Introducing NSW emerging designer Cassie Willis

Image: Cassie Willis. Photo by Cade Buchanan at Better Read Than Dead, Newtown, featuring artwork by Sandy Brumby, Victory Downs, 2015.

Image: Cassie Willis. Photo by Cade Buchanan at Better Read Than Dead, Newtown, featuring artwork by Sandy Brumby, Victory Downs, 2015.

Aboriginal designer Cassie Willis provides insight into her creative practice and discusses her recent mentorship with BoccaLatte.

Can you tell us a little about yourself..(your mob, growing up, inspiration)

I was born in Brewarrina NSW but grew up in the Illawarra. My mother’s family are Yuwaalaraay from Angledool NSW who were forcibly removed to Brewarrina by the Aboriginal Protection Board in 1936. My father was white but he had a black heart. He was an amazing English teacher but sadly passed away 10 years ago and we miss him always! So I had a really stimulating family life that was strongly informed by Aboriginal ideas from our mum always intersecting with the written western tradition from our dad.

How did you first become interested in design?

I have always been creative and for a long time did it just for myself but as I got older – and I think it definitely had something to do with my dad’s passing and realising just how short life really is – I felt compelled to participate more in the world and design is my way of participating more. I finally settled on graphic design and went to the Commercial Arts Training College (CATC) then at the Rocks and had great teachers there who inspired me to try harder. From there, I enrolled at University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in a Visual Communication degree which has been a wonderful transformative experience. Great support from UTS including Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning. I would definitely recommend UTS to any Indigenous students including mature age ones like myself as UTS prides itself on social justice and inclusion and highly values Indigenous people, their knowledge and their culture.

Last year you were mentored by the Sydney-based brand and visual communication studio BoccaLatte. What did that involve and what did you take away from that experience?

I had the opportunity to work on the layout and graphic design of the NSW Aboriginal Arts and Cultural Strategy 2015-2018 booklet and that was an incredible experience. Suzanne and the BoccaLatte team are so fantastic – it was a privilege to be given such an opportunity from Arts NSW. I was scared about taking on the project but had wonderful support from Sharni Jones at Arts NSW and Suzanne Boccalatte. They encouraged me to get over myself and keep going. I think that’s the major lesson I took from it about showing up, being brave, trying hard even when it feels overwhelming. Also hoping that good people will be there to help support you while you learn and grow as, let’s face it, learning and growing usually involves a bit of pain and struggle!

How has your Aboriginal culture informed and inspired your design work/career?

It is such a special part of who I am and I am always evolving and learning more about our culture. In terms of how it impacts my work, when I was at CATC I realised I didn’t just want to make pretty packaging or cool posters or book covers if they were only being used to maintain the status quo and value western culture over other cultures. I enjoy working on projects especially when they value and express Aboriginal art and culture. Another reason why the BoccaLatte opportunity to work on a graphic design project specifically about Aboriginal arts and culture was so rewarding.

Tell us about the people in the Aboriginal arts and cultural community that inspire you?

There are so many people to name all of them. Just thinking back over the last few weeks people who have inspired me are Rhoda Roberts, Jonathan Jones, a fantastic panel of Indigenous women in the Arts I saw during Vivid at Verge Gallery including artists like Amala Groom and Nicole Monks, Sharni Jones from Arts NSW, Kirsten Thorpe from State Library, Julie Shaw from Mayrah, Bangarra, Hot Brown Honey at Sydney Opera House. People from UTS:  Elder-in-Residence Aunty Joan Tranter,  Michael McDaniel, Larissa Behrendt, Jumbunna Research & student support teams, Equity & Diversity team. My own extended family and last, but not least, my mum! She works at Lake Illawarra High School as an Aboriginal Education Assistant always working with the students to include Aboriginal arts and culture as much as they possibly can. They recently performed a song about a Dreaming story from the Illawarra at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre as part of Reconciliation Week which was a very special experience for the students and my mum.

If you could undertake another professional development opportunity, what would it be and why?

At the moment I’m just throwing myself into whatever comes my way but I also work full-time at the Equity & Diversity Unit at UTS as an Administration Officer with a great team of people I love. I definitely would like more time to do more research about how we can re-read and then visually re-represent our history as we have had a lot of visual stories told about us. So I would like an opportunity to reimagine and join with others to keep telling new visual stories and re-telling old visual stories using illustration, photography including old photos, mapping, and other graphic design tools and technology.

Creating career pathways for Aboriginal artists and cultural workers is a key focus of Stage Two of the NSW Aboriginal Arts and Cultural Strategy. Do you have any advice for emerging Aboriginal artists and cultural practitioners who are just starting out or are wanting to break into the industry?

Show up, be brave, try hard even if it feels overwhelming and have faith that good people will be there to help support you while you learn and grow. Connect with Aboriginal art and culture as much as you can, keeping in mind that it is not a static thing frozen in time two hundred years ago, it is happening now.  Just be brave and participate, even if it doesn’t work out the way you thought it should, you will learn something to take you to the next thing. Life can be tough but it’s also too precious to hold yourself back from living and embracing it!


Arts NSW commissioned Cassie to design the artwork for the 2016 NAIDOC Week eNews. You can find out more about the special Songlines commission here.

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