is the greatest endorsement of the concept and I hope their faith in the process is rewarded by people becoming sponsors and patrons of this endeavor so that it can continue and grow. Which will give them the exposure they deserve for their contribution.

Thank you my fellow artists in arms for your honoured contribution to this project.

First among these is my mother Dr Norma Sullivan. Norma is an anthropologist who has collected and verified all the facts of this story. She is also an artist who has had a lot of fun, in her studio working and out in the community promoting the project. I am sure you will agree that her paintings are evocative, expressive and playful.

Clive Sinclair introduced me to the importance of outdoor painting. It’s not just about the challenge of capturing a scene as it continually changes—it is also about having the courage to show your work and the way you work to others. Especially other artists. Clive works with confidence, self assurance and is a huge inspiration to me as a tonal painter who is a master of his trade.

Hugh Foster is an intrepid plein air painter. Hugh has a great eye for the real colours, compositions and textures in nature. Watercolour painting is the most technically challenging, so you will appreciate how skillfully Hugh has managed to create these wonderful, clear renderings of the landscapes around us. And how he has woven into these elements of his very vivid imagination.

Speaking of imagination, Gwen Krumins has created snapshots of the most dramatic moments in Mei Ling’s odyssey. The first time I saw “struggling to shore” which has become the flagship image of this exhibition, I felt my breath catch and I had a sudden sense that I was looking directly into the past—through a special artistically enhanced, time-resistant telescope. Gwen achieves all of this magic with what appears to be a flick of her wrist and voila—China ink and paper transform into scenes from our dreams.

David Chen came to Australia from Beijing when he was in his early twenties. He’s had exhibitions in China, France, The National Gallery of Victoria and The United Nations Conference. He, like Gwen and Clive, teaches painting; and is a master with many apprentices.

When he became aware of this project David wanted to be involved because he felt this story is an important, yet hidden part of Australian and Chinese history.

You will see that he has created eight images that depict the four seasons of life. David explains that tone is the major means to create a picture and set the mood. When you look at “Autumn at the Well” you can see exactly what he means. For him and for Chinese people, the seasons reflect the Miners searching for the better life. Hope! This particular painting shows Autumn at night. After all day digging the gold Chinese miners gather around the well, which they dug themselves.

They are sitting there with a full moon, which in Chinese culture means family reunion. This group of people have left their family behind. David said “I am sorry for them, like me, leaving China behind. So I have a very strong feeling towards this painting.”

Concerning our supporters

Finally, if it takes a village to raise a child, then we have just proven that it takes a state to raise an exhibition. In this room we have friends, family members, sponsors, patrons of the arts, art collectors, art lovers; dignitaries, community members, and volunteers who work without expectation of reward.

Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. We could not have done this without you.

Getting involved

Whether you are an artist, a prospective host; a person with a burning story to tell; a person whose story is being told; a collector and patron of the arts; or just someone who would like to see this venture grow and become truly everlasting:— there are a number of ways for you to support or become involved in this and future Everlasting PaintStories.

Please visit patreon.com/everlasting_paintstories to get involved. More information about this is on the posters around the room. Or come and see me.

Final dedication ceremony

There is one group in particular to whom we all owe a great debt of gratitude: The volunteers and friends of Gum San. A small group of 20 people, who have worked tirelessly for decades to bring this building into existence; look after it and forge links between Ararat and Taishan.

Key among these are Heather Lockland; Joy Gunstone and here with me: Mr Henry Gunstone. Henry is a driving force among the Friends of Gum San and a prominent business man in Ararat. He is well known and respected in the Region and in Taishan.

I would like to dedicate this exhibition of the first PaintStory—Hope: From Robe to Riches,—to the volunteers. Henry please accept my dedication of the exhibition. I believe you and the volunteers represent the kindest and most generous among us—the type who all of us would hope to meet if we are ever strangers in a strange land.