A stellar arts career
There can be no doubt that the arts is flourishing here in the Northern Rivers. From feature films and television productions being made in the region to world class music festivals and visual artists, we have an abundance of creative people working away in their chosen fields helping to make this the culturally rich and diverse region that it is.
As the head of Arts Northern Rivers, Lois Randall can take some of the credit for helping to foster that creativity and helping artists create new opportunities. But after six-and-a-half years, Lois is calling it a day.
“I think it’s time for me, personally, to have a change. I want to keep working with Arts Northern Rivers, but from the outside and go back to my own practice and doing freelance work,” she said.
Lois’s career has straddled the community arts sector, policy development and advocacy, as well as working as a producer on numerous film and television productions.
She grew up in the region, attending Goonellabah Public School and then Richmond River and Kadina high schools. Her parents both worked at the teachers college in Lismore that later became Southern Cross University and also ran a beef cattle farm in the Rosebank/Clunes area.
“It turned me into a vegetarian at the age of 17 and I haven’t eaten meat since,” she said.
After finishing school Lois moved to Sydney to study film and television at the University of Technology Sydney and she then got a job at the community-based video production and training facility Metro Television (now Metro Screen) in Paddington.
“While I was there we did the community television test broadcasts and that was a really exciting time… It was the late 80s and the bicentennial was on and we worked very closely with Radio Redfern… That was my first partnership with Aboriginal media and a really influential time,” she said.
Lois was involved in making an award-winning experimental video art piece called The Bicentennial Will Not Be Televised that was picked up by film festivals in New York and Japan.
“We’d worked with this group from New York called The Paper Tiger Collective and they did these great commentaries on mainstream media where they chroma-keyed themselves in (superimposed themselves in to various programs) and did a running commentary. So if a program like Dynasty was going on, they would do an analysis of the sexual politics as it was being broadcast and then re-broadcast it with themselves in it. We thought that was a fantastic idea and one of their people was in Sydney for the bicentenary and we did this whole thing on the bicentenary which was like a live performance, keying different people in – so Aboriginal commentators, performers, poets… It was a great project.”
She had numerous other roles including working as a researcher for the Communications Law Centre at the time when new legislation was being introduced to de-regulate the commercial television industry and she also co-wrote a book on racism in the media with Andrew Jakubowicz.
She then landed a job as the executive officer of the Australian Screen Directors Association (now called the Australian Directors Guild). While lobbying and organising professional development on behalf of film and television directors, Lois continued to pursue her own projects behind the camera and was in East Timor when the Dili massacre happened.
“We were researching a doco on women in East Timor and actually witnessed the killings in the Motael Church… We came back to Darwin and ended up doing news broadcasts for the international media having witnessed those killings. We just happened to be staying right next to the church. That was incredible. I’ve never experienced anything like living in Dili at that time – that feeling of living under occupation. No one wanting to look at you or talk to you, but really, everyone wanting to talk to you and having to find ways to do it that were secret.”
While in the Top End, she ran some video production courses through Bachelor College and said she learned more from her Aboriginal students than they learned from her.
“I was supposed to be teaching really traditional men from the community, but there was no way they were going to be taught by a young white woman, so they’d sit outside and send their wives in and they would report back.”
Somewhere along the way she managed to do a Masters in Fine Arts, majoring in digital media art and found herself back in the hustle and bustle of Sydney at the Screen Directors Association.
When her first baby came along she and her partner decided they wanted to bring her up in the country and they made the move back to the North Coast.
“It’s such a free, healthy environment for children,” Lois said of the decision to move.
They arrived with no real plans for work, but Lois knew screen pioneer John Weiley had recently bought a property at Broken Head and she looked him up. She was offered a job as the production manager on his latest project, an IMAX feature documentary about the sun called Solarmax that involved co-ordinating film crews in 17 different countries over a two-year period.
“That was a huge project… It was a science documentary feature about the sun that was made for science museums around the world… It was a collaboration with NASA and the European Space Agency and their aim was to film the surface of the sun on an IMAX camera for the cinema. That’s where it started, and from that John turned it into quite a poetic science feature about the history of the human relationship with the sun and our understanding of it. So from early cultures that were known to have worshipped the sun right through to contemporary science,” Lois said. “We filmed at places like Bru na Boinne in Ireland, which is a burial mound that on the winter solstice the sun shines through a hole in the roof and illuminates this vessel, and all these other amazing archaeological sites like Machu Picchu in Peru, and Greenland, Antarctica, or filming the Aurora from the Arctic Circle. And I managed all of that from a little shed in the Byron Bay Industrial Estate.
“Quite often we might have four or five crews filming simultaneously and we were going 24/7 because we were dealing with three different time zones and I would wake up sweating over currency variations because I would have to rent a helicopter in Greenland from my office in Byron Bay, which is the funniest experience. I’d be ringing up in the middle of the night because of the time zones and I found this helicopter operator who not only spoke perfect English but knew Byron and had been surfing there three weeks beforehand! The logistics were just enormous, but it was great and I got to go on a couple of the shoots.”
It was through working with John Weiley that Lois and others realised there were a large number of professional screen producers living and working in the region that ultimately led to the formation of Screenworks.
“John was saying, ‘There’s more film and TV directors here than in Brisbane, we should start a chapter of ASDA (Australian Screen Directors Association) here’. So he held a party where you had to have a broadcast or cinema screen credit to come – it was like an experiment to see how many we would get, and around 40 people turned up. That group kept meeting and (filmmaker) Cathy Henkel started doing her research and found there were these huge grants available for regional industry development. We decided to go for one of those, which was the beginning of Screenworks… The whole intent was to have formal networks and professional development and get the local screen industry cluster working and doing more productions in the region.”
Lois believes it has been a huge success and points to local productions such as dirtgirlworld (which started life in a backyard studio in Whiporie and is now winning acclaim around the world), East of Everything and the feature film Lou shot around Murwillumbah and due for release later this year, as examples of productions that have benefited.
Lois took on the role of CEO of Arts Northern Rivers in 2003 when the organisation had just been formed and had to build it from the ground up. It is one of 13 regional arts boards in NSW and was the first time there had been a collaboration across the seven councils of the Northern Rivers.
Working across all sectors of the arts, there are many areas she could point to as highlights over the past six-and-a-half years, but is particularly proud of the work they have done with Aboriginal visual arts.
“Digby Moran, having achieved some level of success as an artist, wanted to help younger artists. In 2006 we held this regional forum and 30 to 40 artists came together and said we really want to do something. Out of that a committee was formed and they set seven goals and have gradually, systematically worked through them.... We got some funding and employed Frances Belle-Parker as indigenous arts development officer, then we got the 3 Rivers Aboriginal Art Space in Lismore, we did the publication (A Special Kind of Vision)... The last point on the list was to get strong links out of corrective services so people who are doing artwork in jail and juvenile centres have a place where they can come to work and we’ve just started that with Balund-a out at Tabulam.
“In Canberra they are quite excited because we’ve developed a new model for an Aboriginal arts centre, which traditionally is a paternalistic style of enterprise where there’s a white manager who buys all the paints and materials and does all the selling and the people just do the work. Whereas what we are looking at here is a new model where it’s more a cluster of small businesses and community enterprises that are networked and supported.”
She also pointed to the Visual Arts Network (VAN) which has given opportunities for visual artists to make connections and find new ways to sell their work. The VAN website has had almost 34,000 unique visitors from 53 countries in two-and-a-half years.
“We have an over saturation of artists here compared to people who have the funds available to buy art so it (VAN) has really been focussed on helping people get their art further afield, and that’s been hugely successful,” she said. “It’s a good time for the organisation to have a change because we have triennial funding for our core programs, so a very secure time for a change of CEO. It’s time for another chapter.”