By ERWIN CHLANDA
Kaye Kessing, whose name has long been synonymous with her illustrative style of art, much of it years in the making and usually in the service of endangered species, “with great regret” is leaving town.
Those ghastly words, so regrettably common in Alice Springs, conclude a story that began in 1971 when Kaye was a “rookie art teacher” at Anzac High, which had 300 children and 30 teachers, and is now slated for demolition to make way for the controversial national Aboriginal art gallery.
Her immensely creative life in The Centre, through images and performance, comes to an end due to physical limitations, making the care of the five acre “mulga woodlands” block on Heenan Road, that she shares with her partner Eleanor Hooke, difficult.
“The on-going battle against the buffel will not end, even though we have it pretty well in control at the moment,” says Kaye.
After her initial teaching stint in Alice, she taught for a year and a half in the Pitjantjatjara Lands town of Amata, went overseas, “as you did,” and returned to work off her remaining SA teaching bond at ASHS – then known as Milner Road high school – under artist and local character Iain Campbell.
“Teaching wasn’t for me,” says Kaye. But producing inspiring visual teaching aids certainly was.
In 1975 she met Bob Kessing and they began a screen printing and sign writing business in Alice Springs – initially spending their last $200 on a box of T-shirts, using brushes Bob had bought from Sydney.
They were working in an old piggery on then Claude Wallace’s farm block between what is now Ragonesi Road and Ross Highway, pretty well an open air venue which after a major clean-up acquired the grand name of Buckingham Piggery.
They supplied T-shirts with local species such as desert peas, hopping mice and bilbies on them to retailers for the tourist trade.
In the years following, the business moved into town and then out onto the Heenan Road block, at times embroiled in the battles by “blockies” to protect their lifestyle.
During those years Kaye says she also became hooked on theatre – the Araluen Arts centre was being built – and began producing and performing in street theatre, most of it revolving around the plight of native animals.
The major theme she has since pursued through her creative life was emerging – with one deviation up to Avon Downs for a school holiday camp with the local School Of The Air students. They wrote and performed a history of music through the ages, putting on a show for parents at the end of the week.
In 1981 the Coles wall mural was designed by Kaye and painted by the Kessings with the help of many locals, including local identities John McGlynn and John Blakeman, as well as school wagging kids who had been watching from across the road, hidden in saltbush on railway land.
Chief Minister Paul Everingham personally put the finishing brush strokes on a desert rose before unveiling the work on November 27, 1981.
The writer had some part in the mural’s creation: I was the chief reporter at the Centralian Advocate and in a comment, evoked the similarity of the new supermarket’s initially bare western wall to Alcatraz prison in San Francisco Bay.
It was replacing what author Jose Petrick, in her book The History of Alice Springs through Landmarks and Street Names, described as “a pleasant residential area … gardens flourished with pink oleander bushes, brilliant mauve bougainvilleas and flourishing citrus trees while grape vines sprawled over fly wire verandahs giving shade”.
Then manager of Coles responded constructively to the criticism, and arranged a swag of companies to provide paint and other supplies– such as seven metres of scaffolding – for the mural project.
The enduring result is an attraction photographed by thousands of tourists.
Kaye’s first theatrical marathon was produced in 1986: a play entitled Snaffled In the Spinifex highlighted the plight of native animals predated on by cats and foxes.
This was written and produced by Kaye and performed by local actors on the Araluen stage before classes of school students and family groups.
Bob and Kaye built a large row of sand dunes made of netting and plaster across the back of the stage from which the native creatures would emerge.
Faye Alexander volunteered for the huge job of the fur-fabric costume making.
In 1989 Kaye embarked on her second major creative marathon, working solidly for a whole year on The Battle for The Spinifex exhibition, 11 canvases, each 1.5 square meters, recounting the history of introduced animals spreading across the arid regions of Australia, including the horrendous effect of feral cats on many species.
The Kessings kitted out a bus to live in, bought a large trailer and took the Battle For The Spinifex around Australia, to all states except WA.
The eleven images are still selling steadily today, she says.
Bob and Kaye separated in 1991, remaining friends and living on now adjoining Heenan Road blocks.
Kaye added to her portfolio work with the production of The Easter Bilby Picture Book, commissioned by Rabbit Free Australia, a group of scientists and property owners in SA and funded by the Department of Environment in Canberra.
Easter Bilby was launched for Easter 1994 to help spread the word about the destructive force of rabbits in Australia.
On the Brink The Board Game was developed by Kaye, sold nationally, and morphed into the travelling quiz show On The Brink On Tour.
The Alice Springs Desert Park interpretive illustrations created by Kaye for the park’s opening are still informing visitors.
Kaye’s most enduring work is likely to be The Bilby’s Ring Trilogy, an epic adventure and immensely broad but down-to-earth account of endangered creatures in major eco systems across Australia.