By Grace Watson

I never really knew about my great uncle’s experience in WWII. Our conversations when I was a young girl centred more around if I could have a ride in his mobility scooter rather than the stories from his years of service. I saw the medals, even the odd sepia photo of his young smiling face, proud in his army uniform… I knew there was a story there, but it all seemed so distant. To me, the veteran experience was a story buried in the past, remembered on ANZAC Day, but hidden the rest of the year.

The Australian National Veterans Art Museum is changing this distant persona and reviving the true variety and multidimensional nature of the veteran experience through the facilitation and exhibition of creative arts practices. Veteran experiences are not relics of the past, they are living, breathing, here and now. With the rising concern of veteran wellbeing in the political sphere, how might we, as citizens of a nation whose freedom was fought for, both acknowledge and get to know, those who continue to dedicate themselves to our country through army, navy, or air force services – and do this in a way that promotes veteran wellbeing?

One way is through art. Art connected to PLACE. And this art and these places, connecting us together. After a year of isolation, and a time of growing intimacy with the places closest to us, a greater awareness of our relationships to place and each other has expanded all of our understanding of what truly defines PLACE.

ANVAM’s showcase of veteran artworks connected to PLACE opens audiences up to a greater understanding of how we connect to the places closest to our hearts, and an invitation to enter these intimate places that others hold dear. In this way, ANVAM and the exhibiting veteran artists extend their hand towards audiences, veterans, and civilians alike, who too can discover a shared relationality with each other. By being invited to experience another’s PLACE, we are invited to know each other more.

Bruce Copland, Curator of Australian National Veterans Art Museum exhibition, March to Art: PLACE, expressed that PLACE can encompass notions of ‘Somewhere lived, encountered, remembered or imagined and it is through the expansive medium of digital imagery that this year’s ANVAM veteran artists explore these perceptions of PLACE and what it means to them.

Experiencing this year’s annual March to Art Exhibit, on display at No Vacancy Gallery Melbourne, felt like an intimate tour of the places grounded in the hearts of Australian Veterans. It was an honour to be welcomed in. The works themselves are spectacular. Make no mistake, the term Veteran Artist should not take away from the primacy of their artistry. The exhibition encompasses a huge variety of digital mediums, from video works, underwater camerawork, drone footage, and photography captured on various devices from the high tech, digital single-lens reflex camera to the highly accessible iPhone camera.

Installation Images: Jan Wallace, L-R Tea with Curious Locals, Aurora Australis, Hagglunds pit stop, Aircraft landing, 2019. (Jan’s images (centre) shown alongside Tracey Nearmy (centre right) Leaving Home (diptych), 2019 & Beau Smith, The Host, The Peace, 2018 & Heartland, 2019).

Image: Grace Watson, 2021

But each work possesses so much more than surface aesthetic appeal, each is embedded with a story. And it was a privilege to hear about these stories firsthand. On opening night, I had the pleasure of meeting many of the exhibiting artists, like Jan Wallace whose photography series, captures wonderous moments during their months deployed in the Antarctic. The scene of vast, ice-capped landscapes sparked conversations about what it was like to see the aurora australis up close, how they coped with the isolation of such a remote location, and how curious the local penguins are!

Or Mark Toogood, whose mesmerizing close-up photograph captures the electric blues, ghostly smoke, and ethereal sparks of light created from the powerful and restorative welding process. The forging process is a practice that Mark fell in love with after retiring from service, and this one that he now teaches to others through his work at Tharwa Valley Forge outside Canberra. As we spoke, Mark taught me a little about the process of working in the Forge, but also the benefits of creative engagement that he experienced in his own life, and then too how he can extend this positive experience to others in an environment both supporting and challenging.

Installation Image: Mark Toogood, Blacksmith Student Welding A Forge, 2019. (Mark’s image (right) alongside (left) Kris Kerehona, My Father’s spirit arrives & St. Augustine’s Catholic Church, 2018.

Image: Grace Watson, 2021

I was also able to meet Kris O’Brien-Sutherland whose rich, visual textures captured through his drone photography reveal a breathtaking, high-overhead perspective of the landscape. His works exist as a metaphor for how he prefers to live in the world; Kris explains that ‘No matter what is happening in life you can always try to look at things from a different view and understand the landscape rather than isolating things from the bigger picture.’

Installation Image: Kris O’Brien-Sutherland, Drone Images Series, 2018, (Kris’ series (left) alongside (centre) Chad Dobbs, series, 2019 & (right) Maria Augustus Dunn & Brad Dunn, On the Road series, 2011-2021.

Image: Grace Watson, 2021

And this is what ANVAM’s March to Art: PLACE exhibition achieves, it provides a textured colourful mosaic of veteran stories and identities, using the theme of PLACE to explore the big picture of veteran experience, while recognizing its nuanced individuality in our contemporary culture. March to Art: PLACE invites audiences in, to learn about the complexity of the Veteran experience and simultaneously give service personnel a place to belong.

All the works have such special stories to tell, I wish I could write about them all here. I want to acknowledge that every work in the exhibit was created with such skill and heart, I sincerely thank all the artists who shared.

ANVAM is doing much work to ensure that beyond this annual exhibition, the Veteran community has a PLACE to call home, a PLACE to express their creativity and a place to promote connection. ANVAM’s ultimate vision is to establish a national cultural institution and home for Veteran creative expression in the long unused former Repatriation Commission Outpatient Clinic at 310 St Kilda Road, Southbank. In the heart of Melbourne’s Arts precinct and opposite the Shrine of Remembrance, the property is a sacred place synonymous with veterans’ wellbeing and community.

We welcome you to get in contact if you would like to contribute to this centre being established.

Thank you to Bruce Copland and Tanja Johnston, the entire ANVAM team, the valued sponsors, and of course the incredible ANVAM veteran artists for bringing this exhibition to audiences, for opening up a contemporary understanding of the veteran experience, and creating a place of creativity that the veteran community can call home.

Grace Watson is a curator, writer, and arts educator working on the Wurundjeri and Bunurong lands of the Kulin nations. Her work and research focuses on drawing connections between historical and contemporary theories and practices. Grace is currently pursuing her honours project in Art Curation at Monash University and Volunteering with Australian National Veterans Art Museum.