LIVING AND GROWING WITH ART
I can’t think of my life as an artist without thinking of the other threads of my living that have been interwoven with it. Sometimes those lifestyle threads have been in tension with my art-making, at other times they’ve been totally harmonious. The first harmonious thread was my beautiful childhood environment.
Born in 1943, I had the good fortune to grow up in the coastal area north of Sydney. At that time, our beach was still quite sparsely built-up – a free and spacious environment where we kids could run wild around the beach and cliffs. I loved that environment with a passion that made it ‘mine’ in a very deep sense. I remember a day (I was about nine years old) when a sudden surge of love for that place led me to throw myself down on the warm kangaroo grass of the cliff top, and hug the ground with my whole body, in a sort of ecstacy of belonging.
Of course, I could never belong to that land as fully as the countless generations of Aboriginal children who’d been reared, not only to love that land but also to know the sacred stories and take on traditional responsibilities for the land’s well-being. But it’s still possible for each of us to feel a oneness with the environment that nurtures us. That’s how it was for me – a deeply formative experience.
I remember loving the beautiful, mysterious relationship between the curve of the southern headland and the echoing curve of the brown grassy hill at the centre of that beach. Over and over again, I drew those curves, feeling for the meaning of that relationship. It was a trauma to me, in late childhood, when that central hill was sliced up into allotments, and the relationship between the headland and the hill was lost beneath a clutter of houses.
Another formative thread was how the arts were practised at our place. My mother was an artist who encouraged me to draw and to make things, and my father played the piano for relaxation. Neither of them had a shred of ambition, so I grew up seeing those arts practised (when there was time!) just for the pleasure of it. By the age of ten, I knew that I seriously wanted to be an artist – but it was simply the joy and satisfaction of making art that attracted me. I had as little ambition as my parents, as far as a successful career was concerned – but I wanted to learn to do good work.
My formal art training began in 1961, at the National Art School in Sydney, and I received a Diploma in Painting in 1964. At that time, the emphasis in art training was on developing technical competance – it lacked input or discussion about the meaning or philosophy of art. That disappointed me – but later, at the John Ogburn Studio at the Rocks, I found the philosophical approach I craved. John Ogburn talked a lot to us students about ‘the western tradition in art’, comparing it to the fascinating art traditions in other cultures. I found that very grounding. He also fired us with the idea of opening an independent exhibition space. This enterprise, so distinct from the commercially-run galleries of the city, interested me very much – it had such an personal, low-key feel to it. So I became a founding member of the Harrington Street Artists’ Cooperative Gallery, participated in group shows and had my first solo exhibition there in 1976.
Although I was single-minded about being an artist, in my early twenties my social/political conscience was awakening. My brothers were in the ballot for conscription into the army, with the possibility of being sent to fight in the Vietnam war. It horrified me to think that they might be killed or come home with permanent psychological damage, in a cause that made no sense to me. I felt an urgent need to read up on the historical background to this war and the reasons for Australia becoming involved in Vietnam’s internal politics, My reading led me to participate in the enormous protests organised by the Vietnam Moratorium movement, and I began reflecting on the effect of warfare on societies and individuals. So I was awoken – in a vague sort of way – to the question of commitment to on-going action for justice and peace. Later, I participated enthusiastically in other important protest movements – the Franklin River campaign in Tasmania and the huge Land Rights demonstrations in Queensland, in 1982. But fundamentally I realised that I wanted to live my commitment in a daily way, rather than jump from protest to protest.
Looking back, I can see that a tension had begun in me, which has remained all my life – how to be true to being an artist and at the same time to make lifestyle choices that are socially/politically meaningful. Of course, the two aren’t incompatible – but in my twenties, art and social/political commitment seemed like contradictory directions! I knew that making art is, in itself, a work of peace and also that some artists make wonderful, politically-explicit works – but I had no feeling for that form of expression. Nor did I want to swing from one thing to the other – I was looking for coherence in my lifestyle.
I was also grappling, in my 20s, with an uneasy feeling that I ‘ought’ to start building my art ‘career’ by entering prizes, applying for scholarships, planning shows in different places, trying to make a name for myself, etc. But I had an instinct against competition, even against putting myself forward. I wanted to live something much more low-key, but with a richness of experience and meaning. Simply being an artist didn’t quite fulfill my yearning.
Another thread in my life/art journey was becoming a Catholic at the age of twenty eight. At its heart, this is a spiritual tradition that affirms the profound importance of the arts and the vocation of being an artist and also has a strong, clear teaching on social justice and the central place of the poor and the marginalised. The paths I’d seen as contradictory were fused in this tradition, and that encouraged me to believe I would find a lifestyle that encompassed both. I also began making images specifically related to this spiritual journey, although I believe that this spirituality underlies all my work.
It was when I first encountered Aboriginal people in inner city Sydney, that a very fulfilling life-path began opening up for me. It didn’t remove the tension I felt between art and social commitment, but gradually they began to interweave in ways that were meaningful to me.
From that first meeting, I was enchanted by the heart-culture that’s a fundamental characteristic of Aboriginality. I realised that these people could lead me more deeply into my own humanity, that it was going to be very important for me to immerse myself in that heart-culture.
In the end, this led me to make my home in Wilcannia, a small town in far western New South Wales, where the majority population is Aboriginal, mostly Paakantji people who belong to Paaka (the Darling River). I’d been stunned by the beauty of the outback landscape – the life-giving river snaking its way across the vast red soil plains, the low stony hills and the radiance of the light. But my chief reason for choosing to live there was that I was captivated by the generation of old Aboriginal people. They’d grown up far from towns, while their parents worked on the huge sheep stations of the region. They were so unique, so formed by bush life and the culture and language of their parents, had such a feeling for the land and such a quiet sense of identity. In many ways, they became my mentors and spiritual parents – I just wanted to be with them, to sit at their feet and learn. And they were very welcoming.
I did a lot of sitting around, yarning, having cups of tea, going fishing, listening and learning – but quite soon, I began doing oral history. I found that the old people were extremely anxious about the loss of cultural heritage and had a great desire to write things down, to make books so that the young people could have permanent records of important stories and information. The fact that I had no experience in doing this, wasn’t the point! The point was that I was capable of being an amanuensis for people who wanted to put things down. I was also an artist who would know how to present their stories visually, making them meaningful to young people.
It began in a quite haphzard way, but over the past forty years (working with a group of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal friends who formed ‘The Western Heritage Group’), I’ve been involved in the production of three major oral history works – ‘The Story of the Falling Star’ (1989) ‘Yamakarra! Liza Kennedy and the Keewong Mob’ (2013) and ‘The Mungo Report’, (2020). I’ve also worked individually with two children to produce ‘My Family Book’ (2015) and ‘Me and My Nan’ (2017). At Wilcannia Central School, working with creative writing teacher Jane Carroll, I was involved in producing ‘Wilcannia Kids’ (2018), an anthology of childrens’ stories and artworks.
All these books have drawn on my experience as an artist. For my design work on ‘The Story of the Falling Star’, I won the Australian Book Publishers’ Association Prize for the best designed book of the year, plus two subsidiary prizes. For the other books, I was involved in establishing the design concept, which was then completed creatively by graphic designers.
This community involvement has been a wonderful privilege, encompassing a great richness of relationships and experience. It also became very engrossing and time-consuming. At the same time as working on the books, I was increasingly involved with Aboriginal friends who were often living great tragedies and traumas, and I was offering art sessions to kids after school and at weekends. All this used so much of my emotional energy that when I turned to art-making, I was conscious of an emotional depletion – an inability to extend myself as an artist as I wanted to.
Although I was surrounded by situations of injustice and anguish, I didn’t want to make images to express that – it was too close to the bone for me. Instead, I turned particularly to drawing the landscape, to give me respite from anguish. Going out into the wide, quiet, radiant outback spaces and drawing from nature has been breath of life for me, refreshing and energising me. The underlying theme in my landscape works during those years was a celebration of ‘this-ness’ – this day, this light, this tree, and so on. It gave me a joy in being alive, simply being here today!
I also found refreshment in experimenting with found objects, ceramics and different forms of printmaking.
After forty years drawing the outback landscape, I’m still at a very early stage of understanding it. I feel I’ve been in a slow process of placing myself within the landscape, immersing myself in the wonder and mystery of it. Perhaps in my great old age I’ll be able to go further, deeper, into a truer expression of this country I’ve come to love as passionately as I loved the coastal landscape as a child. And I have the same sort of certainty that this country loves me, enfolds me and will lead me.
Painting portraits of some of the old people of Wilcannia has meant a lot to me. (Jim Whyman 1986, Ethel Edwards 1993, Bob and Rita Wilson 2016). I’m currently working on others. These portraits make a political statement in a quiet way, by proclaiming the dignity and importance of these very special people, and celebrating their relationship with their country. It’s humbling and satisfying to discover how much these portraits mean to the families involved, and how popular the posters are, that feature the paintings.
It was inevitable that in my complex, crowded lifestyle, issues like building a ‘career’ in art quickly became irrelevant to me. Even though I was consistently making artworks, the world of city galleries seemed very remote and the cost of exhibiting in cities was daunting. So for years I found it impossible to think about having exhibitions of my work outside this area. In the early 1990s, with some Aboriginal friends who were interested in printmaking, I helped set up The Darling River Gallery, where we exhibited together and which ran well until we lost the venue.
In 1993, a new direction opened up – my three siblings and I realised that we were all involved in some form of art, and decided to have an exhibition together (1995). For me, this was a life-changing decision, enabling me to exhibit in the sort of low-key, personal context that’s meaningful to me. It has continued to be a wonderful experience – our 2020 exhibition, ‘Because it matters’, at the Bowral District Art Society Gallery, marks our 8th exhibition together in 25 years. We stay outside the world of commercial galleries, preferring to hire an appropriate gallery and do the on-the-ground work ourselves. Not only are we sharing our latest work, but we can make the occasion festive for the local community and we thrive on catching up with one another. For me, it all ties in with my perpetual desire for low-key richness of life!
I now have a small display space – The Old Fuel Store Gallery – at the front of my home in Wilcannia, where I keep up a changing display of my work. In 2021, I will be having my second solo exhibition at the Broken Hill Regional Gallery (the first was in 2008).
In the past couple of years, I’ve pulled back from running kids’ art sessions, and am phasing out of oral history projects. Now in my mid seventies, I feel a great need to take time and space to concentrate on my art, without constant tugs toward other commitments. It’s encouraging to recall that some very significant Aboriginal artists first began painting in their old age – it’s never too late to shift focus!
I already feel changes happening in my work that I want to follow and explore – where will they lead me? It’s interesting that, now that I have more time and emotional space, I’ve felt an urge to make some politically-explicit images – ‘The writing on the wall’ and ‘Black Lives Matter.’ Is this a new direction?
For me as an artist, the danger has always been a tendency to work from my head – to be overly rational. My true freedom of expression comes when I work on an instinctive level, trusting the responses of my heart and gut. I’m letting that guide me more and more.
I’ll see what happens next!