Gordon’s wife and Wadawurrung eldest aunt Marlene Gilson began painting in her late 60’s and within a year she was an exhibiting artist.
Ms Gilson had asked her children to keep her occupied while she was unwell, so her son Barry gifted her a wooden train set to paint for her grandchildren, while her daughter Deanne left them with a blank canvas.
Later that year, in 2012, her paintings were exhibited alongside Deanne’s work at the Art Gallery of Ballarat.
Three years later, she won the People’s Choice Award at the 2015 Victorian Indigenous Art Awards for her large-scale painting Bunjil’s Final Resting Place, Race Meeting at Lal Lal Falls.
Ten years after her first brushstroke, Ms Gilson’s work will be projected onto the Sydney Opera House and shown in art galleries across the country.
“When Deanne first gave me the canvas, I said, ‘I don’t know how to paint on it,'” Ms. Gilson said.
“Now I just keep painting.”
Sharing stories from the goldfields
Art has given Ms Gilson the opportunity to tell stories from her culture, including those her grandmother told her as a child.
Ms. Gilson is a descendant of King Billy, an indigenous chief of the Ballarat region at the time of the Eureka Stockade, and his wife Queen Mary.
Many of her paintings tell stories of the goldfields, including her painting of Mount Warrenheip and the Eureka Stockade which is in the Art Gallery of Ballarat.
She said she wanted a new focus on Aboriginal involvement in significant historical events.
Ms Gilson said she painted the Eureka Stockade – a rebellion by goldfield workers in 1854 against the cost of a miner’s license – from her grandmother’s stories.
“When the fighting broke out, some of the children and women ran into the Aboriginal camp,” she said.
“George Yuille (a white man) lived in the camp with one of the Aboriginal women, so it wasn’t scary for the children to run there and be with them.”
Mrs Gilson’s painting Jones Circus in Eureka tells the story of young Wadawurrung men who were recruited as circus performers.
“That would have been our people,” she said.
“I like this story, it’s one of my favorites.
life in the country
Ms Gilson has lived on her land in Gordon for 51 years and said she “wouldn’t live anywhere else”.
She said her children grew up painting, drawing, crafting and singing on the property and used art to tell cultural stories.
“We had a mine shaft on the property and Deanne would go there all the time, pulling clay off the site and making pots — I still have one of her pots somewhere,” she said.
Carry on the legacy
Ms. Gilson’s son, Barry James Gilson, uses the power of the spoken word to continue the legacy of sharing his culture with the community.
He is known locally for incense ceremonies, storytelling events and his powerful voice when singing in speech.
He was a storyteller at the National Celtic Festival in Portarlington last month and has performed at many NAIDOC Week events in the region.
“We need to educate the public about the stories of colonization and how we continue to survive,” he said.
Mr Gilson will be singing and storytelling at the Meredith Music Festival again this year and performing at the Meadow Festival in Bambra, 20 minutes inland from Lorne in March, as well as A Day On The Green, Rainbow Serpent Festival and Golden Plains Music Festival.
He said that music festivals could be the future of sharing cultural stories.
“There’s a hunger for that knowledge, people can’t get enough of it,” he said.
“Rather than having an MC all the time, why not have a traditional manager who talks about the history of the place?”
Mr Gilson said singing and speaking in his language in front of thousands of people at these festivals was “electrifying”.
“I just feel great about educating people about important issues,” he said.
“You reach a larger audience at the same time. I think it might be the future of sonic storytelling in this country.
“We’ve made leaps and bounds over the past decade in accepting our culture and being represented and not being sidelined.
“The meaning of that is now exactly where it should be.”
NAIDOC week is celebrated across the country from July 3rd to 10th.