By Andrea Louise Thomas Photos Yanni
It’s not every day that a writer can conduct an interview by bicycle, but that’s what happened when I interviewed artist, Lizzie Dennis. We were cycling to see the 24 wooden totem poles on the Somers Totem Trail, which covers about 13.5km. Lizzie has produced an illustrated map of the totems, which is being printed on tea towels and sold as a fundraiser for Somers Primary School as they could not hold their annual art fair this year due to COVID.
Lizzie discovered the totems when her daughter Agnes, a student at the school, wanted to do a project about what one could see on a local bushwalk. They came across the totems and became curious about their origins and stories.
Totems are a unique aspect of the Somers landscape. They sprang up in conjunction with the annual Somers Art Fair, the major fundraising event for the local school. One of the most popular aspects of the fair was the totem pole auction. Only a very limited number of totems are created each year for the auction and they have always sold quickly.
Now visitors and locals alike can use the map to find these sculptural works of art situated on properties around town. Some famous artists such as David Larwill and Christabel Wigley have created totems, as well as local artists. There are many totems at the school commemorating their outgoing Year Six students who wanted to leave a lasting legacy.
Ultimately, it was a sense of community that brought Lizzie to the totem trail map idea. She moved to Somers with her husband and children in 2018 and wanted to become part of the community. She grew up in Charlton in country Victoria. There, everyone knew everyone else and there was a real sense of connectedness. Lizzie sees Somers in a similar way.
During the second COVID lockdown, when everyone was missing that sense of connection, and people were stuck at home, Lizzie visited the owners of the totems and asked them if they would like to be part of the trail map project. Every person she spoke with was receptive to the idea.
In her own work as an artist, Lizzie is interested in the ways in which technology and domestic life intersect. She finds that although families occupy the same space, modern technology has disconnected them whether it is television, computers, gaming consoles or personal devices. She conveys both that presence and absence in her art.
“I like to draw the spaces people exist in. I’m intrigued by how we interact in our environment. I like to have story in my work. I like viewers to find the things I’ve hidden,” she says. She is keenly interested in people. In her portraiture, she wants to convey more than just a subject.
Lizzie’s own story is interesting and full of contrasts. She grew up in a tiny town, but moved to the big city to study law and art history at the University of Melbourne. She was working furiously to complete her degree when she had to stop completely. She was in a horrific car crash and broke her neck. After four months in a halo brace, she went back to complete her law degree.
She met her husband to be, Matt, while she was in law school and they started to build a life together. Lizzie worked as a corporate lawyer for ten years but, two years after their daughter was born, she had to stop again and reassess. Life as a wife, mother and full time lawyer was just too much. She took a leave-of-absence and regrouped.
During her leave, she took a drawing class at the Victorian College of the Arts, reconnecting with her lifelong passion for art and drawing. She realised being an artist was a better fit with family life. She then completed a Graduate Certificate in Visual Arts at the VCA. She had her first solo exhibition at The Brunswick Street Gallery in 2016.
Lizzie and Matt never saw urban Melbourne as the place to raise children. She wanted the girls to grow up like she did, surrounded by land and natural beauty. She found a property in Somers and they knew immediately, it was the place for them.
Living on the Peninsula is a dream location for any artist, but Somers has its own unique beauty. It’s also a welcoming town with an artistic footprint. The little local school is a perfect reflection of this. It’s appropriate that sculptural totems are a signal post for Somers. They reflect the many and varied stories of its residents. Come see for yourself.
Totem trail tea towels will be available for purchase through Somers Primary School and selected peninsula specialty stores.
See Lizzie’s work at: lizziedennis.com