Words and Portrait by Jamie Preisz
Truthful, brutal, hilarious.
Strolling into my favourite cafe to find an unusually long line for takeaway coffee, I ordered and sat down at a nearby table to wait for the backlog of caffeine to be delivered. I assessed the pile of print media to my right for something readable to distract me from monolithic gym bros exchanging protein tips on the table beside me. Things looked grim. Nothing but flyers for theatre shows I would never attend and local music rags rendered illegible with coffee and hollandaise. As I resigned myself to boredom I spotted an A3 newsprint zine. The cover was an enticing union of Australiana and church-style stained-glass window motifs inked in bold black and white lines, with the title “A Year in a Shit Country Town” nestled amongst native flora and fauna.
Opening to the first page I was met with a short story middle of the page:
“The Passiona of the Chris”—Chris was sick and tired of her fizzy drinks getting too fizzy after her mobility scooter kept hitting tree roots on the way back from IGA. Late one night Chris took matters into her own hands and just poisoned the fuckin trees, like a legend.
Beside this darkly funny tale, sat this masterpiece:
I furiously devoured the dark and delightful intestines of this comic, searching frantically for the author’s name. Arielle Gamble’s signature was hidden away on the back page.
Arielle was born in country NSW to parents Kim and Bella. Kim Gamble you may know as the much-loved Australian illustrator of the Tashi books.
“I grew up in a mudbrick house out in the bush with artists for parents and wallabies for friends,” Arielle tells me. “The land has always been integral to how I understand my place in the world, and ideas of land and identity are themes I’ve always gravitated to.”
Arielle finished school in 2003 and tried to rebel against her parents by studying law, which didn’t stick. She went on to study design at UTS and soon got a job at Penguin in 2009. She moved her life to London in 2013, working for various book publishers as well as doing some freelance illustration.
By all accounts, life was pretty good. But come 2015, that all changed.
“I got a phone call from my dad telling me he’d found out he had late stage cancer and didn’t have long left,” says Arielle. “So I packed up life in London and a week later was out in this dust-blown town with him and my sister. The prognosis was three months.”
Arielle’s dad lived for another nine months while she and her sister cared for him.
Arielle began making her dark homage to her rural return a few months after she arrived home, sparked by an unpleasant experience peeling the skin off a dying sheep that was riddled with fly strike (a disease caused by the maggots of the green bottle fly eating the sheep alive).
Arielle began her first illustration for the zine with the powerful words: “Julie can go fuck herself”—a reflection of her frustration at the sheep’s owner neglecting vaccination, leaving the animal to its morbid fate.
“The zine was part catharsis—a way of processing it all through the isolation—and partly just wanting to document how wild some of these stories from around town were too,” she says.
There is a sense of objectivity in this project, an undeniable understanding and perspective of how surreal and ridiculous the human condition is, magnified by its rural setting.
“Dad had a great gift for befriending outsiders,” Arielle continues, “there were always lots of interesting characters coming through our doors; all these people living out epic lives under those big skies. I fell back in love with our country, the familiarity and strangeness and Australianness of it all—sometimes ugly and sometimes beautiful, often both, and the stories in the zine form a bit of a dark love letter to the region.”
With the death of a loved one sitting unsettlingly close on the horizon, it would be safe to say that there were no prisoners taken in the zine, and definitely no fucks given.
“It was a pretty tough year, facing issues from the past and death in the future, as well as the daily realities of caring for somebody so unwell,” Arielle tells me. “A lot crystallised and my capacity for bullshit fell by the wayside. The zine’s rather blunt style echoes that I think, it became a bit of an exercise in pulling monsters out of the closet and using humour to cut through the fear.”
Arielle’s dad passed away on the 19th of February 2016. She took the next few months to finish off the zine and get it printed.
“It became a point of focus, a way of navigating grief in those early days, through the sleeplessness and the under-water-ness of it all. I suppose the finiteness of this whole thing is no longer just an abstraction. It’s made me hold myself to account, question my intentions and the value of my output. I want to spend my time here well.”
Arielle is already making moves towards that. Having moved back to Sydney, she now calls Potts Point home and has an exciting new project in the works.
“All We Can’t See is a project I’ve begun with Daniel New, my old art director at Penguin. We’ve been commissioning artists to illustrate the Nauru Files, and we’ve already got some amazing artists on board, as well as the backing of Human Rights Watch and The Guardian. We’ll showcase them online and in an exhibition next year. It’s a bit daunting but I feel excited by it and we’re looking forward to launching the project soon.”
In a time where there is less focus on the journey and more attention on the outcome for the careers of creative people, it’s more important than ever to give recognition to honesty in art. Arielle has a frank and direct approach to the subjects she works through, it’s not always pretty or easy, but it’s sincere.
You can get the zine and see more of her work here.