Avant gardener: keeping up with Jennie Stewart

12 August, 2023

In Courtney Barnett’s indie rock ballad the singer wakes up pining “I wanna grow tomatoes on the front steps, sunflowers, bean sprouts, sweet corn and radishes”. For CMRT volunteer, avant gardener and visual artist, Jennie Stewart, growing things is just what she does every day. John Carruthers managed to catch up with our energetic rep just long enough for a quick chat about her background and CMRT’s fundraising challenge in 2024.

Where do you hail from?
I grew up on a farm in Victoria’s Western District. I attended a local high school, then four years at the University of Melbourne before changing direction and studying fine art. We lived in Bacchus Marsh where our girls were born in the 90s, before spending nearly 20 years in Gisborne.

What fills your days?
I lead a busy life. I’m very focused on creating a garden from the bare, rocky, sloping ground surrounding our new house in Chewton. Ken and I finished building our house last year and my new challenge is to create a garden.

Where are some of the places you have cycled?
I was an active member of the Macedon Ranges Cycling Club before moving to Chewton and have ridden extensively in that area. We have travelled most of the rail trails in Victoria and have ventured into South Australia and NSW on cycling trips. Over many years we attended the Tour Down Under in SA where we would cycle the Fleurieu Peninsular and Barrosa Valley regions. Ten years ago Ken and I spent three weeks riding in France.

What makes for a really good rail trail?
Rich visual scenery is good but I think the most interesting thing is the evocation of history. I remember riding to Beechworth from Everton and imagining what would have been going through Ned Kelly’s mind as he took the same route to his trial in Beechworth. The interpretative signs along the High Country Trail offer fascinating snippets of local history. Good coffee along the way or at the end is a bonus.

You’ve had some pretty broad training: politics, fine arts, horticulture. Tell us about that journey.
In might appear I’ve had a restless sort of career. But I never feel it’s my paid work that defines me. I have diverse interests and have had the confidence to pursue things even if they offer little financial reward. I have always been active in volutary groups – Landcare, school council, Guides. I spent 10 years working in the Artists in Schools program, mostly on large mural and mosaic projects. My teaching training was in literature and history, but I adapted to the art room. I have also worked for local government and health organisations. I’ve exhibited my art for more than 30 years and been represented in various art awards, some local, some national. I have always kept a garden. I learnt at lot about horticulture, now I help other hom gardeners work a few days a week in the nursery at Mt Alexander Timber and Hardware.

How do you keep up your energy?
It’s easy – I’m married to Ken! My back is very strong (Ken had his own chiropractic business for 30 years) and now the incredible “energy work” he practices keeps me in good shape.

What’s your key interest in CMRT?
Getting it done!

Tell us about the volunteering work you’ve just started doing with us.
I’ve been meeting with other groups to formulate a response the Mt Alexander Shire’s Draft Active Transport Strategy. It’s a bit depressing really: the Shire seems reluctant to adopt an active role and commit to courageously improving cycling and walking experiences in the Shire.

Why is fundraising going to be so important for us in 2024?
All fundraising should also aim to improve our profile. The CMRT is undoubtedly a popular idea – the more people who believe in its merits, the easier it will be to raise the funds to see it happen.

What’s going to be our biggest challenge in that fundraising drive over the next 12 – 18 months?
Making sure local businesses really understand the enormous benefits that the CMRT will provide is very important. Getting lots of local support is crucial before we can rely on the big funding providers. The Tourism angle is vital.

Jennie is CMRT’s lead volunteer keeping us in contact with the Mt Alexander Shire Council. Jennie and her partner Ken are active in the Chewton community and have established a beautiful dry stone garden.