Easton Dunne is an artist and an arts educator living and working on Darumbal Country in Central Queensland. Their new exhibit, Main Drag is visual exploration of the hyper-masculinity and industrial aesthetic of their home town of Rockhampton — the ‘Beef Capital of Australia’.
For our May edition of QNews, I was fortunate enough to get to chat with Easton about subverting meaning, transforming the medium, and reckoning queer trauma through queer joy.
NW: As a fellow creative queer person from Rockhampton, I kind of spent all my teenage years planning my exit strategy from Rocky, so I find it really admirable that you not only chose to pursue your creative avenues there, but you’ve also made it a focal point of your work.
Can you tell me a bit about your reasoning behind that?
ED: Well when I finished high school, I was a little bit similar to you. I had that exit strategy planned out as well.
I studied a Bachelor of Fine Art at Queensland College of Art in Southeast Queensland, so I have had some experiences living in metropolitan areas. Eventually, I ended up studying to be an art teacher because I’d done some residencies in schools and really loved working with young people. And it was only kind of by accident that I ended up back in Rocky as an art teacher in a school.
So I then taught for seven years as an art teacher, while I worked on my art career and built up momentum in it. And seeing young creative people in my classes and around the school generally, I noticed that their experiences have improved in the 10-15 years since I’ve been at school. But they still weren’t great.
It was a really complicated situation, because I was a visibly queer teacher working in a school with religious affiliation. So I was hired with the school knowing that I was queer, but still in that position not protected under the anti-discrimination act. So I think a big part of the motivation for actually leaning into looking at Rocky through a queer lens is wanting to give young people in regional areas a better option than just escaping.
I think we have to work hard to make the community better, I think it’s our responsibility.
Scratching the surface
NW: I was definitely also in that peripheral realm of not really having any queer spaces while I was growing up and I think, like a lot of queer kids in that area, we sort of have to create our own queer niches. My family went to this rodeo every year and I remember always being more fascinated by the rodeo clowns than the bulls because it was just so theatrical. There’s kind of a pageantry to it.
ED: And that’s a huge part of what this exhibition is about! Even though there might not be explicit signifiers of queerness in rural and regional areas, especially with that sort of ridiculous hyper-masculine identity that Rocky claims for itself — The Beef Capital.
NW: It’s camp!
ED: Totally — there’s a thinly veiled layer of homoeroticism anywhere you care to scratch the surface a little bit.
Hypermasculinity to hyperrealism
NW: Main Drag is quite a departure from your previous works, particularly Drawn Together, which explores rural life through a lens of realism, right?
ED: I would say hyperrealism! I think that was really important as a mechanism for legitimization initially. And also for presenting queer relationships through a lens that would be more familiar. So that was really deliberate.
Part of the reason that my work has shifted away from realism is that when I realised that I was transgender and non-binary, I wanted to explore ways of expressing ideas around gender in a non-literal and symbolic mode, so I began experimenting with sculpture using tactile materials like hot pink faux fur.
NW: I can’t help but notice one of the central pieces, the Welcome to Paradise installation. Maybe I’m just being cynical but how much of that is irony?
ED: It’s supposed to be cynical! But I don’t think everyone realises that it’s not a celebration. It’s supposed to make people ask ‘who’s paradise?’ Is it paradise for the First Nations people whose land has been stolen? Paradise for queer and trans people like me who sometimes struggle to access adequate physical and mental health care? It’s a confrontation.
The spiritual tether to Rockhampton
NW: So what is your relationship with Rockhampton like now? I know personally I’m kind of spiritually tethered to that place forever having been born and raised there and with my family still there, but I still really struggle to reconcile that with how hostile it could be at times growing up. Do you have that same kind of love/hate relationship?
ED: My relationship with it is complicated and I think it’s probably really different to yours. For people who are assigned female at birth in rural towns, masculinity can sometimes be seen as an asset.
Being understood through the framework of a tomboy helped me to express gender in a comfortable way as a child. Some of the queer cisgender boys I knew growing up had to work hard to mask any non-conformity in their gender expression because there wasn’t a similar model available to them. It’s a dreadful double standard.
But ultimately my relationship with Rockhampton is inextricably bound up with my own experiences here. It was hard coming of age as a queer person while I was at a Catholic boarding school, but it’s still my experience. And I think there’s always queer joy really close to queer trauma.
Now that I’m not teaching in that school with religious affiliations and I can sort of just fully be myself as I want to, there are so many opportunities for queer and trans joy all the time. And we have the most beautiful trans and gender diverse community in Central Queensland. We meet regularly, we cheer for each other, although you’d probably never know that looking from the outside-in from a Metropolitan location. So yeah, it’s complicated.
NW: It is complicated, but like you said, reckoning queer joy through queer trauma in a rural setting is such a unique and subjective experience that you really can’t understand until you’ve been through it. But hopefully, people visiting your upcoming exhibit, Main Drag, will get a bit of a glimpse into that world.
Easton Dunne’s Main Drag is currently only on exhibit until the 15th of April at Metro Arts, Gallery Two at 97 Boundary St, West End.
To find more of their work, head to eastondunne.com or follow them on Instagram @easton_artist.
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