Armidale’s Living Stage (entitled The Bower Stage) was central to the celebration of the newly restored Black Gully, behind NERAM, which has increasingly become a hub for environmental and creative activity. The project was created in collaboration with Melbourne designer Ashlee Hughes and local artist Simon Mellor. The aim of The Bower Stage was to create a platform for sharing stories through gardening, food, music and performance – bringing people together to strengthen community bonds. Inspired by artists such as Nicholas Henry, John Dougherty and Andy Goldsworthy, our idea was to create a bower – a cosy, magical and shared space that could house multiple communal storytelling performances amongst an existing circle of pine trees on the site adjacent to the creek. The exchange of community and ideas was central to the making of The Bower. Community members from all walks of life contributed to its creation, including people of all ages and abilities.
As the design was intended to contribute to The Black Gully Festival and the regeneration of the creek, locally found and natural materials were chosen to facilitate the design. Ashlee and Simon guided community members in collecting branches, logs, sticks and leaves for the construction of the dome-like space. Willow and other non-native plants (weeds that were impacting the local ecology of the creek) were cut to create the walls and roof structure of The Bower in collaboration with the local Steiner school while a local disability arts group took part in decorating the space. Two Indigenous teenagers from Armidale’s Backtrack Boys (a program which helps youth ‘get back on track’ by getting involved in community projects) were also invited to take part. The boys chopped branches, adding foliage to the design, making seats from tree stumps and contributing ideas to the space. Their endless energy resulted in a beautiful ‘bower’ space, which the boys described as their ‘secret hiding spot’ to come back to.
The design also included finding household objects from the local tip shop to hold edible plants which were grown in collaboration with the nearby local community garden. Mellor was especially instrumental in sourcing materials for the creation of the stage – regularly calling upon his friends and neighbours to assist with finding natural and reclaimed materials when necessary, and thereby connecting local knowledge with design processes. These found artefacts contributed to the quirky and creative flavour of the design – reclaimed window frames were hung between the trees, bottomless chairs from the tip shop were filled with edible plants from the local community garden, while an empty bird cage (donated by a community member) was suspended from one of the branches.
In order to celebrate and contribute to the biodiversity of the site, we also worked with the Armidale Tree Group to create native living plant sculptures that could be featured as part of the Black Gully Festival celebrations. These would then be replanted into the creek bed after the festival. The plant sculptures were inspired by the Japanese art of ‘kokedama’ where a plant’s root system is wrapped in moss and bound with string, transforming it into a sculptural and suspended art form. This exercise in ‘vegetal crafting’, through multiple free workshops leading up to and over the course of the festival, was a unique way of engaging families, teenagers, seniors and children of all abilities in the appreciation of natural beauty, where ideas of biodiversity, fragility, humility, adaptation and growth were moulded and wrapped into spherical forms. Each moss ball was lovingly crafted and hung in the space to create a suspended forest of living globes.
Overall, the flexible and inclusive design process allowed the design to be inspired by local materials and people, allowing community stories to be woven into the process. The end result was an ecoscenographic design that was site specific and responsive and one that was extremely integrated with the local socio-ecological environment – a physical depiction of the many hands that shape a community.
*Text adapted from: Beer, Tanja, David Curtis and Julie Collins (2018). “Innovation: Creativity as a Renewable Resource for the Eco-City”. In Enabling Eco-Cities: defining, planning, and creating a more thriving future. Edited by Dominique Hes and Judy Bush. Palgrave Pivot, 21-42.
Producers: EcoArts Australis Inc & Black Gully Music Festival with support from New England Regional Art Museum (NERAM) and Australian Government Festivals Australia. The Bower Stage was part of Ephemera, curated by EcoArts Australis Inc.
Lead designers: Tanja Beer, Ashlee Hughes and Simon Mellor
Eco-drama performance team: Julie Collins, Camille Dunsford and Katy Walsh with students from Armidale High School and Duval High School.
Key contributors: Armidale Tree Group and Armidale Community Garden
Ephemera artists: Andrew Parker, Gabi Briggs, Amy Hammond, Greer Taylor and Laszlo Szabo (Social Ventures Media)
Producing team: Cherene Spendelove, Andrew Parker and Dave Carr
Thank you to: The Backtrack Boys, Armidale Steiner School and NERAM.
Photos: Laszlo Szabo