Prelude to the International Teaching Artist Conference in Brisbane, Australia

firefighters

I’m in Australia (my first visit here), a day or two before the second International Teaching Artist Conference convenes in Brisbane July 1st thru 3rd.

I had a lousy flight over, never having been one who handles hours on a plane very well even during the smoothest flight, which this wasn’t.

Landing in Sydney, still queasy and disoriented, I found myself oddly ready to be surprised, to do as Maxine Greene conjured us teaching artists–to “uncouple from the ordinary” by seeing with fresh eyes and listening with new ears.

I welcomed Maxine’s spirit on this journey. Though her body left us recently, she resides powerfully in hundreds, if not thousands, of us in spirit and imagination. 

So I tapped my set of useful teaching artist frameworks in order to focus myself and chose the simplest one to help me get grounded.  What do I see? What do I hear? What does it make me think about? What does it make me feel?

A vignette before the conference begins:

From a well-kept wide dirt path, I’m approaching Guringai Land, now part of Ku-Ring-Gai National Park in Sydney.

It is the site of ancient art carved into the sandstone, telling stories of the land and the Aboriginal people who lived there.

I’m surprised that the first thing I see inside the open space is a circle of people, most of them clad in bright yellow pants and jackets emblazoned “NSW (New South Wales) Rural Fire Service.” They stand respectfully listening to descriptions of the drawings in the rock being given by someone who looks like a park ranger.

My companion and I are invited to join the circle, but we sit nearby and brazenly eavesdrop. Slowly it dawns on me–we’re witnessing a training program for new firefighters. They’re not learning firefighting or rescue techniques; they’re learning the sacred nature of the works of art, the stories embedded in them.

My curiosity gets the better of me, and as the group heads back to the station for lunch, I ask the person acting most like someone in charge why  firefighters are receiving this kind of training.

I learn all the ways fire and firefighting equipment can damage sandstone and destroy the works of art. And more importantly, I learn that there’s a cultural imperative at work: in case of fire in the area, these brave souls will know the meaning of this sacred place and its value to the community, and will give it priority and care as much as they can in the extremity and danger of the moment.

My source adds one more delightful point: gathering around these works of art is also a chance for social connection and bonding among the new firefighting team.

I am moved and thrilled by this. This all seems a fitting pre-conference reminder to me about all the ways that telling our stories through art really matters. 

I’m looking forward to the conference tomorrow–to see, hear, think and feel with teaching artists from around the world. 

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