Cholena Hughes’ journey with TAFE Queensland has led her down an unexpected yet highly-rewarding path. From learning artistic techniques to teaching others how to express themselves through creativity, the talented 41-year-old now uses the power of art to help rehabilitate prisoners at Woodford Men’s Correctional Centre.
Cholena first discovered her passion for art during high school, however she initially put down the brush to pursue a career in hospitality. But after her husband came across her high school portfolio, Cholena said she finally found the confidence to turn her creativity into a career.
“After marrying my husband Peter in 2006, my mum returned some of my keepsakes that I had stored at her house,” Cholena said.
“When my husband saw my portfolio he said, ‘You’re an artist — you must follow your heart,’ and he encouraged me to further my studies.”
In 2007 Cholena enrolled in the Certificate III in Visual Arts (CUA31115) through TAFE Queensland. She enjoyed the course so much she decided to continue her studies with a Diploma of Visual Arts (CUA51115).
“I chose TAFE because going to university felt like it was too big a commitment after several years out of school,” Cholena said.
“The teachers were really fun and encouraging. I can remember learning art history during the first year of my diploma and falling in love with a new artist or movement every week. I’m now lucky that I get to work with Andrew Bryant, who was an integral part of the team of teachers at my campus and was highly respected by students of all ages.”
Hungry to learn more, Cholena continued on to university to complete a Bachelor of Fine Art, during which she was approached with a unique opportunity to pass on her skills to others as a trainer with TAFE Queensland.
“My aunty was working as an art activities officer at Woodford Correctional Centre and they were looking for a teacher who could deliver some short courses on drawing, painting, ceramics and sculpture. She knew I’d been studying art, so she put me in touch with the officer who coordinated the courses.”
Cholena began teaching short courses to prisoners at the centre in 2013 as part of the VET Inside initiative. Designed to rehabilitate prisoners by creating education and training pathways that lead to potential employment outcomes and assist with reintegration into the community, the program was so successful that in 2017 Cholena was tasked with delivering a full certificate II qualification at the facility.
Though it may be a daunting prospect for many people, Cholena said teaching at the prison has been an incredibly rewarding experience that has enabled her to truly make a difference in the lives of her students.
“I love to share the knowledge and skills I have and I believe art can make a significant difference in learning about yourself,” Cholena said.
“Teaching art in the prison gave me the opportunity to inspire, influence and encourage the men in a positive way. I have the opportunity to teach them skills to help them realise their ideas and potential, to see them light up when they feel excited or proud about what they are creating, and see their sense of accomplishment when they obtain their qualification," she said.
“Many of my students in the correctional centre haven’t even completed high school, so to receive a qualification really affects them. I have even heard some of the prisoners talk about how doing the course has improved their communication with their spouse or children.”
Cholena said her students in the correctional centre were incredibly grateful for the opportunity they’ve been given with some going out of their way to show their appreciation.
“When I returned to work after my father had passed away, they had made me a card with a lotus flower on it and recited what I had talked about regarding symbolism and my example that the lotus is a metaphor for getting through dark times because it pushes past the dark muddy waters and rises above it all,” she said.
In 2019 Cholena helped TAFE Queensland add the Certificate II in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Arts (CUA20415) to the VET Inside program, providing First Nations students with the opportunity to develop an understanding of their own cultural identity. Having seen the power of the course first-hand, Cholena is now working with TAFE Queensland to scope the general public’s interest in undertaking the Certificate III in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Arts (CUA30515) at TAFE Queensland’s Nambour campus.
“I believe courses like these are really important as they create opportunities for First Nations people to connect more with their culture — especially those who live in mixed families and may not have grown up with community cultural knowledge,” Cholena said.
“They also provide students with the chance to connect with each other and build bigger stronger networks, build relationships with like-minded people, and explore their ideas through art, which is such an intrinsic part of culture."
“Some of my Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students within the prison haven’t grown up with family, and this course teaches them so much about their culture and helps them develop a feeling of belonging and self-worth,” she said.
In addition to her work teaching with TAFE Queensland, Cholena is highly active within the local art community, belonging to various collectives and groups and coordinating a range of projects, exhibitions and workshops.
As a proud Koa woman raised on Kabi-Kabi country, Cholena’s connection to the land is a strong influence in her own creations, with Cholena often using materials and symbolism from the natural environment in her art. This is a theme that is evident in Cholena’s most recent work, a collaborative piece she completed alongside nine other Indigenous artists from the South East Queensland First Nations Art Collective that demonstrates how arts connects people.
The Together We Stand project — which is supported by Creative Arts Alliance and funded by Arts Queensland, Moreton Bay Regional Council, and Access Arts — saw each artist create their own artwork over a section of cyanotype that Cholena created as the base. The individual artworks were then reassembled to create one larger piece, accompanied by a musical score, that demonstrates how even through the isolation of COVID-19, the artists remain connected.
“I believe art is the oldest form of networking, a social media platform where people have listened and seen each other’s stories for thousands of generations,” Cholena said.
“For me, this project is particularly important during this time when we must isolate for the sake of the health of our nation, because it kept us in dialogue with each other. It provided the opportunity as an artist to explore ways of expressing our thoughts, feelings and ideas about what it meant to us."
“Each artist has their own story within their piece, yet there are very strong common threads of feeling and concepts underlying the individual stories. The project is very aptly named, because in the throes of life and its ups and downs, together we stand,” she said.
Cholena has also been involved in a range of other artistic and teaching projects across the Sunshine Coast over the last 12 months, including the Indigenous Ways of Learning workshop, the First Nations Forum, the Kids In Action Program, and a project for Mary Cairncross Scenic Reserve where she is currently designing and creating tactile panel signs to help visitors identify plants and wildlife.