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Writers in Libraries - John Tebbutt

During February and March John Tebbutt was a library writer in residence for South Gippsland Local Council, Victoria. The region is renowned for its food and local arts. John spoke to four local artists about how the pandemic has affected them as JobKeeper ends. John is an Associate Professor (Honorary) at RMIT University and City University of Hong Kong and lives in Meeniyan.

Singing in a storm

COVID-19 is a quiet storm. It obliterates in silence. Many have lost loved ones while in isolation and, in a broader cultural context, it can seem like 2020 just did not happen. So many times, I have heard people talk about their plans – for travel, for projects, for catching up – only to say, a little further into the conversation: "Of course, that was last year."

The pandemic has been particularly devastating for the cultural sector. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that more than half of all arts and recreation businesses had ceased trading by the end of March last year. Even with a revised JobKeeper program from July, artists and workers the creative industries found it hard to access payments unless they had formal arrangements in place, either ongoing employment – rare – or a company structure – not easy for a casual. On the ABC's 7.30 Report Leigh Sales suggested to the Prime Minister that, in July 2020, the "sector contributes billions to the Australian economy and employs 600,000 people fewer than half of whom are eligible for JobKeeper". Mr Morrison pointed to the increased JobSeeker payments in response.

At the same time the arts sector found itself in the middle of increasing concern over aerosol COVID particles. Soon, it wasn't just who or what we touched. Not only should we wash and sanitise, avoid handshakes and hugs – COVID was in the very air we breathe. In May last year US health authorities reported that a choir practice led to a 'superspread' of 52 coronavirus cases in one town, including two deaths. A fine mist of virus particles emitted during
singing, authorities believed, contributed to the spread. Soon similar reports came in from the Netherlands and Germany. The US journal, Atlantic Monthly, quipped that while making music has benefits, in a pandemic it is riskier than staying silent.

But what is silence to an artist? Can you sing in a storm?

After the news about the US choir 'superspread', singing and musical instructors Jane Coker and Tanya Nolan had to find new ways to raise their voices. While Jane and Tanya shared the 2020 experience at home in Dumbalk, South Gippsland – where they had moved from Brunswick nine years ago – it was international engagement that came to the fore. When singing was sidelined, Jane found that reconnecting with her worldwide network was invaluable. Workshops and meetings online led to a sharing of experiences and strategies in the changed conditions and were important for providing peer recognition and support.

Prior to the pandemic Jane and Tanya, had a whirl of professional and social engagements. Singing was Jane's livelihood. She has a long history in community singing in Australia and the UK. Tanya ran weekly ukulele workshops in Meeniyan Hall – a community hall famous for hosting international performances. Jane and Tanya are in the Stony Six, a local acoustic group that played all over Gippsland and Jane also sang acapella in Acoustic Kitchen.

JobKeeper provided a financial lifeline for Jane and Tanya but their singing practice suffered. Community singing over zoom is not the same as gathering in a room. For Tanya, social singing is physical. In any case as Jane points out you can't sing together online; technical delays in the audio mean that participants can only hear themselves and the leader, not the other singers. While work-arounds were possible the multi-screen choir singing, that often appeared as a sign of 'togetherness' and solidarity throughout 2020, was an effect of editing and multitracking. More presentation than presence. Jane and Tanya's singing groups were discontinued and now, a year later, members have developed new ways of living. Time for rehearsals and performances will need to be carved anew from other commitments.

Weathering the silence invoked by COVID-19 was exactly how Michael Pitts dealt with the pandemic-induced change to his art photography practice in 2020. Although he would have preferred to have been in his beloved northern deserts – where he travels with a portable darkroom – he found winter in South Gippsland bearable: "Weather's what weather is" he tells me in his laconic manner. When I went to interview Michael, I found him waiting for a truck behind his Fish Creek home. He had put his former skills as a carpenter and project manager on warehouse builds to good use and was constructing a new studio.

Michael tells me he lived by wits and intuition in his life as a builder, but photography was always there. He sold his first picture at 19. Michael's wet plate process photography is akin to weathering; chemical soaked silver crystalises on a glass plate before being exposed to light in an antique box camera. It beautifully captures the stillness of the desert landscapes. I asked him when he knew he had a good shot but, he eschewed any sense of preempting the photograph. For his art practice 'photographing' – where collodion, the suspension of silver articles in a bath ether, alcohol, and other chemicals, produces light sensitive crystals – cannot be a conscious process except in the impulse to take the picture; like chemicals on a plate, consciousness shifts, and you know what you have only once the excitation settles.

For Michael the pandemic is just more turbulence to tide over. Michael credits the community around him for helping he and his partner, Tracey, weathering 2020 at home in Fish Creek. On their last desert trip in 2018, a car accident
laid them up. Neighbours, known and anonymous rallied, leaving food and supplying good cheer as they recovered through the following year. When 2020 came they were still not sure if they were ready for the road again. COVID-19 settled that question.

Michael made a decision a long time ago not to be bothered with government money, so JobKeeper was never a question for him. While over the year he saw the ebb and flow of customers dry up, time has offered him the chance to put up his new studio, a long-term goal, and to indulge interest in bespoke picture framing.

Down the road, shelter in the storm was also important for sculptor, Andrew McPherson. Andrew's Ride the Wild Goat Gallery combines his workshop, which is very much in the public eye. His workspace adjacent to the gallery
invites you to call out and connect. But in the pandemic Andrew has learnt to enjoy the quiet. The pandemic allowed time to take time; to sit back, not be so in front of everything and everyone. Andrew's artist partner, Isabel, has drawn family to her in Gippsland. Lately her mother – an artist as well – joined them in Fish Creek and Andrew has been fixing up her new house. He’s reconnected with family on Isabel’s side and his own as his sons have helped him with the build.

At the same time, he has been creating his own place – a workshop that will allow him to move away from being on public view. The pandemic has provided Andrew with the chance to work without being a spectacle and provided the opportunity to turn towards the more prosaic arts of making shelter. "I spent 12 years sculpting, learning how not to make things straight now I'm fitting windows, which really do need to be in straight".

COVID-19, for Andrew, was another way to find out what you need to do. There was a terrific piece his gallery when I came to talk to Andrew, entitled 'Essence of a swan'. As with all his work it involved found, salvaged or gifted material. This was a large, solid piece of wood. When he started working with it Andrew believed he was fashioning a dog; he scraped and chiselled the wood, but the dog never came into view. Slowly over years of working on the material he came to understand he wasn’t creating a canine but a waterfowl.

For Andrew physical material can have an essence – a song – that requires its due. Sometimes all an artist can do is take time to listen. "It's not always the case" Andrew explains "sometimes it come quickly, a purer song; some take more grunt and are rough in the end, but still a thing in themselves". While the pandemic has meant Andrew has put off sculpturing for building the call of the physical material is still there. It waits for him and it will, maybe, be all the more discernible in the quiet his newly built workspace.

Like Andrew, Tanya and Jane hope that emerging from the depths of the pandemic – even if danger remains – will lead to a rejuvenated practice. Tanya has been working on producing songs for sharing online, developing new skills with free audio production programs. Singing is beginning again. The Meeniyan Hall hosted the first of Jane's classes recently and news is that the volunteer Lyrebird Arts Council will once again schedule touring acts for the
community Hall in the town.

While the storm will rage, we still hear the creative chorus provided by artists' practice.

John Tebbutt

John Tebbutt

John Tebbutt is currently one of a number of South Gippsland Shire's 'Writers in Libraries'. John is an essayist and specialises in factual writing. His project for the Shire program is to write about how the COVID pandemic has affected artists and those associated with the arts (including gallery owners, journalists and administrators).

John has had a number of years researching and teaching at Monash and La Trobe universities. He is currently an honorary Associate Professor with RMIT University. John's research focus is media and popular culture.

John is the managing editor of Continuum: a journal of media and cultural studies. He has written about ABC Radio, community radio and the Melbourne music scene. John has also produced radio programs for national broadcast and written features for newspapers and online. He is active in history with his local community - Meeniyan - and is interested to write about the music and the arts generally in the Tarwin River valley.

John was a writer in libraries up to the end of March. He was always interested to talk to anyone who had been associated with local arts, including in service clubs and schools, about their experiences during the time of the pandemic.

He can be contacted at