Artist Jeremy Sheehan

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Artist and teacher Jeremy Sheehan has an affinity with the ocean and the local Coffs Coast. Having inspired a joint project that included local Coffs artists, students and members of various Pacific Islands and also recently featuring in Sculpture By The Sea on the cliffs of Bondi, FOCUS took a stroll up and over Muttonbird Island to find out more about the artist …

What is your connection to the Coffs Coast? 

I grew up here, and after travelling to many places years ago with what I guess must’ve been some kind of subconscious checklist, I found that the Coffs Coast ticks all the boxes – well, more than anywhere else anyway. We really do live in a special place.

Could you briefly describe how you became interested in the visual arts?

 I’ve always been a bit of a daydreamer, maybe an idealist, but also have a busy mind. A tricky combination, I suppose. For me, visual art is a way of making concepts and thoughts tangible. It’s a great way to process things and also explore, perhaps even change, the world around us.

Can you briefly describe your current project?

Sure, but keeping it brief might be a bit of a challenge. The project has ended up being bigger than Ben Hur, and I’m just a part of it really – perhaps the one who does the most worrying or the person who holds strings to a heap of balloons in the wind and has to stop them going off in different directions.

It’s a collaborative project that centres around ocean plastics and sea birds. A group of artists and students here in Coffs sent 22 bird sculptures out to islands across the Pacific. We made a skeleton for the birds out of ocean plastic and covered it with materials that would break down.

Along with the birds, we sent a kit and things needed to make a similar bird to each island; the idea was that artists and people on each island would in turn make a bird and send it back to us as a kind of swap of artworks.

The birds made on the islands also have a skeleton of found ocean plastics, but they are covered with different material – stuff that is relevant to each island, and over time this too breaks down to expose the permanent plastic skeleton that will be left behind. This is intended to be a metaphor for what’s happening to real sea birds like our Muttonbirds; it’s also a kind of metaphor for what’s happening to the islands throughout Oceania, with the impact of globalisation and climate change.

With the bird sculptures going out to, and coming back from, specific islands, the idea was to create a map of the flight path and migration of the Muttonbirds, overlaid with the migration of plastic through our ocean.

We had some truly amazing responses, with people from all walks of life involved, from the Australian High Commission on some islands, to museums, schools, cultural groups and traditional weavers. Every bird that has come back has a huge and involved back story attached, and really that’s what the project is all about – the story, as much as anything else.

Where did the inspiration for this work originate?

From a desire to make visible what is happening to our oceans that grew out of the TAFE classroom. We made a work along similar lines that was installed with the fantastic help of National Parks at Muttonbird Island last year – from there I started to wonder about bigger things, migration of the birds, and what else could happen.

Recently the project was part of Sculpture By The Sea in Bondi. Tell us about that experience …

It was an incredible experience. The people at Sculpture by the Sea have great kindness, generosity and enthusiasm for art. It was an awesome thing to be part of. It was quite a mission to get the work set up, though. By the opening weekend of the show we had installed the work five times and dismantled it four times. In the evening of the first day when we had put the work up, there was thunder and lightning almost on top of us, so we took it down again. The day after that we had just finished installing the work, when we heard there was a hail warning, so we had to take it down again  – and then on the opening day of the show it was pouring rain, winds were around 40 knots by the afternoon and gusting at 100 km at dinner time. Down the birds came again! T

hey had a rest for a day while the storm eased, then we put them up the following dawn. Thankfully, the weather after that was perfect for two days, and the response to the work was overwhelming. More storms followed, and the birds survived these and the attention of thousands of school kids.

How do you hope the project will influence those who view it?

Thankfully, one of the things I noticed in Sydney when I was installing the work was that people have been responding to the project in a way that is better than we had hoped for. They are participating in the work, worrying about the birds in the weather, looking after them (the Tamarama Surf Club offered to store the birds inside the club during storms) and telling the stories of the work, the birds and the islands to other people. They are adding to the message and passing it on.

Making the work was about bringing a community together across thousands of miles of ocean; to see a wider community form around the work has been fantastic.

As an artist, how would you describe your style and approach to a subject?

Time, chance and happenstance are big factors in my work. I like to make things that don’t necessarily last and capture a sense of impermanence and loss along the way. Sometimes this captures a unique fragile beauty or transports a message or idea in an effective way; other times the works can end up like a bit of a train crash. Sometimes the subject dictates the materials that are used, and other times it’s the materials or everyday objects that inspire the subject – they seem to be telling part of a story that I try and tap into.

Where do you find inspiration?

I used to think it could be found under every leaf, rock or piece of wood, but I’ve started looking outside the natural world and now think you can find inspiration at every turn. Just about every object or material has a story to tell, and every situation can be a springboard for new ideas. To find inspiration, all you need to do is give yourself a chance to look.

You also work as a teacher of visual arts. Tell us a bit about this …

It’s a great job. I love it; my students are inspiring. I work at TAFE with some great artists, teachers and students from all walks of life. It’s a fantastic experience. When everybody gets together in the studio, it’s as though a kind of synergistic magic takes place – creativity goes through the roof, and amazing things get made.

If you could live anywhere in the world to experience a specific period of art, which would you choose and why? 

I’d go for right now. I think we are at an important place in the history of art, where just about anything or any object can become the medium to be transformed into something else. On top of that, there is a real need for art and creativity – whether it’s to show us how to see beauty and the world around us again, to reuse and reclaim the material excesses of the last century, or highlight a particular issue, it’s all happening. We need to change in so many ways, and art can be a catalyst for that change – it’s very exciting.

What advice would you give to someone who is considering taking up art either as a profession or a hobby? 

Just about everyone seems to have an opinion about art, and they’re pretty keen to share it. They are only opinions after all; choose the ones you listen to wisely. Come along to TAFE, or find someone to learn from and develop ideas with; it’s the best thing you can do.

What are your plans for the future of this project?

I think it still has quite a way to go, but the direction it heads in isn’t wholly up to me or the other collaborators any more. The public response or reaction to the work was always intended to be a major part of the project. So far this response has been fantastic, we have taken it to a point where it has a life of its own, and where it goes from here will be determined by how the community continues to respond.

Plans are underway for a new Diploma of Visual Arts group to start at TAFE in February next year. It will be a great course, and it would be good to see you there.

Thanks Jeremy.

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