That's the Spirit: Amy Naef - Gilgandra
Artist Amy Naef doesn’t believe in helplessness, no matter the scale of the challenge. It’s a mindset she credits with having grown up in a small town, and it’s what drives the creative single mum to take “action through art”.
Amy: I’m an artist and a mum, and I’m based in Gilgandra now but I was born and raised in Mendooran. I moved around a bit – to Dubbo and then to Queensland, but now I’ve come back to settle in Gil. So this region has been in my heart and in my veins my whole life.
Jen: Tell me about some of the things you do to support your community.
Amy: Before I became a mother, I used to dedicate my time as a volunteer to almost any event that was on, whether that was helping as bar staff or helping put chairs out or anything like that. I was on the Mendooran Show Committee for a year as secretary, all sorts of bits and pieces. When I was up north I was doing just about every volunteer thing that was on at the Stockman’s Hall of Fame where I worked. I was quite heavily involved in community stuff up there (in Longreach) but when I came back down here I was concentrating more on being a parent. But wherever I am, if I’m asked to do something I will put my hand up.
Jen: How has life in a regional community featured in and influenced your art practice, which definitely has a bush feel to it?
Amy: The wider community of regional Australia as a whole has definitely been an influence because the bush is my subject. A lot of my artwork, my commission work in particular, comes about through connections – people asking me to do drawings of their dogs, for instance. Who has a greater connection than a man with his dog, right? So connection in communities is a big feature of my work and I hadn’t even thought about it until now, but I definitely see it. I draw horses and dogs and cats and loved animals and favourite places and homes and bits and pieces like that. I call my work “art from the heart” and it’s certainly from everyone’s heart not just my own.
Amy Naef, Gilgandra
Jen: What draws you to life in a small community?
Amy: Growing up in Mendooran, we knew everyone. You could go anywhere and do anything and it was pretty free. It was a great little childhood – I had Grandma down the road and family close by. We were the kids that rode horses every afternoon after school around town. I think a much of that has been lost now, and we’ve settled in Gilgandra because there weren’t the services we needed in Mendooran, and (the travelling to services) was just too taxing on my health.
But my heart will always be in Mendooran because of that wonderful childhood we had. Who doesn’t want to grow up like that? Free and out in the open air, going out on the farm with your friends kicking around in the dirt and chasing sheep and all that stuff.
Jen: Gilgandra is also a small community, though.
Amy: It is, and Gilgandra has the biggest community heart. It’s very similar to two other towns that I’ve lived in and loved – Charters Towers and Longreach (in regional Queensland). Everyone seems to know everyone and everyone is interconnected and everyone just looks after each other. You know each other’s business, not in the busybody sense but because you actually genuinely care. If someone has a bad run, or someone dies or is ill, the whole town comes together. There was a funeral on in town here recently for a young fellow and the cars were lined up for four blocks from the church.
There’s a sense of support and belonging, particularly in the worst times, and that sense of support is what keeps you going. You feel like you’re a part of a big family when you live in a town like Gil.
Jen: Why is it important to you to give back and why do you do that?
Amy: Because of my own mental health issues I know what it’s like to be alone, I know what it’s like to struggle, I know what it’s like to have been in bad situations and bad places – and I don’t want anyone else to be or feel that way.
I want to be the person I wish I had had around. That’s my motivation. I can’t sit down and have coffees and stuff with everyone, but my art communicates in another way that is more private. It’s not in your face, it’s something you see and can interpret for yourself. Not everyone wants to grieve or suffer openly and with art – whether you’re expressing it or viewing, reading it or being a part of it, or singing it – is a private thing that we all share.
As well as being a prolific artist, Amy is also the illustrator and author of children’s book, One Day Closer to Rain, published as an educational tool about drought.
Jen: Your little book, One Day Closer to Rain, had a great impact during times of drought. What motivated that project?
Amy: My other saying is that I take “action through art”. After the floods in North Queensland in 2019, people were saying how helpless they felt and I got a bit sick of hearing that. I knew I wasn’t able to drop everything and go up there and help, but I knew I could use my art so I did a painting called Beryl the Brahman and sold prints of it to raise money. I raised… well, it doesn’t matter how much I raised. It was more about the awareness – that was the point as much as the money.
(Note: Amy’s painting was of a cow that survived the floods at Julia Creek although most of the herd drowned. The sale of the prints raised $14,000 which was directed to charities involved with the flood relief efforts.)
It’s the same with One Day Closer to Rain – it’s about action through art. It’s about teaching people to think a bit deeper. To realise that you might not be able to donate money to a cause (like drought relief) or you might not be go and help but there is always a way you can do something. I can’t run away and join a Blazeaid camp because I’ve three kids and a dog and I’m a single parent and I’m running my own business and all that stuff, but I can use the skills that I have and everyone can use their skills that they have in their way to help. That really empowers you.
It is hard to sit by in a situation like a drought when you’re driving past bare paddocks and knowing there’s not been a crop for years and there’s no stock. As much as it affects the people living in that situation, it affects you too.
You are just looking at it thinking what can I do? You take that situation that seems so bleak and so terrible and turn it into something that can help – that’s what the book is about.
The intention of the book is to create sustainable habits around water use, but it’s not about preaching to anyone. It wasn’t specifically about farming or the environment – I was looking at the drought as a holistic thing that affects all of us and doing that through children in conversation with their parents.
The book was written specifically so an adult would have to read it to a kid. I put the big words in there that deliberately created conversation. The illustrations show the progression of the land going from a beautiful green, good season through to a dry season and then coming back again and all that goes with it. I think it creates awareness but not in a way that you are looking at a picture of dead cow. It shows the subtlety of how the drought creeps up and that our habits need to be for all the time not just when there is a drought.
Jen: Or when there is other adversity .
Amy: That’s right – you can’t just care then. You have to care all the time.
I was sort of joking that the plan was to do a book about flooding next, then along came all the bushfires. (Note: Amy also used her art to raise money for bushfire relief.)
The point is that there is always adversity of some sort in regional Australia and there is always a solution. It might just be hope and prayers and faith and all those things. I did have a lady ask me “Is the book Christian?”. I said it’s non-denominational, but prayer isn’t Christian, prayer is just having faith in something beyond you.
Jen: What are some of the misconceptions about small communities and life in regional Australia that you would like to dispel?
Amy: Every town will have its diversity, and there is always a small pocket of the population that ruins the image of the town for everyone – but the town isn’t the dude that has 17 dead cars in his house block on the highway that you see when you drive in. It’s everything else within the town that makes the town what it is, not just the bad thing you see.
We’re not hicks, we’re not racists, we’re not Bogans – they’re everywhere, of course, but they’re not representative of us all.
You see a lot of that (stereotype) in social media and it’s funny that the one who has the loudest voice is usually the one who knows the least.
There is also the misconception that when you are in a small town, everyone is bitchy to each other but it is just not the way it is.
And also, we’re not completely service-less we just have to drive a little bit further.
We try really bloody hard in small communities. I think there’s a misconception that people move out into the middle of nowhere so they can indulge a slacker mentality but you can’t live in the middle of nowhere and be a slacker.
Living in regional Australia comes with its own work ethic – you have to be able to be organised, practical and adaptable.
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.