On Returns and Reflections
This story was submitted by a member of the regional arts sector: Natalie Blom. We love sharing stories from the sector. If you want to find out how to submit your own stories, take a look at the submit your story page. We can’t wait to hear from you!
I’m not going to lie, I was terrified. Which is stupid, because I have delivered variants of this workshop for years. I know the content inside out, I have my materials all prepped. But it doesn’t quite feel the same when you suspect some of the participants probably know your family. My mum, given half the chance, would scan down the participant list and proceed to try to explain to me who someone was with sentences like, “They used to live next door to such-and-such’s house” and “Her youngest daughter married Joe Bloggs, who was in your sister’s class at primary school.”
I didn’t show mum the list.
I drove the 260-odd kilometers east to Merredin to deliver two art workshops for Central Wheatbelt arts org Meridian Regional Arts Inc (MRA). I was born in Merredin, and lived there until I undertook the traditional country kid rite of passage of moving to ‘the big smoke’ to undertake tertiary education.
Image: Cummins Street, Merredin. From the exhibition RETURN by Natalie Blom, 2016
People in this town probably know me – probably know my family – and that feels like I needed to do a really good job – my irrational brain worrying the family’s honour was at stake. Returning home can come with some complicated feelings. There is something in having history in a place, along with a significant period of absence; it feels like a strange tether. Locations can be loaded with memories which have laid dormant, sometimes for decades. The surreal nature of the experience never seems to fade over time, at least not for me.
I suppose part of the reason for the sense of the surreal comes from the static nature of places in your memory: they do not change. They are a snapshot of that place in a time which no longer exists, those memories often no longer match reality. Instead there is a feeling of misalignment.
I should have known this feeling would come. After all, I had made an entire body of work about it when I got back from the UK in 2016. Looking through the new lens of someone returning after two years living overseas was like seeing familiar things anew. In particular, there is something very specific to a lot of the scenes you come across in the Wheatbelt, an accidental but unmistakable aesthetic. Some of it comes from the light, but there is something else there too. For me, strong memories blur with the present. I feel that perhaps I see the magnified ghosts of our former lives.
Image: Merredin Quarry. From the exhibition RETURN by Natalie Blom, 2016.
Meridian Regional Arts offered such a good opportunity that is right up my alley; I had to jump out of my own head and into it head first. We agreed on two workshops I was to facilitate. The MRA team have carefully considered many aspects of residencies to combat possible prohibiting factors for artists participating in their program. In addition to providing accommodation, provision of travel expenses are made available too. As someone who needs to take time off from my day job to participate in many artist opportunities, these accommodations were very welcomed.
Workshop mediums are selected based on extensive feedback directly from the community, with a few additions thrown in, to broaden artistic horizons. For example, my workshop on Camera and Photography Basics was requested by community members, while the Zine Making workshop I delivered was more left of field, but warmly received.
Image: Natalie presenting outdoors. Photo courtesy of Meridian Regional Arts Inc.
Anyway, I shouldn’t have been worried about the workshops. The sessions went well: people were engaged and asked astute questions; and they bounced ideas and information off each other’s queries. I am grateful for this opportunity to present these skills, which have become so much a part of my life, to people living in the place so close to my heart. There is a satisfying cyclical sense to the process, especially as country towns continue to suffer the trend of young folks leaving in search of in-person tertiary education.
I was also pleased to have had the afternoons free to ramble around in some of the natural spaces I knew so well as a young person. The bushland I had known only as ‘Kendal Street bush’, where the guys from school would go to build BMX jumps, is actually the home of some incredible floristic communities and now known as Tamma Parkland. Careful investigation of some of the tracks leading off Goldfields Road (aka “the back way home”), behind Merredin Peak, were equally astounding with my renewed interest in searching for native terrestrial orchids.
Image: Tamma Parkland at dawn. Photo by Natalie Blom.
My participation in the 2022 Deeper Connections program through MRA was made possible through funding by DLGSC and Lotterywest. My thanks go to Meridian Regional Arts who are doing great work feeding the art-hungry with new and exciting experiences in the Central Wheatbelt.
While not all home town returns are without tugs at old scars, if there is a part of you that is curious, take a chance on a return trip. There is always something new to find.