Artist statement “Grounded”

FINDING MY WAY IN LIFE AND ART

I was born in 1943 and grew up on Sydney’s northern beaches. The scrubby cliffs, headlands and hills, the golden sand, the rocks and the sea enfolded us as kids. We ran wild in that free environment and came to know it intimately. I always wanted to draw it – especially the curving relationship between one particular headland and a nearby hill – a relationship that seemed to have meaning. I drew it over and over again, exploring that relationship. That’s something that has stayed with me, down the years – a sense of mystery and meaning in certain landscapes. I felt a deep satisfaction when I came to understand that Aboriginal people knew, named and honoured landscape features because of their intrinsic meaning.

By the age of 10, I wanted to spend my life as an artist – I wanted to learn to draw what I loved in nature. Then, when I was 11, a whimsical element emerged briefly in my drawing. Looking back, I see it as a significant stage in my development. One drawing (which I entitled ‘Dog transfixed by the florescent glow of the vision of the princess in the ruined temple’) stands out in my memory because I’d allowed an intuitive, totally personal inner freedom to guide what I drew. When I look back, I remember how good it felt to follow those whimsical thoughts that bubbled up in me – but at the time, I couldn’t see the importance of following my intuition down unexpected paths. It didn’t seem like ‘real’ art – so I turned away from this sort of drawing, believing I should learn to draw ‘serious’ subjects ‘properly’.

Now, at the age of 78, with the perspective gained from life-long art-making, I believe that trusting one’s own intuition and being led by it, is absolutely fundamental to growth as an artist. It is, in fact, the ‘proper’ way to approach art-making! Intuition is an absolutely sure guide, whether our subject matter is whimsical or solemn.

Four years at the National Art School in the early 1960s, concentrating on technical competence rather than exploring personal expression, gained me a diploma in painting but didn’t satisfy my thirst for meaning and a sense of direction in my art-making. At that time, John Ogburn was giving classes in painting and drawing at his studio at The Rocks, beginning each session with a talk about ‘The Western tradition in art.’ I joined his classes because this theme interested me very much. I found his way of comparing and contrasting masterpieces of the Western tradition with masterpieces of other traditions, exciting and broadening. For me, this was also a period of going out landscape painting with other young painters from that studio and exhibiting with them. We were founding members of the Harrington Street Gallery, an artists’ cooperative that gave us independence for exhibiting outside the mainstream galleries. I liked that alternative path. And from then on, I’ve always preferred to exhibit in community-based, rather than commercial, galleries. I’ve particularly enjoyed exhibiting with my 3 siblings – we’ve shared 8 exhibitions in the past 25 years – and I’m grateful to have been offered 2 solo exhibitions at Broken Hill Regional Gallery.

One of the challenges of my life has been to integrate my social/political beliefs and my art-making. My social conscience was awoken by Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war, and it began developing further after I became a Catholic at the age of 28. I was struck by the church’s teaching about the need to live in solidarity with suffering and marginalised people – and that the poorest people are a source of life and light. This perspective led me, first, into friendship with some very marginalised Aboriginal people in Redfern and ultimately to ground my life in Wilcannia, a town with a majority Aboriginal population – people who certainly opened up my life and my thinking, and still give me life and light.

It was in Wilcannia that my lifestyle, beliefs and art began to be integrated, and I thank the Aboriginal people who welcomed me into their warm-hearted, down-to-earth lifestyle with its emphasis on hunting, fishing and outdoor cooking. I also found myself spiritually nourished by the wide, radiant landscape of Paakantji and Paakantji-Wilyakali Country, with its meandering, endangered river, billabongs and swamps, its red soil plains, stony hills and rock holes.

Gradually I felt a desire to paint the wonderful old Aboriginal people who had welcomed and taught me. They were unknown to the world at large, but so important and revered by those close to them, and I wanted to honour them. My first portrait, of Jim Whyman, was done in 1982, and my second, of Ethel Edwards, in 1992. The gap between painting the two was caused by a realisation that some of the Elders urgently wanted to write down traditional stories and their own life memories for the younger people. I became involved in helping with this, both in Wilcannia and in other parts of far western NSW. I was working with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal friends and together we formed the Western Heritage Group, which has now published 5 books related to Aboriginal life and cultural heritage.

Eventually the oral history projects took so much of my time and creative energy that for years I felt emotionally depleted when I turned to art-making. I also began offering art activities to kids in my home, and became involved in art-and-story projects at both Wilcannia’s schools – which also took a lot of time and energy. I don’t regret those community-based choices – they were extremely life-giving for me – but it did mean that my growth as an artist seemed to slow down. And yet I realise now that something was growing inside me, waiting its time.

A big step forward in my art-making came when I began doing sculptural ceramics about 10 years ago. I’ve had very little training in this, so I’ve had to work intuitively, feeling my way without any learnt rules about how it ‘should’ be done. This has been very liberating for me, pushing me to trust and honour the intuition that wells up from somewhere deep inside me. Working with clay has also brought out my sense of the whimsical again, which I’d turned away from at the age of 11 – and that’s spilled over into some of my work in other media.

So now, in my late 70s, I’m feeling freer, more real and more truthful in my art-making than I ever felt before. Every step is life-giving for me, and I’m open to whatever may come!

– Karin Donaldson, 2021