Visual arts alumna fosters city’s creative culture

The Arnold Street Milk Bar may have stopped dispensing Choo Choo Bars and Polly Waffles many moons ago, but the place is still sweet as.

Three years ago a For Rent sign in the heritage window stopped Bendigo Visual Arts alumna Dr Susan McMinn in her tracks. Susan had spent the previous 12 months looking for a potential gallery space, and had often thought of this shop while driving past on her way home from work.

“At that time, there were very few stand alone, independent galleries in Bendigo,” Susan says. “I wanted a space where artists could exhibit their work and sell it. So, I thought I’d start one.

“My vision was to offer a space for local, regional and emerging artists. A place where people who hadn’t had an exhibition before could be mentored through the process.” Cue the Arnold Street Gallery, which has been doing just that since 2016.

“There’s been some really well-known artists exhibit as well, such as Bryan Dawe and Linda Jackson, plus significant local artists such as Julie Andrews, Jeff Woodger and Linda Wheeler.”

Not to mention Susan, and fellow alumna Teagan Wheeldon, who was her business partner when the gallery first opened. “Teagan is still very supportive, she’s now raising her family but she’s still a very supportive ear,” Susan says.

Susan enrolled at the Bendigo Campus in her early 40s, straight after heading back to high school.

“I grew up on a dairy farm,” she says. “I wanted to do art after school, but my parents didn’t have the means to send me to university. So instead I started working in office administration. The position was called a ‘Girl Friday’ back then – how sexist is that!

“I went back to school and finished Year 12 when I was 40 and then I went to uni and studied art. I had to, I couldn’t’ wait anymore.”

Up until then the mum-of-three attended some private classes and dabbled in art at home. Plus, she found other ways to be creative, including gardening, cooking and making her childrens’ clothes.

Susan says when she did make it to La Trobe, she was eager to learn and establish a practice as soon as possible.

“I decided to start exhibiting in my second year and  began creating a professional career. My first exhibition was at a café in Bendigo. (Local artist) Gail Tavener helped me and I’m forever grateful for that because when you’re starting out it’s terrifying. It can be a difficult industry to break into and it can feel very scary.”

Also that year Susan began exploring a topic that would change her career; the horses of World War One.

“What I was really interested in was movement in art, and the body’s movement under the strain and duress of war, which is so different to everyday movement, and eventually I started looking at the horses.”

Susan had ridden horses most of her life, so it was a subject close to her heart. Particularly when she learnt about the Charge of Beersheba involving the 4th Australian Light Horse on October 31, 1917. And about horses who had marched through the Sanai and Negev desert night after night, blinded by dust in their eyes, many falling down dead.

For her Masters year Susan created more than 2000 charcoal drawings, photographed detail by detail to make a three-minute film titled The Last Warhorse. It won the Best Australian Student Film at the Melbourne International Animation Festival.

Susan was invited by a producer to apply to Screen Australia to make another film, but by that time she was in the thick of a PhD. She travelled to Israel and Europe to research the depiction of horses in war, to gather the colours of the desert landscape, and use it all to inform her art.

She finished her PhD in 2012. “I was pretty much exhausted after that,” she says. “My other hat is working as an executive assistant, which I then went back to for a few years because I needed to clear my head out.”

Those PhD paintings are still called upon. For the Charge of Beersheba centenary some were exhibited alongside the likes of Sidney Nolan and George Lambert at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance.

This year Susan created a new series of still life paintings, using objects from the Bendigo RSL collection. These were exhibited in the newly-launched Soldiers Memorial Institute Military Museum gallery in Pall Mall. “That’s got me making work again,” she says.

The art is happening alongside Susan’s day job and managing her business. “Running an art gallery is both rewarding and challenging,” she says, citing competition with online art sales. However, artists’ workshops, art classes for children and adults and grants to subsidise exhibitions help support the space, allowing it to help foster the city’s growing creative culture.

The current Arnold Street Gallery exhibition features the work of Bendigo-based artist Jeff Woodger, who has also shown in Japan and in New York. After that Susan will make space for two students from Lockington Primary School and then two Ballarat artists.

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