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People Spotlight: A Personal Essay By Artist, Jane Becker

POSTED

12 Aug 2021

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Written By Jane Becker

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There aren’t many Scenic Workshop Managers who are women. Maybe it’s because workshops are traditionally blokey places, although there’s plenty of scenic artists who are women. There might be something different about a woman running a scenic workshop – I’ve had artists who’ve worked for me tell me there is, and how much they like it. I know I’m as good at my job as any bloke, otherwise the City of Sydney wouldn’t keep employing me to work on the Lord Mayor’s Picnic for New Year’s Eve – that’s been thirteen years now. And Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras probably wouldn’t keep me on their books either. I’ve been working in the Mardi Gras Workshop on and off since 1993.

I didn’t start out in events. I went to art school after doing my HSC, convinced I’d make it as an artist, exhibiting my work. Ha! Then I taught visual art in high school, because every artist just starting out has to earn money somehow. Teaching teenagers taught me invaluable people skills and time management skills – kids are a very tough audience! In the early 1990s, I got involved with a bunch of fellow lesbians in a community art project, held during the Mardi Gras festival, called Word of Mouth. We went down to the Mardi Gras offices at Rushcutters Bay to see if they’d give us some funding – which they did – and I ended up applying for a job as Workshop Manager – which I didn’t get. They gave it to a bloke (with more experience). They did offer me a job as a scenic artist though, and that was the beginning of me and Events.

Photo: Sydney Mardi Gras / Juliette F

I learnt as I went along that making scenic items for events is vastly different from making it for yourself. Work faster! Go bigger! Don’t worry about that, they’ll never see it! The rule in the early 90s at Mardi Gras was “forty feet, in the dark, and out of it” – apparently that was how the audience would view your work at the Parade and Party, so never get too fussy about the detail. But I learnt that some details were important nevertheless, when a sign that I made for the Queer Screen Film Festival got sent back because I’d applied the pink fluorescent paint with a dirty roller and I hadn’t fixed it up…oops. I never made that mistake again.

Mardi Gras back then had a way of turning things upside down, defying workplace expectation, undermining the status quo – and I loved this about our workplace. The boys were mostly on the sewing machines, and there were more women than men on the tools – carpenters, welders, sculptors and painters. After five years of being on the workshop floor, and doing freelance jobs in the seasonal downtime, I got the job I’d gone for in the beginning – Scenic Workshop Manager.

The Mardi Gras Workshop was, and still is, unique in its straddling of two vastly different activities: professional set and float building, and assisting community groups with the design and construction of their parade entries. Sometimes those community groups have amazing skills and experience and just need somewhere (not their living room) to make their Parade entry.  Sometimes they have a wonderful vision, but little design or construction experience – and that’s where I step in. Back then, I loved this part of my job as much as designing and figuring out how to build the Mardi Gras floats and Party scenic. Maybe more – because that’s the only bit I still do now, as Community Workshop Manager. These days the whole Mardi Gras workshop remains extremely diverse, with LGBTQI+ and allied artists working together.

Photo: Sydney New Years’ Eve / Padraig Treanor

Back in 2007, I joined some of my former Mardi Gras colleagues working on New Year’s Eve at the City of Sydney. It wasn’t long until I was heading a small team of artists there as the Scenic Workshop Manager. The role-flipping from Mardi Gras came with me, with many female scenic artists on my team. The whole NYE team was already very diverse – there were lots of women in creative, production, logistics and senior roles. Working with a world class team within a giant bureaucracy was a real eye-opener, and I learnt a lot about all kinds of compliance in the larger events industry.

Overall, I’ve loved my time in events, and have worked with and learnt from some wonderful people who have become and remained close friends. I’ve been lucky enough to work in diverse workplaces that were fully supportive and encouraging of women in non-traditional roles. And my work in events has given me income that I use to support my own practice as an artist. COVID put a temporary halt to that – but bring on 2022!

Headline Image: Gig Nation Australia

Photo: Kimberly Connor 2021

Written by Jane Becker

Jane Becker is an artist who has worked in major events for over 35 years, as well as exhibiting her own work in galleries and large scale public art exhibitions such as Sculpture by the Sea, and Art & About. Jane has also made backdrops and props for fashion designers such as Collette Dinnigan, Peter Alexander, Vogue Australia, and also for film, advertising and TV. She is currently working on a graphic novel.

www.janebecker.com.au

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