Jamie’s village garden of community inspiration

By John Lewis

Never complain to Jamie Lea that nothing happens in Shepparton — she'll chew your ear to pieces. She's the relentless mojo behind Shepparton's Winter Sessions, Secret Garden Gigs, music festivals and countless pub and backyard performances. But is there more to JL than microphones and set lists? John Lewis finds out.

Jamie Lea looks up at the big grassy hill with a metal flower at the top and says she loves the place because it used to be a dump.

We're at the grandly-titled Australian Botanic Gardens Shepparton which was indeed once known as the Kialla tip.

Jamie could have predictably chosen a stage, or the shed where she stores all her events gear of carpets and lampshades and chairs as her favourite place.

But no, we're here at this lovingly restored patch of scrubland and floodplain between Shepparton and Mooroopna.

“This place is a super example of people coming together to create something. It's purely about joy,” Jamie says.

She looks around at the native plants, themed gardens and new tree saplings spreading into surrounding bushland.

“We come here a lot with the kids. We spend three or four hours exploring and imagining and learning about plants. The only reason to go home is because there's no toilets,” she says.

Bringing people together is a big part of what this 30-year-old mother of two does.

Ever since she left home at 15 she's been creating her own family of performers and believers and can-do people.

At the flick of a phone button Jamie can command an army of Facebook followers to help her find a location, a lamp shade, an unwanted chair, or a performer for her next event.

Her town is her family.

But it wasn't always like this.

Jamie Lea grew up under another name in another family in another town on the hard-scrabble back-blocks of Shepparton.

“We lived in a run-down house at Katunga. It was the sort of place where you woke up with a snake in your room, or there was a wasp nest outside your window,” she says.

“There was never any petrol to go anywhere or do anything. I used to walk around in the paddocks and sing. I knew singing made me happy,” she says.

But it didn't make everyone happy.

After months of singing around the house and trying to sound like Killing Heidi's Ella Hooper, her mother snapped.

“One day she threw the radio against the wall and yelled 'shut up, you can't sing'. But I knew these pipes had something,” Jamie says.

And she was proved right.

Her voice has won her parts in Shepparton High School musicals, Shepparton Theatre Arts Group shows, solo performances and much later with her own treasured Fortessima all-girl singing group.

After leaving home she relied on school, charities, an unofficial foster family and the wider village of Shepparton for a support network.

Following advice from a drama teacher at Shepparton's Notre Dame College she spent a year at North Melbourne's Institute of TAFE studying for an Advanced Diploma of Music Industry (Business).

But she couldn't entirely leave her extended Shepparton family.

“I was planning my life around music festivals — Lorne, Byron Bay, Groovin the Moo,” she says.

Then, as part of her NMIT studies she came up with Shepparton's 3630 Festival.

Suddenly she was on a roller-coaster of business deals and scheduling — full-on, real-world event management.

Sheer tenacity and relentless 24-hour passion saw Jamie and her backers stage Shepparton's 3630 Festival headlined by Angus and Julia Stone, Briggs and Clare Bowditch supported by a troupe of local talent on March 13, 2011.

But the day was marred by torrential rain and a mountain of debt.

Years later, Jamie still bristles at the memory.

“It was exhausting and stressful. I felt really low and embarrassed — shattered. My teacher at TAFE said if they don't appreciate you, then go somewhere else. Those words rang in my ears for a long time,” she says.

“I thought, what am I doing? What's the point? But I felt like I owed the place. It took me a long time to realise — but this is my village, it's my community. There's always been this really ignorant love for Shepparton.”

Today, Jamie is in a good place, with two feet firmly planted back in the village.

She is married to Scotsman Alan Mitchell — who also happens to play guitar and sing, and they have two lively children.

For the first time in her life, Jamie has a full-time paid gig — as creative director of the Shepparton Festival.

She looks up at the zigzag path to the top of Honeysuckle Rise at the botanic gardens with its manicured patches of native plants.

“This has really inspired us to start our own native garden at home. We come out here to buy our plants and talk to the volunteers. I want to come out here when I retire and become a volunteer.

“It's like this garden — when the volunteers die they leave all this behind for the community. You plant a tree to give someone else the shade.”