Aesthetic verges.

At its heart, Augury and Aether has always been a highly personal project to which the stunning natural environment of Baw Baw Shire gave life. Whilst my aesthetic verges on the mythical at its heart it has always been to challenge perceptions of disability and to create images that reflect strength and pride. And in turn to be able to share possibilities with people who may never have seen themselves reflected in artistic practice or felt included. And for the non-disabled community to re-evaluate their approach to disabled artists and disability at large. Particularly for rural communities.

The residency was one of ups and downs and a learning experience for both myself and organisers. There are unique challenges to creating art when disabled and access and accommodations can make or break the creative process. Outside the practicalities such as sourcing drivers, a large part of creating something so personal is about working with people who could embrace my disabled identity and move with me to create within both it’s confines and its unique perspectives. Someone who was willing to drive, lug around my equipment, help me dress and undress, steady me as I awkwardly slid/stepped/bummed my way in and out of icy rivers, or hopped in themselves to steady me or my camera. I could not undertake such a project without people who could support my vision, my access needs and make the process enjoyable in what was a physically and mentally taxing nine days.  And I am grateful to fellow-creatives who kept me laughing while I was numb and purple in icy rivers or nearly thrown from my wheelchair on roads and paths not truly fit for mobility aids.

As I collected my images over successive days, I became acutely aware that I while I expected difficulties I was truly creating in a largely inaccessible environment. I made a decision to push my body and weighed the price I would pay for such a decision. As the formidable Liz Jackson has said, disabled people are the original life hackers and we don’t overcome our disabilities we simply learn to work around them in a largely inaccessible world. While I found places to create and basked in the beauty and peace that is found in the magic of state and national parks it was hard to move past the fact that such spaces are inherently difficult as a disabled person. A need for drivers, inconsistent information on parks and the natural environment itself, all posed as barriers, some of which were insurmountable. Access and its lack became a central part of the residency and what started out in many ways as a highly personal project came to reflect wider issues in the creation of art and how our environments and systems are structured. And I hope opportunities arise to open up dialogue on these issues.

But to sit in a café and catch up with a participant from the first workshop and hear that my words and images made them re-evaluate their experiences, and to see their joy at a sneak peak of one of the first images, for me is what the heart of this residency was about. For others in my community to see themselves portrayed in the natural environment, in ways they never imagined or have seen, can be life changing. And to discover that your story or art is as worthy and that you don’t need a lot of equipment or specialist education to share your world and your ideas, revolutionary.

As I sit now collating the stories, poems and insights others have created in response to my photos the importance of representation and access to creative practice is once more reinforced. I designed this project with access in mind. And while standing in icy rivers in vintage dresses is everyone’s idea of fun, I do hope it prompts ideas of what is possible. Images were taken on my battered smart phone using free photographic apps, and a secondhand tripod. My walkingsticks were made using items from common chain stores, my headdresses borrowed and my 1930s gown cheap as she was at the end of her well-loved life. For those who are homebound or geographically isolated the ability to add their words to my photos opened up opportunities to participate in art that eludes many. And carrying the whole project on a free digital platform, Instagram, takes out the barriers to attending a gallery. To read the words now sent to me and what such a possibility means for many, makes every obstacle, bruise or mild hypothermia very worthwhile and I am grateful to be able to include them in the residency.

Written by Michelle Rogers.

Michelle is a blogger and speaker and writes about Dysautonomia and life as a disabled woman.  Her work has appeared in ‘The Victorian Writer’ and ‘Kill Your Darlings’ and online for Writers Victoria, ABC RampUp and multiple support groups.

Michelle received a Write-ability Fellowship in 2014, has been a panellist and performer at both the Emerging Writers Festival and Digital Writers Festival and has performed at several Writers Victoria Salons.  Michelle blogs at tweets at @rustyhoe and runs a digital project #UpAndDressed on Instagram.

Her residency project during Come and Play All of May was hosted by the Warragul Community House and explored the relationship of disability and the natural environment both to encourage other disabled people in rural regions to engage in creative pursuits and for non-disabled community members to explore their beliefs around disability, and what constitutes writing and art practice.  Questions around the accessibility of the arts was also raised.

Check out more about Michelle’s residency on Instagram.

Come and Play All of May is an annual month long celebration of the arts in Gippsland, organised by Creative Gippsland.