In the beginning...

The seed for Southern Forest Arts was sown in the midst of the major social, political and economic upheaval felt by the South West community during the late nineties and turn of the millenium surrounding the 'old growth forest' debate.

'To log or not to log' was indeed the question.

The small town of Northcliffe was one of the main focal points for tension between conservationists and the timber industry, with the many issues surrounding the debate causing great conflict between families and friends.

The idea of developing a permanent art trail within a section of local forest as a community-managed eco-tourism initiative was just one of many proposals put forward during that time as a possible means to improving the long-term sustainability of the region.

Further information about this period is detailed in the Understory catalogue and the book 'Contested Country: A History of the Northcliffe Area, Western Australia' (University of WA Press, Crawley, 2003). Both are available for sale through the Northcliffe Visitor Centre.


Initially conceived as a sculpture walk (to be called the Forest Park Sculpture Trail) and not a multi arts experience, the venture required the formation of a new group to examine the project's feasibility and bring the dream to fruition. Representatives from four main stakeholder groups (the Northcliffe Arts Association, Northcliffe Visitor Centre, Northcliffe Interpretative and Cultural Centre and the Northcliffe Forest Park Committee) came together to form the Northcliffe International Forest Art Experience.

The group later changed its name to Southern Forest Arts in May 2005, when it became officially incorpoarted as a not-for-profit community cultural organisation. At the same time, the Southern Forest Sculpture Walk replaced the second version of the name for the attraction, the Northcliffe International Forest Art Experience. Re-branding in 2009 bought about the current moniker of 'Understory - Art in Nature'.


The Understory concept has always been 'grass roots'. Grounded in the local community it reflects the local community. Therefore, before any concrete planning commenced there was lengthy consultation in many forms with as many different types of people possible. This encouraged a sense of community connection and ownership right from the outset.

Local residents contributing their ideas changed the initial idea from locating a few sculptures along an existing trail to the multi-arts experience visitors enjoy today (with the inclusion of music and writing, and later the audio interpretative component).

It was decided that a purpose-built trail located next to the new facilities of the award-winning rammed-earth Information and Visitor Centre would be more visible, a greater drawcard for the Visitor Centre and more cost effective. The decision to move from free entry to a user pays model meant the project could become self-sustaining (and no longer reliant upon government grants) and in the future could help create local employment opportunities.

Raising funds to build Understory was an arduous task requiring countless volunteer hours and steep learning curves. Over thirty ve submissions were written in three years, with 23 of these being successful.

Click here to see a list of 'Our Supporters' during this establishment phase.

We were fortunate to have early funding to engage consultants who mentored us in the development of the skills needed to see the project through from construction to ongoing management.

Maggie Baxter (Public Art), Jesse Brampton (Trail Development), Barry Strickland (Interpretation), Keith Sinclair and Rob Finlayson (Literature), Robyn Johnson and Lee Buddle (music), Elizabeth Jack (Tourism Marketing), Suzanne Kelly (Indigenous) and Robyn Taylor (Historian) were fantastic guides along this incredibly rewarding - but often very challenging - journey.

Artistic briefs were written by the committe incorporating the core themes of the project developed through community workshops:

  • - Spirituality
  • - Creativity
  • - History
  • - Dichotomy
  • - Sensory

Commission rates were determined and a call for Expressions of Interest was widely promoted. There was tremendous enthusiam from the state and international arts community and selecting successful applicants was enjoyable, though difficult.

Artists, writers and musicians were then invited to spend time in Northcliffe developing concepts for new artworks. They were wined and dined by the community and encouraged to research and reflect upon whatever aspects of Northcliffe inspired them in relation to the project themes. It was important to us that they didn't arrive with pre-convceived notions of what they would create in advance. We wanted their responses to be fresh, intimate and grounded in place.

It was then a matter of accepting or declining proposals and moving onto the formal commissioning stage. There were some curly moments - a few more learning curves, a few etxra grey hairs - but on the whole things went smoothly.

Constructing the trail itself was another task for the committee - with all of us wielding shovels, rakes, GPS', tape measures and wheelbarrows. We were grateful for the assistance of the Ministry of Justice (through the Walpole Prison Work Crew) and some extra helping hands from the Work for the Dole scheme. Our beautiful boardwalks are almost artworks in their own right and were crafted by local builders, Ross Facius and Paul Owens.

Installing sculptures without impinging too greatly upon pristine forest bought many challenges and their accompanying lateral solutions, including teams of twenty volunteers hauling upon ropes and pulleys to erect "Whole, You Were Meant to be Here" and Roy Moss doing things with a backhoe that surely no other backhoe has ever done before.

There were the usual last minute stresses as the opening day deadline approached - least of which included the Project Coordinator having her second child - just a month before.

The trail was officially opened on November 25th 2006 as part of the inaugural Southern Forest Arts Festival. It was cause for great celebration for Southern Forest Arts members and the committee as well as the Northcliffe community in general with the day also seeing the official opening of the Northcliffe Information and Visitor Centre (including our Painted Tree Gallery).