There are people who make a small indent on this planet and then there’s someone like Kirsha Kaechele, artist, and curator and wife of David Walsh, the name behind the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart. Radiant in a gold shift-style dress, Kaechele presented her story at the National Gallery of Victoria, as part of the NGV Women’s Association’s lecture series. Speaking to a full house, she was introduced by Jane Clarke, senior researcher at MONA, Australia’s largest private museum.

Daubed MONA’s first lady, Kaechele has already packed what is normally a lifetime of achievements into a few decades. Raised in California before moving to the island of Guam, she was often the white girl surrounded by black people. It was this upbringing that obviously allowed her to find a kindred spirit with those who virtually have nothing and often come from the wrong side of the tracks. Living in Japan in later years perhaps ignited the artistry of her social endeavours that are now an art form.

Although now Kaechele literally has the world at her fingertips, particularly focusing her efforts on New Orleans and Tasmania, where she now resides, her beginnings were extremely humble. Just over 20 years ago, she was destitute and looking for direction. “I was talking with NYU (New York University) arts students and came to the conclusion that I had two options, sex or drugs.” That simple comment led to a successful advertising campaign with billboards reading ‘In California Pot is the New Patrons for The Arts’. Before long Kaechele transformed abandoned crack houses in New Orleans into art venues and the foundations for art installations. The interior of one shack was magically transformed with wall-to-wall gold leaf paint! With the ‘gentrifcation’ of entire blocks came artisanal banquets for wealthy patrons keen to support the arts. The money raised by Kaechele not only went into expanding her program, but also rejuvenating the heart of what were the most derelict parts of town.

In 2008, ‘Life as Art’, a biennale held in New Orleans, was the start of Kaechele’s vision to help those on the fringe of communities, including gangsters, drug addicted youth and simply those struggling to find meaning in their lives. Pivotal to this biennale was the transformation of a petrol-filling station, left idle for years, into a film and recording studio. Sadly, one of the films screened depicted a young black man who was shot and killed on the streets. “This place has, in essence become a shrine to his passing.” Other ventures soon followed, ones primarily targeted at getting young black youth off the streets and helping them find a reason to get up in the morning. Cooking, art and beauty schools soon followed, driven by the interests of the community.

One of Kaechele’s most high-profile ventures is her healthy food program in disadvantaged communities. Titled ‘24 Carrot Gardens’, the name came from a simple question: who has never seen a carrot before? Her words ‘dat looks nasty’ prompted the move to transform disused alleys and neglected plots into gardens where the young could enjoy not just growing food, but eventually bringing this produce to some of New Orleans finest restaurants to secure an income for themselves. Now, there are 17 24 Carrot Gardens just in Tasmania alone, with Kaechele aiming to expand this program through wealthy benefactors.

Although getting a job seems an obvious choice for middle class Australians, Kaechele is working with a group of extremely underprivileged people, many who were friends and passed away. The memory of one young man, Rayshon Jynes, who was only 18 when he died, brings tears to her eyes. “Look at this photo. Of the five people in it, three have died, mostly from being shot.”

The misuse of guns in New Orleans as well as in broader America, led to Kaechele’s new program, ‘Ca$h for Gun$’. A disused car wash was given over to a depository for guns. “We purchased 50 guns in less than four hours.” In true Kaechele style, this event morphed into a parade with the main street closed off to allow the community to show their stuff, including the ‘Caramel Curves’, a bike group that shot pink smoke from their motorbike exhausts to add to the fanfare.

One cause leads to another, and it comes as no surprise that Kaechele put her efforts behind challenging America’s second amendment. The right to ‘bear arms’ is now under challenge, in particular the values behind this amendment. Her latest operation is a hacking group, where young black men, often the target of police are learning the intricacies of the system (in a legal manner) to improve their lot. “Look at the valuable computer skills they’ll get, perhaps leading to a job with a six-figure salary,” says Kaechele.

Other ventures on Kaechele’s ‘whiteboard’ include recording studios, artists’ studios and fashion schools, with the latter titled the ‘Material Institute’. Eat the Problem, her recently released book, features a rainbow of coloured pages with invasive species magically transformed into culinary delights by leading chefs: “shit into gold” she adds. From humble beginnings, Kaechele has shown the world an entirely new way of looking at problems, creating not only unique solutions, but art works in the process. Where will it stop? Hopefully, her energy and vision will continue to reverberate for decades to come!

Lifestyle & Design

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