I became a bit of a voyeur; the lives I saw out there were so epic and fascinating, says Arielle Gamble. (Supplied: Greer Gamble)
A few weeks after Arielle Gamble had arrived back in the country New South Wales town where she grew up, she found herself kneeling beside one of her neighbour’s sheep, which had isolated itself from the others in Gamble’s paddock.
The neighbour, Julie, had ignored Gamble’s warnings in the lead-up to summer to take precautions to prevent parasites and as a result, the sheep had a bad case of flystrike — a condition in which maggots, laid on a sheep’s skin by blowflies, essentially eat it alive.
“My sister and I went to shear the wool,” Gamble, 31, explains. “But when we lifted it up, it all lifted off, and the sheep’s back was open, and there were hundreds of thousands of maggots.
“It was like something out of a war zone.”
Incensed by Julie’s negligence, the girls proceeded to scoop out the maggots by hand, douse the sheep in Dettol and antibiotics and clean up — all before Julie wandered over, seemingly oblivious to the trauma they’d just endured.
But as much as she wanted to let rip, Gamble instead offered her neighbour a cold drink.
“Country town hospitality dictates that, after this is all done, we give Julie a glass of orange juice and sit inside with her and have a polite chat,” Gamble says.
“I was so angry, but I had to have a glass of f**king orange juice with this woman!”
Sadly, the sheep died two days later
The sheep incident ended up inspiring the first in a series of blunt comics Gamble sketched up and compiled into a newspaper-style zine she called A Year In A Shit Country Town — a kind of visual journal of the time she spent in her home town*, observing its quirky characters and caring for her father after he was diagnosed with late-stage liver and oesophageal cancer.
“Julie can go f**k herself,” she wrote alongside an illustration of the sheep (which sadly died two days later), framed in a stained glass church window.
‘Local piece of work Julie neglected to vaccinate her sheep’.
(Supplied: Arielle Gamble)
Gamble was living in London, working as a designer for a handful of book publishers, when she got the call in 2015 to say her father — children’s book illustrator, Kim Gamble — had been given just three months to live.
A week later, she joined her younger sister by his side, where she stayed until he died in February 2016.
And so, on anxious, sleepless nights, Gamble drew to pass the time.
But she was also compelled to document — with brutal honesty — the goings-on of a place brimming with cracking yarns: some bright and wickedly funny, though many bleak.
“There was so much colour in that dark year, so many funny things, and I just wanted to express that,” Gamble says.
“I became a bit of a voyeur … the lives that I saw out there were so epic and fascinating — people were living in these really original ways.”
‘I’ll never be able to paint a sky like my dad’
Indeed, on page two, Gamble brings to life the story of Chris, a local problem-solver who was, we’re told, “sick and tired of her fizzy drinks getting too fizzy” (she kept hitting tree roots as she rode home from the supermarket on her mobility scooter).
And so, “Late one night Chris took matters into her own hands and just poisoned the f**kin’ trees, like a legend”.
The cover of Gamble’s zine (left) and her ‘The Passiona of Chris’ comic.
(Supplied: Arielle Gamble)
Further in is an image of a man browsing through a rack of shirts at St Vincent de Paul, a tear streaming down his cheek.
“Fresh out of lockup,” the caption reads, “Stingray searches for an ensemble that says, ‘Daddy still loves you’.”
And buried in the “classifieds” on the back page is a beautiful obituary for Gamble’s dad, who “died at home, surrounded by family”.
“He loved this town,” it says, “its shades of light, quiet goings-on and room to paint and reflect”.
Does Gamble, who now lives in Sydney’s Potts Point, share her dad’s fondness for life in the sticks?
“I think I inherited some of it, yeah,” she says. “At times I felt so isolated and trapped, but I really love it and go back there relatively often.
“I felt like he was so prolific,” she adds of her dad, who also lost his father — as well as his best friend — when he was Gamble’s age.
“He was an incredible painter and illustrator, an incredible journal-keeper and writer. I’ll never be able be able to paint a sky the way he did. He was just, like, a poet with light.
“He said, ‘The artist’s role is humble recordings of the daily goings-on’. And I think that’s such a nice philosophy.”
‘The most f**ked-up story book of our time’
In fact, she’s always been charmed by rural Australia.
While studying design at the University of Technology in Sydney in 2009, Gamble journeyed around Australia with a friend, collecting stories about people’s relationships with the land for her major work.
“I really feel a responsibility to tell the Australian narrative,” she says — to share the voices of people, especially in country towns like hers, that are so often overlooked by city-based media.
A drawing by child in detention on Nauru shows an asylum seeker behind bars contrasted by smiling Australians. (Supplied)
And, as it turns out, the voices of asylum seekers being held in Australia’s offshore detention centres.
Gamble is currently commissioning Australian artists to illustrate each of the Nauru Files — documents published by Guardian Australia that detail the mistreatment and trauma suffered by refugees on the Pacific island. The project, called All We Can’t See, will culminate in an art exhibition next year.
“I’d been so upset by these files,” she says. “And having worked in books, I just thought, ‘These should be illustrated’. This is the most f**ked-up story book of our time.
“The idea is that there’s no media access to [Nauru], so there are no images. We want to change the conversation from political to personal and I think art can be a powerful tool for that.”
‘It’s just a zine—there’s a nice humbleness to it’
It seems strange, then, that she’s never put much effort in to distributing A Year In A Shit Country Town.
She had 1,000 copies printed (the minimum run), and took it to a zine fair at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as a couple of local markets.
And without her knowing, a friend dropped a few copies at a cafe in Newtown, where one was picked up by Sydney artist Jamie Preisz, who wrote about it recently in a skateboarding, surfing and photography magazine.
It would otherwise have flown under the radar.
‘Stingray shops for an ensemble that says, ‘Daddy still loves you’.’
(Supplied: Arielle Gamble)
“I made it for me, not to really share with anybody else, necessarily,” Gamble admits. “I am happy to share it, I just haven’t actively shared it.”
What was it about making a zine that appealed to her, then?
“I really love how personal zines can be,” she says. “There’s a bit of intimacy there between you and the reader which I think allows you to push things further than if you were making something for people to look at on a wall.
“I also love that it’s just a zine — it’s not a precious book or object, so it’s kind of throwaway but you can keep it if you want to. There’s a nice humbleness to it.”
Of course, it’s also a physical reminder that Gamble made it through one of the most difficult years of her life.
“Six months after I’d had [the zines] printed, I remember sitting in my studio with my friend, looking at them,” she says. “And I was like, ‘I think they’re my grief’.
“And my friend was like, ‘You didn’t know that? Yeah, we all knew that’.”
*Gamble prefers not to name the town because some of the people who live there may be identified. Plus, she says, “I don’t want to put any one small town on some sort of a map with a title like this one; the stories are universal, I think”.