Interview with Lisa Waup: Baluk Arts

Lisa Waup_Looking_Through_Time_Photo_Fred Kohl_Baluk Arts
One_Lisa_Waup_Photo_Hannah_Presley_ACCA

Kath Dolan explores the nuts-and-bolts of creative business with makers, designers and craftspeople.

 

COMPELLED TO MAKE

Gunditjmara and Torres Strait Islander artist Lisa Waup’s compulsion to make began with paper outfits for Wonder Woman and long afternoons of endless drawing at the footy.

“I loved Wonder Woman as a child – I remember her rocking a pair of high heeled boots and an outfit I’d made completely out of paper for her,” she laughs.

“We’d go to the football every Saturday with my family. My dad’s a mad North Melbourne supporter, it’s religious for him. I’d sit there with my sketchbook and do drawings. Always.”

FREE TO EXPERIMENT

Lisa studied Art and Design at what’s now Chisholm Institute and got a BA in Fine Art from RMIT, where she initially tried painting but found her feet with printmaking and photography. (Back to paper: her first love.)

“I guess I’d had a bit more background with printmaking doing the TAFE course, and it just really took me,” she says. “I love paper – it gives me much joy.”

Art school’s not for everyone, but Lisa thrived. Experimentation and exhibiting regularly agreed with her.

“I was very inspired and immersed into that creative world,” she recalls. “I had awesome lecturers, especially my photography lecturer Alex Syndikas. He was absolutely incredible. My style of photography was quite experimental and he really embraced that and helped push that.”

Part-time work as a function photographer pushed her too, though not quite so enjoyably. “I hated it,” she says, cringing at the memory.

I’m quite a reserved person, more so back then, so I found it hard to be able to interact with people and get them to smile and then get their money off them at the end. It was too much for me.

MARVELLOUS MELANESIA

Lisa met her husband, Papua New Guinean artist and fellow RMIT student Naup Waup, in her early 20s. He was a year ahead of her in printmaking. Love bloomed when she inherited his studio space and found some pigs’ tusks he’d left behind.

“I was fascinated with teeth,” she recalls. “I clicked it must be this PNG guy so I went to give it back to him and he was like, ‘No no, you keep it.’ Then one thing led to another.”

When Naup finished honours he returned home, and Lisa joined him. “I went in December,” she says. “By February I was married and by October I had twins. I don’t do anything by halves.”

“He was a lecturer at the University of Papua New Guinea, so then I started teaching photography and printmaking. I got my darkroom brought up from Melbourne.”

Bringing the disused photography department out of mothballs was exciting. Ditto hanging shows, taking students on photographic field trips, and immersing herself in Melanesian and tribal culture.

Lisa and Naup had another child and split their time between Melbourne and PNG for years. She worked various jobs to help support the family, including house cleaning and creating works on paper like little family tree cards with hand-stitched feathers to sell at weekend markets.

Naup returned to PNG two years ago. Their daughter, soul and hip-hop singer Kaiit, is scheduled to perform in Port Moresby in January and Lisa’s planning her first trip “back home” in 12 years, keen to see her now-adult kids “connect with their family back there”.

The culture was just so inspiring, the people were amazing, and I just felt like I was home.

Naup’s ongoing research into his genealogy proved massively influential. “He’s been a huge teacher in my life,” Lisa says. She was fascinated and profoundly moved “watching him connecting dots and connecting this family to that family.

“He’s got a professor in his tribe that can orally recite 30 generations of family information: ‘This person’s with this person…’ It’s absolutely mindboggling. Coming from here and seeing how Aboriginal people have lost so much here, he didn’t want that to happen to his people. So he dedicated his whole life to documenting it all. Down to stories. Down to insects. Everything.”

“Later I came back and found out about my Aboriginal background.”

JOINING THE DOTS

Lisa grew up in a close-knit Italian family and always knew she’d been adopted at birth. As a teenager she and her mum went looking for information about her birth parents at adoption network VANISH. But it wasn’t until after the birth of her twins that Lisa tracked down her birth mum in Darwin and Aunty in Queensland.

When they reunited in Melbourne she discovered her connection to the Torres Strait Islands – slap bang between Australia and PNG. “She said, ‘I’m Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal’ and I was like, “Oh my God, things kind of make sense now’,” Lisa says. “That changed my life. And being a part of Baluk Arts, that changed my life completely.”

Weaving together the disparate threads of her family, history and culture is a slow, ongoing process, with art at its core.

“There was a lot of processing for me to do,” Lisa says. “I received a lot of paperwork through the Freedom of Information Act when I met my birth mum – all my adoption records. I’m kind of following history through paperwork. And I’m not much of a reader. So for me it’s translating it into a visual. So a lot of my work has to do with that story, and coming back home in some ways.”

HISTORIES FULL OF HOLES

Lisa had always felt strongly connected to the natural world and guided towards found objects like feathers and strong, tribal iconography and colour. Learning the art of weaving at Baluk Arts in Mornington she found the perfect vehicle for personal stories full of holes.

“My mum was put into homes at a very young age,” she says. “My great-grandmother was part of the Stolen Generation. I’m kind of like this lost generation, trying to find history and information but there’s nothing to be found. I keep coming up with these brick walls. All that information was buried and forgotten.”

Connecting with other family members – cousins, a half-brother and half-sister, and most recently her father – and learning more of their shared story “has been an amazing journey, absolutely,” Lisa says. “It’s a lifelong thing. I guess in some ways I have to resign myself to the fact that I’ll never know parts of it. Which is threaded through my artwork. There’s voids, missing parts, things that are no longer there.”

CREATIVE GUIDANCE

“I look back and think of the things I was doing before I found out more information about myself, and I always had a connection to nature and colour,” Lisa says. “I did a lot of series on iconography, so there’s that spiritual content. The images were very tribal looking. I look at the pattern making that I did in the iconography series and I’m still doing a similar kind of line work.

I feel like I’m being guided with a lot of work that I do.

“I don’t know how I do those mark makings. I don’t know why I do those mark makings. I just do those mark makings.” It’s a sensation that’s immensely reassuring – the antithesis of the artistic self-doubt that plagues most creatives at some point. “It’s like an affirmation that I’m on the right path,” she says.

SUDDEN SUCCESS

Within a year of learning to weave Lisa created her first body of woven pieces – for none other than the NGV’s landmark 2013 survey Melbourne Now. Which the gallery promptly acquired. Not too shabby for a novice. Her star has been in the ascendant ever since.

The impact? “Absolutely huge,” Lisa says. “From there it has just grown and the forms have changed and I’m finding my own way of doing it.”

COLLECTIVE ART

From the start Lisa instinctively incorporated feathers into her weaving. “Feathers for me even as a child were such a marker of presence,” she says. “I was forever collecting feathers.”

“Now I’ve got family and friends all around me collecting feathers for me. For me it’s like a community thing as well. I’m creating these pieces but I’m including all these family around me to support me. I can’t do it without them.”

DAY JOB WITH SOUL

Like so many artists and makers Lisa makes a creative crust by juggling multiple roles and striking a balance between personal, exhibition and commercial work.

Three days each week she’s programs coordinator at Baluk Arts, a community arts centre for a diverse mob of contemporary urban Aboriginal artists she discovered in 2012 through a friend of her dad’s some years after learning about her indigenous heritage.

For many artists their ‘day job’ simply underwrites their art practice. For Lisa it pays the bills, but it’s also integral to her creativity, culture and identity.

‘Baluk’ is a Kulin word for a group of people, clan or mob. Baluk artists work in bayside and south-east Melbourne and on the Mornington Peninsula, but hail from all over. Many members have been affected by the Stolen Generation, adoption and detachment from culture. They come together to teach and learn, reconnect with culture and family, and tell their stories through art.

Part of Lisa’s role involves helping artists communicate their stories.

She also helps art buyers understand the sometimes unexpected differences between traditional Aboriginal art and contemporary practice by urban artists.

Beyond providing space to make, run workshops, hold exhibitions and sell products, Baluk’s brief includes community and artistic development, youth leadership, Indigenous governance and supporting cultural and creative wellbeing. Its artists are involved in exhibitions and art fairs (like the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair) across Australia, and the exposure frequently leads to commissions, awards and invitations to exhibit ever more broadly.

Lisa was knee-deep in a staggering six shows in the month we spoke, including A Lightness of Spirit is the Measure of Happiness at ACCA, Sea Her Land at Benalla Art Gallery and two shows at ReDot Gallery in Singapore: Badjurr Baluk (Women of Baluk) and a solo show called Finding Place.

She started out at Baluk Arts running art based workshops for primary school children. As the program developed and her workload began eroding time for art making she switched to her current, tailor-made role as programs coordinator, curating shows and supporting artists’ development.

With a massive program to deliver this year it’s hardly surprising she hasn’t spent as much time as usual bringing in new mediums for artists to experiment with. (Which is how she discovered weaving).

The artistic and cultural exchange continues apace nonetheless. A week-long residency with Tasmanian elder Nannette Shaw, recently nominated for a NATSIAA (National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award), has had the whole place awash in kelp. “We’ve gone kelp crazy,” Lisa laughs.

BALANCING ART & COMMERCE

The other strands of her creative business life fit in around Baluk Arts, whose community of like-minded artists challenge, reward and sustain her. “There’s a thread of a common story,” Lisa says. “Quite a few of (our artists) have that similar background of being detached and separated at a very young age. To be able to meet and connect with people who have like backgrounds and are like minded – it’s been healing.”

From her home-studio in Melbourne Lisa makes work to exhibit and sell, and creates some knock-out commissions like Lisa Waup X Verner, a runway collection created last year for Craft Victoria with fashion designer Ingrid Verner.

The collaboration began with bold line drawings from Lisa’s journals. It ultimately roped in daughter Kaiit and friend and Craft Victoria curator Sarah Weston, and culminated in the Global Indigenous Runway show at The Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival and NGV’s Melbourne Design Week.

It may have been a successful commercial collaboration but it was also artistically exciting – and fun.

DISTRACTION VS MEDITATION

Lisa concedes she’s prone to the usual distractions of a home studio. (Washing. Dinner. ‘Mum, can you take me here…?’) And as a “mad … bower bird” the space is packed to the rafters with her various collections. But once she’s immersed, weaving functions as a “form of meditation” and unequivocally calls the shots.

I go into another world and my hands just do it. There are times when I guide what I’m doing, but a lot of the time I’m taken.

“It’s a medium that governs me, as opposed to me governing it.”

MAKING ART FREELY

The steady income of Baluk Arts allows Lisa to make art without worrying about commerce.

She certainly sells work at exhibitions and art fairs and in the retail spaces at Baluk Arts and Craft Victoria, and she’s learned a thing or two about the business of exhibitions. But she doesn’t produce art with an eye on commercial concerns like prototyping or market appeal.

Understanding the business of art is “quite tricky,” she concedes. “I think it’s a lot of testing the waters. What you’ve done previously can dictate where it’s going or price points. And nothing’s ever guaranteed. You might work 12 months on creating a show and not sell one single piece.”

Hence her decision to make art about self-expression, not financial survival.

“For me it’s like storytelling and releasing parts of myself that need to come out,” she says. “The more I find out about myself the more secure I feel in myself, and more empowered. Some things that I share are very vulnerable. But for me it’s a necessity.”

STRATEGIC MENTORS

“Unless I’m working for a particular show … generally I will just create,” Lisa says.

She looks to Baluk Arts’ managers past and present like Tracey Lea Smith and Anna McLeod for mentoring and business strategy.

“They’re able to say, ‘Okay you’ve done this piece, would you like us to put it into an award?’, or ‘This would be great for that show’ or ‘I’ve had this come up and I think this piece would be great for that, what do you think?’

I just want to make artwork. I don’t want to have to worry about all of that.

SMALL BUSINESS

Invoicing and admin (especially email) take up plenty of business hours, and don’t particularly float her boat. But they’re necessary skills she’s acquired. (Reluctantly.)

One business lesson she’s taken on board enthusiastically is the need for products at different price points to sell at art fairs to would-be collectors on a budget.

Hence her range of jewellery and other small-scale “intimate works” (some of which are also currently nominated for National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards). She creates these while her larger and more intricate woven vessels and sculptures are in progress.

“To create a woven piece I could spend months and months and months,” Lisa says. “So I feel like I need to do lots of different things at the same time. I might let that sit and wait and kind of talk to me about where it wants to go and then I might just create jewellery or something that’s not so time consuming. It satisfies that need to be making something and creates these different price points. Most people would like to have something but can’t necessarily invest in something big.”

And I like small things. They speak volumes but they’re intimate works.”

Thanks to Lisa Waup, ACCA, Baluk Arts, Hannah Presley, Frank Kiraly, Fred Kohl and Phebe Schmick for images.
Lisa thanks each of these too, as well as Craft Victoria, NATSIAA, Anna McLeod, Blue Print Sculpture, Erins Window and her precious family.

 

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