Carving the Stories of the Saltwater People

As a part of my work with the Callala Beach Progress Association (CBPA) I have recently had the privilege to not only meet Indigenous artist, Noel Wellington, but to also sit with him and have a yarn or two or three! We first met when the (now) president of the association (Trevor Smith) asked me along to chat with Noel about his ideas for a piece at the other end of the shared pathway that connects Callala Beach to Myola. A project the association and its members have worked on over the last few years.

Noel had a brilliant idea to place his aquatic and marine life designs onto the pathway seats. His work celebrates the Jerrinja Aboriginal Country who are the Saltwater People of this land and the waterways in this region of Jervis Bay. His artworks demonstrate the cultural diversity, traditions and beliefs of his people. The first piece depicts a pod of dolphins, a strong symbol for the Jerrinja People. They are also the most famous sea mammal that frequents the shores of Callala Beach and why so many come to visit this place.

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Noel meticulously plans, carves and burns his designs into the timber, representing Indigenous tree scarring methods. As he works, many locals and tourists stop for a chat. Noel has been very generous with his time, explaining his artwork as well as sharing many stories about his people. He has been commissioned to do several pieces including eight carved logs at Crookhaven Headland Reserve and two pieces that were acquired by the National Museum of Australia. When Prince Charles and Camilla were invited on a private tour of the museum, Noel’s pieces were selected. Noel himself had the opportunity to chat to Prince Charles about his artwork.

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The second seat carves the story of when his people waited for the bully mullet to make their migratory journey between the estuaries and rivers along the coast. Sometimes the ‘spotter’ would sit, waiting for three weeks, for the run of fish to make their journey up the coast. When the bully mullet arrived the spotter followed the fish, keeping track of their location, until the fishermen in boats netted the catch. Noel says there was always plenty of fish to share.

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The third seat is all about the groundfish such as those found in Currambene Creek. These are fish which typically live on or near the bottom e.g. flathead. It has been amazing, watching and listening to people identifying the fish. Noel’s representations are not only extremely beautiful but very accurate.

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For me, Noel’s artworks are the missing link. The beautiful mosaics that were commissioned (Jill Talbot and Lesley Oliver) at the Callala Beach end of the pathway describe the natural beauty of the area. Along the whole length of the pathway locals and visitors have purchased pavers which are then engraved telling their individual/family’s stories. And so Noel’s carvings tell the story of the original custodians of this land and complete the picture. I can only look forward to seeing the whole pathway and all its yarns. It will be a wonderful asset to the community, to be enjoyed by all that live and visit here.

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In these last few weeks I have taken a journey along this pathway. I have learned so much about the Jerrinja’s connection to this land that we all feel is incredibly special. I have also shared many laughs with Noel and lots of cake! Recently, Noel asked if I could help him record his story. All I can say is what an honour. It is an important story. It will be an account for his daughter and grandchildren. One that tells of the happy times, growing up as a young child in The Mission at Orient Point. One that recounts the tougher times. And most importantly, a story about being an Elder and a Jerrinja man. He is the custodian of the Lore and the law of his community. He is the keeper of knowledge. And that is something that should never be lost. I would like to thank Noel for sharing his stories with me, with all of us.

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