Place can inform who we are, especially if you live in rural Australia. For young women who live in north west Tasmania, and participate in Big hART’s Project O, this rings very true. Traditionally, the north west of Tasmania has been viewed as an isolated, untapped area which has struggled with issues of unemployment, poverty, literacy and family violence. However now young people are reshaping this view, drawing from the unique strengths of their region to create strong futures.

Clare Spillman manages the work of Project O in the small town of Smithton which lies in the far North West region of Circular Head, over 400km from Hobart. “As a consequence of the remote places where the young women of Project O live, they do feel that identity and place are very much entwined.”

In the past many young people of the North West have felt stigmatised, struggling with isolation and negative perceptions, but Project O is helping change all that.

Project O works with rural young women aged 14-18, offering them opportunities that young people in cities would benefit from, tapping into local resource to build skills. Participants are mentored by top level artists to engage in high profile local events like Acoustic Life of Sheds, Tunes in the Tulips and more recently the outstanding Paper on Skin. This engagement builds confidence, leadership and a ‘can-do’ attitude in the young women, as they begin to take pride in themselves and where they live.

“Coming from London I understand how rich and lucky these young people are to grow up in this area”, says Clare Spillman. “I think celebrating place and celebrating the rich produce that comes out of this region is really changing how they see their world.”

Project O Smithton workshop with artist Maeve Baker. Photo courtesy of Big hART.

The art of place

16 year old Mishca joined Project O in Wynyard at the beginning of this year. Mishca has really grown as a digital artist during this time, learning how to use Procreate and working with leading VIC, NSW and WA artists including digital illustrators Maeve Baker and April Philips, designer Jes Hoskin, photographer Nicole Reed, filmmaker Nicky Akehurst and sound designer Leith Alexander.

“Being a part of Project O has really helped boost my confidence in my artwork”, says Mishca. “I’ve gained a lot of new experiences that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.” Mishca was invited to participate in the National Gallery of Australia’s teen ‘Digital Lab Online’ and in May presented a digital portrait she had created for International Women’s Day.

Project O Participant Mishca Linden speaking at International Women’s Day dinner event in March. Photo by Nicole Reed.


“My art is heavily influenced by nature, especially the beach”, says Mishca. “Growing up on the North West coast has made me really appreciate the beauty and wildness of where we live. I really enjoy being able to drive 15 minutes and end up somewhere that feels so far away from the rest of the world.”

In June Mishca was invited back again NGA’s teen digital lab to participate in an Instagram live streamed in-conversation event with Wiradjuri-Scottish digital artist, illustrator April Phillips, where they discussed their practice and techniques with young people across the country. “I use art to express feelings that I may not be able to easily speak about, as it just feels easier”, says Mishca.


Digital self portrait by Project O participant Mishca Linden with artist mentors Maeve Baker and Nicole Reed.

Collaborating with artists

Throughout COVID-19 young women have been learning new digital media and design skills, creating digital works of film, animation, illustrations, poetry and TikToks. The unique opportunity to collaborate with artists also saw their work stretched further and reflected back to them. Young women might write some words about the view from their window, take photographs, and then the work would be collated by the artists, adding animation, a sound bed, design and digital illustration into the work.

“The most important thing I think for the young women is the realisation that they are heard and valued by noted artists in the industry”, says Clare Spillman. “For any young person to realise that they’ve been seen, and they’ve been heard, and their contribution is valued is huge, especially in COVID times where we all feel very isolated, very alone, and very cut off.”

Words by Project O participant Shania Spanner. Artwork by Maeve Baker.

Challenges

The period of lockdown has not been without its challenges for young people living in an already isolated area of the country, trying to keep up with education and contact with peers. In Smithton where Clare works, the young women work out of local youth centre SEVEN UP, and the Project O team take a proactive approach to maintaining relationships and building trust, with Clare ringing the young women twice a week to check in.

“During lockdown it was very hard to ensure that we were being a source of support and not creating an extra pressure”, says Clare Spillman. “Many of the young people felt a lot of pressure being home-schooled, juggling that with staying in one place with your family, and also doing all your duties from home.”

Young women from Project O. Photo by Nicole Reed.


Clare says the strategy they used to get through this difficult time was simply to be consistent, supportive and communicating a lot via emails, text messages, Google Classroom, phone calls and using Zoom to deliver workshops. Thanks to the support of Telstra, Project O was also able to reach out to young women who didn’t have the technological resources at home to offer them iPads so that they could take part in all the opportunities on offer.

“I think they have learnt that they are as resilient, as we’ve been telling them”, says Clare Spillman. “The outside artists also validate the young women, echoing what we’ve been telling them this whole time – that they’re strong, growing, fantastic women who have the power to do exactly what they want to do.”

Shariah Broom learns filmmaking with Project O. Photo by Nicole Reed.


“The work around place goes back to validating the North West Coast of Tasmania as an important place to be, an award-winning place which is really important for young women to hear. Whatever path they want to do they can follow, they just have to identify that path”, says Clare Spillman.

Project O is an initiative of Big hART, and in 2020 celebrates five years of helping young women be change makers in isolated and disadvantaged communities across Australia. Project O is proudly supported by Telstra, the Tasmanian Government and the Tasmanian Community Fund. To find out more go to the Project O website.