A bollard helped this young mother blossom with a career in the arts

A bollard helped this young mother blossom with a career in the arts

Jessie McLennan is a West Gippsland-based figurative sculptor, arts advocate and passionate gardener and has four children aged from five to 24. Jessie was born in 1973. She had a creative upbringing, being home-schooled on Gippsland’s Ninety Mile Beach until age seven, then finishing her schooling in Bellingen NSW. In 1994 Jessie was awarded a Bachelor of Fine Art (sculpture) at RMIT and a Bachelor of Teaching at Deakin 1999. Jessie has been sculpting for as long as she remembers. She has had many group and solo exhibitions, has been involved in many community arts projects, and has received recognition for her sculpting. Since 2010 Jessie has been teaching adults about figurative sculpture and works creatively with people with disabilities. 

By Jessie McLennan

I was born in Bairnsdale in 1973 and my early years were idyllic, living an isolated life on the Ninety Mile Beach bordering the Gippsland Lakes. I was very fond of both my grandmothers. One had a collection of posters of art through the ages that I would look at and discuss with her, the other was a hands-on creative textile artist whose skills included spinning, dyeing, silk painting and weaving. Both were keen gardeners and inspired me greatly.

I was encouraged to be creative and my sculptures were always put in pride of place. Throughout school I studied anything that was artistic. Naturally, when I went to university, I studied sculpture at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). Upon completing my degree, I became a young mother and studied teaching, believing this profession would be more suited to raising a family. In 1999 my in-laws offered cheap rent that led to the move from the city to green and glorious Darnum near Warragul.

By 2003 I was a mother of two primary school aged children, and an art and science primary specialist teacher. I was also a frustrated artist. I spent my week convincing myself that I could find three hours in a row at least once a week to spend on my art. I produced one or two pieces a year. Any more than that and the art was given away as Christmas presents.

I failed. I was failing each week to find the time. Too many other pressing things that needed me, or I felt just too tired to even get into the “zone”. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the sand play, the paper mache, the dioramas, sewing toys, creating costumes, making music, dancing and gardening, but none of it was SERIOUS art. I was frustrated. I was new to Baw Baw Shire. I knew few people, let alone creative people.

A friend and I responded to an article in the Warragul Gazette in 2006 to go out to nearby Ellinbank and paint a bollard for the Warragul Linear Park. The event was free and well organised! I felt like I had lucked out. All the bollards had already been sanded and under-painted, the paint and brushes were ready for action, and everyone was very helpful. I came up with a design and started painting. I painted and talked. I talked and laughed. I felt so good by the experience that it gave me confidence to join in with more arts activities and get togethers. It gave me life outside my home that was so important. It was a Gippsland Women’s Network (GWN) project. Thank you!

I joined the newly formed arts group, Women Who Mean Business (WWMB). I met Ingrid Thomas, Sally Allsop, Cathy Smith and many others. I stopped being critical of my work and began to have fun with it. I even began to enter art shows. I met more people. I started sculpting regularly and started teaching sculpture.

I felt like I was taken under these women’s wings. Encouraged. Supported. Ingrid Thomas was a huge influence. I admired Ingrid because her art was eclectic and colourful. She organised creative get togethers; she rallied people together with enthusiasm under the banner of the arts. I was delighted when she received a Victorian State Award from the then Premier of Victoria, Ted Baillieu, for ‘excessive volunteering’ in Community Arts. She and I became a force to be reckoned with. I was elected vice president and later president to the newly formed Baw Baw Arts Alliance to replace WWMB and we worked hard to set up an Arts Hub in Yarragon in 2010. The Arts Hub was a place where like-minded people could get together and make art, share their art, exhibit and sell. Our vision is still to inspire, encourage and facilitate a vibrant creative arts environment within the community.

Our area seemed to be bursting with creative people that I never knew existed when I first arrived in the Baw Baw Shire. New residents to the area like I had been, had no idea that these creative people were here. I wanted to change that. I wanted to introduce the community to the wealth of creativity. I worked hard to set up the Warragul Arts Market. It was set up for the arts community to get together. The market is still going nine years later.

The Arts Hub has since multiplied to have a venue at Yarragon – the Station Gallery – and Trafalgar where there are now 10 different social art groups including clay, fibres, painting, printmaking and mosaics. The Arts Hub has become a strong pillar and hard to miss if you are looking for an arts community. 

As 2019 draws to a close, I am creating a 2m high mosaic puppy with other members of the Baw Baw Arts Alliance. “Pat the Dog” will be a public installation in Yarragon. I will create and render the huge form and will share and teach my skills to others in the community. The project is immense and involves hundreds of people. Funded mostly by a Regional Arts Victoria grant, it involves me using new technologies and learning new skills. This project celebrates and honours Maery Gabrielle. Maery made a huge contribution to mosaics nationally and our local art community through community arts projects.

During my time serving the arts community I have gained much confidence. I have learnt how to speak publicly, and to stand up for what I believe in. I have had to push myself but was supported all the way by people who believed in me. I have held many solo art exhibitions, interviews, curated art exhibitions, won awards, and facilitated many community arts projects and activities.

Interestingly, I note that 15 years on from that initial Community Arts Bollard painting workshop, I am back where I started, with two new primary aged children. And again, I don’t have much time to dedicate to my art, but I am not anxious. I am in a good place. The little time I spend on my art is appreciated. I attend regular life drawing sessions and a printing group, I continue to coordinate parts of the Warragul Arts Market, I teach my sculpture workshops in the evenings and work creatively with people with disabilities. Best of all, I am engaged in a community project. The mosaic puppy project, just like the bollards, will give newbies the same introduction to the arts community that I received 15 years ago. Once again like the seed of a fruit, I will spread the creativity. I’ll be one of those friendly faces that encourage and support creativity to blossom.

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