Google Castlemaine and you will find it in the very centre of Central Victoria, in the beating heart of Dja Dja Wrung country. The Djara people have been making art around these parts for many a long year. In more recent times many non-indigenous artists have come to join them in this wholesome pursuit.
Why is this so?
In order to answer that question we must transport ourselves back in time to that seminal moment in history when gold was discovered in them there hills. The very first spec of that fever inducing substance ever found in Australia was picked up right here in Forest Creek in 1851. This very soon led to possibly the greatest human stampede in the history of the world, right to our doorstep. Never before or since have so many people from so many corners of the globe descended on one spot in such a short time. The population of Castlemaine swelled to over 100,000 in the space of 6 months.
The Djara people were not amused to say the least, but knowing full well that no one in their right mind would willingly leave their mother country unattended for too long, they naturally assumed that the interlopers would go home soon enough. Tragically for them, this was not to be the case.
Painting in broad brush strokes I think we can say that most country towns around here were established on flat plains next to a water source of some sort, adhering to the time honoured maxim: ‘ If the sheep like it, so do we’. But our little town did not get anywhere riding on the sheep’s back. Here we found something far more attractive than sheep, so our town was plonked slap bang in the middle of the most beautiful hills, covered in a blanket of pristine forest. However, in their enthusiasm to find those little yellow stones, the hills were soon denuded of all vegetation and all the topsoil was washed away down the creek. Leaving a moonscape quite unfit for sheep grazing or anything else for that matter. So nature was left to lick its wounds and repair itself as best it could without the help of its traditional custodians.
Meanwhile the ever-industrious Castlemainiacs set about building a town to rival the great cities of Europe.
Leaping forward 100 years or so to the swinging 60s, we find little groups of bohemian artists arriving on the train to forage for exotic fungi and paint the quaint old buildings and the lovely hills now restored somewhat, through utter neglect, to their former glory. Serendipitously the said bohemians were pleasantly surprised to find a run down miner’s cottage in Maldon could be snapped up for less than a run down flat in Carlton, and paid off with a part-time job at The Pram Factory. So began the trickle that has now become an avalanche. But why on earth do they keep on coming? We have no rivers or lakes or spas, we have no mountains or beaches, yet still they arrive by the trainload. What they are looking for is Culture.
Apparently there is a significant number of Melbournians who find city life less than ideal: The smog, the road rage, the alienation, but they are loathe to spend the rest of their allotted time on earth languishing in some cultural backwater. So when they come across a quaint little country town where the kids can ride to school and leave their bikes unlocked and their mums can sit in a Left-bank Café run by an Italian that can barely speak English and discuss the merits of Aliane de Button’s latest dissertation while hubby is at birthing classes, and they can sell their fully renovated apartment in Rathdowne St and build a straw-bail house and still pocket half the proceeds, and they get to keep their part-time job lecturing in Semiotics at R.M.I.T.- well you can’t fend them off with a stick.
Ben Laycock 2012 www.benlaycock.com.au