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How Powerhouse Designer, Yuwaalaraay Woman Lucy Simpson Is Making Waves

I have long admired the work of Lucy Simpson and her design studio Gaawaa Miyay (river daughter). Lucy is a Yuwaalaraay woman from northwest New South Wales who lives and works in Sydney. She was the first Aboriginal designer/maker who I saw creating fabrics and homewares in a uniquely South-Eastern style. The colours and motifs in her work echo those of my own Country, my own stories.

I was flying into Sydney for a corporate event and arranged to visit Lucy on my way to the hotel. The plane was delayed and delayed again. It was one of those days at the airport where everything is off-kilter. I arrived two hours late and a little stressed. Dragging my suitcase to the pinned location, I found myself at a mechanics workshop in an industrial area not too far from the Cooks River.

I smelt a bush scent, perhaps a lemon eucalyptus candle, and followed my nose to an entrance around the corner. The day melted away, the noises outside quieted, inside Lucy’s studio the peacefulness of Country has moved in and made itself at home.

Bundles of lomandra dry on rusted iron frames and wooden tools carved by family members are placed so lovingly, everyday shelving exudes the elegance of gallery plinths. A large, framed photo of a nephew wearing a stone tool adornment takes pride of place. My eyes are drawn to a terracotta coolamon and its earthy pink textures. I later learn of Lucy’s relationships with Artedomus and Cotto Manetti for ‘Earth Wirri’- an exchange of design, tradition, and materiality.

We sit at Lucy’s large timber worktable, where she has placed a collection of freshwater mussel shells created for a collaboration with Canberra Glassworks. Light streams through a window and is caught in the textures of the glass. The shells have an ethereal quality.

‘Mussel shells are recorders of time,’ she says. ‘You can read the ridges on the shells. When it was a good season, you see growth. These might be 60 years old. They can grow to be 100.’

Lucy explains; ‘The drought was Country in trauma. At its height I walked the deepest parts of the river and saw hundreds of empty mussel shells clinging to dry riverbanks and empty lakes. I didn’t realise the effect that would have on me as a freshwater woman. We are people of the river, but who are we when there is no river, no lakes? When the springs of our oldest stories no longer flow?

Our word for flood plain is the same as Milky Way (Burrul Warrambool/big watercourse). And we have lots of stories that teach us about the important connection between land and water. When the rivers and lakes overflow, land and sky become one. They create a perfect reflection of one another. These stories are about transition and transfer. They remind us of cycles of life and states of being – of love, family, abundance and connection. That yarn is literally written in the stars and etched upon the land. A story also connected to the specialness of dhanggal (freshwater mussel).

I think of design as a direct conversation with Country. A way to relate and connect. The mussels remember and communicate to us different states of wellness. For me, there was a healing that came through the making of Baayangalibiyaay (with having balance and wellbeing in the natural world), and I have found comfort and strength in remembering and connecting to those old stories.

To make the work we pressed the old shells collected from the riverbed into damp sand, after which hot glass was poured into the impression. The sand used for the casting process was collected from the Shoalhaven River, the eventual site of the exhibition at Bundanon. That place was still recovering, still scarred from local bushfires and flood. So, the combined story is one of fire and water; of Country in trauma from bushfire flood and drought. Similarly, Country also bares the signs of healing through regenerative practice. All those layers embedded and remembered in the glass forms created.

I try to learn something new with every project I do. Glass is a new medium for me, but one which transmits this story beautifully. It’s fluid and fragile. It holds and reflects. The material conversation of the project began at Canberra Glassworks in an effort to recycle old television screens. It’s a thick glass and has an optic property to it that causes it to magnify and play with light. It’s fascinating material.’

Lucy describes her work as both multidisciplinary and conceptual and she says that she likes to think of the designs and objects she creates as tools.

‘The objects are tactile and have a function. Sometimes that function is to share a story. I love it when you can hand a tactile object over, and someone else is able to relate and connect; they then continue to add and weave their own experiences into that story. It creates meaning and adds to that story. Good design does that. First Nations design and material culture is a perfect example of that. Adding value and experience through tactile connections and everyday use.’

Lucy’s design practice is informed and grounded in the philosophies of what she understands First Nations design to be, and she is currently exploring this through her PhD studies.

‘Nothing is ever wasted. Materiality and technique is regional and seasonal. Processes are responsive and methods centre around reciprocity and regeneration. It’s not about individual ownership, and nothing was ever meant to last forever (in the material sense). Objects are created with the wellbeing of Country and relationships at their core. We create from the earth; we return to earth. We continue to learn from the old ones and their principals of kinship, respect, and responsibility today.’

The last 12 months have been a busy time for Lucy, and she is excited to share the news of her latest collaboration with Australian clothing brand JAG on their upcoming Spring/summer collection for 2023.

‘The range centres on the stories and colours of place made by a variety of mark making techniques and design processes for textiles’ Lucy explains. ‘Watercolour and painting, cyanotype and lino prints will record seasons and map the landscape.’

There will be a strong focus on sustainability and material cyclability for the upcoming range. Hero fabrics include 100% European Flax Certified linen and EcoVero viscose.

‘At JAG, we had big yarns about our philosophies’ Lucy continues. ‘We spoke about seasons, of mapping and capturing the essence of place and our connections with it. Designs of country, for country.

Wearing Country and speaking the language of place, brings an awareness; a physical, tangible, living relationship to place and a reminder of the responsibilities we hold.

I’m honoured that I get to share my love of country and story with others through my practice. It’s a great responsibility and one that is incredibly precious. For me, that’s the magic of design.’

The Design Files acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email bea@thedesignfiles.net