It shimmered. I don’t remember anything else about the exhibition in Hobart, but I was struck by the beauty of the shell necklace and made a mental note of the maker – Joan Brown, Cape Barren Island. About a year later, I flew to the Bass Strait island to see her.
Joan grew up as a member of the Aboriginal community on Cape Barren and as a girl collected the tiny shells the women in her family needed to string into necklaces. She didn’t know then that she would become a key figure in keeping the Tasmanian Aboriginal tradition alive; not just keeping it alive, but breathing new life into it at a time when few women still had the knowledge and skills required.
When we met, her only adornment was a gold wedding band. She didn’t like jewellery, she told me, and never wore any of the exquisite necklaces she made. “I just call them shells,” she said matter-of-factly. “Other people call them necklaces.”
It was 1991 and I was working for the Mercury. As an arts writer, I was keen to visit Joan and had organised a number of news stories on Flinders Island to cover with photographer Raoul Kochanowski in order to justify a charter flight from Flinders to Cape Barren. A shy woman, she had to be cajoled into the interview but when displaying some of her ‘shells,’ she could see how lovely I thought them and to my delight agreed. She said little and it had to be gently coaxed out of her, as if she was happier to leave it to her creations to speak for themselves.
Born Joan Everett on Cape Barren Island on August 7th 1932, she died on July 1st 2001 and I believe I am privileged to be the only journalist to have interviewed her. A photo of her was published on the front page of the Mercury on December 4, 1991 with a brief story. Although she said little, I was conscious of the importance of recording whatever she said and I kept my notes, while Raoul’s negatives – 1991 was pre digital – are in the newspaper’s photographic library.
Cape Barren Island in the Furneaux Group is the remote and wildly beautiful home of generations of Aborigines. It was here where Joan was born and where she was buried. Apart from a brief period of secondary schooling in Launceston and eight years on Flinders Island after she married, she always lived on Cape Barren. “When I go to Hobart or Launceston I feel all shut in, like I’m in gaol,” she told me. “Here I can breathe.”
It was in the fresh air on the island’s beaches that she collected shells for her Aboriginal mother and grandmother – who, she said, didn’t wear them either. Traditionally, Aboriginal women made necklaces from maireener shells and wrapped one long string around their necks a number of times for adornment, as can be seen in Thomas Bock’s paintings of women in the 1830s and in photographs of Truganini. While Joan’s family didn’t wear them, they continued the tradition of stringing them. Shells were plentiful when she was a girl and she would pick them up off the beach and under seaweed dumped on the sand, especially after spring tides, but she would also wade into the water to gather them. Her mother, grandmother and great aunt would use what she collected to make into necklaces. She recalled five or six women making necklaces and she said she enjoyed watching them at work.
Lola Greeno, the wonderful contemporary shell necklace maker, has explained the practice: “Over generations, the women of coastal Tasmania have painstakingly collected, treated and threaded tiny shells into long and intricately patterned strands. These necklaces are highly prized, not only because of their beauty and the increasing rarity of the shells that comprise them, but because the shell necklaces are the most important part of Tasmanian Aboriginal women’s cultural heritage. The knowledge has been handed down from mothers to daughters.” 1
Joan married Devony Brown and while the couple lived on Cape Barren Island she continued to collect shells. Contrary to customary practice, however, Devony also threaded them into necklaces. “He’d sell his necklaces in the pub on Flinders Island for ten shillings a string,” she said.
When they moved to Flinders she stopped collecting, a practice she associated with Cape Barren, and as she coped with tragedy early in her married life. The couple had eight children, but the first three died when very young. We didn’t talk about them or what happened, or the suicide of her son Devony in 1989. But she was proud of her surviving children – Tony is the Senior Curator of Indigenous Cultures at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery; Karen works for the Office of Aboriginal Affairs; June works for Centrelink; and Brendan, who leads a nomadic life but whose base is Cape Barren.
Joan began collecting shells once more after moving back to Cape Barren in the 1960s but she didn’t start making necklaces again for another decade. “People asked me about them so I thought I would make some,” she said simply. To her surprise there was soon interest in her work further afield than Bass Strait. She was asked to contribute to select craft exhibitions around the country and five months before our visit, she sold five strings to a collector in Japan. “I love making them,” she said. “It’s hard work but I feel proud of myself when I see the finished product.”
She had every reason to feel proud because she had an unerring eye for colour and form. It was a natural gift and the gorgeous colours and contours of her stunningly beautiful island home, its coastline and the sea around it, were reflected in her work. She used a variety of tiny shells, among them buttons, riceshells, cats’ teeth, toothies, gulls and mariners or kelpshells. (The Aboriginal word mair-ree-ner can mean either the iridescent shell or the necklace itself). She mixed the iridescent with the matt; soft pinks and aqua teamed with coral, cream offset by black or brown, while her instinct for design resulted in skilful use of different shaped shells that contributed to the total effect. “I choose the colours and patterns on what I thinks looks good,” she said. “I can’t do arts and crafts, but I can do me shells.”
Collecting the shells was a painstaking task. By then scarce, she had to search for them. It was backbreaking work and she was no longer young. She would lift rocks on the beaches, scooping up the tiny shells with a spoon when she found them. “It gives me backache collecting them, but I do it,” she said. “And if I find a good place, I keep it a secret.” In the traditional way, she would leave the shells in the sun for maggots to rid them of meat and the smell to go. She would wash them many times, then clean them with spirits of salts. The cleaning process took twelve months and when it was over, Joan used a dart or sharp safety pin to make tiny holes in the shells and then carefully thread them on nylon cotton.
Sitting in her kitchen, with strands of necklaces on the table in front of her, she held one up, saying softly: “I find it exciting to create something beautiful.”
Joan sold many of her necklaces without noting where they went but fortunately, some are in public collections. The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery has a shell necklace collection dating from the 1800s to the present and she is represented in it. She is represented also in the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery’s collection of shell necklaces, and in the National Museum of Australia. Some with provenance are privately owned, of which I have two that are prized possessions.
1 Lola Greeno, “Maireener: Tasmanian Aboriginal shell necklaces,” Keeping Culture: Aboriginal Tasmania, editor Amanda Jane Reynolds, National Museum of Australia Press, 2006.