Amber Norrish (2009): Connecting Community Through Art

Amber’s love for art bloomed at Santa Maria College, and now she’s leveraging it to uplift and showcase her community through her artistic pursuits. In this blog, she reminisces about her high school days, discusses her contributions to the community, and shares how she spends her free time.

Could you share your insights about your experience at Santa Maria College? Were there any particular departments or staff members that you developed a close relationship with?

As a boarder, I was home-sick the whole first year of boarding! I soon came around to boarding life, loving it and all the friends I made, who I consider now as sisters.

It wasn’t until Year 9 that I began to cherish school and the opportunities it afforded me, opportunities I wouldn’t have encountered in my quaint hometown of Mukinbudin.

My favourite class at school was Art. Mrs Withers was my teacher from 2006 – 2009, and she was a great inspiration and pivotal person in my career. I owe the biggest thanks for her encouragement of my passion for art and my crazy big art ideas. I believe she is one of the reasons I am where I am today.

I was also extremely grateful to attend the Punmu trip in 2008. It is quite crazy, but it seems life has come full circle as I got to work with Kuru Gladys Bidu, a prominent Martu elder and artist based in Punmu and Hedland, in my previous role at FORM. I can’t wait to get to Punmu again!

A big part of my school time was also spent in leadership roles. I learnt a lot from these roles.

Could you please tell us about your journey across art, facilitation, project management and consulting projects?

I have been passionate about art since Year 9 at Santa Maria. This led me to study for a Bachelor of Arts and Major in Fine Arts at Curtin University and RMIT. 

My first role in the arts was coordinating the Mukinbudin Spring Festival – a rural-based arts and cultural annual event in 2015 and 2017. It was so much fun, and I enjoyed being back in my hometown and coordinating an event that brought the community together through the arts.

In between coordinating the festival, I volunteered at many large art institutions and at artist-run initiatives. These experiences, helped me to develop key skills and networks.

In 2018, I was offered a position at the Bunbury Regional Art Gallery (BRAG) as their education and public programs officer. This role involved coordinating the annual Iluka South West High Schools Exhibition involving 24 schools across the South West as well as many creative education programs, art workshops, artists’ talks, lectures, and professional development events. 

I really enjoyed working with the Noongar community in Goomburrup/Bunbury, and on my second day there, I joined the Yaka Dandjoo Events Committee. Together, we organised many great reconciliation and engagement events with and for the community.

I was also very passionate about mental health after losing a close friend from Mukinbudin to suicide in 2019, and in collaboration with Pathways South West, founded the Bunbury Mental Health Week Exhibition at the Bunbury Regional Art Gallery and was a member of the Bunbury Mental Health Week Consortium.

Having spent four years in Bunbury, I was ready for a change and was offered a position in Boorloo/Perth as the Curatorial and Engagement Coordinator at FORM Building the State of Creativity. This role saw me curate and project manage exhibitions at FORM Gallery in Claremont alongside senior curator Andrew Nicholls, coordinate a large artistic and professional development program with three art centres in Ieramugadu/Roebourne, and lead FORM’s Reconciliation Action Plan, establishing FORM’s State-wide Aboriginal and Islander Advisory Committee, and the Aboriginal Council at Spinifex Hill Studio.

I am excited to share that I have just started a role as the Projects Coordinator at the Aboriginal Art Centre Hub of Western Australia. I will work in their Our Country Moves team on a State-wide artistic and business capacity-building program with 30+ art centres in Western Australia.

Melissa Sandy and Amber at Yinjaa-Barni Art. 2023. Melissa is a Yindjibarndi women from Roebourne.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience working at the Mukinbudin Spring Festival?

My role working with the Mukinbudin Spring Festival was my first paid role in the arts, so it was a dream come true. It was an exciting role as I got to work with a passionate local group of volunteers to coordinate a week-long event of art and cultural activities, a market day, and a community exhibition. 

In my first year, I worked with a graphic designer (another former Santa Maria boarder, Jazz Zalewski) to incorporate a theme for the exhibition Beach to Bush. I loved introducing a theme to the festival, and the response from the community was really positive, with many people feeling engaged and connected through art.

This was my first time managing a large amount of funding, and as someone who has worked in the arts for a long time now, managing funding and grants is one of the most important skills to have.

From your perspective, how does art contribute to fostering positive social change and strengthening community ties?

I think art’s ability to foster positive social change is endless. I’ve seen firsthand how art can bring people together, create a place where people feel like they belong, and also generate income for individuals and communities.

From Mukinbudin to Goomburrup, to Ieramugadu, to Boorloo, art connects communities, regions, states, countries, and worlds. It does this by bringing people together through storytelling via paint, words, music, performance, light, video, and so many more ways. It tells the story of who we were, who we are, and who we will be.

Mental Health Week at Bunbury Regional Art Gallery with Terry Norrish, Amber Norrish, Blue Tree Project Founder, Kendall Whyte, Abbie Norrish and Tammy Norrish

Could you highlight some of the notable art projects you have been involved in?

My most notable project so far has been working on the Roebourne Arts development program in Ieramagadu with Cheeditha Art Centre, Juluwarlu Art Group, and Yinjaa-Barni Art. We’ve not only achieved some fantastic artistic goals together across all three art centres but we have become family, and for me building strong, respectful and enduring relationships in life through art, is the absolute pinnacle of success for me. I am so grateful.

What does a regular day look like for you at the moment?

I have only just started at the Aboriginal Art Centre of Western Australia, but I can imagine it will be similar to my other roles – talking to artists, visiting art centres, making cups of tea, budgets, excel sheets, meetings, and looking at ART. 

When you have some spare time, what do you enjoy doing?

I have my own art and curatorial practice so I spend my free time working on my own personal projects, as well as dancing (hip hop), footy, and spending time with my boyfriend, his kids, family and friends.

What is one thing on your 2024 bucket list that you are hoping to/ already have achieved?

I have got to say getting this new job at the Aboriginal Art Centre of Western Australia has got to be a highlight me, I am so excited for where this role will take me.

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