Naomi McCARTHY – Writer & Manager – Education and Public Programs, Penrith Art Gallery – PENRITH, Australia

Teenagers and people with disabilities may not sound like your usual practicing contemporary artists but as a group, their voice deserves to be heard and their work to be seen within the walls of an Art Gallery. At least, that is what Naomi McCarthy believes. One can make Art without becoming an Artist. Art can be a part of one’s life, a tool of expression, a passion or a hobby without needing to become an ambitious journey to join the ranks of an artistic elite. With a focus on the pleasurable and expressive qualities of making Art, events like ‘Snap Shot” and “Sizzle” offer a platform to under-represented groups to grab the spotlight, make a night of it and maybe, just maybe, take it a step further. 

ALOUD: Naomi, you are a practicing Artist as well as the Manager of Education and Public Programs at the Penrith Art Gallery. Would you like to start by describing your role within the Art Gallery?

NAOMI McCARTHY: My background comes from both Fine Arts and Education therefore, my role is to be a mediator between the artwork and the audience, drawing a very broad demographic into the Art Programs we offer. We run programs for high-school students, pre-schoolers, senior citizens and special interest groups amongst others.

ALOUD: In preparation for this interview, you sent me some links to some of your currents Arts Programs. Could you explain what “Snap Shot Teenager’s Photographic Prize 2011” is?

NAOMI:  I pitched the idea 5 years ago, in 2006, to have a photography competition for teenagers. Only a handful of people entered the first year however, for those who did participate, it was a very joyful and celebratory experience. It has grown over those 4 years to become very interesting, not only as an educational program for the teenagers, but in fact in exposing us to ideas that were happening in the youth section of the community. For the first time this year, photographers can submit their work digitally which means we received several international entries. It will be very interesting because our teens will get to see their work alongside teens from other countries which might reveal similarities or differences.

ALOUD: How is the judging panel composed?

NAOMI: We will have 3 judges. Two quite successful emerging Contemporary Artists and one Photo-Journalist from our local newspaper. The idea is to represent Photography as a real opportunity in terms of professional development. In fact, we try and treat all the entrants as emerging Photographers. We identify the works by the name of the Artist, date of birth and title of the work rather than through schools. We are keen to focus on expressing individual voices free of the stigma attached to particular schools. And of course, the competition is open to teens who are not in school, or might be in vocational education, as long as they are between 13 and 19. I am not certain that our program is unique but a focused teenage exhibition is an under-represented demographic. 

ALOUD: The other under-represented demographic is people with disabilities. Could you introduce some of the programs you offer?

NAOMI: Historically, the site is very accessible to people with disabilities and as a result, we have developed a confident and warm relationship with our visitors. For the last 8 years, we have been running programs for people with disabilities. For the last 3 years, we have tried to really encourage creativity as a part of their daily life and we started the “Sizzle” festival which is an annual event with performances, an exhibition and workshops. It is one of the most exciting days at the gallery but it also gives them something to work towards and look forward to throughout the year. The programing in their centres becomes aimed towards the festival which then makes a positive contribution to the broader community. Exhibiting in such a beautiful gallery also has the effect of re-contextualising the work. People actually start looking at the Art for what it is bringing to the Gallery, rather than the other way around.

ALOUD: I remember reading about a similar program, it might have actually been “Sizzle” and it was asking whether the Art is interesting because it is good or because it is made by people with disabilities. How do you feel about this question?

NAOMI: There are definitely two veins of thought. One is about trying to find practicing Contemporary Artists within the disability sector. To be honest, making it into the Contemporary Art scene is a very elite ambition only very few of us will achieve, with or without disabilities. As an educator, I have a deeply held belief that creativity enriches all of our lives but that we don’t necessarily all go on to become practicing Artists. “Sizzle” is very much about inclusion, drawing you in, seeing what you can make, celebrating that, enjoying each other’s work with a very different objective to a curator’s focus, which is about finding the best in practice. 

ALOUD: In parallel to your work at the Gallery, you have just completed a Masters in Creative Writing. Have you always been a Writer?

NAOMI: I was always a very wordy Visual Artist. As a student, a lot of my peers worked very strongly visually and in fact didn’t offer much in terms of conversation or commentary whereas I always thought, wrote and asked a lot. The Creative Writing came after I started working at the Gallery. I can’t remember exactly why I started writing stories but it felt like a natural progression. Around that time, I was writing audio-descriptions for the blind and became very interested in the way language can evoke a visual image. My work is somewhat informed by that. 

ALOUD: Your work with the Gallery is all about reaching out and working together with people from all types of backgrounds whereas, writing is a very solitary occupation. Is this balance important to you?

NAOMI: Definitely. I never like to let people out, I am very resourceful, very alert to ways to draw people in which is also part of being a good educator but of course, that is quite demanding and can be depleating if you have no way to refill your own reservoir. My writing practice is very much about being responsible only for myself and feeding my own creative curiosity. It’s a catalyst to my Gallery life which is very public. I love all of that, it’s really great fun but you need to take that time to resituate yourself. Interestingly, I have to be careful not to let my voice become too interior when I am writing. 

ALOUD: Was it frightening to actually start calling yourself a Writer?

NAOMI: Yes, it’s an interesting thing, isn’t it? It’s the moment of public exposure that is scary because the writing or even studio practice is a fairly safe territory. Reading your own work to an audience is very challenging. I do have a slight performance vein in me so once I am up presenting, I am generally fine but that moment, sitting in the seat, just before standing up to read is definitely difficult. The other challenge is negotiating the fact that people around you think that everything you write is about them. People have trouble understanding fiction because, of course, there will be resonances of your own life but it can be taken very literally.

ALOUD: Reading is probably one of the easiest Art forms to take at a very literal level, isn’t it?

NAOMI: Yes and if it’s good writing, it sounds real. If I write in the first person, it feels as though I am telling you what happened to me. I had a story called “On monday, my step-father died.” I rang my friend and said “Hi, I published a short story, “On monday my step-father died.” and she went “did he?” (laughs) No! it’s fiction. I guess it is a sign of good writing. 

Read an excerpt from Naomi’s upcoming novel, ‘Navigating the Void’.

I am sitting at the kitchen table eating Ella’s favourite snack, crunchy peanut butter on toast, when a little girl appears in the chair beside me. She is wearing ankle high leather boots, the kind with a panel of elastic in the side, a checked shirt, cotton pants and a hand knitted v neck jumper that reaches almost to her knees. She has dirty, blonde hair, with a plain metal bobby pin flattening her fringe to one side. A roughly drawn ponytail holds the rest of her thick hair together at the nape of her neck. Her feet don’t reach the floor and she is swinging them backwards and forwards and looking out at the garden.

‘I was meant to be a boy,’ she says, ‘my mum had four girls before me and I was meant to be a boy, she says she must have killed a China man, that brings you bad luck you know.’

‘I think you are a perfectly lovely girl.’

 ‘That’s only because you haven’t already got four girls.’

‘It doesn’t matter how many other girls have already been born, there’s not another one in the whole worlds exactly like you.’

She turns to face me. ‘Truly?’

 ‘When you were born, you were just what the world needed.’

Still looking at me she says, ‘I have to feed the chooks now, see ya.’

I hope she believes me.

Naomi McCarthy was recommended by Catherine O’Donnell, visual artist. 

Snap Shot Teenager’s Photographic Prize 2011, an exhibition entirely devoted to the work of teenagers, is showing at Penrith Art Gallery until November 13th. 

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