Saretta Fielding has just finished a Zoom presentation at her home studio in Toronto. It's Reconciliation Week and the Lake Macquarie artist would, in another time, be hosting creative workshops, lectures and talks in person, but the pandemic which caused the lockdown of most of the state has forced a shift.
"When COVID-19 came, the wholesale part of the business just stopped," Fielding explains over the phone on Friday. "Our work happens in the community and we needed to really brainstorm and come up with a plan of how to continue working."
For years, Fielding has intertwined her artistic career with diverse community engagement programs. She established the Malang Indigenous Corporation to connect Aboriginal artists to business, community, government and educational programs around the country in 2016, and prior to that was a board member on the Yarnteen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Corporation - a not for profit which connects Aboriginal people with training and employment opportunities.
Her father died of heart disease at the age of 40 and Fielding, the oldest of six children, was suddenly thrust toward supporting her family. She struggled at school, lacked confidence; "my education wasn't a priority," she says.
"My aunt knocked on the door one day and asked if I would like to be involved in an Aboriginal nursing project. That experience, with mentors and support - I gained a credit, and I realised I'm not dumb and that I could work, and I could make a living, and I could buy a car. That was a really big moment for me."
Fielding's formative years would go on to be shaped by mentors. Her cousin, the local Aboriginal community leader Jimmy Wright, would instil in her a sense of what she calls "sink-or-swim" determination that would lead her to, among other achievements, winning the Global Indigenous Wayfarers Award in 2014 for which her design was featured as part of Ray Ban's Wayfarer sunglasses. It was the same motivation that led her to illustrate Hunter Water's 2020 children's e-Book Where's Our Water.
"I said yes to an animation project with the Department of Environment. Now, I don't know how to be an animator, but we can certainly partner. Jimmy taught me that you can work alongside professionals in collaboration, and I can certainly interpret an old uncle Jimmy Miller's story into artwork. And then, I can partner with the animator and then I get to bring in an Aboriginal person who does the soundscape.
"You can't do it all, but you can bring in the people alongside to work with you.
"I want this business to continue when I'm not here. And to be able to bring young people through and to create opportunities for them.
Where's Our Water? is available at Hunter Water.
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