Natalie Evans grew up in a creative family, moving locations and schools many times. Participation in a women’s leadership project in Orbost in 1997, gave her an amazing opportunity to grow and share skills. It also taught her business and project management, and instilled confidence to pursue creating her own endeavours. The project gave Natalie friendships and links that have endured time. She has pursued multiple interests in art, acting, community volunteering and gardening. Today Natalie lives in Frankston, a seaside suburb of Melbourne.
By Natalie Evans
I was born in Melbourne in 1970 and medical issues meant I missed a lot of school. During my primary school years, I lived in Ferntree Gully and Menzies Creek. The time spent watching shows on television was restricted. Instead, I was taken to art galleries, live music, children’s theatre, camping, bush walking, sport and dancing classes. I spent time reading, drawing, playing outside, board games and card games. I stayed with my grandparents and Aunty Barb for weekends and school holidays.
My grandparents encouraged me to cook and to help in the garden; they were supportive with buying my art works at school exhibitions and attending dance concerts. My aunty was a high school home economics and textile teacher; later she ran her own catering business, and then created quilts for her own shop. My mum made my clothes and knitted our jumpers from wool spun on her spinning wheel. As I grew up, I began making my clothes too. Mum and I also went bird watching together. My dad played drums and raced cars he had repaired; he worked for Telecom. My parents were members of a kite club and produced handmade kites. We had home-cooked meals with occasional homemade bread. Everybody bought books for my endless thirst for reading. I witnessed my family trying new activities, learning skills to increase knowledge with hobbies and was encouraged to follow my interests. My parents separated when I was in Grade Six.
In my secondary school years, I lived in Gisborne, Romsey and Woodend and attended classical ballet dance classes. Attendance at a technical school from Year Seven to Year Nine gave me the chance to experience woodwork, metal work, art, sewing, cooking, music and sport. I moved to a private college for Years 9 to 12 studying geography, music, art, drama and singing and continued dance and sport after school. I bartered with a dance teacher to continue dance lessons, exchanging assistance with other classes to receive lessons when 16 and 17 years old.
I moved to Melbourne when I was 18. I worked in banking then hospitality while taking workshops and working in diverse areas; including dancing, acting, singing, radio, classes in sewing and tai chi. I went to Seoul, performing in a cabaret show at a theatre restaurant for six months. Hobbies in my spare time comprised reading, creating craft and art and plants. I always enjoyed general gardening and after watching a Bill Mollison video about permaculture, my interest in plants grew. Initially I created a Mandala above ground pea straw garden and worm farm in Melbourne, and later extended to companion planting, organic fertilisers and pesticides. This has been a 20-year hobby.
I moved to Orbost from Melbourne in 1996. I had an 18-month-old daughter and was six months pregnant with my son. My partner and I knew the area from many prior holidays at a friend’s place at Bemm River. The community was welcoming, kind and generous. The rented house on Orbost/Marlo flats gave us land to have a larger veggie patch compared with Melbourne. We had chickens for the first time. I created art and furnishings for the home. A few months after settling in at Marlo Road I approached Ngaere Donald at her blacksmith gallery in the Main Street of Orbost, opposite Forest Park, to sell my organic lavender hand printed bags. Ngaere generously agreed to place them on commission. The extra produce we grew was sold to the local greengrocer shop. I joined the Orbost playgroup committee. I enjoyed taking the kids to the beach and the Snowy River.
My mum, Shirley, rang to tell me about the Uniting Our Rural Communities (UORC) workshops taking place in Orbost during April 1997, as she was part of the Stratford-Maffra group.
The workshop was held at the local footy clubrooms, about 10km from my place. We discussed the importance of women’s opinions, and the issues that rural communities faced. We were shown how to work through and define our local issues. The workshops encouraged involvement in leadership roles in the community. The creation of art using materials provided was a fun group activity. It gave me an opportunity to connect with local women and gave me the tools needed to create a project together. The best memory is plenty of laughing.
On the final day of the workshop, we were discussing picking one issue that could be highlighted from the area and I thought that only confident people were getting the opportunity to talk. I raised my hand, asking if we could each take a turn to say what we thought the local issues were and then take a vote on what the most important issue was to create a democratic process. The majority decided to focus on the Snowy River. We then had to decide what format the art project would be. The mosaic pathway was born, focusing on the Snowy River – past, present and our vision of what the future could be. I was asked by leaders Di Deppeler and Catherine Larkin to chair further meetings of the group. As the youngest group member, I felt nervous, but grew in confidence, being supported by Catherine and Di at the weekly meetings.
I experienced leading a team that, overall, respected the majority decision process. The key to the success, I believe, was giving each person an opportunity to share their ideas and opinion on every part of the processes involved in executing the project. I was part of a team that learnt how to fulfil council requirements for works in public places. The local Rotary Club approached us to partner in the mosaic path project. This would include placement of a local map sign at the site, and assistance with pouring of concrete for the base, for the mosaic application. The path was divided into sections with individuals bringing in designs for the relevant category. I did a design of native flowers for the main circle border and a 2m section of the sea section of the Snowy River. I created a pelican on a sand bar with fish in abundance in the water around as a symbol of what we wanted to see in the future vision of the river.
Our group was lucky to have Ngaere Donald as a member as she offered use of the Old Blacksmiths building that she used as a gallery in the Orbost township. This helped us to store equipment opposite the site at Forest Park. We were shown how to mosaic and then we all started to put our designs on blank concrete. On agreed days we would meet to work on the mosaic; our time spent together contained laughter, sharing life stories, and sharing skill development with support and encouragement.
The democratic system was utilisedat all meetings, and the process built my confidence in leadership. I experienced women who were willing to share skills they had with others, who were inclusive. I had support with personal development, shared leadership, a collective sense of purpose, addressing community needs andpartnering with other organisations giving me networking skills. I learnt something new with each project and taught somebody else something to improve their skills.
The biggest benefit was making friends with similar artistic interests, who were inspiring to be around. The opportunity for time on personal growth outside of parenting. I was always made to feel welcome to bring the children with me.
The success of the Snowy River mosaic pathway motivated some of the women to continue as a group, investigating how to become incorporated to apply for funding opportunities for future art projects. I was the secretary. The Women of the Snowy River Inc was born creating a handover bowl for the 2nd International Women’s Conference, held in Washington DC, USA, in 1998. The Blacksmiths property was sold, we rented a shop in the Main Street for workshops, meetings and displaying members’ art.
We created ‘Save Our Snowy Sculpture’ in 1999 and used this to campaign at Melbourne City’s Bourke Street Mall. We hosted a millennium party for Orbost funded by Arts Victoria, created songs for protest campaigns for the Snowy River, sang at Lochiel House aged residents’ nursing home in Orbost, performed as support act for a few gigs and several local events. We partnered with local organisations to mosaic the base and wood plank sculpture for the Orbost Flood Marker in 2001. The group closed in 2001, but we continued with other projects auspiced by the local organisation, Snowy River Arts Network. We coordinated the Marlo event for the Snowy River Journey, in 2002. We instigated and partnered with council and local organisations to create a local notice board in 2003.
A memorable moment occurred during the building of the ‘Save our Snowy Sculpture’ frame at Women of the Snowy River Shop at 70 Nicholson St, Orbost. I was with a new member who hadn’t previously used electrical tools. I shared with her the health and safety and best practice for the equipment, and the knowledge gave her confidence that had an immediate response. She picked up the drill, following directions perfectly, with every hole increased her skill. The practice was adopted easily, and she later transferred this skill, applying it in her personal life.
The Gippsland Women’s Network project gave me an understanding of how networking contributes to success. I learnt the response was endless with generosity from the local and general community in their support and donations to the many projects. The trust built over time with funding bodies and local community groups resulted in meaningful collaborations, the noticeboard, flood marker and mosaic pathway still utilised today. Time means nothing. Timing is everything. Trying new things to increase my abilities, independence and confidence in skills to create goals. The project solidified the importance of enjoying the process of practice of anything being done. The grants process taught me to assess the positive and negative of a project or event; this proved valuable as a record for discussion on how to improve in the future and develop larger scale endeavours.
I was appointed as Census Area manager in 2001. Around the same time, I did a wood turning class with Woodworkers of Orbost and District (WOOD Inc). and was Orbost Exhibition Centre president during the funding and architectural design phase in 2002. In other activities, I was a contributor to the veiling with 19 banners of McKillop’s Bridge, as part of the Celebration of the Year of the Outback, in 2002 initiated by Sister Helen Barnes. I entered my wood sculptures in the annual WOOD Inc. shows for a few years, winning first prize at the Orbost Agricultural Show for a carved ‘Bird of Prey’.
I separated from my partner in 1999 and moved from Orbost with my three children in 2003, firstly to Baxter and then to Frankston. I studied a diploma of visual art at Frankston Chisholm TAFE in 2004 and 2005. I rang the number in an advertisement from the local newspaper for studying art at TAFE. I was asked for an interview the next day and I needed to bring a folio. The course had started a month prior and had spaces available. I had thrown out and given away art when moving; I hadn’t kept photo records of my work. I took pieces from high school, small paintings done in my twenties and pencil sketches of flowers. I started at the college the following week. This study gave me an opportunity to experiment with multiple styles and techniques amongst creative people. The environment was conducive for my growth of confidence in my abilities and future possibilities. I gained a new depth of perspective and understanding of processes required to create a series of work. I was selected to contribute prints to Melbourne City Council for gifts to dignitaries for the Commonwealth Games in 2006. Art gives me a feeling of inner peace and harmony, connecting the heart, mind and hand.
In 2008 I was involved in coordinating exhibitions with other artists from Melbourne and Orbost – we had an event at Orbost Exhibition Centre and Northcote Community gallery. I created my first art healing fusion paintings for the Northcote Show. I acquired multiple skills from my experiences with the women’s group and arts diploma. I utilised the abilities in coordination, promotion, marketing and networking to do my own projects for communities and my own business and art projects. I have continued to work in various fields as receptionist, dance tutor, market stall holder, and as principal carer during my son’s three-year leukaemia treatment. I have been an extra in televised productions, including Neighbours and Sisters, had a role in the movie Judy and Punchand am currently a gardener at privately-owned retirement residences.
An interactive art energy fusion installation sculpture that I created has been exhibited at the Seven Sisters festival in Mt Martha, in 2018 and 2019. I have a side business called ‘NatBags’ upcycling jeans into shopping bags, totes and purses. The product purpose is to reduce plastic bag and clothing waste; the aim is to achieve a positive outcome for the future.
I trained to be a Laughter Therapist in 2014. Laughter is important for our wellbeing and I am a volunteer leader at the local Frankston Laughter Club. I have worked as a laughter therapist in aged care centers, disability centers, high schools, sessions for coal mine fire and bush fire community members, events and private parties. Recently I became a committee member for Laughter Clubs Victoria Inc.