Indigenous artist Karen Mills creates her own style of painting and imagery. As a member of the Stolen Generations, she fuses themes of identity, the connection and disconnection with culture and the concepts surrounding Australia’s Indigenous past.
During her childhood, Karen Mills knew little about the origins of her Aboriginal family. Born in Katherine in the Northern Territory, she was adopted as a baby and raised in South Australia. After leaving home, she returned to the Territory to reconnect with her family history, so we started our conversation with Karen in the years after that key point in her life.
You became an artist later in life; what led you to this decision?
I was 35 years old when I started studying at the Northern Territory University (now Charles Darwin University). It was a time in my life where I had the opportunity to become a mature-age student and I had a supportive partner who encouraged me to go and study. Art just seemed like a natural choice. I had loved art when I was younger and had hopes of making it a career, however once I reached adulthood and was living independently, I found myself with other concerns to deal with, especially after my children came along.
What have been the major influences on your practice?
Probably it is my identity as an Indigenous Australian and the way my life experience informs my art. I am one of the Stolen Generations. I am a descendant of the Balanggarra People of the Oombulgurri and Forrest River Aboriginal reserves, in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia. During the past 30 years I’ve learned a lot about Indigenous Australian art and culture. I have worked in arts administration and have been involved in organising exhibition projects of Aboriginal art. I’ve met many Aboriginal artists and have had the chance to see their art and visit their communities and art centres.
The other significant influence on my art practice is Abstract Expressionism. As a child I was exposed to different forms of art. I loved reading. I learned to play musical instruments and had art lessons. It wasn’t unusual to spend a Saturday afternoon visiting the art gallery or museum on North Terrace, in Adelaide. I remember going to see ‘Blue Poles’ (1952) by Jackson Pollock at the Art Gallery of South Australia on a school excursion. I thought the work was completely fascinating. I’d never experienced seeing a painting like ‘Blue Poles’ before. It was the moment that I fell in love with expressionist art and abstraction. I have continued to be inspired by it ever since.
You returned to the Northern Territory to learn about your Indigenous heritage – what were your most notable discoveries?
Family and community. Living in the North has enabled me to meet natural relatives and be part of the community in Darwin. I met my husband after I moved to Darwin. We have been together for over 20 years. I’ve become part of his large, extended Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family as well. I am glad about developing a close friendship with a younger sister. We only met each other in the last few years. Last year we went on a road trip together to visit family in Wyndham in WA. It is a profound experience to look at the countryside and feel a direct connection to my ancestors’ landscape. I also like living in the Top End because of the tropical climate and closeness with the natural environment. It feels like home, something I never felt when I lived in Adelaide.
Your paintings illustrate your observations of the landscape. What are some of the things that you see?
The most important observation that I get from the Australian landscape is a deep sense of Aboriginal history embedded in the land. I reflect on the many generations of Aboriginal people who lived in this country before colonisation and who were dispossessed of their land when the Europeans arrived. I wonder about how the landscape might have looked in the past and how Aboriginal people would have walked upon it knowing all of the places. Sometimes, I have felt the presence of ancestral spirits and the country speaking to me.
You have described your paintings as “lyrical landscapes of memory”?
Yes, when I paint I am thinking about experiences, places, things that have happened, people who have been part of my life and seeing it in my mind. It’s all there. In my earlier work I liked to reference Aboriginal weaving and string bag forms. In those paintings, I was thinking about the process of socialisation in Aboriginal culture, and the transfer of knowledge between generations. It happens when children learn the stories about their country and their connection to it when they are with their families gathering the raw materials for weaving. My loop mark patterns symbolise childhood memories of my adoptive mother knitting and the things she taught me.
You use hand-made, natural dry pigments and ochres; why do you choose to work with these materials?
I’ve always liked to create texture and layering in my work. Previously I worked with acrylic paints. I began painting with dry pigments and natural ochre about five years ago. I had been curious about working with the medium because I had long been an admirer of highly textured ochre works by other artists. I like the simplicity of mixing paint by combining the pigment powder with water and fixative. I also like the luminous and textural quality of the pigments, which are mainly mineral based. While I source most of the dry pigments from an art supply store online, I use natural ochre that I grind myself when it is possible to get some. The hand-ground ochre adds a lot of texture because it is less fine.
Some of your earlier works such as ‘Sturt Creek’ (2013) contain large, freeform strokes whereas your newer works in the Untitled – Terrain Series (2015) reveal more intricately detailed areas of colour. Was there a particular reason for this change in style?
I don’t think of it as a change of style, but rather, a matter of scale of the work and whether I choose to leave the gestural marks revealed or hidden behind layers of paint and hint at what is beneath the surface. The paint drip marks on the sides of the painting have become a signature and they give viewers an indication of the different layers. I like the randomness of the paint dripping down the sides of the canvas. I can get obsessed with the paint qualities of a certain pigment and then like to play with it, such as the cadmium orange or the graphite black. The Untitled – Terrain Series paintings that I created for the Tarnanthi exhibition, at the Art Gallery of South Australia in 2015, were the first time I adapted my painting style to such a big stretcher. It was the largest size I have worked on. I tend to make smaller canvases that enable me to work across the whole surface, from edge to edge, in single fluid brushstrokes.
What have been the challenges in becoming an exhibiting artist?
Living in Darwin does create a challenge with getting your work known. Though vibrant, the local art community is small. There are only a few private art galleries to get the opportunity to have a professional standard exhibition. Other challenges are that it simply takes a lot of time and dedication to keep making art over the years and to continue to afford the cost of art materials when there is not much financial return from being an artist. Promotion and marketing are probably my biggest personal challenges because these are not easy skills that I possess. It makes a big difference to be now represented by Alcaston Gallery and to get support with managing my art career.
What do you hope viewers of your work will take with them?
In painting terms, I hope viewers will enjoy a sense of wonderment, looking deeper beyond the surface and discovering their own meaning and associations with the work. In a broader sense, I hope my work gives viewers a greater knowledge and understanding about the diversity of contemporary Australian Aboriginal art. And that equally in a subtle way it draws attention and thought to the many ongoing social issues for Indigenous Australians, such as the separation of children from their families and the impact of government policies on generations of Aboriginal people.
Karen Mills in represented by Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne
Courtesy the artist and Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne.