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Local artists find resilience amidst turbulent times

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The abandoned foyer of an old cinema was not where the graduating class of Murwillumbah TAFE’s Visual Arts Diploma course had intended to have their final exhibition.

Two weeks before their showcase was due to open in the TAFE’s Murwillumbah St building, the powers-that-be introduced new COVID safety regulations which effectively meant that no one outside of students and staff would be able to attend.

Local artist Alexandra Diana with the pieces from her Triptych ‘Emotional Landscapes’. Image: Jeff Dawson

While the idea of exhibiting art without an audience may have been interesting conceptually, it was not what the newly-minted graduates had in mind.

So the search for an alternative venue began, led by TAFE’s head of creative design and ideation for the Tweed, Sandra Guy.

What emerged was a remarkable collaboration between TAFE NSW and Murwillimbah’s M|Arts Precinct that resulted in a huge end-of-year exhibition by students graduating from 11 different creative and design courses spaning both the Kingscliff and Murwillumbah campuses.

Much of their work found a home in the un-utilised foyer of Murwillumbah’s grand old Regent Cinema. ‘I remember saying “we can do this!”,’ Ocean Shores based artist Alexandra Diana recalls of the moment she and her fellow students walked into the cavernous old foyer for the first time.

‘It’s amazing what you can do when you have to adapt.’

A few weeks and plenty of elbow grease later, the exhibition is in full swing and the space is filled with colourful creations from some of the region’s finest creative folk.

But finding a venue was just one of the challenges presented to the students by COVID-19 over the past 12 months.

Like thousands of others across the Northern Rivers, Ms Diana and her colleagues have had to navigate the lack of structure created by fewer face-to-face classes, financial challenges, and feelings of isolation.

‘I think we all needed to be more resilient to hold the process gracefully,’ Alexandra says.

‘One student in our group had very little internet reception, kids needing to be home schooled… one student lived in Queensland had to try and navigate the border situation which meant taking the bus.’

For Ms Diana, spending more time painting and creating alone allowed her internal processes to arise – bring up both gifts and the gremlins.

‘Because I didn’t have to be painting it enabled my fear to very present,’ she says.

‘The time would come to paint and I would be like “hmmm, I might just go for a walk in nature.’”

‘At a certain point I just said “ok, just do it. Somehow that unblocked the process”.

As the creative juices started to flow, the heartbreak from a recent relationship break-up emerged as inspiration for a series of emotionally evocative drawings entitled Back to Self.

Created using a combination of monoprinting and thread stitched into paper, the drawings explore relational themes such as boundaries, the inner child, and anxiety.

‘Part of the intention of my art is for people to see a part of themselves in the work,’ she says.

‘In that way I think we can understand ourselves better and feel more ok about ourselves.’

Revealing her innermost feelings and emotional processes to the world is a recurring theme in Alexandra’s final body of work. A triptych entitled Emotional Landscapes explores the concept of observing rather than trying to fix challenging emotions – and holding them with acceptance and surrender.

‘I didn’t know in my mind what I was going to do with that one – I just went with what came up and allowed it to unfold,’ she says.

This approach was, in some ways, a metaphor for the experience of Alexandra and her fellow students had throughout the year.

‘I think we’ve all definitely had our struggles, and it’s been about adapting and being resilient,’ she says.

‘I’m excited for what comes next.’ Blueprint runs until December 18 at the M|Arts precinct, Cnr of Brisbane and Wollumbin Streets, Murwillumbah.

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