Sandi and I meet at a local coffee shop, we get settled at our table with chai latte each and I ask the first question and am taken away, this is why I love doing this, I get lost in the conversation, her story flows. Sandi is incredibly open, honest, and generous, at some moments in the conversation the expressions on her face are of remembrance, fond and forgotten moments and achievement’s getting a voice. She is candid in sharing so much of her life experience, I get goose bumps.
Sandi from the age of 4 has had a love and passion for art, one of her first essays at school Sandi wrote that she dreamed of being either an artist or a pilot. She recounts to me an experience from her favourite class of the week at school. Art class.
“We were tasked with painting fire cracker night. I got my brushes and splayed them out to get the rippling effect and it was coming together and looking like I had found fire cracker night at the Nambour showgrounds. I was made an example of, I was told to put my brushes down, and stand in the corner of the class room for all art classes for the rest of the year, because, “look what this girl has done. That is not how you paint.”
Those teachers that terrified that little girl during Friday art class, didn’t squash her desire to make art, she refused to let their harsh voice define her passion for art.
“It doesn’t just block creativity when you have a person treat you like that. It blocks you in so many other ways, always second guessing”.
Sandi never did second guess her decision to chase her dream of being involved in the art world. Sandi’s parents worried that their daughter wouldn’t be able to make living from her creativity, and encouraged her to become a teacher. Studying initially in fine arts, leading Sandi to post-graduate studies in dress history and combining that with Queensland history.
“That allowed me with my post graduate studies to curate a dress historical exhibition. That was called “Dressed to kill, the impact of World War 2 on Queensland women’s dress 1935-1950”.
Sandi’s experience has allowed her to be offered multiple roles. Her work has taken her to approximately 5 different universities in an art capacity as a curator, director or freelancer. She has also worked with various local government authorities in the same capacity.
“I really just want to be around the arts. I think being a curator, it is a vicarious way of being involved. It’s voyeuristic. It’s like, ok I can work with artists, and I can still make a living. So I went into that field”.
She has travelled far and wide and held respected positions. Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide, is all indigenous owned and operated, and Sandi found this an interesting and privileged position to hold. She was in public relations at Central Queensland University answering directly to the vice chancellor, this position serviced a number of different campuses. Growth in her professional life, forced her to develop and move outside of some personal fears. Sandi, at the time didn’t hold a drivers licence as she feared she wouldn’t be a good driver. Within the first month in Rockhampton, Sandi as a passenger was involved in a car accident that nearly killed her. She decided during her recovery, she was no longer comfortable with someone else taking control of her transport. She was getting her license.
Intercultural activity has been critical, and central to Sandi’s professional career. While working as the PR person in Rockhampton, Sandi discovered the university held an art collection that was not being cared for or utilised in any way. Taking advantage of this art work Sandi set up in conjunction with the indigenous unit at the university at satellite gallery and launched this as part of NAIDOC week, this was the first indigenous exhibition and drew record crowds. It was called Colour my world.
“It was absolutely amazing, we had Archie Roach come up, where he performed a free concert. We bought people in from Woorabinda, and we went out and filmed some of Archie’s music”.
Sandi had the opportunity to work with Fred Hollows in Central Queensland.
“I mean he worked in Eritrea, but he also worked in our indigenous communities. He always spoke of “going away, to come back”.
Sandi’s whole being lights up, she sits straighter in her chair and her laugh is infectious with excitement when she speaks of some of the people that she has worked and flourished with, or has been influenced by.
“I remember my boss at Tandanya was Francesca Cubillo, she is now Senior Curator of: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the National Gallery of Australia. She is a Larrakia woman from up Darwin way. I remember her talking about particular works in the gallery space at Tandanya and how rich that desert area is, how rich with Indigenous heritage and culture Australia is. I mean she could look at an art work and tell you down to a fine hair exactly what it was, she would explain how rich the area was under all that red dirt. How it can sustain us, but, we don’t look beyond and we don’t have that cultural knowledge”.
“I am fascinated with the gender specific approach to making art, and find time and time again if you find a pairing of artists male and female, the male career takes off and the female is the supporter. Irrespective of if there is a parity or not with their particular talent. This is what was great about spending my week with Wendy Whiteley. Her visit was such a privilege. She is a strong beautiful woman. She is so articulate and has such wisdom in terms of the global art scene. She a wonderful thinker. I am fascinated by the role of the muse within the public and private life, but also like the power in front of the throne. I mean she is carrying that legacy so beautifully. I mean, Whiteley himself used to talk about the fact that she was possibly a better drawer than him. She was going to art school when she met him. I am a lover art that represents social change. Not all art is that. But, I think the power of art, and the momentous occasions when you step back and or when you’re standing in front of a canvas and you just get that feeling of; oh wow that has changed my way of thinking. I remember standing in the art gallery of New South Wales in front of a painting by Lloyd Rees, called Road to Berry and it had a line. It is referred to as an angelic line of sorts. I think that particular work/line changed Whiteley’s or impacted his thinking, I mean he made comment about it impacting him. You can look at his work, and think what would he have been without the drugs? But, he had the capacity to be receptive to other artists work. So I think it is the collaboration, the sharing of ideas in a healthy fashion that starts the world talking, thinking, changing”.
“Gauguin is my absolute favourite. Te Rerioa (The Dream), 1897. That painting sang to me. I am a deep, deep fan of Rosalie Gascoigne she came to art quiet late in life via Ikebana. I am fascinated by her story. She to me is like a bower bird, working with found objects and making meaning of them. My favourite author is Drusilla Modjeska, I got to meet her years ago and why she is so important to me is that I found my first love of reading through her when I was in my thirties. I remember discovering this book called Stravinsky’s Lunch. It is quite a weighty tome, and I remember getting up of a night and I would read for hours in the middle of the night, it was the only time I had to read. I couldn’t get enough of that book. That book was actually analyzing two female non-fictional artists who had lead very different lives. One who stayed in Australia and the other one who went overseas to find her calling”.
“I completely identify with Georgia O’Keefe, with being scared of everything in your life, I mean maybe it stems from that early start of always being anxious about everything and thinking you’re not good enough.
I also identify with her and just going ahead, and making a decision to just do it and the nay-sayers can say what they like, but this is really important to me, I am driven to do this. So make art – not war”.
Sandi held her own solo art exhibition at the age of 40. After spending time in Darwin and central Queensland visiting crocodile farms and being impacted by them, she became fascinated with the areas of environment and animals. It was called Sweet, skin, Suite and it was looking at crocodiles and body marking.
Sandi’s latest exhibition at the Logan regional gallery is, Bee-mindful. Focusing on bees, being human, empathy, how we all work together.
“I am always interested how art educates and the bees have been awareness raising. Yes it’s an environmental thing, certainly in terms of no bees, no me. The stingless native bees are so fascinating to me in terms of the intercultural aspects of that as well. Learn more wisdom, empathy. Yes, I am incredibly interested in what it means to be human, and where young people see where they fit into the world in regards to that.”
Sandi campaigns her eARTh e-mag, and how it was born from her realization that there was no platform for creatives to be recognized for their creative work, either working with, or for the environment.
“Social change can be made through art definitely. It can be person to person or it can be greater”.
“I suppose that is why the eARTh e-mag came into being. I was conscious that there were artists all over the world, who were working with, or for the environment and I want to give them air time and that is my way of contributing to the environment. I mean it is pretty hard for creatives, well not all, to get exposure, in the day and age of social media it’s a bit easier. But usually you are not the best advocate of your own work, so, that is where as a global platform we provide somewhere to talk about these artists who are changing the world and are inspiring others to do so. Its awareness and exposure. I see myself as a match maker in the art world. I love matching artists up to other creatives. I was talking to an artist recently and I automatically thought; oh, you need to meet this other person that I mentored years ago. Oh, I love making those things happen. It’s seeing the opportunities and facilitating it. I love that, for me there is such joy in that. Community focussed projects are so important to me”.
At the close of our time together I asked Sandi what she was most proud of and what the word woman means to her.
“I have never been self-congratulatory. I always have this thought that I need to do better. So when there may have been markers in my life, say the dressed to kill exhibition or the solo exhibition. I never thought “oh I did it” it was always ok, on to the next thing. I haven’t had one of those moments. I just have so many more things to do”.
“Woman means invincible, we are here to stay”.
This interview was timed out at 55 minutes, there were no customers left sitting in what was an overflowing court yard, our coffee cups had been collected, and at the time it felt as though we only chatted for 10 minutes. Sandi is colourful and vibrant in her passion for creativity and the art world. This lady is a database of knowledge, depth and understanding. Indigenous art, the environment and animals will forever have a platform to be displayed creatively if Sandra Conte is involved, and it was such a pleasure to be an audience to her story.
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