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70s Retro – Bello and Beyond exhibition of artworks by Bellingen Shire artist Carolyn Mutch opens on Sunday 30th of June at the The Federal Hotel. The exhibition features drawings of people in the 70s, including Bellingen residents, accompanied by 70s interior, industrial and clothing.

We interviewed Carolyn in the lead up to the exhibition opening to find out more about her inspiration and artistic background…

What inspired you to put together this exhibition? 

I was attracted to a 70s theme because I find 70s interior, industrial and fashion design very visually interesting. With the counterculture movement in the late 60s and 70s there was an abandonment of the conservative, replaced with experimentation and rebellion, and this non-conformity extended into the arts – into design, visual arts, music, and other aspects of culture like literature and film. The use of bold colours was popular and the rise in the use of psychedelics also influenced design.

The other thing that interests me about the 70s is that there was a lot of social change. This began in the 60s of course but continued to grow in the 70s. People organised together and fought for changes to discriminatory laws that affected women, homosexuals and people of different cultural backgrounds which still positively impacts on people’s lives today.

In my exhibition I have included a series of prints of dancers from the Soul Train TV show – a show that celebrated black music. Prior to Soul Train, black people were rarely seen on TV. In my work Wallflowers (tongue in cheek as the people in the artwork are obviously not wallflowers) are two black people with large afros. For African Americans in the 1970s, wearing their hair in it’s natural state was a political act because previously they had tamed their hair to resemble that of white people. My work ‘Carefree Crochets’ speaks to sexual liberation. My work ‘Vivienne Westwood’s’ World’s End’ depicts the shop of the same name that was a focal point of the early London punk rock scene and where Malcolm McLaren managed the sex pistols. Punk music, as well as being a reaction to commercial rock music was a reaction to the rise of neoconservatism in the late 1970s. 

In the 1970s, First Australians increasingly focused on issues such as land rights, sovereignty and self-determination. An early supporter of Aboriginal rights and with a deep respect for Aboriginal art, local resident Diana Wood Conroy travelled to Tiwi Islands in 1974 as an arts advisor to help develop an Aboriginal-owned design studio, Tiwi Designs. She holds friendships with members of the Tiwi community to this day. I have drawn Diana with one of her friends from Tiwi Islands. 

Can you give us a bit of background about some of the locals pictured and life in Bellingen in the 70s? 

I have drawn pictures of members of a group of artist friends who moved to Bellingen before the hippies, many of whom have now achieved national acclaim. Amongst them are local painter, Ted Hillyer, my father and mother-in-law, Joseph Conroy and Diana Wood Conroy, and Diana’s cousin, Tom Carment.

Encouraged by their friend Joseph who was teaching art at Macksville, and wanting a change from city life, Ted Hillyer and his wife Kathy moved from Sydney to Bellingen in 1961. The Hillyers rented a house in Bellingen which at the time was occupied by cows. They chased out the cows and are still living there today. Ted taught painting and pottery in the local area and in many towns in NSW until around ten years ago. Ted primarily paints landscapes and portraits and is heavily influenced by German expressionism. Ted’s work is held in public and private art collections and he is represented by Robin Gibson Art Gallery in Darlinghurst, Sydney.

Joseph Conroy and Ted were close friends from 1956 and studied together at the National Art School in Sydney. Joseph lived in Macksville from 1960 as he received a teaching scholarship to teach art at Macksville High School. He travelled for some years in the late 60s and returned to the Mid North Coast in 1970 with his now wife, Diana Wood Conroy. Joseph and Diana built a house across the road from Ted and Kathy Hillyer. Joseph taught in high schools and later at TAFE colleges in Coffs Harbour, Kempsey and Grafton and is known to many local art students. Joseph, a landscape painter of remarkable talent painted glorious pictures of the local bush often of commanding scale. People who know his work believe he should have gained more recognition, but unfortunately, he was very shy about marketing his art. Sadly, Joseph passed away in 2019.

Now an emeritus professor, Diana Wood Conroy is one of Australia’s most esteemed tapestry artists. Diana lived in Bellingen from 1970 until the late 80s. Diana taught weaving in every small town from Kempsey to Armidale. Diana was entranced by the Bellingen bush and many of her tapestry works from the 70s and 80s depict the local bush in a non-realistic way. Diana’s work is shaped by insights from her ongoing academic interdisciplinary work in art and archaeology. Diana has lived in Wollongong since the late 80s when she took a position at the university there. A major retrospective show of her work which includes her Bellingen art tapestries ‘An Archeology of Woven Tapestry’ is on display at Wollongong City Art Gallery until September 2024.

Diana’s cousin Tom Carment, lived at the Conroy’s house intermittently while Diana was living in Bellingen. He learned painting from Ted, Joseph and Diana and credits them as his teachers. He is now a nationally acclaimed artist who has been a finalist in the Archibald Prize 12 times and in the Wynne Prize eight times and his work is held in national and international collections.

Also in the exhibition is a drawing of the photo of Dorrigo resident, Robert Snowball and his partner at the time, recognisable as the promotional picture for the film Bellingen: The Promised Land.

What do you enjoy about being part of Bellingen’s creative community? 

I have been living in the Bellingen Shire for four and a half years now. So, for a few of those years, COVID limited our activity. But since things have opened up again, it has become obvious that there are just so many creative and talented artists living in the Bellingen Shire and the creative community is really active. There is just so much to do and see! 

What is your background as an artist and what themes and mediums do you work with? 

I studied art at the National Art School and West Wollongong TAFE in the 90s and have been practicing art for just over 20 years. I mostly draw people. I am also a psychologist so I am very interested in people and human psychology more generally. I am primarily inspired by German Expressionism and so I like to depict the subjective nature of my subjects and also the light and dark side of human experience. In terms of mediums, recently I have mostly been working with mixed media. I use a lot of charcoal but lately I have also been using pastel, collage, ink and acrylic. For a number of my larger works in the 70s exhibition I have been experimenting with using an acrylic ground and drawing over it with charcoal because it gives the charcoal some really interesting textures. I venture into print making occasionally because I have a small printing press. 

I use photos as a basis for my drawings. Sometimes I put the final image together from a few photos. I might take the basic image from one photo, then change the t-shirt or the hair style, the background or other parts of the picture.

70s Retro – Bello and Beyond opens on Sunday 30 June, 4pm at the Federal Hotel Bellingen and will be on display for the month of July.

Follow Carolyn’s work on instagram @carolyn_mutch_art 

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