CHRISTINE WILLCOCKS 

The decision by the NSW Governmment to withdraw funding from the arts courses at Lismore TAFE was the impetus for the beginning of the Byron School of Arts.  What do you think are the main changes that are happening in art schools in Australia at the moment?

This question is not an easy one to answer as I think different institutions have differing agendas, but I will say the one thing they all have in common is the bottom line and the dollar. I do know that when we were given the boot from TAFE the main reason given was that the Fine Arts or Visual Art courses did not have commercially viable outcomes. Design was seen as job orientated so these courses were kept and/or amalgamated with any remains of Fine Art courses. Universities also saw the bottom line and their need to save money, and unfortunately the arts are the first place to go as many politicians and bureaucrats have no understanding of the true state of Art Education. When you get a politician declaring that arts education is a 'lifestyle' choice, it just shows the total lack of understanding of the true values, I stress values here as there are many, in educational institutions.  

The short answer really is, this country, in a general sense, undervalues the arts. Therefore it is the most expedient and least disruptive way for Governments to balance their books. 

Leaving TAFE was the catalyst for starting the Byron School of Arts with fellow artist Michael Cusack.  What was the original idea behind the school?

Michael and I worked together for some years at TAFE, before our dismissal, having many discussions on art and life in general. One of those discussions involved his aspirations of one day running an art school built on the model of the Black Mountain College in America. This Art and Creative Collage was different in nature to other art schools of its time, being experimental and as well as having an interdisciplinary approach. This college had an informal approach with practicing artists being the facilitators for students. It was successful for nearly 3 decades despite being in a rural area and running on a very limited budget…… sound familiar?! 

When the opportunity arose and a burning passion to make ends meet, the Byron School of Art came into being. Michael is the big thinker and brave, whereas I am the practical one, creating a pull push relationship that seems to works. We have a common love and understanding of ‘contemporary art ‘ as well as our educational backgrounds. I place contemporary art in small letters as it is a term in constant flux; Michael and I have an unspoken understanding of what that means and therefore we never want to sell the school short. We have an abundance of amazing artists in this area, who also happen to be our good friends, and this really became the catalyst for the success of the school.

Black Mountain College used its isolation and its rural environment as a key element in its pedagogy [the model was based on the Bauhaus].  In Weimar, where the Bauhaus opened in 1919, isolation and nature featured heavily in artistic training with the idea that the closeness of nature produced thoughtful work.  Being in a rural setting with the communities strong affiliation to the environment and nature, is this something that also runs through the teaching at the Byron School of Arts? 

There was no intentional direction for the school as far as a rural setting goes, it just so happened they we, the directors, were drawn to this place over the years. The Byron Shire has, since the early 70's, attracted creative people, its a beautiful rural area with beaches and the hinterland. Great people, great setting and with that comes many accomplished and aspiring artists. It's fair to say that the landscape is a point of reference for many people but we do like to think we can open this area up for other ways of seeing and not just wholly confined to the beauty of the landscape. In the last few years the area has become very cosmopolitan in many ways and this has added another dimension and experience for our students. Having said that, we do have the advantage of not having to travel far for rural excursions which is a great advantage. It is the urban areas of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne that we have had longer excursions, exposing our students to as many galleries as possible. I don't think we can dismiss the area of which we live and work, it has a strong attraction and for me personally that closeness of nature definitely produces thoughtful work.

Boris Groys poses the question in Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century) is teaching art also teaching life?  Some of the inhabitants that reside in the Mullimbimby community came for the Age of Aquarius festival in the 1970s, coming for an alternative lifestyle or as part of the counter-culture, yourself included.  The town of Mullumbimby seems ripe for all kinds of alternative community based approaches of arts practices that operate outside the white cube.   Would you agree?  

Yes you’re right, the town of Mullumbimby has always been a diverse little town with varying cultural groups, not just the hippy culture of the 70’s. For a country town it has been open to new people and ideas and I think this is its greatest appeal apart from the landscape.

Our main philosophy of the school is artist’s teaching artists and with that comes a very wide spectrum of both teacher and student. The beauty of not being funded by a government body is that we are able to adjust and adapt the teaching at any given time to that which is more relevant for the students. Our teachers of the long courses carry with them a wide range of teaching experience in both academic and technical institutions as well as their very strong professional practices and from that comes a wealth of knowledge and experiences. Hopefully we are able to make the whole experience for the student an exciting, knowledgable and supportive one. They are engaged on an individual level rather than all being contained in the same box, which also makes it very exciting for us as teachers.

Is the teaching based towards process, object based production or a creative participatory role in shaping culture?

That is an interesting question, when we started the school we very much wanted a strong crossover of processed based teaching being supported by a strong underpinning of critical thinking and we still do. This was a lot harder at the start, as the majority of students mostly wanted process and we needed to build the school, having only a one year program had its limitations. Then by the end of the first year our students wanted a second year then they wanted a third year, so this enabled us to give them such a variety of both the thinking and the doing. Due to the attraction of this area there are so many interesting, well know creative people here of which we can draw on for lectures etc., not to mention the Art in the Pub  (which is an out of school lecture program just under another name). Also having the Project Space and a two week turn-a-round program allows the students to see diverse quality work, this then becomes a learning space for professional practise.   

Why did you decide to do artist talks in a pub as opposed to an artist studio?  

Michael and I had been talking about all the fabulous people we knew and wouldn’t it be great if they would give a talk; my mind went immediately to the practicalities and the work needed to put on such talks, setting up, seating, refreshments etc and then I had the crazy idea of doing it in the pub, where all these tasks were already available and the food was good. So we approached the Courthouse Hotel in Mullumbimby and they were only to happy to give it a go. At first they gave us a tiny space in the corner, thinking there wouldn’t be much interest but to all our surprise we got a packed house which then led to the pub giving us the whole space in front of the stage area. Again we didn’t want to complicate matters and make more work for ourselves so there was to be no money changing hands. This was and is an arts practitioner talking to artists about art.  The pub now supplies the meal and a drink for the speaker at no cost. Everyone wins. We also thought it might be a good idea to invite  c.a.s.e.inc., a community arts group, to get involved and they have been tremendous. 

Does it make sense for today’s art schools to organise art departments by disciplines?  

Yes and no, we find that we need to give the students a comprehensive experience in all areas, but this is not alway viable as it can be very costly and we do not have the all the resources. Having said that we do have many short courses specialising in particular areas with highly skilled facilitators. I think that is the strength of the school, the students get a really good grounding in all areas and then we the teachers are able to direct or guide the student in any particular area through workshops, short courses or mentorship and this seems to be working well. 

I think it still makes sense in bigger organisations to have departments, but areas that are not just confined to those students doing those disciplines. Today practices can take in a multitude of processes, let everyone access those areas. 

Should art schools embrace or ignore the commercial art world?

I don't think necessarily it is our job to embrace one or the other, we like to encourage our students to find their creative path be that commercial or not. Many of our teachers are supported by commercial galleries but not all, we get excited by the possibilities of the student. We have a student in third year who has an exhibition in our project space at the end of the year and, after 2 and a half years, has come to the understanding that it is performance she wants to do for her exhibition which is so exciting. It does take a bit of work for some students to realise the value of their work is not always in dollars but that's not to say it is a bad thing either. Success can be measured in so many ways. In our area we have a great advantage in the Regional Galleries, they are not run as commercial galleries but allow creative and thoughtful exhibitions where we all have the opportunity to follow through on an idea including students. They also bring National and International artists where the students can experience new media, performance, installation, conceptual art as well as the traditional arts,  they can be very exciting spaces.

What was the most valuable lesson you learnt at art school, whether by another teacher or student?  

Where do I begin, 6 years at university completely changed my life, my way of thinking, and as a different and exciting new way of moving through the world I lived in. For me it wasn't the skilled based learning, although I really did learn a completely new skill in printmaking, but it was the opening up of ideas and the excitement of how others think and it still excites me today. 

You live up in the hills of Mullimbimby, which is pretty remote,  how much has that influenced your art practice?

It has completely influenced my practise, university taught me how to see with different eyes before that I could only see that which was before me. I later learned that it was not so much the rainforest or the remoteness that influenced my work but rather the place where I worked. I had a studio near the ocean for 7 years and was very influenced by the ocean and I have spent residencies in India, Berlin and Paris all of which influenced my work greatly, in particular natural history museums. But these experiences always seem to co-exist with that of my place in the hills and the importance of our natural environment.

You moved to Mullumbimby in the 1970s and went dancing every night.  Did you know when you arrived you would stay as long as you did?

Wow, from the moment I arrived in Mullumbimby I knew it was the place for me: you could be or do what ever you wanted without judgement on any social level. We were all looking for a freer life expressing ourselves through mind, body and soul;  many mistakes were made but many things were so right like our love and respect for the natural environment, healthy foods, and creativity etc. Nearly 40 years now and it is still a special place.

Interview Mullumbimby 2016 | 2017