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Speaking from the art

Flourish 14 Jan 2017

Cultural identity, the land and relationships frame the work of two inspiring Indigenous artists.

A piece of artwork from Saretta Fielding

For as long as she can remember, Saretta Fielding has loved losing herself in her art.

In a previous role, as the chief executive officer of Indigenous employment and training body Yarnteen, Saretta would doodle obsessively at meetings, while at home at night she would relax by indulging her love of painting.

“Everyone I worked with knew I painted,” she says.

In 2008, in the lead-up to the launch of an Indigenous bush tucker café in Newcastle, a Yarnteen board member called on Saretta’s creative talents.

“It was right before the launch and he phoned and said he knew I painted and could I supply some artwork for the launch,” Saretta says.

“I told him ‘no problem’ and then I went out and bought some canvases. I only had two days but I displayed eight paintings and more than half of them sold.

“It was the moment I realised other people liked my art and maybe I could share what I do.”

Saretta, a Wonaruah woman from the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, has spent the past eight years building a successful career from her paintings,greeting cards, homewares, cushion covers and sandstone engravings.

She has completed commissions for Royal Newcastle Hospital, Charlton Christian College, Grain Corporation Australia, Newcastle City Council and the Indigenous Youth Mobility Pathways Project (IYMP)of Newcastle.

But it was winning the Ray-Ban Indigenous Special Edition Wayfarers Design Competition in 2014 that enabled Saretta to become a fulltime artist.

“Winning that sunglasses competition brought me exposure and also quite a bit of confidence. Until then I was never game enough to call myself an artist. I thought it would imply that I had tickets on myself,” she says.

“But I’m quite comfortable with it now.”

Saretta ran with her newfound success and has never looked back. She paints full-time now and finds endless inspiration in other people’s stories.

“People and how they relate to their various clan groups is what fascinates me,” she says.

She has completed commissions for Royal Newcastle Hospital, Charlton Christian College, Grain Corporation Australia, Newcastle City Council and the Indigenous Youth Mobility Pathways Project (IYMP)of Newcastle.

But it was winning the Ray-Ban Indigenous Special Edition Wayfarers Design Competition in 2014 that enabled Saretta to become a fulltime artist.

“Winning that sunglasses competition brought me exposure and also quite a bit of confidence. Until then I was never game enough to call myself an artist. I thought it would imply that I had tickets on myself,” she says.

“But I’m quite comfortable with it now.”

Saretta ran with her newfound success and has never looked back. She paints full-time now and finds endless inspiration in other people’s stories.

“People and how they relate to their various clan groups is what fascinates me,” she says.

Saretta gets as much attention from non-Indigenous art admirers as she does from Indigenous buyers.

“I like to draw people in with my art,” Saretta says.“I see it as an invitation to identify with Aboriginal people and learn more about who we are and where we come from.”

Saretta’s cultural identity is a big part of her success. She often meets with her elders to talk about her work and is always careful to represent her community with great sensitivity.

“I want to avoid misrepresenting my culture,” she says. “My art has to be respectful and it has to be representative of where I come from.”

Photo of Indigenous artist Karlie Stewart

Karlie Stewart

Sensitivity to cultural representation is equally important to fellow Indigenous artist Karlie Stewart.

The 21-year-old was thrust into the limelight in 2014 when she was asked by Fairfax Media to create a piece of work to celebrate the Rabbitohs making the National Rugby League grand final for the first time since 1971.

The painting, Glory Through The Nations, featured a white rabbit against the background of a traditional Indigenous painting.

“There was a lot of interest in my work after that,” says Karlie, who lives in Maroubra and grew up on the South Coast of New South Wales.

In the past 12 months, the Yuin Nation woman has juggled studies in social work at the University of New South Wales with a painting commission for a chain of hotels based in Homebush.

“I completed it with another Indigenous artist and it is huge, about six feet tall,” she says.

“The colours of the dots reflect what the landscape would have looked like pre-settlement. There were lots of saltwater and freshwater swamps in the area, so lots of blue, green and brown.

“There is no name for the painting because I prefer not to name my works. I want people to have their own idea of what my art is about.”

Karlie’s artwork is inextricably bound with her Indigenous culture.

“I don’t think I am overly political, but when I am painting I am aware of my heritage and what it means to be an Indigenous woman, and I think about Indigenous history when I paint,” she says.

When Karlie is stressed at university, her art provides an escape.

“When I know I need time to myself I will often head to certain parts of Maroubra and Bondi, which I know are very significant places for Aboriginal culture,” Karlie says.

words Johanna Leggatt

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