That's the Spirit: Jen and Steve Greentree - Bourke NSW
Like many before them, Jen and Steve Greentree’s intention was for just a short stint at Bourke when they first moved here for work. That was more than 20 years ago, but neither droughts nor flooding rains could drive them from their adopted home, where their gallery is now as much a part of the remarkable landscape as the iconic vistas Jen paints in her thriving practice with entrepreneur Steve by her side. Another Jen – Cowley – went out “back ‘o’ Bourke” for a taste of that famous outback hospitality and beauty.
Jen G: We’ve both lived most of our adult lives in the central west, but we came out here in 1996 as part of a Christian ministry, Cornerstone. We were staff, teaching in the community.
We’ve come to love Bourke – it’s our home now.
Our life was fairly consumed with the work we were involved in when we came here. But when it folded because of the (previous, millennium) drought, we didn’t leave Bourke. I was teaching at a little school and Steve was working at a packing shed. We adapted because it was our new home. We could have left, but we looked for opportunities to enable us to stay.
Steve: I was operations manager at the packing shed throughout 2006/07, the hard part of the millennium drought. It was then that we decided to open the art gallery.
Jen C: Jen, I imagine you’ve always been creative, but when did you come to think of yourself as an artist by trade?
Jen G: I’ve always done paintings and drawings as a hobby, but I trained as a school teacher. I never dreamed I would be a full-time artist with my own gallery, but that’s the way life ended up going.
Jen C: Steve, you have carved (pardon the pun!) a name for yourself as a woodchopper. You are very well known in that sport. How did you turn your hand to being involved in the gallery?
Steve: It was out of sheer financial necessity. We started planning an art business before I got the job at the packing shed, and I had that role for 2.5 years. I guess I’m an entrepreneur – I look to take adversity on and make an opportunity out of it. We actually had the business registered before I became the operations manager (at the packing shed) and that gave us the cashflow to keep going. We bought the property here, renovating the gallery on the weekends.
Jen C: People must have looked at you as though you were completely insane: “It’s the middle of a roaring drought and you’re about to open an art gallery, of all things!” What was your response to that kind of thinking?
Steve: We knew it was evidence-based decision making, and that we had a solid vision. Jenny painted, and I was able to put together a business model and a budget. We didn’t have a huge amount of money, but we had time, effort, business skills, hard work and sweat. The business went better than we’d budgeted for when we started.
Jen and Steve Greentree, Bourke NSW
Jen C: It does show a tremendous faith in your own ability as a couple to see opportunity in adversity but more than that, it shows an immense faith in Bourke and the region.
Jen G: One thing we loved when we came here and explored the district, was the landscape it had to offer, and that came out in my artwork. We were also fascinated by the history here and the potential Bourke had as a tourist destination. When that millennium drought was chasing everyone away, we first heard the term “drought refugees”, and we could have easily been among them. But it’s true, we did have faith in Bourke. We did believe there was the potential for things to happen in this town with tourism, and that with our art we would be able to fit in effectively
Jen Greentree, Bourke NSW
Jen C: Apart from your business, what is it that you love about the town and the community there and the sense of community?
Jen G: I think all small towns have a great sense of community. We both grew up in small communities so it’s not something foreign. We appreciate community, where people are there for each other in tough times. For instance, during the flood, people were here sandbagging to keep water out of the gallery, shovelling sand beside someone who heard about it from someone else.
In normal times, you mightn’t necessarily be chummy with everyone, but as soon as there are tough times – remembering this is a place of drought and floods out here – you’re all in it together and everyone supports everyone. When people get sick, the way this town rallies to get finance together to help others out is amazing. It is a good community and that is really important.
As an artist, I see that the landscape almost tells the story of the people, and the people tell the story of the landscape – they are intrinsically tied together.
When you see a tough, gnarly tree, it has a story to tell. It has survived, it has a new shoot coming out, it has wildflowers underneath. The people of the region are like this – they come out with fresh things, new things and a happy, positive attitude no matter the adversity. I love that.
Jen C: The people are a reflection of the tough, beautiful landscape?
Jen G: Exactly. I often say the people reflect the landscape and vice versa.
Jen C: Steve, you’ve been around a fair bit, do you see that strong sense of togetherness in Bourke? It also has an iconic place in the Australian psyche.
Steve: Interesting, when I was listening to Jenny answer your question, I was thinking that the first thing I liked about Bourke was the fantastic climate. You just have good air conditioning! As I was listening to Jenny’s answer, I was thinking of (local poet) Andrew Hull’s poem – “We are all in this together” – and we have certainly experienced that feeling, like during that flood and when we were all sitting around our back table afterwards, we had a sense of shared purpose.
As Hully said, we are all in this together at Bourke.
Jen G: The dunny cart man is sitting next to the barrister at the pub and there is no difference between them.
Jen C: It often comes up that during times of adversity, country people pull together. Some say that because of remoteness, there’s a sense of having to do it for yourself or it won’t be done. So you lurched out of drought into beautiful rain and a good season and then Coronavirus hit, but you’ve also seen opportunity present itself during the pandemic and the measures put in place to deal with that.
Steve: There was real necessity for that too. We realised we have six months ahead of us with no customers and no income. Necessity is the mother of invention. It’s a very small world and I’m not that smart, but what you do in the bush is a lot of watching and listening. You learn to have a good filter. The internet and access to a global digital world has made a difference, but the whole internet is no different to what we used to use before – the telephone. We have been the beneficiaries of transport services and communications, and just changed our communication from telephone to internet. It has been a lot broader. You find there is so much technology happening in the bush because it works – it helps everybody - all the farmers with GPS and a whole bag of things.
We can’t wait for the cavalry to come over the hill, because there are no hills. So, we just have to do it. They will tell us what to do and give us all the advice, but when it hits the fan, none of them are going to turn up except your geographical neighbours.
Jen C: Jen, you also saw an opportunity to take people to the art itself with your air tours. Tell me how that came about?
Jen G: That came out of us thinking about what we could do to enhance our business. When we started to explore the idea of doing the air tour of the region reflected in my art, the more we thought this will be good for Bourke tourism and for bringing more people to Bourke.
We realised people can’t go overseas, and couldn’t even go to the Northern Territory or other interstate places. There is a market for people who want to fly over Kakadu, so why not fly over Bourke, down the Darling River that’s been in the news all the time. Come and see the those far western plains of NSW. It made another product for Bourke to “sell” to tourists.
Bourke has been without an air service for many years until it began running again in late 2019, but then COVID-19 struck. It had been subsidised by NSW Government and this is money that won’t last forever so it does need to be sustainable. So, if locals like us can charter a plane, then it’s business that will help Bourke keep its airline. That’s good for the community.
Jen C: It is a wonderful example of not rolling over with your feet in the air when things get tough.
Jen G: We did feel a bit like the Black Knight in Monty Python with every limb cut off, but saying, “I can still fight!” We never thought in terms of doom and gloom. We just keep thinking of new ideas.
Jen C: What do you think about the misconceptions that people outside our small communities might have about life in a small town like Bourke?
Steve: I don’t know, I would have to ask them what they think.
Jen and Steve Greentree, Bourke NSW
Jen C: Fair comment. Okay, what would you like people to know about Bourke or life in a small community that they may not know?
Jen G: If people are tentative about a small community, I would say give it a go. You are going to find a richness, and find things you didn’t know existed in people.
People who discover Bourke love it. I think that’s one of the richest things we have. Friends who have come to Bourke from the coast or areas that might look nicer at first glance, say, “Wow, I thought I could never leave the beach, but there’s a whole new community here I don’t know about.” I think it’s good for people to get out of their comfort zone.
Jen C: You see it through the eyes of an artist. You see beauty, like a photographer. You can showcase that beauty. That’s a gift.
Jen G: But the beauty of Bourke sells itself too.
Because of the extra incentives offered to get people out here – teachers, police, health workers – we usually have a three-year turnaround in all those different work forces. They come out because they are going to be paid well, their housing is paid and then they’ll be able to go to a place of their choosing once they’ve “paid their dues” at Bourke. That’s their motivation. But often when they come out here they get involved in the community – and they in turn benefit our community because for those three years we might have a soccer coach or a ballet teacher – but then they find it so hard to leave.
They think they are coming for the financial gain, but they find it so hard to leave. A friend said to me, and I’ve said this many times to other women, “I know you cried because you didn’t want to come, and now you would cry if you have to leave.” That is so true, and it happens to so many.
Jen C: That red dust gets into your veins.
Jen G: It does. And you look at it and you think, “What’s out there for me?” But it’s a hard place to leave.
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.