By Jade Lee
As a ten year old growing up in Iceland, Dora Rognvaldsdottir remembers being taken aside by a teacher who encouraged her to explore art. She braved buses and blizzards to attend course after course after school and her love for art grew.
Dora’s love of art has grown along with her own nurturing of that same love in others. This year her Gateway art project is helping communities recover from the ravaging of the Black Summer bushfires.
As a young adult Dora resettled in Huskisson, later embarking on a seven year arts education journey, first at Wollongong TAFE and then Wollongong University, majoring in sculpture and finally graduating with a Dip. Ed. She then went on to teach at several local high schools as well as engaging in many community arts projects throughout the region over the next thirty years.
She began holding weekend workshops in mosaics and sculpture at her home in Nowra and gradually built a studio in the backyard where the dream of Mad Cow Studio finally came to fruition with after-school and evening art classes. In 2013 she decided to quit high school teaching and focus on her long-term dream of a private sculpture practice and running classes from her studio.
Dora believes art is important for everyone and that in society art often goes unacknowledged and not given the credentials it deserves in the community.
She once identified an opportunity for Bomaderry High students to revamp an old art mural in the Bomaderry train station waiting room back in 2006/7. Whilst challenged by the short time to design and work on the mural, she was able to inspire many inexperienced but eager students who stayed many hours after school to work on the busy and bright mural that still greets visitors arriving today. To this day the station holds fond memories for these students, now adults, of the fun and connection they had.
Dora sees art as a powerful medium that should be accessible for all people to engage in. It is a language and activity where individuals work through creative problem solving, learning new skills and getting to feel a great sense of achievement.
During group art-making, conversations ebb and flow and participants can engage as much or as little as they want to. It is an environment where all can contribute on so many levels, through working ideas, skills and conversation when it suits.
2019 brought the opportunity to expand and move to a much larger commercial space, but 2019 also brought the fires. Then in 2020 COVID followed and her dream for a while was threatened.
Everybody knew how important art would be in helping the community to be able to express their grief and fears of having lived through the catastrophic bushfires, many are still haunted by the terrors they experienced. So the Mad Cow studio continued, art helping people get through in a Covid-safe way. Then, in a lull with restrictions lifting, they were able to hold their important annual exhibition where students get to showcase their creativity.
In 2019 her Mad Cow members nominated her for an Australia Day award, rightfully receiving the Outstanding Contribution towards an Inclusive Shoalhaven. “It was beautiful to receive” she said, ”truly heart-warming and as good as it gets.”
Gateway is the current community arts project that Dora is working on. It’s a large public sculpture installation that speaks about the recent fires and symbolises many aspects of the impact and experiences felt during the fires. “Its main focus is on regrowth and optimism." Dora told me.
This work aims to bring people together from all communities within the Shoalhaven to be a part of its creation through ceramic workshops held in various locations. Gateway is about collaborative and inclusive effort to build together something we can all be very proud of.
The Gateway sculpture is made up of three parts, each part being about a specifically chosen community in the Shoalhaven. It has twelve sides and is designed to be able to be entered into from any direction. You will be able to walk around the installation and experience each area as a unique lived experience of something which they are all part of as a whole.
The structure is made out of steel and the bottom parts are laser-cut imagery inspired from photographs sent in by the public. People were asked to send photos that captured their experiences and feelings either during the fires or now later in terms of recovery and life as it goes on.
The middle section is a tribute to lost flora and fauna with myriads of ceramic animals and plant matter made by many hands. Deep blue mosaic tiles carefully cut and shaped to form swirls represent the skies we looked up to, the wind we waited to hear of over the radio, the experience of the falling embers and blowing leaves. Flame like metal shapes takes us to the top tier where atop each spire is a tree at different stages of regrowth.
I was lucky enough to attend one of Dora’s workshops where a group of us made little animals and trees to become part of the finished project. To be able to contribute allowed me to see full circle the value of creativity as a healing tool and the important connection community plays in our lives. Stay tuned, get involved and be part of the healing we all so desperately need.
Community events are being held across the Shoalhaven region in coming months so you too can contribute to the Gateway sculpture project. Dora is happy to run as many workshops as the community demand and all events are listed on her MadCowStudio website and the Gateway Sculpture Facebook page. The sculpture will be installed and unveiled later in the year.
Feature image: Clay animals for the Gateway Sculpture project made by community members in one of the many local workshops run by Dora: Photo supplied