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Guido van Helten, Winton Wetlands. Image: Russell Charters, Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

There are at least two bakeries on the main street of Yea, a small town 100 kilometres north-east of Melbourne. I am sitting in the back of my grandparents’ car while they decide which one we’ll have lunch in. Their car smells new, like their cars always have. Grandad is driving, like he always does. Grandma is already pulling brochures out of her bag – we’ve come here, at the halfway point between our homes, to talk about a ​festival that happened in their town.

After Grandad decides the first bakery is too loud for us to talk in, we settle into the second while he explains he was tempted by a Big M but he’s really trying to cut down on flavoured milk. I’ve always associated Big Ms with him, I tell him, because of the time he took us to Euroa on the train. ‘We miss when you were little’, Grandma says, ‘and we still did things like that.’

In 2017 Kazuo Ishiguro was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The speech he delivered in acceptance was published under the title My Twentieth Century Evening, and Other Small Breakthroughs. This past year I have continued, daily, to return to the following excerpt from that speech:

The thought came to me…that all good stories, never mind how radical or traditional their mode of telling, had to contain relationships that are important to us; that move us, amuse us, anger us, surprise us.

In the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?

When I think of the stories that I write and of the art that I have made, I am pulled, regularly, back to my family. The constant examination of self that making art, and indeed writing requires, means I am forever asking myself: how do you feel? Why do you feel this way? What and who has happened to you to make you feel this way, to make you who you are?


Adnate, Benalla 2016. Image: Russell Charters, Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I grew up in Melbourne, born to a mother and father who had lived most of their lives in Colac and Benalla respectively. Many of the formative parts of my life took place in my grandparents’ three-bedroom weatherboard cottage on Benalla’s outskirts, evenings spent in front of WIN TV, Grandma absorbed in needlework, the sound of the train to Seymour in the not-so-distant-distance.

Last March, my parents and I went back for the the weekend to see Wall to Wall, the ‘art festival’ my grandparents had been raving about since the first works began popping up around town. What confused and delighted me about this ‘art festival’ was that it was specifically a street art festival. Artists like Rone and Anthony Lister had left their mark all over a town whose attractions I knew best as the Rocket Park, a public garden named for the large play structure it hosted, and the public pool. I did not know my grandparents to be people who would enjoy the work of someone like Rone. I thought, obnoxiously, my fine art degree rearing its expensive head, that perhaps they just thought I would like it – their arty granddaughter.

When I think of the stories that I write and of the art that I have made, I am pulled, regularly, back to my family.

I was, apparently, not the only sceptic of Wall to Wall’s appropriateness for Benalla. ‘The council said, Nup! It’s not going to work! We don’t want any graffiti in this town – didn’t they Grandma?’ Grandad often defers to my grandmother this way, always referring to her as ‘Grandma’ when speaking to or about her to me. When the town was first proposed the idea of the festival, their understanding of street art was limited. The local businessman who got the ball rolling back in 2015, James Myconos, told the ABC: ‘One of the questions we asked [of founder Shaun Hossack] – because we knew we were going to be asked it – was how do we know we’re not going to get a dick or swear words on our walls?’

‘That’s what the people thought originally – that it was going to be graffiti,’ Grandad says. ‘Once they saw what had taken place, they extended it.’

Stirring her coffee, Grandma grins with the confidence of someone whose reservations about dicks have now disappeared. ‘It’s amazing. Last year we were talking to a fella who came all the way from Canberra just to see the festival!’

‘And now there’s 24 graffiti sites –’ they both giggle conspiratorially as Grandad corrects himself and winks, ‘Sorry – wall art sites.’


23rd Key, Benalla. Image: Amanda K Grace, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Shaun Hossack moved from Benalla to Melbourne as soon as he finished high school. My grandma worked for a time in the same fabric store as Shaun’s mum; my grandparents both speak as fondly of him as anyone from a small town does about one of their own – regardless of how well they actually know them. When Shaun moved to Melbourne he immersed himself in the street art scene, eventually founding artist collective Juddy Roller. Wall to Wall was born from an idea he had as a teen, one he never really knew how to execute.

‘I think it’s really difficult for people [in regional areas] who maybe aren’t into football and things like that. I think there should be more funding going into art… Most creative people have to go to Melbourne or bigger cities to find opportunities.’

‘That’s what the people thought originally – that it was going to be graffiti…once they saw what had taken place, they extended it.’

With the festival now in its fifth year, Shaun and Juddy Roller have, alongside groups like North East Artisans (a local artist studio and collective), transformed the town I knew into an epicentre for street art in Australia. Best of all, as Shaun says, ‘I feel like the festival is creating more opportunities for artistic or creative people within the town, and therefore there’s more of an option to stay and do what they love.

‘I think ever since we did the Silo Art Trail and Wall to Wall Festival in these smaller communities that were often struggling a bit, it’s shown the ability for this kind of work to create new audiences. When we did the first silo – that was the first time Juddy Roller said, this is not about us anymore, it’s about the community and for the community.’


Callum Preston, Milk Bar, 2017. Image: © SANDREW Collection / NETS Victoria (Reproduced under Fair Dealing provisions)

Wall to Wall takes place not in a gallery but across the entire town of Benalla, and across surrounding regional towns in the form of the Silo Art Trail. Starting with a handful of small murals across the main street, the festival has expanded to include paintings in churches and on skate ramps, virtual reality experiences, an outdoor cinema, even a pop-up beer garden. In 2018, 21 artists from around the world spent a long weekend painting live all across town. The festival has seen work produced by global street art stars including Anthony Lister, Adnate, Lolo Y’s, Rone and more. There are now more than 60 art works from international and local artists on the walls of Benalla.

In 2018 the Benalla Art Gallery participated in Wall to Wall, taking the art off the street and back into its whitewashed walls on the riverbank. I urged my family to join me as we dropped in to view a piece that debuted in Melbourne months before – Callum Preston’s Milk Bar. When my grandad walked into the space, he was floored. He pointed out every detail, touched every facet. Milk Bar is exactly what it says it is – a plywood replica of a 90s milk bar, complete with wooden bottles of Decoré and Twisties and Domestos. A stack of VHS cassettes say they’re available for rent, and Lano & Woodley plays on the TV.

Preston drew inspiration for Milk Bar from his first job. ‘I grew up in Westmeadows, out by Melbourne Airport. Very middle class suburban area. When I was a kid the ultimate goal was to be allowed to go to the milk bar by myself. I just remember it was such a focus for me – I guess it’s a freedom complex you get as a kid.’

I spoke with Preston last June, ambling around the giant studio space he shares with a number of other Melbourne artists. A painter and sculptor, he tells me, ‘I love creating spaces, making a space that is a familiar space but it’s a bit transportive’. Transportive certainly describes Milk Bar. In Benalla, as we walked in and around it, I saw my grandad, mouth wide open, tears in his eyes. ‘It’s just magic. It’s just magic,’ he kept saying, over and over. I had never seen a piece of art elicit such a strong reaction in any of my family members. I felt guilt for underestimating the effect it would have on them.

As we walked in and around Milk Bar, I saw my grandad, mouth wide open, tears in his eyes. ‘It’s just magic. It’s just magic.’

I asked Grandad if he’d ever seen anything like that in the gallery before, and he said no, but he wished he had, because of how it involved the whole community – there were children running around inside, my parents marvelling at a space which meant something different to them than it even did me. Most importantly to my grandad, he said, was the room out back where attendees could design their own products and place them on ‘shelves’. Grandad designed his own Big M.

After we had viewed Milk Bar, we left the gallery and walked along the main street, stopping every few metres, as one must do when one has lived in the same place for over 70 years, and your granddaughter from Melbourne is here, and have you met her before? It takes longer than usual because there are more people than I have seen in Benalla in my lifetime. They are viewing murals being painted on every available wall. Whenever possible, Grandad especially likes to talk to the artists as they work.

I remember something Preston said which rang especially true for me. ‘I wanted people to come in [to the space] and even if they didn’t like it, they had to admit that there’s a lot of work in it. Maybe it’s not for you, but you can’t deny there’s a lot of effort… You can pick holes in it, but you can’t deny that when you’re in it you’re transported to a different place.’

My understanding of my family and my own formative ideas of art was that there has to be work in it. It has to have taken significant tangible effort, or it has to be especially beautiful. This is a deal breaker. Who has time to make something that is entirely theoretical, or that can only be appreciated with the right education? Who has time for thinking when there is doing to be done? As we drive the 15 minutes out from Benalla to see the silos in nearby Goorambat, all anyone says is, ‘It’s just so dry out here. It’s just brown, as far as the eye can see.’ What good is art when your friends are going bankrupt from drought?

Who has time to make something that is entirely theoretical, or that can only be appreciated with the right education? What good is art when your friends are going bankrupt from drought?

I ask Grandad why he thinks the festival is such a success. I’ve been working around the arts for long enough to know success often boils down to the right funding at the right time, institutional backing, and other cynical things. But he says simply, ‘They’re not excluded. It’s not, there’s Joe Blow and he’s paintin’ a wall, it’s, there’s Joe Blow doing this, and I’m a part of it too.’

Grandma interjects; ‘You can ask the painters questions and they’ll answer them! You can say, well, how did you do that? And they’ll tell you!’

Months later, long after I’ve spoken to Preston, I find myself sitting in my car and once again feeling the deep joy that I felt with my grandparents that day. The connection that his artwork gave us, or rather, the reminder it gave me of my family, without whose love I would not be here. Whose constant support and encouragement to pursue anything – not just art – allowed me to become the person I became. I think of the community my grandparents love so ferociously, the people they support within it. I think that the living of one’s truest life, of being able to say ‘this is who I am, and this is what is important to me’, regardless of the subject of your desire, is the beautiful thing itself.


Adnate, ‘Sophia’, Goorambat Uniting Church. Image: © Wall to Wall Festival (Reproduced under Fair Dealing provisions)

My grandmother is a complex woman. She was thirteen when her entire family relocated to Australia from their hometown of Enschede, in the Netherlands. During World War II, her family hid Jews in their home. Growing up, my grandmother made all my clothes, and I knew she was old because she liked to knit. My grandparents have always lived in this town, and they have never had much money. My grandfather raised four children while at night school for teacher’s college. He has survived cancer twice. He can turn wood and create beautiful objects from scraps like no one I have seen. One evening after dinner, he got out a ladder and pulled down from a high-up shelf a box of jewellery I had never seen before. Resin and wood and small stones had been fashioned into necklaces, bracelets and rings under his hands.

I was the first person in my extended family to get a university degree – in Fine Art, of all things. My grandad came to my ceremony – he bought me a rubber duck with a graduate’s cap on. It was not until I’d finished my degree that I was told my grandfather had had work displayed in an exhibition at the NGV. After the exhibition concluded, he was encouraged to exhibit his work further, but never did. At 22 and consumed with visions of my own future full of art and galleries and an ever-expanding set of skills, I could not understand why this most important of anecdotes was never shared with me. Now as I approach 30, I understand a little more of the realities of life, the way our dreams and sources of joy shift.

Reflecting on my time in Benalla, and the lives of my grandparents, I think about my decision to pursue that fine art degree. What you are called, and where your value is placed, is indicative of class and geography both. What, I ask myself, am I trying to say?

While touring Wall to Wall this year, Grandad said, for the millionth time, ‘Well of course there’s also the mural out at the Uniting Church, but I’m not taking you all the way out there to see a half-naked woman painted as the face of God. Just disgusting – the Uniting Church has lost the plot.’

He’s referring to Adnate’s Sophia mural behind the altar of the Goorambat Uniting Church. Created in collaboration with parishioners, the artist best known for his giant murals on the Fitzroy commission flats has painted a woman, head veiled, gazing upon a dove. The church say Sophia is the personification of divine wisdom in the Old Testament. Even my Dad, a Christian minister with what some would call a conservative outlook, is not 100 per cent sure why my Grandad hates this mural so much.

I’m reminded of an afternoon back at university, when our studio cohort got into a heated debate over the work of Bill Henson. While discussing the controversy surrounding his work, his use of young girls rendered beautifully nude in the moonlight, I felt alienated as one of two vocally confused students. Myself and another student concurred that while we didn’t necessarily agree with the outcry, we could understand the place from which it was coming. That for someone like my grandfather, who does not have a degree in Fine Art, is not part of that society which has managed to make itself elite, insulate itself from criticism, what he sees is inappropriate. A girl in the row in front of me whirled around, a look of disgust on her face as she yelled that I was surely kidding. I was not kidding.

What you are called, and where your value is placed, is indicative of class and geography both. What, I ask myself, am I trying to say?

I did not know how to further articulate how and why my family could not understand this concept. I use, and enjoy how others use art as a way in which we see and interrogate the world. I can, as a religious person and artist both, appreciate the choice to have this mural in this context. As the granddaughter of a devout Christian whose entire life is built around this town, its residents, its church congregants, I can decide that I am not going to have this debate with him.

I was reminded of this declaration from my grandfather when I emailed Joe Toohey, Executive Director of Regional Arts Victoria, to get his perspective on what I could not reconcile about my grandparents – in what way are they patrons of the arts? What rules do we need to follow to call ourselves ‘artists’?

‘I think the word arts or artist comes with a lot of baggage,’ says Joe. ‘There’s an idea of what that means – and that idea, at its most negative interpretation, is that it’s elitist or exclusive or inaccessible.’

At my Fine Art Graduate Exhibition, the question I remember being asked the most by my family was, ‘Is this meant to look like that?’ or ‘Is this one an art work? Is it…a pile of rubbish?’ (It was confusing because one piece was indeed constructed from a pile of garbage.) I tell Joe about the experience of being 22, standing in that exhibition at my university campus, understanding both the artwork and my parents’ bemusement. I explain not knowing whose side I was on. Joe phrases it much better: ‘I think there are times when people’s idea of art is something they saw on a gallery wall, and they felt stupid because they didn’t get it. I’m supposed to nod my head and go, oh yes, well I get it and I understand where this fits in the movement.

It is true that the arts have a tendency to cater to the wealthy, marginalising the working classes through unpaid internships, expensive educational options, but also through its collective unwillingness to cater to those who don’t have said expensive university degrees.

So when something like Wall to Wall arrives somewhere like Benalla – dreamed up by a home town boy, delivered free directly into the public space – it chips away at those barriers. This is someone who knows your town, has insight into your life. He wants to make his home a better place than it already is – not lecture you on why and how it’s lacking.

This is someone who wants to make his home a better place than it already is – not lecture you on why and how it’s lacking.

Throughout my time at art school I struggled to find my voice, my reason for being there, a coherent view on fine art and the kind of work I wanted to make. I was plagued by practicality, having worked menial jobs to pay my own way since age 15, and forever looking to develop a career pathway that would see me move out of hospitality and retail and into something that could fulfil me but also financially support me.

My first and only Fine Arts achievement was my graduation piece which was aesthetically boring, unattractive, and without skill, but for me represented myself and my work the best way I could: as someone who felt they were boring, unattractive and without skill. This was the lens through which I viewed myself as an artist, and for me, at 21, the only reason I was making art was to say ‘this is who I am’. To have shown that, was to me, an achievement.

That work is largely forgotten, as it should be. But its central thesis is something I’ve been trying to answer ever since. Why do we make art, how do we make art, what is the point of making art, do I have any place making art? I was, before Ishiguro explained it himself, trying to say, ‘This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?’


Phibs & George Rose, Benalla. Image: Benalla Rural City Council (digitally altered)

Back in the bakery in Yea, I ask Grandad why he never pursued further gallery opportunities. ‘I [started art and jewellery making] because it was part of my extension course for teaching. The teaching course I was doing so I could do so much more for Grandma.’ He starts to cry. The men in my family are big criers. I don’t press him further on why he did not enter a career in art because I do not have to.

My grandparents’ home is filled with the art they have created, from my grandmother’s quilts to the wooden sculptures my grandfather has made. But I also have a vivid memory of Grandma sitting, one leg dangling off the kitchen bench, under the exhaust fan, trying to swat her cigarette smoke away from me and my five cousins. There is Grandad in his shed, voice booming hymns and laughing with delight at his grandchildren. Their art is their family and the life they have created. The aesthetic stability of their lives belies the richness and complexities beneath, in the same way Callum Preston’s Milk Bar does.

Driving alone is a meditative act. I had gone to Yea to interrogate, via my grandparents’ lived experience, the role geography and class plays in the appreciation of art. Instead, as I drive through Flowerdale and then Kinglake, I am moved once more by the joy I have experienced from being a part of their lives.

As I drive I think about the afternoon after Wall to Wall, sitting in my grandparents’ kitchen. In the memory, Grandad comes in and stands behind me, his hand on my shoulder, as I sit on the stool that he made and that my grandma​ upholstered. I can hear Grandma showing my mum her newest project in her sewing room (‘That’s her shed, you know?’, says Grandad), and I feel very uninterested in class and art and institution at that moment. I am once again thinking of Kazuo Ishiguro’s words as I rinse my cup in the sink and stare at my grandmother’s garden, the V/Line to Seymour trundling past on the other side of the road.

The thought came to me…that all good stories, never mind how radical or traditional their mode of telling, had to contain relationships that are important to us; that move us, amuse us, anger us, surprise us.

In the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?

The 2019 Wall to Wall Festival takes place in Benalla, Victoria from 5–7 April.