That's the Spirit: Jillian Kelly - Coonamble NSW
She spends her days “elbow deep in sheep’s guts” but there’s a “girly girl” side to popular Coonamble born-and-bred vet, Jillian Kelly. Her alter ego, Miss Vet, is an artist whose whimsical works have almost as much power to heal as her day job. They’re both equally passionate about keeping what Jillian calls the true heartbeat of Australia pumping in small communities. Jen Cowley managed to sit Jillian down long enough to find two equally dynamic sides to this bright regional coin.
Jen: You had the opportunity to go elsewhere after you finished veterinary science, why did you come “home” to Coonamble?
Jillian: I’m Coonamble born and bred. I’ve always had a really great love for the place. It was very deep seated, often hidden, and there was never a conscious effort to come home. The opportunities presented themselves and it’s funny how fate works. My plans were to go into private practice and get really well established and buy a clinic somewhere. That didn’t really involve Coonamble, but after six or seven years in private practice I was a bit burned out.
Contrary to what most people think you don’t actually earn a lot of money in mixed practice and especially as one of the younger employed vets. You’re on call all the time and I just hated it.
I remember the night I made the decision to jump ship. It was New Year’s Eve, and I was dealing with a colicky horse. I was stomach tubing this horse at the time the fireworks went off and I remember thinking, “Bugger this! I’m 26 and I’m wasting my life stomach tubing someone else’s horse when I should be out living and having a good time and enjoying my 20s. I’m going to look back and be really sorry.”
At that point I actually contemplated leaving the industry and going into a different career, and that’s when the government job came up. It was my Mum who actually encouraged me to apply for it, although I said I didn’t want to be a government vet. She convinced me, I applied and it was the best decision I ever made.
Jen: So, you work now for as a vet with Local Land Services (LLS) and from what I’ve seen, you’re able to use your skills not only for animal health, but to bring people together. Is that a conscious thing?
Jillian: Well, not really, and again, that happened by accident. I originally started the “drought smoko” concept about three years ago and it was for purely selfish reasons. I was getting 25 phone calls a day about the same thing, with 25 different farmers asking the same question. I thought it would be easier if they all just came together and I could answer the question once. So, I said, “Come in Tuesday mornings, I’ll make a cake and we’ll all talk about these topics”.
There was just so much value in it. People loved it and it was a real mental health thing for them. They solved each other’s problems and they taught me a lot too.
There’s so much that’s not in a text book, so much that’s learned about caring for stock and managing through times like drought that you learn in a paddock somewhere. Or you learn by buggering it up a few times and having another go, or by watching someone else do it.
That’s just such a valuable way of doing things and I strongly believe in the group learning situation.
Jillian Kelly, Coonamble NSW
Jen: And speaking of strong beliefs, do you have faith in the strength of the small communities in which you work?
Jillian: Absolutely I do. I think they’re true heartbeat of Australia, the real heart of all those true characteristics of Australian spirit and way of life. That’s worth preserving and I think there are more and more like-minded people who are wanting to help preserve that.
As the world gets crazier and we get overrun by things like toilet paper madness, or what the royals are doing, and all that rubbish that’s all over our television screens, I think people are searching for that simple way of life and that community spirit. People my age in particular have come back to Coonamble to raise kids and to live, and that simplicity is what they are looking for, the quintessential essence of community life.
It’s human nature to live in a tribe or in packs or in communities.
Jen: We are social animals.
Jillian: It’s hard to get that in the city.
Jen: Your alter ego Miss Vet, the artist. Tell me about her.
Jillian: Miss Vet is what I call my side art business but basically my day is pretty dirty. I spend all of my day with blokes in paddocks or sheep yards, cutting up dead animals and looking inside them and I love it. I love working out why they died and fishing inside sheep’s guts, but then when I get home and have a shower, it’s a different me. I’ve always been a bit of a girly girl, I like pretty shoes and lipstick and pink and sparkly things.
Jen: Being up to your elbows in a cow’s arse is, contrary to popular belief, not necessarily a girly thing to do?
Jillian: (Laughs). Apparently not! Although I do wear a dress to work some days and I have to chuck the overalls on over the top. Miss Vet, on the other hand, is just all about those pretty things. I paint a lot of commissions for people like family portraits and things and I just paint all the good things about country life, you know women in pretty dresses and cowboy boots and pink lipstick and blokes in well-shaped cowboy hats, and horses and dogs.
Jen: Your artwork has such a huge following. We really have shaken off that cultural cringe about cowboy boots and pretty dresses - it’s no longer hokey to enjoy those things.
Jillian: Oh, it’s never been hokey, Jen! Well, not in my book.
Jen: I guess not. I think we wear our country-ness on our sleeves
Jillian: I agree, I don’t think it’s all about the banjo and the back blocks, I think the country is much more refined than that. People who live out here are cultured and refined and have good taste. They want and have nice things in their homes and their wardrobes and they like all the same things city people like, only I think we have more flair.
I don’t know why people love my stuff. I’ve never had an art lesson, so it’s not due to the technique (laughs).
Jillian Kelly, Coonamble NSW
Jen: What does it do for you to be able to switch off the day job and turn on Miss Vet?
Jillian: It’s really mindful and I’ve never been into meditation and all that other stuff. I’m not good at sitting still, but painting is the one thing where I can sit and tune out and I really focus on something. I make something pretty and I get a lot of enjoyment out of that.
Jen: What are some of the misconceptions about professional operations and opportunities in the bush, for vets and human health professionals and other professionals?
Jillian: I think maybe there was traditionally a view that we’re the poor, dumb cousins out here, or that there’s a lack of intelligence and refinement and style in the bush, and that’s absolutely not true.
The drought has been horrible, but I think one of the great things that’s come out of it is a bit of a bridging of that city-country divide. All the media coverage that was given to the bush during the drought, but also through things like the Buy from the Bush (online marketing campaign), city dwellers forged a connection with either a bush business or bush person or they’re planning a holiday in the bush or whatever it might be.
I really hope those connections continue because that’s the key to creating tourism and wealth and interest out here. It’s only by sharing our story and making those connections that it’s going to happen.
Jen: Do we tell that story well enough?
Jillian: I think we’re getting better at it. I think those who are able need to continue to tell the story. That’s been a really great learning, particularly through drought and I talk about drought because it affected me personally so much. But I think the media’s portrayal of the poor starving battler with dying sheep, no money and no feed, I don’t think that’s a true picture of the bush. We run really successful farm businesses, they just happen to involve sheep and cattle but they’re actually businesses that are just as well set up, just as well run as a city stock broker’s business or whatever it might be. It’s a similar sort of approach, we just happen to deal with mother nature and animals and things that are slightly out of our control.
Jen: Has that been a frustration for you to see that unrealistic portrayal of farmers and animal husbandry in the bush?
Jillian: Absolutely. It was deeply frustrating particularly early on in the drought when the papers kept putting it on the front page. I was going, “No! That is not really what’s happening out here!” Yes, it was hard and yes, we were battling and yes there were some damn sad days but we were not letting the stock die, they were not starving. People had to make really hard decisions on whether to keep or whether to sell, that’s the true story. And people are having to find off-farm income and make decisions on how and where they spend their money. That’s the reality and I think somewhere in the middle of the drought that messaging finally shifted. changed.
I was involved with the Channel Nine drought telethon and at least the story they came and did on us and the story and questions they were asking painted a completely different picture. It was about farmers coming together to learn, to do better and that’s the story of the drought.
Jen: Back to opportunities for professionals for a minute: say you’re in the city and you’re talking to a class of young student vets. What would you say to them about opportunities and practicing in the bush?
Jillian: If you’re a young vet starting out, there is no better place to learn than in the bush. It’s like one big veterinary science school and people are so happy to have you on their farms and they’re really proud to show you what they do.
My job is vet science, but sometimes when I go onto a farm, my job revolves around observational skills – I’m just noticing what’s going wrong and pointing it out to the farmer and we’re changing management to fix that up.
A lot of what I do is knowing how a farm runs and knowing livestock production and being able to tweak that.
That’s the key to being a good vet in the bush and to do that you’ve got to spend a lot of time on farm so I reckon if you come out to the bush as a vet you have to immerse yourself in the culture and the farms. You have to go out on the call-outs, and not just as part of your job, but go out and feed sheep with someone, go out on weekends and spend time at the farm, go swimming in the creek, and yabbying in the dam and experience all the things that bush life has to offer.
Jen: I can’t help but notice, every time you talk about being out on a farm, your face cracks in half with a big grin and your eyes light up. What is it that you love about your job and doing it where you’re doing it?
Jillian: Well I think one of our greatest human pleasures is belonging and when you’re in the bush you belong, so you get involved and people come to love you and treat you as part of their team. It’s about being part of a tribe and I think if you move to the bush or you live in the bush that’s what it’s about. There are no secrets, there is no hiding in the bush. You get invited to every BBQ, you’re on every sporting team, you’re in every committee, you’re expected to help out. It’s all immersive. That’s the great thing about community.
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.
Jillian Kelly, Coonamble NSW