I feel really lucky. It’s like I’ve had a blessed life. I was awarded Scholarships to help me get an education and break out of the cycle of poverty. I experienced the heady camaraderie of political activism in Queensland as a student. I sold my hand-thrown and painted pottery when appreciation for handcrafts was at its peak. I found loving people to teach me Indigenous culture and values. I lived through the counter-culture era of alternative lifestyles and high environmental ideals.
While my children were young we lived out those ideals in an incredibly lush, beautiful region with horses to ride, organic vegetables and fruit on the trees. The Mary River Valley with its subtropical rainforest, creeks and waterfalls inspired my visual art. All these experiences have given me unique philosophy and values that I bring to bear in my workshops, events and artworks.
Zela often describes the timing of her life as “charmed”.
Born in Maryborough, Queensland in 1954, Zela was the eldest of three daughters. Throughout their childhood, Zela and her sisters spent hours at their grandparents home “dressing up” in a sumptuous collection of old silks and satins and inventing “alter-egos” as part of elaborate pretending games that went on from week to week. Zela loved to draw and especially to undertake pencil portraits of friends and family, producing remarkable likenesses from an early age.
Zela went on to prove a gifted student in all subject areas. After bringing in the sought-after “8A’s” for Junior (Year 10) at 15, one of a handful of students from Maryborough Girls State High to win a Commonwealth Scholarship to go to Year 12 in an era when many girls did not.
The next year she was accepted into Brisbane College of Art, where she completed a Diploma in Fine Art in 1977. During these years she was introduced to clay and the mysteries of kiln firing by master potters Carl McConnell and Bob Forster. During those exciting years she embraced radical politics, joining other young idealists in the anarcho-syndicalist Self Management Group. Zela worked at Women’s House, the first women’s Health Centre and refuge in Brisbane
Zela left Brisbane in 1980 to work as a potter on the fledgling Junction Co-op, a group of feminist women who wanted to create an alternative lifestyle on the land. Here she worked not just making pots, but gardening, building sheds, digging and processing clay from the land and building a kiln. Junction Cooperative was an experiment that ended soon after, but Zela, now firmly inspired to garden and eat organic foods, joined another alternative lifestyle cooperative at Wolvi, Coondoo Farm Cooperative, which was to be her home for 17 years.
Here, Zela set out to find out more about the culture of the Australia’s original inhabitants, the Aboriginal people. She made contact with Guboo Ted Thomas’s Renewing the Dreaming movement, and attended camps at the Bunya Mountains and Crystal Waters on the Mary River.
Zela also worked with a passion to complete her pottery studio under the house. Along with her partner, she built a new wood-burning kiln, making and decorating glazed ware to sell at markets and teaching students the art of pottery while he established extensive gardens and orchards. Their home became a Mecca for young people from all over the world through the WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) scheme.
Zela’s works so far have included study units for primary and secondary schools aligned to the Australian curriculum in science and sustainability, short courses for teachers and natural resource management professionals.
Zela returned to painting in acrylics, winning the Mary Valley Landscape Prize in 1990 and 1992, and other awards for drawing and watercolours at the annual Gympie Gold Rush Festival. Her 1993 pottery exhibition at The Potter’s Gallery was favourably reviewed by Courier mail critic, Sue Smith.
“I see my first teaching position as my apprenticeship”
In 1994 Zela enrolled at QUT in 1994 upgrading her Fine Arts Diploma to a Bachelor of Visual Arts during a wonderful year encountering post-modernism for the first time. The next year, with excellent results behind her, Zela was accepted into the one year Graduate Diploma in Education, choosing to specialise in Early Childhood.
After graduating as a teacher at the end of the year, Zela was immediately offered a teaching position in a small Gympie school, where she remained for seven years.
- Doctoral candidate with University of Sunshine Coast researching the life and work of John Sinclair AO, who worked for 48 years from 1971 until his death in February 2019 to protect and preserve K’gari (Fraser Island).
- Master of Environmental Education (Hons), Griffith University, 2010
- Graduate Diploma of Education, QUT, 1995
- Bachelor of Visual Arts Kelvin Grove, QUT, 1994
- Diploma Fine Arts, Seven Hills College of Art, Brisbane, 1977