A miniature forest is set to spring up outside Wollongong Town Hall next month, but unlike any other, all the growing will take place in the minds and hearts of its onlookers.
A collaborative sculpture between students from West Wollongong Public School, Lindsay Park Public School, Keira High School, Wollongong City Council and local artist Stephanie Quirk, You Belong Here, I Belong Here will be the crowning artwork for the upcoming multicultural festival Culture Mix.
A celebration of their culture and identity, the artwork will comprise three stand-alone sculptures made from real Australian maple tree branches sourced from Kirrawee, lovingly hand-painted by the students and assembled by the artist onto shallow plywood plinths and dressed with yarn and other elements.
The concept was a team effort that evolved during workshops and sessions that Ms Quirk held at each of the three schools.
“I came to them with a bunch of ideas, but knowing that working in collaboration with students, I would have to be really open to what path we were going to go down,” she said.
“Initially we came up with the idea of one tree, with each branch representing a different kid. The icon or image of a tree is something that’s very accessible to children, but I also loved the way that idea tied in with the themes of embracing culture – putting down roots in a new place, family trees and so on.
“As we came up against logistic, technical and budgetary constraints, someone mentioned the mini forests that Wollongong City Council plants. I really love that idea and how it epitomises culture, identity, community and belonging. Each tree is individual, and that individuality is a necessary component for the ecosystem to thrive.”
The concept includes an interactive component as well. On the day of the Culture Mix festival, the students and audience will be invited to write on a ribbon something meaningful about culture and tie it to a branch of the tree, to become foliage that moves with the breeze.
Ms Quirk is an emerging artist with a growing career spanning local, Sydney and international exhibitions. Her work thrives in community engagement, and she specialises in painting, performance and sculptural installation.
She says the title You Belong Here, I Belong Here came from a Keira High School student.
“In the first workshop I held there, I opened up the floor to a discussion about culture – what does it mean? How is it displayed? How is it celebrated?” Ms Quirk said.
“This student said it’s about belonging and I thought ‘how profoundly true’.”
Ms Quirk, who has a background in high school teaching, says a highlight of the process has been teaching about art outside the framework of a curriculum, and witnessing a higher purpose shake out in the process.
“When I started out, the artwork was foremost in my mind. As I went through the collaboration process with these kids, that became secondary to all the beautiful things it brought to light, and what it symbolised,” she said.
“At one point I asked the students to find a person in class that they never talk to and to make art with them. Those artworks became doorways to new conversations. They learned about openness, and how to share and discover, without the preconceptions we can sometimes have about people.
“As project leader, I foresee You Belong Here, I Belong Here as more than art – it’s a catalyst for conversations. Students witnessed cultures intertwining, cultivating empathy and appreciation.”
You Belong Here, I Belong Here will be exhibited at Culture Mix on Saturday 21 October.