From little things, big things grow...
Understory is a truly 'grass roots' community initiative. It is managed by Southern Forest Arts, a not-for-profit community cultural organisation.
The Understory journey from conception to birth took many years. It wasn't always smooth sailing, but it was worth the effort.
Local artist, Fiona Sinclair, conceived the original idea for a 'sculpture walk' around the turn of the millenium when working with fellow artist, Peter Hill (and other WA artists) in the creation of 'site-specific' ephemeral installations in threatened forest coupes in the South West as part of the conservation movement.
These temporary 'exhibitions' were promoted widely, with visitors travelling from regional & metro areas to view works.
"I saw how much the general public loved seeing art in nature and as an artist it was so great to have the opportunity to respond directly to the environment. I had the notion that 'someday' in the future I would try to make something more permanent for our community as a way of celebrating these glorious forests and to help support and diversify the local economy through the expansion of tourism," said Ms Sinclair.
The seed of that idea was planted and watered discreetly over the following years until a funding opportunity arose in 2004 that seemed perfect for the project. This was the catalyst for action.
A committee of like-minded individuals was formed (Southern Forest Arts) that worked hard over the next two and half years to raise over $600,000 from local, state and federal governments as well as philanthropic groups and independent funding bodies.
Mentors were engaged to advise the committee and oversee the selection of sculptors, writers and musicians through a rigorous evaluation process.
Actively engaging the local community has always been a core value of Southern Forest Arts.
During the early years of planning the community was consulted frequently, resulting in considerable input into the organic and evolving nature of the project.
For example, the original concept focused solely upon sculpture, however the local music teacher suggested at one of the Community Forums held during 2005 that a music component also be included. Several local writers then suggested that stories and poetry could also add to the mix.
Many of the artwork commissions stipulated that there need be some level of community participation.
Understory was officially opened by the Hon. Geoff Prosser (MP) and the Hon. Paul Omodei (MLA) on the 25th November 2006 as part of the inaugural Southern Forest Arts Festival.
The event was attended by approximately a thousand
people from across the South West and Perth.
A range of artists, writers and musicians performed and/or spoke about their work.
Finally, the committee and a huge contingent of volunteers were able to celebrate this acheivement of 'shared community vision' and partnership.
Understory has impacted postively upon the Northcliffe community by encouraging increased tourism to the town. Several thousand visitors enjoy the experience each year - with numbers continuing to rise regularly.
Three quarters of Understory visitors indicate that visiting the attraction was the main or only reason for visiting Northcliffe. In a town of 200 people (700 in the district) this is significant.
WHAT'S IN A NAME? THE UNDERSTORY RE-BRAND
Understory was originally called:
The Northcliffe International Forest Art Experience
Southern Forest Sculpture Walk
Understory, Art in Nature
"What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;"
While love-struck Romeo was insisting that a rose would smell as sweet by any other name, Shakespeare took the time to ensure his hero and heroine had names with enough resonance to make a fitting title for his play. Names are important, and often because of the value we place upon them, they can take a long time to find, or feel comfortable with. Just ask any parent-to-be about the challenges of naming their unborn child.
After two and a half years of operating under the name Southern Forest Sculpture Walk, Southern Forest Arts unveiled a new name for the project - Understory.
The re-brand was not a decision taken lightly or a path easily travelled. It represented a twelve month journey of discussion and consideration, involving periods of frustration and finally culminating in consensus (no easy task for a committee).
There were several prompts for the change.
"Understory is about more than just sculpture," said manager, Fiona Sinclair. "Our writers and musicians are just as important to us as our visual artists - the 'Sculpture Walk' name didn't reflect that."
"Secondly, when development of the project first began in 2004 there weren't many other 'sculpture' based events in WA. Since then, there's been a veritable boom and Southern Forest Arts were seeking a point of differentiation."
Fiona said that the third catalyst was "that during the three and a half years it took us to develop Understory we never really found the time to sit back as a committee and reflect deeply upon some key questions of marketing. 'Navel gazing' is a time consuming business and we were so enmeshed within the logistics of meeting our funding commitments that there was no opportunity for us to say "Stop everything! I need to change direction."
The committee found the re-brand process challenging from start to finish, but ultimately worthwhile. It involved much more than just coming up with a new name.
"We weren't interested in just a cosmetic makeover - we wanted to drill down to the core of our project and work from the inside out. As a committee we asked ourselves a lot of questions about what we hoped to achieve, what made us unique, and what messages we wanted our visitors to take home with them."
"We realised that we wanted to change the way were doing many things - that there was great scope for sharing our story, our vision, in a way that we had not previously considered."