Jenny Ellis
Wed, November 20, 2013 at 13:19
Stephanie Hunt

 

Gai Newman nominates Jenny Ellis

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The Overcomer

Filmmaker, photographer, painter, teacher, co-founder of WOW Women of the World, mother, grandmother: Jenny Ellis is a woman of many talents.  She’s also not short on dreams.  “I see myself touring and filming in the remote regions of Australia in three black 4WD vehicles,” she tells me.  “One has all my media equipment, the other has the editing equipment and computers, and the third is set up for me and my grandkids.”

The idea of bringing the stories of outback Australia to the world is wonderful, important even.  But it seems a stretch for this 47-year-old Aboriginal woman who is solely responsible for raising four grandchildren under 7, who still cares for a daughter with a mild disability and who currently does most of her photographic and film work on a voluntary basis.

Jenny is undaunted.  “There’s a journey in life,” she explains.  “You can go this way or that, but you’ve got to put yourself in the place where you can be an overcomer.

No question, there has been plenty for Jenny to overcome on her journey thus far.  She started life with few advantages – born in Mungindi in northwestern NSW, she was raised in a tin humpy on the campgrounds at nearby Walgett. Yet she remembers her childhood as a happy time of playing and fishing in the Gomaroi tribal lands and along the banks of the Barwon River.  Although her parents separated, they each bestowed precious gifts upon their ‘daughter-girl’.

Her father, Gerald Ellis, gave her the gift of tolerance.  A part of the stolen generation, he was taken from his home on Toomelah Mission near Bogabilla and grew to manhood in Kinchella Boys’ Home, a place now reknowned for the brutal punishment and sexual abuse suffered by the Aboriginal children in its care.  Yet when a young Jenny raged that she didn’t want to go to school and learn white man’s words, he told her she needed to see the world differently. “People aren’t going to go away,” he told her.  “We need to walk beside each other.

From her mother, Joyce Ellis, came the gifts of culture and art.  “With Mum it was all about how to find different sorts of food, what we could eat, how to identify tracks,” Jenny recalls.  “The night before we’d go hunting, Mum and the Aunties would sit around on kangaroo rugs and tell us a story.  Then she’d make the dirt all nice and smooth and draw in the sand.  I think that’s where my art came from.” 

But it was to be a long journey from those evenings by the fire to a time when Jenny would call herself an artist.  It’s a journey that she doesn’t want to talk much about, other than to say that she lived in an abusive marriage for 21 years.  Seven years ago, after her 3 children had grown and gone, she fled.  “People ask why I came to Coffs and I say because you can’t run any further than the sea,” she tells me.

The Women’s Refuge provided support and a place for Jenny to lick her wounds.  But the start she needed came from her niece, Nena McGradie.  She encouraged Jenny to join her at a course in Media Studies in the Northern Territory, and a new life began.

For the next 2½ years Jenny travelled back and forth between Coffs Harbour and the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education.  She won the Courier Mail Scholarship, which meant that her studies and travel were fully funded.  Jenny had found the road where she could be “an overcomer”.  “We learned how to write, direct, edit, film, take photos…how to put yourself in front of the camera or behind the camera,” she recalls.  “I loved it with a passion.” 

Just as Jenny found her passion in life, family dealt her a surprise.  Six months before Jenny was to finish her Media Studies Diploma her four grandchildren, all under 3, were left in her care.  “I thought my whole world was ending,” Jenny recalls.  Jenny battled with nappies and bottles from her one bedroom apartment and felt closed in.  “I had four kids and I couldn’t do nothing.”

But the kids grew out of the nappies; Housing NSW found her a 4-bedroom home and Jenny discovered unexpected love and joy in her new brood.  “It’s like they needed me, but I needed them too,” she says.  “I needed my grandchildren to come to me when they did.  It was meant to be.”  She may have failed to earn her diploma but Jenny was still on the right road.

It was a chance meeting at a women’s lunch that gave Jenny her first opportunity to see a dream become reality.  She met a woman named Pip Gordon and began talking about a long held vision.  “It was to see different women come together.  To honour and respect different women in different cultures,” Jenny explains. 

The two women decided to act and with the blessing of Aboriginal elder, Auntie Bea Ballangarry, and support from Bea and Kristy Mumford, WOW Women of the World was born.  Now in its fourth year, WOW joins women from many and varied cultures in Coffs Harbour in celebration and ceremony.  “We do a unity dance: all the different cultures dancing together.  It’s unbelieveable.”  Jenny sighs with satisfaction.

Now Jenny is focused on her next dream: bringing remote Australia to life through film and photography.  Although raising her grandchildren paused her media career, the calling remained.  “I feel like I’ve got nothing on if I don’t have my camera,” she says. 

And Jenny’s camera has been active.  Her film for Saltwater Freshwater, chronicling a youth and leadership camp, has been selected to feature on ABC Open.  She is working on a documentary about the WOW Women of the World group.  And she has been invited to produce some educational films for the Community Village.  She also takes photographs at numerous events and teaches art to children with disabilities at the Neighbourhood Centre.  She has been busy.

Up until recently most of Jenny’s work has been voluntary.  Her mother taught her the value and importance of giving.  So when a friend first suggested that Jenny needed to stop giving her work away, her initial response was, “But that’s what I do, I give.  I can’t even walk past them little charity boxes!” But she says the need for camera equipment to feed her love of film and for food to feed her growing tribe of grandchildren has made her see differently.  “Nanna’s gotta get paid now.  My boys are starting to eat to much!”  

And now she is ready to launch her film company, Dughi Yundi Media, and hopes to get those three black vans out filming in remote Australia within two years.  She is convinced that stories from remote Australia must be told.  “It’s your history, your walk and you know what, it’s also your Mum’s walk and your Dad’s walk.”  She says those journeys must be shared with the world.

Jenny’s dream still sounds like a stretch.  But Jenny has put herself in a place where she can be an overcomer.  I, for one, can see her behind the wheel of the lead black van, bumping along the rutted roads of outback Australia and laughing with her grandchildren. 

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Jenny says she has met a long list of interesting people since she arrive in Coffs Harbour, but Pip Gordon, co-founder of WOW Women of the World gets her vote as the most interesting person she knows on the Coffs Coast.  “She’s my sister-girl,” Jenny says.  “She works in a lot of different areas and I connect with her so strong it’s like a firecracker.” 

 

Article originally appeared on The Most Interesting Person I Know (http://themostinterestingpersoniknow.net/).
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