When two cultures meet

From desperation comes inspiration, often manifested 10-fold when two people share ideas. When Tony La Spina met Grace Roberts, a new creative industry was born.

Grace Roberts, c. 1981. Photographer John Rotar. mus07-1365. From the collection of the Coffs Harbour Regional Museum and Coffs Collections.

Grace Roberts was a respected Bundjalung Elder. She was persistent in pursuing opportunities for children in Coffs Harbour. In 1963, she attended a meeting of the local Aboriginal Welfare committee. [1]

Also at the meeting was a new schoolteacher to the town, who had an interest in Aboriginal Affairs. His teaching subject was art. He suggested they try some screen printing, just basic designs and perhaps get a cottage industry going. This idea appealed to Grace greatly.

With her enthusiasm and the support of other women at the mission the craft work got under way.

Pottery was introduced and eventually even the children were encouraged to make small clay motifs called Mooks Mooks. These were an abstract design on a small pottery disc threaded onto a leather thong. They were neatly mounted on cardboard with a printed legend of the Mook Mook. It was to become a viable enterprise, making a small profit.

Tony La Spina with self-portrait. Coffs Coast Advocate, 18 February 1998, p.1

Art teacher Anthony La Spina had moved to Coffs Harbour in 1962. [2]

Along with raising a family of four with wife, Rae, a move to Coffs Harbour, NSW in 1962 saw Tony teaching art with TAFE (which he was to continue for the next 28 years) as well as teaching art at the Jetty High School and Orara High School – during which time he was seconded to the University of NSW for 3 years to work within the Aboriginal community establishing the Playgroup movement for children.

One of the children who created Mooks Mooks still does so today. He is local artist Tony Hart. He recalled making them and selling them for 20 cents each, a close match to their size. Their sale provided the children with much welcomed pocket money. This is a more recently created one.

Copyright Tony Hart

Each Mook Mook is unique, and when worn, is meant to discourage negative influences. It will join the work of  Tony La Spina in the Regional Gallery’s collection [3], a fitting symmetry.


[1] Grace Roberts Her Life Her Mystery Her Dreaming, Alice Becker, 1989, p.21

[2] Tony La Spina – Artwork – Julie Duell, 15 April 2008

[3] Abstract, Tony La Spina, https://coffs.recollect.net.au/nodes/view/16667