Celebrating the art of restless contrarian Connee

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Connee working on the facade of the old Queanbeyan Hospital.

EVERYONE in Queanbeyan of a certain age knows Connee-Colleen Cameron. 

She’s one of the town’s genuinely larger-than-life characters and most locals will be surprised to learn that she has a surname, knowing her simply as “Connee”, part of the Queanbeyan community for decades as an artist, activist, agitator, archivist, and a notoriously strident champion of Queanbeyan’s cultural history.

Now in an art-meets-history show at The Queanbeyan Hive in October, the improbably retired Connee-Colleen will be the subject of an exhibition featuring sculpted portraits of real-life local subjects, her drawings, sketches, plans and records of her long artistic career.

A collaboration between Connee-Colleen’s family, Create Collaborate Collective, Rotary Club of Jerrabomberra and The Queanbeyan Hive, the show celebrates her relentless battles to save Queanbeyan’s unique character in the face of chic modernity.

Connee once saved ‘2500 bricks and moulds of a frontispiece on the façade of the 1933 Queanbeyan District Hospital building before it was demolished.’

The Hive doesn’t beat about the bush, describing Connee’s methods as “sometimes slightly mad”, but adding, “They also often worked. She saved buildings. She badgered the Premier to let John Gale’s statue stand. She stood up for her town. She led rebel heritage walks.”

I have sat on arts committees with Connee and seen her ejected from council meetings for her rowdy, passionate interjections as she sought to save some of Queanbeyan’s most historic buildings, even a modest cottage in Surveyor Street, from oblivion.

A contrarian by nature, she used her fondness for a good fight to advance the community she lived in, once saving 2500 bricks and moulds of a frontispiece on the façade of the 1933 Queanbeyan District Hospital building before it was demolished. 

Many people may not have been aware that she was a professionally trained artist, having, as a single mum, put herself through masters in sculpture at the ANU School of Art. 

The central feature of the exhibit will be 15 large sculptures in bronze and concrete fondant, where she used local subjects. Two life-sized statues standing side by side in the exhibition are of John Smith and Dorothy Noone, both George Forbes House residents in the 1980s.

Owner/curator of the Hive, Helen Ferguson, hopes the exhibition will attract visitors who can help fill in details about Connee’s subjects, such as Smith, Noone, Harold Gibb, Mary Mimi Culshaw, Aileen Brown, Kay Milly and Bronwyn Nader.

Connee-Colleen’s “Man ‘N Hat”, “John Smith”, 1984, foreground.

The show will also feature tiny busts and models in bronze and wax of real-life people, preparatory sketches, historical artefacts, a photo showing a maquette of Peter Corlett’s John Gale sculpture, and artworks by present day George Forbes House residents and Koomarri participants.

The works mostly come from two exhibitions Connee did in the 1980s, “A Time And A Place” with George Forbes House residents, and “Different Ways of Seeing” with Koomarri participants.

Ferguson says many of the works were moved professionally to the Hive where they have been cleaned.

“This show rescues these pieces for posterity and the question next would be where they end up.

“They’re not for sale in this show,” he says, “but there are ideas that council should put some of them in public places.”

“Connee Colleen: Queanbeyan Character” at The Queanbeyan Hive, 274 Crawford Street, Queanbeyan. From Sunday, October 25 until Sunday, November 1. Free but timed bookings essential via Humanitix.

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Helen Musa
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