Vale Laurie Nilsen

The eldest of thirteen children, Laurie Nilsen was born in 1953 and grew up in a tent in the public camping reserve on the banks of Bungil Creek, Roma, south-west Queensland. As a teenager he moved to Brisbane to pursue a career as a jockey. He then established himself as commercial artist and printer, before completing a Bachelor of Arts and securing a successful career as professional artist. Nilsen was a co-founder of Fireworks Gallery and a founding member of the Campfire Group of Artists and proppaNOW Artists Collective. For over twenty-five years he has been a lecturer in the Bachelor of Contemporary Australian Indigenous Arts course at Queensland College of Art, Griffith University. In his own words, Nilsen told Michael Aird about his life and career – shortly before the much-loved artist passed away on 6 March 2020.

In the 1980s I would have been the only Aboriginal commercial artist in Queensland. It was a time when Aboriginal Departments and organisations were starting up and I was picking up the work designing logos. I worked in the Aboriginal Education Unit, based in Inala, which was an independent unit within State Education. I built it up from working with a little print machine, to a full-on publication unit. We could print, collate, book-bind; we could do everything. I was illustrating books from all over Queensland, in particular the Aboriginal community schools. We were not supposed to be returning a profit, but I was pouring the money back into the business and that is how I built it up. I employed four staff and they were getting paid from the revenue that we were raising. It was a pretty good little unit. That was until GoPrint, the government printer, put a stop to us getting all this printing work.

I moved to Victoria in 1988. I thought here is a chance to spend some time getting serious about my art. One day I went for a wander about the bush and there was this art college I didn’t know existed. It was part of the Gippsland Institute and is now within Monash University. I walked around and talked to a couple of lecturers and students, and thought that I wouldn’t mind using this place for a while. I had an interview and they said I could get my Bachelor of Arts in two years, as I already had a Certificate in Commercial Illustration. I enrolled and had access to some great lecturers and printmakers. In 1990 I walked away with a BA. I’ve never been worried about bits of paper, but I am really glad I did that.

In 1989 I was up from Victoria on holidays visiting family in Roma, when Marshall Bell and Michael Eather came and met with me. They told me about the ‘Balance’ exhibition that they were planning for the Queensland Art Gallery. I said I had a little artwork and they were interested. I made these axe-heads while I had access to the foundry at the college at Gippsland. That was the first time I cast in metal. If you look at that work, there is a traditional axe-head one side and drawing in the background of some scar-trees, significant sites. On the other side is the European axe and a drawing of the devastation that the European axe has done, in clearing land. It is only a small piece, but politically loaded. When Michael Eather saw it, he decided it would be a good piece for the ‘Balance’ exhibition.

That was the start of a really good relationship with both of them. It was funny when I took Eather down to Bungil Creek and showed him where I grew up in the camping ground. He said, ‘we have a lot in common, we should catch-up and go camping.’ I said, ‘why would I want to go camping; I just showed you where I spent fifteen years camped in a tent!’ Marshall and me, we never crossed paths when we were young. Him and his brother Richard lived up the road in Mitchell, which is only eighty kilometres away.

I helped organise the artist conference in Yarrabah in 1992. Michael Eather, Richard Bell and especially Marshall Bell did a lot of work to organise that conference. Lots of things came out of it, and one of them was the discussion to start a Bachelor of Indigenous Visual Arts at the Queensland College of Art (QCA). When the course started, my Bachelor of Arts placed me in a prime position to become a lecturer. I ended up teaching at QCA for twenty-five years. When you have a set of skills, you have something to pass on. We all have a duty to do that. It is good to be able to pass that knowledge on. Some of the old skills, you cannot learn anymore.

In 1993 Marshall Bell and I had taken a show to Finland. Before leaving we had organised a prisoner’s exhibition at a gallery called Space Plentitude, in George Street (Brisbane). We were all looking forward to that. It was our first big exhibition working with a broad range of community members. It was much bigger than the small exhibition space we had been using at the Spring Hill Baths (Queensland). It was really hard, trying to work with four or five different prisons who all had different rules and regulations. When we got back from overseas we met with Steve Alderton, who worked at Space Plentitude. He told us the bad news, that the gallery committee had disbanded and the show couldn’t happen. We were worried about the fifty or more artists that were going to be really disappointed. But then Steve said that he has the keys to the building – we could put the power back on and have the show. So we did; we went ahead. It was a big community turn-out.

After the show we were all pleased with how everything went. Then we decided to stay in the gallery. The landlord lived in Singapore so we found his bank account details and just managed to find enough money to pay the rent, we were there for a few months before we let him know he had new tenants. So that’s how Fireworks Gallery started. It started by default.

A lot my art is about real life stuff. I first discussed Pauline Hanson in a 1997 show called ‘Black Humour,’ soon after Pauline came on the political scene. I started to use barbed wire as medium for political works, when I made the Pauline Hanson fish. It was all about the hierarchy of how Pauline sees the world and Aboriginal people, with herself at the top. So the fish got less ugly as you went down. Pauline, she just keeps going forever. Just when you think she has run out of ammunition; she will come up with another one of her really dumb comments that she is really good at. Then I might get a bit more mileage out of her. She’s been good to me, Pauline, over twenty years of producing art about her.

I have made about thirty barbed-wire emus, so I have lost track of where they have all ended up. Emus are near and dear to me; they are my totem. I grew up seeing them perish the way they do. There is not a lot you can do about it. It’s just the way it is. They are awkward. A kangaroo or a wallaby can either jump over or crawl under a barb wire fence. But poor-old emu, they can smell the water and all they want to do is get a drink. They will pace up and down that fence for days trying to get through, then they make the fateful decision to step through the top two rungs, because that is the height they are. As they trip through, their leg gets caught. The more they struggle the tighter it gets. They always get hung up by one leg. I came across thirty in a fence once, fifteen were dead and fifteen I had to be put out of their misery. I didn’t have a rifle that day, I used to carry a little 22, just to shoot some bush-tucker. I had to go and cut a good stick from a sapling and go along and put them out of their misery. It was the right thing to do as they would have just lay there for another day or two and died a horrible death.

When I graduated, my boss used to take delight in telling the station owners that I had just finished my Bachelor of Arts degree. I had a reputation of being a good axe-man, but they would say, ‘did you go get a degree so you could come out here and swing an axe?’ It has taken me a long time to get to where I am now, with my whole income generated from art. I wear different hats, and one of those hats is lecturing. Some of it is commissioned work, but all art related. It is a good position to be in. Heaps of times I have considered giving up art and getting a boring job. That is what I used to do at different times, drop out and go get a job in construction, ‘cause that always pays so well. It would not take me long to pay my credit card off, so I could come back and do art again. I always knew I would be back doing art.

I love the art industry. I love the people. It is one of those industries where there are not many arseholes. In the art world, you get some weird people of course, but it is not like some industries where they will cut your throat. Most people are pretty good. You don’t set out to be an artist and make a living out of it. It is just something you like to do, and with people you like to work with. If it gets to a point where you can make a living out of it, well that’s a bonus. The primary thing is that we love doing it, and that is why we do it.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 50, 2020
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