2009 Eleanor Venture Recipient: Jason Gage

Destination: Australia

IMGP0023The 2009 Eleanor Venture Grant Recipient was Jason Gage. Jason teaches K – 5 Art at Spangler Elementary. He traveled to Australia during August 2009 to study aboriginal art and culture. While in Australia Jason plans include attending the 11th Garma Festival. The Garma Festival is the largest gathering and celebration of the Yolngu (Aboriginal people) of its kind.

Jason plans on incorporating his experiences in Australia by having his students use aboriginal art as a launching point to discover communication through art.

The Education Foundation will host an open house in January 2010 where Jason will share with the public his experiences in Australia.


Australia… this is a big country, and three weeks hardly does it justice. I arrived in Brisbane two days after I left Denver, having loaned a day to the International dateline. You’d think that fourteen hours in the air would be utterly exhausting, but the excitement that had built since childhood kept me in a lively daze of amazement. I anxiously waited for my bags and had to go through quarantine for the snacks I was carrying… note- don’t bother bringing in any beef jerky.

Graham, a childhood friend, picked me up at the airport sometime after 6 a.m. We hadn’t seen one another for years, and it was great to see a familiar face on the other side of the planet. After cruising into town on the left, we arrived at his townhouse on the west end of Brisbane, right on the Brisbane River. Noisy Miner birds, Rainbow Lorikeets, Brush Turkeys and their foreign feathered friends greeted me from his deck. After a quick tour of the homestead, we took a brisk walk to a local pastry shop for a typical Aussie breakkie of meat pie and sausage rolls… fair dinkum! Graham had work, and so did I. I dropped my gear, cleaned up and eventually made my way on foot to the water taxi that delivered me into the city to meet Graham for lunch.

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Upon his return to work, I wandered Queen St. Mall and reveled in the didgeridoos I found in the local souvenir shops. I had never been in the presence of so many didges, and of course, they all had to be tested. The best ones were upstairs in the ‘gallery’ areas, and they were incredible. Termite hollowed Eucalyptus imported from the Northern Territory are the only authentic ones… the Top End is the home of the Yidaki (didgeridoo) and would be my final destination, but for my first day down under, I was quite content to play for hours and revel in my new surroundings.

Brisbane is a beautiful city, and my time there was not the typical stay. By never stepping into a hotel, I was treated to an inside view of the local culture. Graham’s friends were hospitable and incredibly resourceful. I was constantly amazed at how every interaction I had carried with it some new insight into my proposed goals of this trip. I went seeking a deeper understanding of culture, both indigenous and multicultural. I met people born and raised in Brisbane, Chinese born Vietnamese, Israeli, and Irish. Multilingualism was the norm, whether or not English was their first language. Multilingualism is valued within schools, but mostly in a foreign language context.

My main focus was Aboriginal art and culture. I am an art teacher at Spangler Elementary and have been playing Yidaki for ten years, and have held a great interest in indigenous culture for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Saudi Arabia, where I met Graham, I was immersed in multiculturalism and gained an appreciation for the nuances of culture. Here in Australia, there is the oldest living culture on earth… 40,000 years ago, the aboriginal ancestors made their way by boat and colonized this continent creating incredibly diverse cultures in the years that followed.

The Aboriginal people have had a rough go since European colonization. Initially deemed ‘terra nullius’ or uninhabited, the Aboriginal people were classified as fauna- animals. This made land grabs and conquering as easy as the land would allow, and that proved difficult. Colonization hugged the coastline, and efforts to penetrate the interior were difficult, but persistent. The Aboriginal people lived mainly in small family clans, and were easily overtaken. Atrocities such as genocide, re-education and slavery resulted in fractured and disconnected lives. The stolen generation had been taken from their families and sent far from home to be stripped of their culture which was viewed as savage.

In reality, their cultures were rich and strong with law and order, art and religion, and a respect for the natural order to which they belonged. What I found in Brisbane was “one mob.” This living concept was the bond of being indigenous, no matter to which one of 200 language groups one belonged. Those that had persevered often lived on the fringe, with their art and culture stolen and now capitalized upon. Yet through all that these incredible people had lived, beauty and compassion still shone through.

galleryThe art has become a blend of dot painting and rock art symbolism that has conformed to the current art market. Western desert dot painting stems from ritual body and sand painting, and has been transferred to the canvas. The bark paintings of the Top End remain the most continuous form, but as with any art, it has embraced change. The artists continue to reflect traditional themes, but do not hesitate to integrate their own interpretations. This healthy shift reflects the perseverance that these cultures have always had.

Through visits to the Queensland Museum, Gallery of Modern Art, the State Library of Queensland’s’ Heritage Collection, Musgrave Park Cultural Center, art galleries, Indij in arts, and souvenir shops, I was able to talk with those that were closest to the issues I sought to understand. My best experience was at Indij in arts, the only Aboriginal owned and operated gallery and shop in Brisbane. John (Jalum), a Bundjalung Nation elder, gave me a brief yet eye opening history of Australia from an Indigenous point of view. I was amazed, shocked, appalled and inspired by his eloquence, passion, and dignity. The next day, I returned to create a yidaki as I proposed to do in Charleville (I ran out of time and money!). The process was much more labor intensive than I had anticipated, but well worth it and much more valuable than buying one already made. I met other Aboriginal friends, Roopeny and Rodney, and learned about their history and heritage. Both John and Roopeny had Fiji slave ancestry and Bundjalong tribe roots, and Rodney was part of the stolen generation. At the age of three, he was taken from his family to Amsterdam until he was fifteen when he was just dropped back off into western AU and told to “go find your people.” As you may imagine, this left him homeless, lost and desperate and completely disconnected from both his roots and his upbringing. He has made his way through love and respect, and is an advocate for human rights (humanrightstv.com). He has even done some acting, and is ‘Tobey’ in a movie, “The Proposition.” John is integral in the active preservation of Aboriginal culture, and has been recognized as a leader by the government. As much as I want to report on a thriving and healthy Aboriginal culture in Queensland, I can say this… reconciliation is taking place, but the journey is not an easy one. Just as the disruption of the diverse cultures of our First Nations here in America has led to an enormous educational gap, substance abuse, and a further loss of indigenous knowledge, the inequities are ever present down under.

What culture that has transcended, lives through the arts. Through art, Bark petitions have been made, stories have been passed on, and cultural knowledge is immortalized. The art has spoken to the world, and the increased recognition and interest in Aboriginal Art has reawakened the beauty of these diverse people and has invigorated opportunities for many. Most importantly, their art has made a statement. It is one of presence, dynamism, and preservation. Their artwork is a representation of their roots as well their individual statements, and the personal and contemporary aspects of it will show my students not only their traditional styles and stories, but how to integrate one’s heritage into personal artwork. My Aboriginal art unit will be forever changed to bring deeper context and meaning into their work. Although I did gain greater insight into the iconography of the artwork, this symbolism is theirs and will serve as a platform from which we re-discover ours. The arts power of communication is where we have started this year, and already we are telling our own stories.

The natural beauty and wildlife of Australia are astounding. I did not see the vast expanse of outback that most people envision when “Australia” comes to mind. Southeastern Queensland is subtropical, and although my trip was during the dry season, nothing seemed parched. I reveled in the wildlife within Brisbane that the locals found relatively mundane. Birds, lizards (skinks), possums (common and ring-tailed), and fruit bats caught my attention when I least expected it. Graham feeds Rainbow Lorikeets like we would feed sparrows. Sulpher crested cockatoos flew up river, brush turkeys pecked at my journal, possums, much different from ours, visited the deck at night, hoping to dine on the lorikeet food. Ring tailed possums drink nectar from flowers in the neighborhood trees, and massive fruit bats squawk and hang from trees along a bike path. While mountain biking in the eucalypts forest of Daisy Hill conservation area I saw a wallaby hopping into the brush. Although I never saw any snakes, kangaroos or koalas, I was treated to many I did not expect.

We took a trip in Graham’s Toyota High Ace camper van down to Byron Bay, New South Wales. Along the way, we stopped at Springbrook National Park, a world heritage site in the Gold Coast. This extinct volcano was breathtaking, and I saw the highest waterfall I have yet to witness, along with trees seeded from Gondwanaland, one of the super continents in the Triassic period. I could have stayed there for much longer than we had time for, but we were on a mission to hit the beach for sunset. We made it just in time, toasted glasses of wine to a calendar quality beach, breaching humpback whales with calves, surfing dolphins and an incredible sunset. We stayed at a friend’s place and spent the next day at the beach. I had another tail end animal encounter; I watched a blue tongued skink run into his hole… so close! The water was crystal clear, and the expanse of the beach was like I’ve never experienced. I took a quick dip, and then we meandered down to a lake stained brown by surrounding tea trees. It was as if tea was flowing into a crystal clear ocean- incredible. Although I could have taken up residence, time was fleeting, and we headed back to Brisbane.

divers downI wrapped up my Queensland experience on North Stradbroke Island. I set up camp on Flinders beach and walked the beach down to the gorge. I met an few invincible cane toads, and the next morning I went scuba diving for the first time in fourteen years! It was great to be under, and I did my first shark dive in “Shark Gutter,” and underwater trench off of Flat Rock. No cages, no chain mail, no fear, just us divers and about ten grey nurse sharks. They were beautiful and very docile. They didn’t match my notion of nurse sharks… I thought of snub nosed bottom feeders, but they had teeth hanging out of their mouths and fit the standard shark profile- sleek, free swimming and big, at least 3.5 meters long. Between two dives I saw puffer fish, a bamboo shark, wobegongs, clown fish, anemones, sponges, corals, lobsters, a nudibranch (fantastically patterned and colored sea slug), a school of cuttlefish, and a sea turtle, among many more. Visibility was incredible, up to 20 meters! My dive buddy was an Environmental lawyer for the United Nations, and we discussed policies that are saving this fragile ecosystem. I ended my Straddie trip by stopping into Salt Water Murris in Quandamooka Gallery, an Aboriginal art gallery. Auntie Colleen, a Minjerriba Aboriginal elder, talked with me about the state of Aboriginal culture, and gifted me a set of clap (rhythm) sticks. I left that island honored and ready for the adventure that laid ahead of me… the Top End.

The next day, 26 hours out of the water, I boarded a plane to Cairns, on my way to North East Arnhem land for the Garma festival. Flying over the Great Barrier Reef, I gained an appreciation for its awesome scale. In Cairns and on the plane, I began meeting people headed to Garma, and a common excitement for celebrating Yolngu culture was abound. Upon arrival, I was part of this community, or as Djawa (Timmy), a Yolngu elder puts it, “common-unity.” Here, everyone had a common purpose, to share culture and celebrate the beauty of it all.

Garma is a 5 day festival celebrating Yolngu Aboriginal culture hosted by the Yothu Yindi Foundation, a non profit group that is a driving force behind Aboriginal rights. A key forum hosting government officials and contemporary issues, this year Creative Industries, a youth forum, and an exhibition of art and issues that was too big to experience in the short time I was there. I participated in the cultural tourism program, designed to provide experiences and opportunities to interact with Yolgnu culture. We were divided into men’s and women’s groups, and each offered culturally appropriate experiences. We came together for nightly bunggul, which is the song and dance that tells their stories and is integral to keeping their culture alive. Many of the stories told of the Macassans of Sulweisi, which is modern day Indonesia. The Yolngu had been trading with them for 400 years, well before European contact. Their first European contact was actually with the Dutch, and the Yolngu word for white fella is “ballanda” coming from “Hollander.” The Red Flag Dancers mimicked the ships and Macassans and the yidaki told them how to dance and when to stop. The clap sticks create the rhythm and speak to the yidaki, and the yidaki speaks to the dancers. The dance segments were short and ended with quick bursts of fancy footwork and striking poses. “Good one! Again! Yo! Manymak! (Yes! Very Good!)” the announcer would yell, and the festivities would continue.

Yirrkala, NTWe visited Yirrkala School, a bilingual Yolngu Matha (language) and English program. They opened with a welcoming bunggul, and then I viewed displays of student work samples and met Manduway Yunnipingu, leader of Yothu Yindi and their foundation as well as the entire Garma festival. The media was buzzing, and was quite a turn off, but a necessary part of promoting the experience.

We walked to Shady Beach for a surf rescue demonstration and the arrival of a lipa lipa, a traditional bark canoe complete with a sail! Other Garma experiences included spear making, spear fishing, Yolngu movies and music, print exhibition, presentations of cultural protocol, family and marriage systems, body language, trips to the local art gallery and a bush “tucker” meal presented and prepared by Mark Olive, a famous TV chef.

I was interviewed on my spear making experience and apparently on TV in AU and New Zealand, but I didn’t see it. Every night there were concerts put on by local Yolngu bands as well as famous Aboriginal bands from throughout Australia. The support and community that surrounded each aspect was incredible, and all ages were present and participating.

The bungguls were my favorite aspect. I loved watching every living generation out there dancing- elders, adults, teens, adolescents, young kids and even those just starting to walk! The freedom and informality that came with the learning and teaching by example is at the heart of the culture. Information is not given here, but lived and experienced, and in five days, I only scratched the surface. The Yolngu people have an incredibly complex living and constantly changing culture that has the utmost respect for tradition. The children hold the law, and the elders are the teachers, and through this framework respect, artistic tradition, and community keep the oldest living culture alive and well.

Education Foundation for the St. Vrain Valley, Thank You all for this wonderful opportunity!

Jason Gage, Spangler Elementary