Category: conference reflections


The Curious Caravan turns up at all the good places

The Curious Caravan turns up at all the good places

A big day of belonging. What could be better! I have spent my morning reflecting on my experiences on Saturday 16th January 2016 at our State Library of Queensland. A delicious day. A gentle day. A day of creativity and connection. And chai.

To begin: those of you who know my work over the last fifteen years, know that I have focused hugely on what it means to belong, working with artists and the community to awaken their infinite talent, energy and commitment to living a life of purpose, joy and enthusiasm ( Margi Brown Ash’s website

I love this quote about roads to belonging:

Each one of us…should speak of his roads, his crossroads, his roadside benches, each one of us should make a surveyor’s map of his lost fields and meadows. Thoreau said that he had a map of his fields engraved in his soul
(Gaston Bachelard)

So you can imagine how excited I was to learn that there was a brilliant team of SLQ staff organising a day where the entire community would be invited to focus on belonging. This day of belonging would give us a chance to speak of our own roads of connection…and to make our own surveyor’s map.

I leave home in plenty of time, go via Metro Arts where a delightful festival for young artists is happening (2High Festival with Backbone Theatre), rescue a dying plant in my studio on the third floor and finally make my way across the river to the cultural precinct. It is a dullish day, a welcomed day after the heat of the past week. The clouds keep the direct sun at bay and there is a light breeze from the river.

The Big Day of Belonging has been planned by Linda Barron, Executive Manager of Community Engagement, Brendan Ross, Senior Programming Officer, Kevin Wilson, Curator along with their substantial team. Today they are launching the library’s new theme for 2016: “Belonging 2016”.

A most welcomed theme: There have been many disruptions in our town recently, violence has reared its ugliness on the streets, violating our sense of belonging in our community. So to have a day to step into, a day where State Library Queensland dedicated its passionate staff and substantial resources to create what they called “a belonging day” well, it was a delight to participate.


large pieces of paper with colouring in patterns...if you wanted you could purchase the books inside at the library's bookshop

Large pieces of paper with colouring in patterns…if you wanted you could purchase the books inside at the library’s bookshop.

On arrival, first things first. “I must find a program so I know what I am to do”. I am greeted by a smiling face next to a huge table with large colouring-in sheets and hundreds of coloured pencils. People are standing, quietly drawing, filling in, gentle breathing. “Ahh. This will slow me down” I think and I stand next to a small person and slow down to her pace, pick up a pink pencil and begin to colour in. This is serious business. No one talking, just focusing on the task at hand. “I’ll find a program afterwards…this is too yummy to rush”. People come and go and a feeling of “there’s enough time, enough time” filters through the enclosed courtyard.

After a time, I turn around and see a beautiful cardboard house, with lots of rooms, little homes to play in. Tables with craft supplies and engaged faces. “My chance to find a program” I think as I wander through the courtyard. A flower filled table and three young artists catch my attention.

Hanna, Anna and Dani, three fabulously vibrant women who transformed the community with their sass, their vibrancy and their flowers.

Hanna, Anna and Dani, three fabulously vibrant women who transform the community with their sass, their vibrancy and their flowers.

Anna, Hanna and Dani are taking pictures of people who have flowers, scarves and beads in their hair. The atmosphere is peaceful yet electric as I watch these three designers dress people up and take their photo before the next eager child or woman steps forward. I stand transfixed. I chat with Kevin Wilson, the curator at SLQ, as I watch the scene unfold. We both agree that this activity really encapsulates a sense of peace and quiet. A sense of belonging -beautiful flowers and happy faces…I stand for a long time. My body rhythm has slowed right down. As things go, I have no phone (forgot it AGAIN), no mini Ipad, no camera. so there is nothing to distract me. I stand and watch the process. Finally I decide “its my turn” and the designers then create a marvellous array of flowers, scarves, beads, everything they could lay their hands on. They dress me up a treat…an exotic form of what it could mean to belong in our great town…flowers, colour beauty all the things i like to surround myself with. After a substantial amount of time had passed I decide I need that program so I wave goodbye after leaving my phone number (I don’t want to lose contact with these vibrant artists). I move on.

I decide to enter the library. The only thing I struggle with at SLQ is the actual entrance. The need for a security guard is understandable, but I always feel as though I am a suspect rather than a guest/shareholder of this brilliant building of ideas, stimulation and passion. I quickly move through the barriers and race up the stairs to find the choir. I had bumped into a friend and his daughter earlier who were on their way to choir practice, so I thought I would join them, and on the way I even might find that program.

So glad I climbed those stairs. I found Kiri Waiata-Green, a dynamic woman artist who had the enormous task of creating a choir of strangers in one and a quarter hours. Kiri had composed several songs for us to learn, simple, beautiful l songs about belonging:

One step at a time
Travellin’ on our road
Walkin’ through life alone
Yet we seek to share the load

One step at a time
goin’ over, under and through
Makin’ it so much easier
Givin’ thanks for hlep from you

(Kiri Waiata, 2016)

I watched with awe and fascination as Kiri talked us through the ‘sops’ (soprano) middles and lows. Kiri divided the auditorium up into three sections. I came in late so found myself sitting in the sops. I’ve never been a sop before so I thought “Why not?”. I decided to embrace my head voice for a change.

Kiri doesn’t just help you sing. She makes you laugh and we spent a delightful hour singing, laughing, standing, sitting and ‘getting our groove on’. We were then invited to tea –“Oh sorry the urn has exploded”– so instead we had water, OJ etc with nibbles. So good. A terrific afternoon. I joke about the way Kiri’s lyrics will no doubt stay inside our heads for the next few days. And then I’m off. I know there is more to see and time is ticking by. Before I exit the building I enter the gallery space curated by Kevin. I was unsure if the gallery was opened or closed. It looked closed. I stand in the doorway, hoping…and the door opens. Magic. Then a second door opens. And I enter a huge gallery space with community work hanging all around. The criteria for this exhibition was that anyone could submit, no judgement, no critical review. The result is an explosion of images, some magnificent, some colourful and alive. All of them wonderfully alive. I know I need to return with my camera to unpack our community’s message of “peace and quiet”. It is a dynamic space, a cacophony of shapes and colours. A place where artists could find enormous stimulation, and not just those who call themselves artists, but people who embrace the artistry of life.

I then slip out of the gallery, skip down the stairs (I’m feeling good you can tell), pass the guard that I have now transformed into a delicious gnome, and I exit into the cool air. “Now where is that program?” I think and I turn right and head up to GOMA (Gallery of Modern Art, one of my favourite galleries in the world). And I stumble into the sister of an old friend. “Do you have a program?” and sure enough she does. Finally. My hunger for a program is satisfied and as I look through it I realise that I didn’t need it at all. The whole day has been so beautifully curated that it would be hard to miss the gems. On the lawn in front of me, the space that separates GOMA and SLQ, lots of people sit listening to the band Verandah Chix. They were fabulous, singing up a storm. They told us they sung in 14 different languages! I spy the glorious Pauline Maudy who is one of Brisbane’s strongest vocalists lined up with other powerful women I still need to meet. By this time Bill, my patient partner has joined me: he cycled from outer Brisbane where we live. I decide we need to create a house lantern, the main activity on the lawn apart from the fabulous entertainment. He prefers to sit and soak up the talent, so I make my way over to the art tables:

Our job was to create a home made out of cardboard, and transform it into a lantern.

Our job was to create a home made out of cardboard, and transform it into a lantern.

The activity was carefully planned…challenging… “I can’t do this!” sort of thing. But the art workers on the tables were fabulously encouraging. Not so the young one next to me. I felt truly judged as my lantern-home…well, it hit the dust more than a few times. And if I didn’t keep my wits about me the glue stick would disappear in a jot. There goes the scissors…wait!!!! And the sticky stuff…damn…So there I was… standing there feeling like the whole world was against me making this thing…these kids really know how to survive the craft table i can tell you. I need some lessons! After swallowing any pride I may have had and asking for substantial help, I finally did it! Windows in the wrong places, holes where holes should never be, but I did it. I stuck a tea light candle inside. Attached a bamboo stick and got out of there!

upatree arts were the facilitators of this fabulous event...yes, I felt challenged as a 60ish year old, but I was determined!

“upatree arts” were the facilitators of this fabulous event…yes, I felt challenged as a 60ish year old, but I was determined!

I found Bill, showed him my beautiful lantern and then sat and listened as the evening entertainment continued. Speeches came and went, welcoming us and announcing the year-long theme of Belonging. People listened,chatted, ate food (you could eat from the different food vans along the park: traditional food sold by Dale Chapman of Traditional Wellbeing, Muooz, Korean and The Curious Caravan). Children danced. Parents scolded, grandmothers moved with the music. Not over crowded, just right. Then it was time for the lantern parade. Kiri’s choir gathered (I did not. As a brand new sop, I thought I would serve the evening better recording what was going on so I could write to you all today) and sang the songs we had learned earlier in the day. The lanterns started moving across the stage:

The lantern parade began with the lanterns with the initials making up the word B E L O N G I N G followed by the choir and the  community of home lanterns

The parade began with lanterns with the words that spelled out B E L O N G I N G…glorious. Voices sang out in the now cool river air, children and prams and dads and uncles and aunts and mums and teenagers all moved with the parade, beautifully held by the chorus’s percussion and chanting. On arrival back in the internal courtyard,The Knowledge Walk, there was a wonderfully rich Welcome to Country, followed by two songs performed by the 1.15 hour long choir.

A wonderful day. A wonderful evening and one I will remember for some time. I know the library has lots of ideas for the rest of the year…I know I’ll be there, and before that I think I will take some craft lessons! No, I’ll just show up and get the kids to help me. After they have moaned and giggled about how incapable I am, they will be terrific and guide me home…we all belong.

The final number with Kiri's instant choir …… Welcome to Country …

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Ten things I learned at The Creative Aging Conference, Washington DC JUNE 2014

So I am sitting in a sun drenched room in a gorgeous little hotel called Hotel Lombardy in Washington DC.

taken at ENCORE! Hands on Creative Aging Training for Artists, hosted by Susan Perlstein and Stuart Kandell

I have just spent four crazy filled days talking about something that previously I would have thought “What…you mean what?”

These four days have opened other worlds for me and in turn hopefully for our community back in Queensland.  I have met gloriously friendly and extremely capable people who have spent years bringing creativity to the elders of their community. Why you may ask? Well I learned that too! Gene Cohen, a revered elder of the NCCA  community dedicated his life to researching the effects of creativity on the elderly. One of his favourite sayings was “Creativity is like Chocolate to the Brain”. NCCA, or National Center for Creative Aging here in Washington ( has based their work on his research and this was their first ever conference. Several Aussies crossed the Pacific to attend, and I did not know any of them, but I know them now: Margret Meahger from Port Macquarie who founded Arts and Health Conference, Australia (its in Melbourne this year and Steve Mayer-Miller who began CrossRoad Arts in Mackay Queensland ( ).

I loved this image: for me, a whimsical image of belonging

I loved this image: for me, a whimsical image of belonging

So what did I learn at this hugely impactful conference? The below points are not chronological. I am allowing the thoughts to emerge as I write, rather than predetermined…I think it is more alive that way, at least for me:

1. There is a very fine line between friendly, open and equal exchange of processes and a slightly condescending tone.

Mostly I witnessed enormous skill where facilitators worked with us in a collaborative and open manner. The challenge is how to present creative arts to people who may have hearing loss, memory loss, dementia, etc. and still remain collaborative. Some of the facilitators were brilliant at this: on our final post conference day, we worked with four facilitators:  who all excelled at connecting to their “clients” (and we were their clients that day) in such a light, fun and respectful way:

  • Jeanie Brindley-Barnett, Co-Founder MacPhail Music for Life
  • Margot Greenlee, Founder, Bodywise Dance
  • George Merced, Associate Artistic Director, Pregones Theater
  • Jeff Nachtigall, Founder Open Studio Projects
I watched exquisite skill, huge sense of humour, “yes-and”, strengths based work.
2. I learned the importance of planning programs and how these plans are not so different from the collaborative rehearsal processes that we use at Force of Circumstance (FOC)  and 4change. I have dreamed on these approaches to include:
  • emphasis on process AND product. Jeff Nachtigall talked about the importance of not sacrificing one for the other, rather allowing both to sit side by side. This is certainly how i see FOC: highly aesthetic productions with a very powerful process.
  • Mastery: that all participants learn new skills. In our case (FOC), the involvement of professional actors from multiple generations opens up opportunities for new learning across the age groups.
  • Social engagement: the importance of sharing the space, food, conversation, as well as the work.  FOC places a lot of emphasis on hosting and it is wonderful to see how this is reflected here in DC.
  • Adult Learning Principles: now this expression was new to me, though the process was not. Check out for more clarification.
3. That artists have summed up the joy of creation so beautifully. Here is a quote from Willa Cather
What was any art but an effort to make a sheath a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining elusive element which is life itself-life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose
3 and 3 again: “Setting an Intention”: Patricia Dubroof, the gallery Director at Iona Senior Services, began her presentation with “lets set an intention”. I loved the language she used. I normally use “what is our goal for today” or “what do we want to dream on”, but “to set an intention” seems to combine both of those things and keeps us firmly in the drivers seat. Thank you Patricia! I will use that expression!
4. That there are so many wonderful organisations dedicated to working with elder, both in homes and in the community. So many intergenerational programs. Such richness, and I feel motivated to bring these ideas back home and begin to implement them. Should I set up a meeting with Campbell Newman (our Premier of Queensland) to discuss where we are going regarding creative ageing?
5. The importance of evaluation: The conference had very simple evaluation forms that we filled out after every session. It covered the content and process, the skills and the logistics.  A very simple evaluation which I loved was suggested:  “If this workshop was a show, how many stars would you give it?” So simple!
I think evaluation is something that artists often fall short of: we are too busy creating our work let alone evaluating it. I think I will create some evaluation forms to have on hold, something that can be pulled out and adjusted depending on the workshop/performance.
6. Our Potential:  something our keynote mentioned is still resonating with me: Mark Agronin, a geriatric psychiatrist, entertained us royally with a beautifully prepared presentation that set the tone for the conference.  First of all he quoted Gene Cohen:
What has been universally denied is the potential. The ultimate expression of potential is Creativity.
Its worth checking out his website:
He also said “the arts bring us together and transcend” and I will add the arts bring us together and transcend limitations and obstacles, and open up the doorway to our enormous potential, regardless of age and circumstance.
7.  We can no longer only focus on K-12 education. We need to change that to “Cradle to Grave”…what a disturbing expression but it really visualises the fact that we never stop learning. and science can now prove that our brains continue to grow as we age, and in fact can work even more effectively.
8. Problem solving is creativity with a capital C: there were so many people wanting to present at this conference, that the solution was bringing several facilitators together on the floor at the same time. So not only did they have to improvise their presentations most of the time, they also had to negotiate relationship. What was so marvellous about this was the modelling that I observed. Most facilitators warmed to this way of working extremely successfully, to the extent that in one particular workshop (Using Storytelling to Build Community and Enhance Cultural Understanding with Cathy Dewitt, Molly Sturges, Russella Bradman and Anthony Hyatt) I was convinced they were a team. Anthony simply joined in with his violin at most appropriate times as Molly and Cathy moved seamlessly between their own presentations.  I think more collaborative conferences and leadership exchange conferences  should risk this format, because not only do you get an insight into multiple ways of working, you also witness the modelling of the process.
9.  There is such a thing as an Age Friendly City. There is a whole movement! And it is international! Again, a meeting with Campbell Newman may be a good idea here: is Brisbane an Age Friendly City?
10. DREAM BIG: all the people I met who have achieved huge things in this area have dreamed big. People like John Zeisel (“I’m Still Here” his book…check out his website who talked about environment not just being a place. It is also how you are welcomed into that space.  His research will enrich mine: the importance of hosting the space as well as providing the place.  Susan Perlstein who founded National Center for Creative Aging ( modelled the way she works with elders: respectful, deep understanding of time, process and needs. This reinforced the importance of ‘know thyself’ when embracing the role of facilitator. The more we know ourselves, the more we can model best practice, and “the medium is the message”.
Thank you National Center for Creative Aging: I have learned so much and hope to take much of it back home and ‘Dream Big’.