When visiting Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island, Queensland) earlier this year, I saw a mermaid.
Suspended from the ceiling in Delvene Cockatoo Collins’ little shop, Warrajamba the mermaid appears as though she is gliding through the ocean. Her body is crafted from a found piece of washed up timber, and her tail is covered in carefully prepared Quampie shells – a traditional food source of the Quandamooka people.
Delvene is a Quandamooka woman and artist who lives on Minjerribah, where art making is part of her daily routine. Much of Delvene’s art practice is informed by knowledge from her mum (such as the story of Warrajamba Mermaid), or stories from her grandma, as well as the spectacular oceanside environment she lives in where generations of her ancestors have called home.
Based in a studio and retail store in Goompi, Dunwich, Delvene produces screen printed homewares, ceramics, stationary, and garments that tell the stories of her family’s lived experience on the Island. Every season yields different materials – like ochre, tawalpin (the Jandai name for native beach hibiscus), and yungair, a fresh water reed – which Delvene collects and prepares to use in her original artworks and commissions.
For Delvene, art making is a way to remember the past, and also connect in the present, and the environment of Minjerribah is central to that.
Can you tell me a little about your creative journey so far, and how you came to be involved in art making?
My memories with Mum spending a lot of time with us at the beach, with our family, sewing (she made me learn to sew my own clothing around 12 years old), walking with Mum and my Nan to go get flowers, has all led to knowing and understanding the value of family, connection. All of which I continue to draw upon in my making.
My first art making was in the ’90s, when I was at uni and working at Queensland Aboriginal Creations in George Street in Brisbane. It was a privilege to be around cultural artefacts and high quality merchandise from all over Queensland. I look at some of those early makers who were ground breakers in that space of taking cultural items into a retail/merchandise space. I feel that experience in the QAC store influenced me in the way I present my work.
Some of my earlier works I made were with the quampie shell – a traditional food source – into jewellery items. One of those pieces were a finalist in the Arts QLD Memento Merchandise Awards in 2002. I still work with this shell.
What kind of materials do you use in your artwork?
I work in a number of mediums including locally sourced materials throughout Quandamooka country like ochre, shells, fibres including the tawalpin – beach hibiscus and yungair – a fresh water reed. Some of these sources should only be gathered at certain times of the year – that knowledge has come from my Mum and also experimenting through those different seasons. These natural materials are usually for my original works or sculptural pieces.
In my screenprinted work, including homewares and a limited run of my tops, I source the materials commercially. It’s always great to leave the island and visit my favourite stores in Brisbane – Oxlades in the Valley and Art Shed at West End.
Are there any recurring themes present in your work?
Recurring themes are moments with Mum (including walking for flowers, waiting for Migaloo), my grandmothers words (some of which were written in 1974, and speak of ‘mat making and basket making as our grannies did’), and our beautiful natural environment on the island.
A lot of people who come here speak of the peace they feel when they arrive and have said they feel that comes through in the aesthetic of my work. There is a parallel between this special place and my work.
Can you explain a little of your art making process?
With harvesting some of the fibres, I usually do most of that on site where the beach hibiscus is, and then take home to process and soak. For all the ochres, I usually go walking or visit other islands around Quandamooka to source a range of colours and textures. I then bring them back to my studio to work on. Sometimes this ochre is crushed and mixed with a print making adhesive to use with work on paper.
My studio is underneath my home, which used to be one of the staff quarters for the benevolent asylum. The studio came about during the first few weeks of COVID when I needed a more private space to work in. So we did a bit of work to enable me to print from home instead of the shop setting. We have a lot of work to do in the house and yard to get it to where I would like it to be.
The techniques I use is a mat making technique with the yungair fresh water reed, twine and basket making with the tawalpin – beach hibiscus and screen printing on fabrics which is all done in my studio.
Can you describe what it’s like to live on Minjerribah?
This is home for me. I always had a sense of missing something when I lived away. There was always an intention to move back and stay. The intention to ensure my children have a strong relationship with their family and this place. For them to understand this place – how it shifts throughout the seasons – the sounds of lorikeets – especially right now in autumn, the smell and sounds of the freshwater flowing from the sandhills out to the saltwater.
There is a real sense of community here and I’m grateful to have returned here 10 years ago with my family, so that my children could have most of their growing up here on the Island. I love how they could ride around on their bikes and scooters and I never had to worry about them. There are always people they know around.
When did you make the move to your shop?
I moved into my current shop coming up 6 years in August. There was a brief time I moved out and set up a shared larger space and realised my preference was to work independently and alone for most of the time. So I went back to my little shop – also during COVID. This store (an old haberdashery) is open most mornings, and I have a selection of my handprinted homewares, linen tops, small sculptural items, and a licensed stationery range. A lot of people who visit my store are return visitors to the island. It’s really nice to see and develop those relationships.
What does art making mean to you – why is it important, and what do you hope to communicate?
Art making is very important to me. It is part of my daily routine, part of who I am. Over time, it has helped me make sense of several traditional stories like ‘Warrajamba – a mermaid in the bay’, to commemorate those moments I share with my Mum, to honour my family history and this place. With people responding so positively, I see how important this also is to them – that it’s local, it’s handprinted and they’ve heard the story from the person who has made the work.
My work and store creates a place for exchange, and relationship building. I feel grateful every time I unlock the door and put the signs out. And also grateful that people take their time to step into my store. Time is so precious.
Delvene will be hosting walking tours and workshops that will be publicly available on her website from May 17th 2021.
Delvene Cockatoo Collins
7 Stradbroke Place
Dunwich, North Stradbroke Island