How I Got Here: Elliat Rich | HerCanberra

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How I Got Here: Elliat Rich

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Admit it, we’ve all been there—stalking social media and LinkedIn profiles, trying desperately to figure out how the hell someone got their dream job.

It seems impossible and yet there they are, living out your career fantasy (minus the itchy business suit). It might seem hard to believe, but once upon a time, they were also fantasising about their future career, and with some hard work, they made it.

Welcome to How I Got Here, HerCanberra’s series that reveals everything you wanted to know about the secrets of career success. This week we meet artist and maker Elliat Rich.

Existential crisis time: Who are you and what do you do?

For the last 20 years I’ve been experimenting with material culture; function, matter, ritual, meaning, relations, heirlooms, wonder, all through the language and practice of design.

More recently I did a deep dive into Big History to ecologically, biologically and culturally understand the question ‘where did I come from’ and since then have been integrating these new understandings with my design practice.

Taking the time to look around the corner of Modernity and feel a part of an immensely intricate and ancient system of energy and matter exchange, as old as the planet and more beautiful than we can comprehend has been impactful – to say the least.

With this new (very old) understanding I’ve developed a design philosophy that channels that knowing into part-artefacts part-mythology. I spend a lot of time dreaming and making objects that hold and describe this nascent philosophy.

Complimenting that I work on a collaborative project, Elbow Workshop, with my beau (and extraordinary shoe-maker) James B. Young on beautifully designed leather carry goods, jewellery, homewares and more, all made by us on-site at our new wonderful studio at 1 Dairy Road (come visit!).

There are also some special young family members, a scruffy dog and a wonderful extended family in the mix.

James B. Young and Elliat Rich in their Hele Crescent workshop, Mparntwe Alice Springs. 2016.

Let’s go back to when you were a kid, have you always dreamed of working in this industry?

I did! Except I never quite got the ‘industry’ part. I see design as part imagination part activism, what better way to affect/offer change than through the highly sophisticated material culture that we’re immersed in.

In answer to the ‘kid’ bit; friends and family will attest to my incessant making, so much hot glue and strange material conglomerates gifted for every birthday and Xmas.

I remember when my Campbell High School art teacher first said the word ‘design’. We were working on artworks for CD cases (ha! The past is hilarious) and she said, you should be a designer and the rest is…

I studied design at Narrabundah College (oh what fun) and then went on to do a design degree through what was then COFA, UNSW. I count myself lucky having always known what I wanted to do and having the means and pathways to do it.

Elbow Workshop’s Crescent range includes bags, carry goods and accessories.

Tell us about when you were first starting out, what set a fire in your belly to get here and how did you do it?

My first (and only regular paid) job was working with the Centre for Appropriate Technology, it’s half of what took James and me to Mparntwe Alice Springs (the other half was camel-related).

My first project was a mobility aid for people living in remote communities, possibly still one of the complex applied briefs I’ve ever had! I was at CfAT for a few years before starting my own studio practice, a multifarious undertaking lead by connections with friends and colleagues, evolving ethics and curiosity. Over the decades I’ve honed what work I take on and who I work with and also evolved my self-directed practice and processes. The later now incorporates a lot more intuition and being attuned to what feelings correlate with decision making.

Elliat Rich. Portrait, 2021 Ilparpa Quarry. Photographer: Martina Capurso.

Being an independent designer/artist requires so much self-generated ‘fire’, you have to believe in what you are doing, be willing to take financial and professional risks, stay diligent and relevant without losing track of your own vision and constantly feed your curiosity.

There is particularly swell in your heart when something ‘clicks’ throughout the design process; a discovery of a new material, or a sketch that nails the right form, seeing a photograph of a completed piece, that’s the kindling.

You learn how to make the right conditions for that feeling to arrive, you only get a few per project, the rest is a lot of pushing up hill. And then how great it is when you can occasionally you can throw a big log on (funding, commission, sales) and sit back and enjoy the warmth!

Tall Place, 2018, edition of 8 1500 x 380 x 340mm. Photographs by Sean Fennessy courtesy of Sophie Gannon Gallery.

Recall a time when you wanted to chuck it all in; what did you tell yourself when it got too hard?

The ‘maybe I should just get a real job’ times, when the thought of regular income seems too good to be true. Holiday pay. Sick pay. (Thank you previous generations for making that a reality.) But one of my mottos is ‘never do it for the money’.

As a family and creative partnership we’ve always had enough to do what we want to do, we enjoy being frugal and resourceful and not taking treats for granted and take full advantage of being in control of our own time. I guess it’s never gotten hard enough to make the switch, the money just doesn’t seem worth it.

What was your biggest break?

I think the most distinct break was winning the Australian Furniture Design Award, a great initiative by Jam Factory, Stylecraft and National Gallery of Victoria. Producing limited edition design in Australia is so, so expensive (it would make any business-minded person shudder – lucky that’s not me!). Before I entered the award I said to myself “this is the last time I do this” (maybe that’s another ‘chuck it in’ moment).

Luckily winning came with prize money, designing Different Thoughts for Stylecraft and a residency with Jam Factory. In the years since this has lead on to being collected by numerous cultural institutions and being represented by Sophie Gannon Gallery, Making new work with DesignByThem, commissions for NGV, Powerhouse, MAGNT (wip).

Being in a place where there are other people supporting me to make and share work is real fuel for the fire. It’s really energising and rewarding working with brands and design and craft organisations.

Elbow Workshop’s new Wiggle belt, in natural and black with stainless hardware.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Someone once told me it’s ok to not be creative all the time. The expectations for creative producers (like most professions) is that you turn it on and work and be productive until you switch it off again.

I like being in control of my own time and knowing that productivity depends on numerous factors, not all of which are in your hands. When it feels like I’m forcing ideas I’ll stop and do some reading, hang-out the washing, potter, dance. And that’s ok, it’s all part of living creatively.

What is it about your industry that you love and what makes you want to pull your hair out?

I love the friends I’ve made within the design community, so many fun people. Being based remotely in Mparntwe Alice Springs for the last two decades I venture to the city once a year, more recently for Design Weeks in Melbourne and Sydney. Every year it feels like a reunion.

I’ve made genuine friendships through the design fraternity and I cherish that doing what I love brings me to those people… Designers are generally curious and inventive and when they express that through amazing materials and processes it’s a lot of fun.

Re hair pulling; Designers are generally from wealthier backgrounds and I don’t think we use our collective influence as much as we could.

We stay with the status quo thinking that we’re politics neutral without realising the huge political impact that has. This is starting to shift at the fringes and of course there are many people out there who wouldn’t be considered ‘designers’ applying design thinking and processes to wonderful effect. 

Tell us how you ‘stay in the know’, what media do you consume?

I guess when you’re interested in the broad sweep of the living planet being in the know is an impossible state. I satisfy my curiosity via content created by the Emergence Network, Garland Magazine, Aeon, Advaya courses (they have a great mix of thinkers – the Minoans!), Dark Mountain, plus so many books (as an object designer I’m very envious of the magic of language, all these tiny symbols that come together to form packets of understanding that people spend long spans of time with!).

I spend the requisite time on Instagram and Pinterest to stay across the inventiveness of those connected to those platforms. I also try to balance out the ‘staying in the know’ with time for daydreaming, usually made possible by long walks or the right soundtrack (usually children’s movies or video-games).

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Strangely the only forward-thinking I do (besides trying to rejig my brain to know that time isn’t linear) is a few decades away.

I’ve got a vision of being in my late 60s early 70s and being able to make wild and wondrous objects and not have to worry so much about the cost while having a small team of people to help me. Sigh, just putting that into words is therapeutic.

Why should people follow in your footsteps?

I’ve left my footprints in some fairly remote areas – our family goes for one-month camel wagon trips in the central deserts every year, maybe don’t follow those exact footprints, but it is the experiences that move out of the modern West that have made me who I am.

Definitely find ways to make those footsteps. We live in such a self-reinforcing way of life that you forget there are so many other ways to exist on the planet. Make the opportunity to find them.

A family camel wagon trip.

What advice would you give your past self?

Don’t eat the steam bun in Phnom Penh.

Feature image: Portrait, 2021 Ilparpa Quarry. Photographer: Martina Capurso.

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