The first time I saw the work of Dulcie Sharp and the other artists of the Yarrenyty Arltere Art Centre was at the Tarnanthi Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art in Adelaide in October last year. Their soft sculptures and hand embroidery jumped out at me. I immediately felt a connection. It is as if every figure had a soul.
I spoke to some of the artists at the Adelaide event but did not have the opportunity for an in-depth conversation. While working on an article about the artists for Inspirations Magazine (Issue 91- available in July 2016) I communicated with Sophie Wallace, art coordinator at the centre via email and phone, but I longed to see how and where the artists work and to experience the place that inspires them so much. When our family holiday plans to Central Australia came together, I made sure a visit to the Yarrenyty Arltere Art Centre was on the itinerary.
My visit on a perfect autumn day in April could not have happened at a better time! I arrived at the centre on the outskirts of Alice Springs just as a blanket was pulled out of the dye vat. Wool blankets obtained from second-hand shops or donations form the basis for all the soft sculptures. Opening up a newly dyed blanket bundle has everyone in suspense. The rusted metal pieces and the natural plant dyes used in the process ensure that the final product is always an eagerly awaited surprise. This one had subtle green and charcoal patterns which would eventually find their way into another unique artwork.
I was fortunate to see the whole artistic process in action. From the newly dyed blankets all the way to the finished sculpture. The artists come up with concepts for their work, usually inspired by their everyday life in the town camps, or their vivid imaginations.
These concepts are sketched out and developed before being translated into pattern pieces. The figures are cut from the blankets, machine stitched and stuffed before it is meticulously filled in with hand embroidery. The story behind each piece dictates the pattern and the colours used for the embellishments.
All the work is done at the art centre where the artists come together around a big table piled with yarn and thread in every conceivable colour, texture and thickness. Works in progress and new ideas scribbled on sketchpads find a space on there too. On the day of my visit, I met Rosabella Ryder, Dulcie Sharpe, and Trudy Inkamala. Candy the art centre’s mascot dog kept watch under the table, making sure everyone was happy and safe.
The soft sculptures coming from the hands of these artists, working quietly in this far-flung and remote part of the world, are in high demand in galleries from New York to Singapore. But here around the table, that does not matter. What matters are the stories that are coming to life, stitch by colourful stitch.
Seeing where these sculptures are conceived, I now understand where their soul comes from. It comes from the hearts and lives of these women who tell their stories with their hands. Needle and thread translate the soul of the Larapinta Town Camp in Alice Springs into artworks worthy of the best art collections in the world.