“Art is just fantastic for connecting people and for helping with the process of reconciliation.”
Brooke Sutton has first-hand experience of the power of art — the first major artwork the Kepnock Girls Academy student completed, with big sister Chern’ee, was all about breaking down barriers and building connections.
“I painted a wall at Hinkler Central (shopping centre) with police and kids at risk and I spent around six weeks every day after school working on it,” she says. “Having people all work together on one beautiful piece, everyone can be proud of it. It’s their heart and soul that goes into that piece, and it reconciles everyone who worked on it.”
It was a no less powerful experience working with police and students from Wadja Wadja High School, in Woorabinda, two years later. “Chern’ee and I created two massive paintings that were then turned into vinyl wraps and put on police cars,” she says. “That was used to encourage kids to not throw rocks at the police. And for them to have worked with the police like that, it sort of made the connection with them, so they had that level of respect that they didn’t have before.”
As she shares the story of the pride one of the young boys felt as he talked about the project with local media, you could be forgiven for thinking Brooke has long since left school. The Year 11 student has the kind of level-headed self-assurance of someone much older than 16. It’s no doubt helped to have a wonderfully supportive family, with her accomplished sister Chern’ee also paving the way in the art world.
“I’ll never in my life be able to express how grateful I am to her,” Brooke says. “She’s opened so many doors for me and she’s introduced me to so many contacts and she’s taught me so much stuff that’s just priceless. She’s just the best person that I could ever think of to help me with my career.”
It’s a career that recently received another boost when Brooke won the Nestlé AYDP art award. Held to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Nestlé’s partnership with Girls Academy, the competition called for entries from Girls Academies around the country in the theme Good Food, Good Life. Her stunning piece will hang in Nestlé’s head office in Sydney, feature on the AYDP brand and in the company’s first Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP).
Brooke, who has been painting since she could walk, has grown up in a home where creativity is encouraged. All her siblings, including the youngest, seven-year-old Jaide, are dab hands with a paintbrush.
“Both my parents are really creative people, Dad’s a chef by trade and he’s always been fancy and creative with the food he makes. And my mum has just always been artsy; she’s always loves making things with her hands and she’s always encouraged us to make our own cards and express ourselves through our art. “
Brooke remembers the feeling of pure joy the first time her art was recognised, at the Bundaberg Show. “I was six I think. I loved all of the attention I got from that, I was just so happy,” she recalls.
“And then just afterwards I started seeing Chern’ee cause she started picking up her painting career and she was travelling here, there and everywhere, going to all these fancy and important events and all these really cool places. I’d ask her, ‘can I hide in your suitcase, can I come too?’
“And she was like, ‘oh no, you have to work for it, you have to be an artist, too so you can do that’, so I decided that’s what I wanted to do. She always encouraged me to work hard and be the best person I can be.”
It’s the kind of support Brooke says she has also found at Kepnock Girls Academy.
“Since the very first day I started it’s helped me so much. They’ve encouraged me to move out of my comfort zone,” she says. “They’ve helped me set up exhibitions at NAIDOC events, they put me forward for the Nestlé competition … I cannot thank them enough for how much they’ve helped me.”
Brooke says she’s also loved the sense of community in the Academy, with the girls supporting and encouraging each other to be the best they can be.
“I do feel a responsibility to set an example for the younger grades and to show them they can do whatever they want and they can be great, especially through art,” she says. “We’re always encouraged at Girls Academy to express ourselves through our art.”
For Brooke, however, it’s more than just an expression. It’s her life. She’ll change as soon as she comes home from school and will often paint until it’s time to go to bed, whether it’s a piece she’s dreaming up from the world around her, or one of an increasing number of commissions coming her way. During the school holidays, while other teenagers were busy socialising, Brooke was working on her latest commissions — a sea eagle and a large kangaroo.
“I enjoy painting people’s stories for them. I really enjoy it when they tell me what they want and I can turn that into a piece of art and then seeing and hearing their reactions after they’ve seen it, that’s the best part,” she says.
Both she and Chern’ee are inspired by their people, the Kalkadoon people from Mt Isa. “it’s a very beautiful place and we both get a lot of inspiration from there. It’s the colours, the textures, it’s the animals, it’s the spiritual connection with the land, it’s just everything.”
While she might not live in Mt Isa and doesn’t get there as often as she might like, there’s plenty of inspiration around her in Bundaberg, including just outside the front door. “We live half an hour out of town, so we’re always surrounded by bush and native animals and plants, and we’re also only a really short drive from the beach, so we get a lot of inspiration from that.”
There is no question that Brooke will continue on her artistic pathway when she graduates Kepnock High School next year. Her future is etched in the hundreds of canvasses she’s created. “It’s definitely the career I want to pursue, it’s my passion and there’s nothing better than doing a job that you love for the rest of your life,” she says.
As for the younger girls coming up behind her, Brooke has a simple message for them to forge their own paths.
“Believe in yourself. It doesn’t really matter what other people say, so long as you believe you can do it, you can do it,” she says. “And just no matter how many times you get knocked down, you just get back up and fight harder. There will always be people who are there to support you and there will always be people who aren’t — it doesn’t matter about those who aren’t, so long as you have those who are fighting with you and for you.”