Art and education. Learning and teaching. Lore and law. First Nations and migrants. Respected First Nations senior elder Dr Aunty Hope O’Chin sees these as intertwined, a multi-faceted weaving that comes together to create one picture.

Her inclusive vision is communicated in beautiful works of art, with a new collection, Saltwater Dreaming, to be displayed at Caloundra Regional Gallery during the winter months.

For this educator and prolific artist, people’s stories and respect for each other are core to everything from conversation to writing, interaction to recorded history.

“Respect for diversities of First Nations is vital, but then for me, respect for peoples of different cultures and countries is also vital,” she says. “By respecting the differences, we will find that we have more that unites us than divides us.”

A community that accommodates difference and has room for everyone’s knowledge might sound utopian, but Aunty Hope says Australia should aim for nothing less.

“Culture is not static,” she says. “It incorporates all about it, and the culture of First Nations peoples in Australia therefore now also includes the diversity of cultures that have more recently come to this continent from right across the world. Those people brought their knowledge and their ways of learning and teaching and that becomes what is the wider Australian community.”

Always unafraid to approach things her own way, Aunty Hope was taking a multi-pronged approach to her work before it was on trend. Her background in education means she knows that learning can come in audio, visual, hands-on and subliminal forms.

Saltwater Dreaming tells the story of the first surfer – the dolphin – and the board surfers of the waves, and how both co-inhabit on the shores of Aunty Hope’s Country. Throughout the exhibition are visual examples of humans and other species working together to maintain the ecosystems of the Sunshine Coast coastal region.

The exhibition also has a strong children’s component which links to Aunty Hope’s children’s book, Guyu and Mr Pelican, a story of the bond between boy and bird on the shores of the Maroochy River. Always a teacher in everything she does, Aunty Hope has created a hands-on activity to accompany her paintings and recorded an audio of her reading the story aloud.

The works have a theme of cycles and linkages, and some of the works had their genesis in Aunty Hope’s PhD research as well as her display for Horizon Festival 2022.

Gallery director Jo Duke says the exhibition, timed to run across NAIDOC Week, grew from her visit to view Aunty Hope’s dissertation exhibition.

“Having our local stories told by our local people is important,” Jo says. “It is important to be able to make them available for our communities and to facilitate a greater depth of understanding through their art.

“It is something we do regularly, and every NAIDOC Week in particular. We are lucky to have so many prolific Kabi Kabi artists in our region sharing their stories and talent.”

Aunty Hope has had her work displayed in more than 40 exhibitions locally and internationally. She is also an esteemed educator, having gained her first qualification – a teaching diploma – in Townsville in 1981 and a PhD in 2021. She has always straddled both arts and education, and been a teacher as well as a student.

“Education for everyone is a process of teaching and learning, and the cycle of learning and teaching begins when we first open our eyes after birth,” she says. “It is never-ending: the enormity of knowledge and epistemology is influenced by new understanding of different culture and perspectives over time. Everyone makes a contribution to knowledge and has a different perspective to offer.”

Aunty Hope says the First Nations people stand on the shoulders of the giants who went before them.

“We can only continue to grow because of what we inherited – the knowledge we were gifted with,” she says.

“The traditional and contemporary are therefore one, or at least become one bank of knowledge and culture. Everyone automatically participates. We should celebrate that.”

Aunty Hope’s PhD thesis – The Ontology of Hope – established that art and education are hand-in-glove. The findings reflect her lived experience.

“Country informs pedagogy and informs art, which informs pedagogy and art and country. That cyclic representation is endless,” she says.

“Aboriginal people know the cycles and seasons. We know the stories and the lore and for me, being on Country and creating art is about creating something that will inform future generations and be a part of that cycle.

“First Nations peoples like me can do this because my people have thousands of years of uninterrupted connection to Country.

“I want to be able to share with others what I grew up with in my experience of art and education.”

Born into the dormitory systems on the Aboriginal settlement of Cherbourg, Aunty Hope had a career as a senior executive in Queensland education and was a consultant to the Director-General of Education Queensland and the Education Minister.

She is also a creative, having long immersed herself in art and expressed her knowledge of the stories of her Country on canvas and paper.

“I have my dreaming and how that fits with others’ dreaming,” she says. “The dreaming is for us all, Aboriginal and others. We are, after all, just here at a particular time. We are all part of the continuum.

“For people of Kabi Kabi and other First Nations peoples, it is important to draw on existing lore through storytelling to formulate and redefine law – the rules of a society, the ways of being for all in everyday life – so that we can have an interaction of respect.”

The wonders of nature still astound her and the deep knowledge that comes from people living for thousands of years in a place is held reverently. She is still learning and always will be, Aunty Hope says.

But most of all, she wants to share what she has with the world.

“I know this to be true,” she says. “A story shared is a story that lives.”

Dr Hope O’Chin’s Saltwater Dreaming will be on show at the Caloundra Regional Gallery from June 30 to August 13.
NAIDOC Week is held July 2 to 9.