Interview: Kristie Phelan, new Head of Sturt

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Nearing its 80th year, Sturt Gallery and Studios is now an iconic centre for excellence in arts, design and fabrication. Sturt School for Wood holds a unique position in Australia, offering a Certificate IV in Furniture Design and Technology as well as a range of short courses and workshops in fine woodworking. We offered our congratulations to Kristie Phelan, recently appointed as the new Head of Sturt, and took the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her background and priorities in her new role.

Kristie Phelan, Head of Sturt

AWR: Can you tell us a little about your background and your connection to Sturt?
Sturt has always been close to my heart. I grew up in the Southern Highlands and visited Sturt as a child. In the 70s I’d play in the wood shavings in Norman Stocks’ studio next door to our cottage in Berrima. Norman was a tutor at Sturt in the 70s and made beautiful hand made pieces. Ray Norman’s jewellery was upstairs in the Berrima Gallery, and it inspired my appreciation of handmade very early on. My path led me into television in Sydney and in London where I worked with set builders and prop makers, and ended up leading multidisciplinary creative teams working out ways to slime kids 5000 at a time at Nickelodeon, or designing engaging experiences, events and theme parks. Coming back to the Highlands I grew passionate about community, creativity, collaboration and the joy of making, especially in tune with nature. I was drawn back to Sturt where I wanted to remind people what a cultural treasure Sturt is.

AWR: What are your aims in taking on the role of Head of Sturt?
KP: I am proud to champion Sturt in its 80th year and plan to ensure that our country’s oldest design centre is treasured as a dynamic school for design excellence for years to come. When visionary Winifred West set up Sturt in 1941 she understood the value of connecting hand and mind, and of making with a deep connection to nature. Sturt has inspired countless makers and master craftspeople over the decades and it was a place of pilgrimage for the best makers in the world. With many arts education facilities closing or facing cuts, Sturt’s unique model of educating in an inspired studio setting has never been more vital.

AWR: What is the relevance of handmade objects and art in a world that is increasingly digitised and concerned with mass consumption, and how does Sturt fit into that picture?
KP: I’m a firm believer that the future is in the handmade and that contemporary craft is becoming a symbol of sustainability, authenticity and connectedness. After the challenging year we’ve had people are re-evaluating what’s important. They’re increasingly looking inward and cherishing local – with their materials, their connection to nature and to each other. At Sturt you can learn from some of the best makers in the world on a campus surrounded by beauty. It’s hard not to be inspired amidst the history of the place, with the legacy of such great makers. At whatever stage of that journey you are on there’s a simple satisfaction of making something unique and beautiful by hand. There’s a raw and honest honour in making.

AWR: Can we expect to see any changes to the exhibition program or woodworking courses on offer?
KP: Our world class year-long Certificate IV in Furniture Design and Technology is filling fast for next year with huge demand to learn with the most skilled woodworkers and furniture makers in Australia. We’re working on an exciting new exhibition program for 2022 and our first show will celebrate the incredible women working with wood. Beyond Ordinary: Contemporary Women Makers in February will coincide with our annual Tools and Techniques weekend featuring woodworking demonstrations with talented women. We aim to spark a new generation of women makers with that same heart-felt appreciation of hand made.

Learn more about Sturt Gallery and Studios at

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