In the lead up to National Reconciliation Week (27 May–3 June) and in celebration of the 2022 theme ‘Be Brave. Make Change’, we reached out to Aboriginal artist and early childhood professional, Emma Stenhouse to share part of her journey, experiences and wisdom.
Emma describes herself as Indigenous artisan, Ngarrindjeri woman, artist, weaver, printmaker, designer and sewist. She is taking the first steps on her journey in belonging and becoming connected with her Ngarrindjeri heritage.
As an experienced early childhood educator, Emma imparts her knowledge of culture and the implementation of programming through traditional Indigenous creative practices guided by Gunditjmara Elders. Emma is a gatherer and sharer of knowledge she uses this to guide her own journey.
Throughout this interview, Emma shares her perspectives on what it means to be inspired as an Indigenous artist and advocate ensuring that children—in the context of early learning—have access to Indigenous perspectives within their communities.
ECA: Can you tell us what inspires you as an artist?
Emma Stenhouse: My strong connection to Country and the beauty of nature have always been a huge inspiration for my artwork, nobody does it better than mother nature herself, we live in a beautiful land that is so diverse in nature. I grew up In Broken Hill, which is in the living desert, Far West New South Wales—the colours and landscape was arid, but incredibly rich in colour. I now live by the sea and am finding I am becoming very inspired by the coast, two vastly different landscapes but equally as beautiful.
ECA: How does your experience as an early childhood educator influence your work as an artist?
Emma Stenhouse: I feel extremely fortunate to have spent 14 years in early childhood education, working with children has given me the ability to maintain that childhood inquisitiveness that we often lose as adults. The children I’ve worked with have all had that sense of wonder at the natural environment. I was incredibly lucky to be involved in both Beach Kinder and Bush Kinder programs and enjoyed the time spent in nature exploring the patterns of bark, the shapes of leaves and the colours in the sky. Children are curious and approach nature in a way that reminds me to see the simple beauty in everyday things.
Our excursions as well as exploring our outdoor spaces gave us opportunities to explore so many different art practices, using all sorts of materials. I still find that I mix my colours as I go on a canvas, I’m sure that comes from years of watching my little friends do that same thing at the art easel… there were no mistakes, just exploring and enjoying the process. To this day I find myself lost in the process of painting, adding layer upon layer to create an artwork to tell a story.
ECA: As early childhood educators, how can we support children to learn about Country, First Nations culture, history, identity and perspectives within early childhood through art-based practice?
Emma Stenhouse: Before we can educate children, we must educate ourselves. There are so many pathways to educate ourselves about Indigenous perspectives, perhaps the best way to begin is to engage with local Elders and members of the Indigenous community in your area.
As an example, the Warrnambool City Council where I previously worked has established strong partnerships with Elders and language facilitators. They are highly beneficial in making connections for staff and students, the cultural sharing is relevant to the local area, as well as being able to engage in the history of our culture in broader terms.
Through this process of engagement, I was able to work with the elders personally and receive their guidance on a mural that now lives at the kindergarten—a resource used to continually educate those who visit, it’s used as a storytelling resource with links to the Hopkins River where the children attend Beach Kinder.
There are so many books and resources now as well as guidance from the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF), which has been so heartwarming to see our culture slowly become embedded in the curriculum.
Another fantastic way to engage children with our traditional arts is to invite artists into the service. Hands on learning and sharing offers richness and diversity in the art space. This could even be as simple as inviting any Indigenous families in to share their knowledge or skills, art isn’t just painting—it’s weaving, etching, music, dance.
We would like to thank Emma for her contributions to the ongoing conversation on the importance of reconciliation in the early years. If you would like to read more about her experiences, this article by the ABC showcases part of her journey. More information can be seen on her website here.