Poetic Portraits exhibition to mark the launch of Over 50s Festival

Poetic Portraits participant Leanne Margaret. PICTURES: CATHY RONALDS

By Tyler Wright

For Cathy Ronalds, being a part of this year’s Over 50’s festival was “inspirational”.

The joint project from RMIT University, Yarra Ranges and Yarra Ranges Regional Museum saw the Olinda-based photographer take portraits of 20 writers over 50 to be included in the Poetic Portraits exhibition, set to launch later this month.

“You can only create a portrait as far as the other person is willing to be vulnerable, so it’s this real dance of vulnerability between the subject and the photographer,” Ronalds said.

“It was really inspiring meeting so many different creative people who were writers, but also practice other art mediums, and have so much lived experience.”

Working within the confines of the Lilydale Civic Centre, Ronalds made it her mission to depict her subjects in a way that didn’t simply show “happy ageing people”.

“I didn’t want it to feel like an advertisement for a retirement village,” she said.

“I really wanted there to be some honesty to the portraits, and I wanted each person to feel seen.

“A lot of the participants related a lot to nature, so, it was quite easy to find beautiful trees and leafy backdrops to weave that in.”

Ronalds said each of the writers – who come from suburbs across the Yarra Ranges – all brought a “great sense” of honesty to the shoot, and an ability to articulate what inspires them to write, as well as a strong understanding of their relationship with ageing.

“I was fairly upfront with people about that and just said ‘the more you share with me, the easier it’s going to be for me to create the portrait;’ and they were really honest and shared really personal things with me, some of them,” she said.

“That helped a lot in terms of understanding how to kind of reflect their humanity back in the photographs, and also helped break down those polite barriers to overcome.

“They really jumped in and told me where they’re at in a matter of fact way, and that really helped.”

Yarra Ranges is one of five communities participating in the program this year, after a pilot program in Frankston in 2022 saw the program gain the support of Australia Council for the Arts to engage with five different communities across Victoria in 2023.

Participants applied through an EOI process, with Yarra Ranges Council receiving more than 60 applications for 20 places in the program.

Those who signed up to the project were invited to participate in poetry workshop – led by poet and psychologist Jennifer Harrison – where they would each produce two poems as a way to express and share their experiences in a safe, creative environment.

Poets Jessica L Wilkinson and Cassandra Atherton also helped coordinate the project, with local writer Lorelei Vashti taking on a role as mentee during the process.

The Yarra Ranges Over 50’s Festival is set to run throughout October; offering a diverse range of activities, events, and workshops designed to promote active ageing and foster social connections.

A wide range of activities like: music performances, art exhibitions, bike rides, walking sport events, social events, arts and crafts, history talks will mark the occassion; with a total of 110 events open to the public.

Ronalds said she hopes people can see ageing from another perspective after viewing the Poetic Portraits exhibition, which will launch on Friday 29 September 2023 and run from Mondays to Fridays until Wednesday 31 January 2024.

“Even if it’s just a new perspective that they might not have seen before, I think that would be amazing,” Ronalds said.

“I definitely saw [ageing] from a new perspective by participating and making these portraits of these people.”

To find an event near you during the Over 50s Festival, visit https://www.yarraranges.vic.gov.au/Community/Over-50s/Over-50s-events