How a community art project opened Jean’s eyes to the world

How a community art project opened Jean’s eyes to the world

If you ask Jean Downs what she has done with her life, she will probably say ‘not much’, because Jean is a quiet-living woman going about her daily life. Jean, who lives in the dairy town of Maffra, in East Gippsland, left school at age 15 to start work. Years later, her involvement in the Gippsland Women’s Network art and community project presented opportunities for Jean to learn new skills, meet new people, and to live a truly fulfilling and purposeful life. In her own unobtrusive way, Jean seized the day. Here is her story.

By Jean Downs

I was born in Maffra, grew up in nearby Tinamba for seven years and then, through Dad’s job, moved to Maffra where I have stayed all my life. My father worked on the railways at Tinamba, and when we moved to Maffra he worked at Nestle Milk Factory as a tanker driver, then transferred to Maffco Milk Products, first as a tanker driver then, because he suffered a severe back injury through lifting cans, studied and became boilermaker in the Maffco steam room. He stayed there until his early retirement and death.

I started my first job at Fulton’s Garage Maffra straight out of school, aged 15 in 1957. Three years later I took up a position at Maffco – now Suppoto. After my marriage broke down, I worked in Sale at Donalda Motors, but travel got to me after six years and I managed to obtain a position at the Forest Commission Office Maffra, in 1979. This work was interesting, encompassing bush fires, mapping logging, radio work, deer and duck licences. There were many government name changes and we finished up merging with the Department of Agriculture, eventually becoming the Department of Natural Resources. I retired when I was 70, having worked at Omeo, Swifts Creek, Ellinbank, Sydney, Licola, Dargo and through the 2009 fires – plus more local fire outbreaks.

During the latter stages of my employment with the Department, I met women involved in the arts who were lobbying for women’s interests. These women included Di Deppeler, from Bairnsdale, who got the Maffra group going and with other interested women, we decided to make tables and seating for the local parks as our project. I still have the fax with the timber order quotes and measurements for seats and tables. As a quiet person with limited skills in this area, I met many smart and clever people with talents unknown to me, so I embarked on a big learning curve, learning about sawing timber, drilling designs into wood with hot torches, then filling in coloured paints to highlight our designs. It was great to work and learn with these women, who were all willing to share their skills and knowledge with others. We also had a write-up and photos of our work with group members in the local paper to show our town what can be done with co-operation and enthusiasm by women.

I have learnt that I can design ideas, work with women to create our own vision that we can share with our community and have more confidence in myself. The tables we made are still in use at the local park today. From this experience, I had my first overseas trip with a workmate to attend the Third International Rural Women’s Conference in Spain, in 2002. This event opened my eyes to the world. The different cultures represented at the conference were amazing. I gained fresh perspectives on the world and increased my understanding of how different we all are, yet share similar values.

As a member of Stratford Sister Cities, I have travelled to the USA, Canada, Alaska, Prince Edward Island, New Zealand, England, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Borneo, Turkey, Greece, Africa, and will travel to Ontario next July for the 2020 reunion. These reunions are held every two-and-a-half years; there are six towns or cities with the name of Stratford around the world with Shakespeare themes, and the host country billets everyone with families living in the area. I had my turn with two New Zealand ladies last year.

Through this network, I joined a group called Farmlink which was set up to be a support group for farmer’s wives during the floods of 1990/91 within the Department. When this need was no more, Farmlink became a craft and patchwork group, and branched out to form a Lavender Group. I visited the group during my lunch hour and started to learn the art of patchwork where quilts were made to donate to charity – one such quilt was donated to Moe Dance Club (of which I am a member) for Fire Relief fundraising. Due to another departmental decision, Farmlink could no longer use the available room, and had to be closed as a registered working group with the Department of Justice and bank account closed.

I took on the role of manager and found alternative rooms and kept the familiar name. We now work from Maffra Community House solely as a group for charity, donating quilts and knitting to those in need. Through patchwork, I met a lady who donated quilts to villages in Timor Leste, and with my Stratford Patchwork and Farmlink working together, we donated 58 quilts in total to Timor Leste. 

I have become a member of the Maffra branch of the Country Women’s Association (CWA), and am currently secretary. I have developed a skill for Zentangle drawing, winning prizes for these and my quilts, helping those in need and supporting places like Travelaide. As members of the Boisdale Garden Club, a friend and I have just knitted 72 flowers and sewed them onto brooch backs to give each garden club member a keepsake when we host a visiting club at Christmas. We have also wrapped 40 gifts, one for each attendee, and these include patchwork bags, knitting, pot holders, Zentangle drawings, bookmarks and ceramic objects. 

I play lawn bowls at Maffra and was club secretary for three years. I also was a scout, cub and joey leader for 15 years. I am involved in the Maffra Vehicle Shed, have organised a dance for Breast Cancer raising $3000, and have donated 178 pints of blood.  I was presented with the National Emergency Medal for firefighting during the 2009 fires and was surprised to be awarded the Rotary Quiet Achiever Award for Wellington Shire in January 2019.

My only child, Andrea, has terminal cancer. She was given four months to live in February 2019 but due to treatment through hospice care, radiotherapy and a strong will, she was in remission six months later and had regained some weight. I stayed with her in Adelaide for three months during her worst time and will be there for her again when the time comes. I have also recently lost a long-time friend to cancer, and these setbacks make me realise I must take every day as a bonus, do my bucket list and appreciate all the great friends I have, particularly in times of trouble.

Some friends are like autumn leaves, found everywhere, true friends are like diamonds, precious and rare.

Leave a Reply