Bendigo artist shines light on forgotten women of the goldfields

Bendigo artist shines light on forgotten women of the goldfields

The forgotten stories of women who once lived on the goldfields have been beautifully captured by Bendigo artist Lauren Starr. Her stunning exhibition, ‘Luminaries: Re-imagining women in the Australian goldfields’ was opened by the Deputy Premier of Victoria Jacinta Allan at Mackenzie Quarters in Bendigo on Friday night.

Lauren, an award winning artist who also shares her passion for knowledge as a part-time literacy teacher at Spring Gully Primary School, has breathed life into these obscured narratives. Her intention is to reimagine the Australian landscape of the 1850s, using costume and photography to artistically represent the women who once called it home.

OAK had the privilege of a special preview of the remarkable works created for this series, which has been years in the making, with official production commencing in 2023.

But what exactly are ‘luminaries’? Lauren explains that a luminary signifies something that radiates light, akin to a celestial object. It also denotes a person who inspires and lights the way for others.

"Women living in the Australian gold rush period were such beacons of light, yet there is very little evidence of their existence in our historical records. From artworks to official accounts and historical tellings, they are lost amongst the dust and masculine world of the goldfields," says Lauren.

Lauren's journey to uncover these hidden stories involved extensive research into her own ancestors and historical documents, resulting in a profound connection with the pioneering women of that era.

At the exhibition opening, Lauren expressed her gratitude for the opportunity to shed light on these untold stories.

"We're currently surrounded by the first pieces in my series of Luminaries, which aims to bring to light the Australian women in history. As Jacinta said so well, women are underrepresented in our history, and I found myself longing to know and to connect with the women who came before me."

Each piece in the collection has a compelling backstory, but one that particularly stands out for Lauren is ‘Little Boy Lost’. Lauren shares the touching narrative behind it:

"This story fell upon me like a jewel from the sky. I'd had no real luck finding any stories from my own family as far back as the early goldrush, even though my ancestry searches had indicated that many of my relatives had arrived in Australia. A phone call to a second cousin changed everything. She remembered listening to stories told by her mother and sister (my grandmother). In particular, the story of my great, great grandmother, Mary Ryan, and her nine-year-old son Jack, who'd gone missing in bushland near Colbinabbin. I'd already read some stories about children dying in the bush, so I wasn't optimistic. Jack was missing for two days and was thankfully found by constabulary. I enjoyed his ending to the story immensely, but my favourite part was the legend about Mary's hair. According to the oral family history, Mary was so anguished over the disappearance of her boy that in the time he was missing, her hair turned completely white. I clutched this detail carefully to my chest and saw it in visual form immediately. For me this story was proof that a mother’s love is the same regardless of ear and circumstances. And I have no doubt that my hair would also turn white if I were to lose one of my children."

“This is actually a self-portrait of my little boy, who happens to be nine years old as well. I don't know her (Mary) but I feel connected to her now, having made that artwork."

Ms Allan, who already owns one of Lauren's artworks, emphasised the importance of supporting regional women artists.

"I have this wonderful connection with Lauren and her art, but I also think it's based on the importance of supporting regional women artists in the way we're doing today. So many of you have one, two, three, many jobs, many responsibilities in order to create the art that we are privileged to come along and enjoy in beautiful spaces like this or even have the privilege of having in our own home," says Ms Allan.

She further highlighted the significance of exhibitions like Luminaries in preserving the regional history and giving voice to the lived experiences of women in Bendigo and its surrounding areas.

Ms Allan pointed out that despite two women being the first to discover gold in Bendigo in the early 1850s, their role was only recognised with statues in 2001. She commended Lauren's talents and the creative sector for their role in connecting communities with their history.

Lauren's ambitious plans include expanding her Luminaries series, with the goal of creating a coffee table book filled with her artwork. She aims to explore various characters from different eras such as female convicts, early settlers and individuals from the 20th century, weaving their stories into the rich tapestry of Australian history.

In a world where the stories of women often remain concealed in the annals of history, Lauren’s artistry and dedication breathe life into the shadows of the past, ensuring that these remarkable women shine brightly once more, for all to see and appreciate.

Lauren Starr is an award-winning, Australian artist based in Bendigo, Victoria.

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1 comment

Congratulations Lauren for highlighting past women in our lives. Anna Flood is my great grandmother as I am a two generations of our family, older than you.
Your artwork depicts women’s beauty, joy and
pain in such difficult times. Historians and our misogynistic culture, responsible for their invisibility, has much to answer for. Thank you for breaking open the locked trunk and bringing woman of the gold-rush era to life in your vibrant artwork.

Judith Bongiorno

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