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Artist Profile | Rebecca Wilson - Bringing Kate Kelly Out of Ned’s Shadow

Kate Kelly’s life has been imagined in books, poetry and song and to a much lesser extent in art: in this realm her brother Ned has been the star. Most famous are Australian artist Sidney Nolan’s 1946-47 paintings on the theme of the 19th-century bushranger.

Hill End based artist Rebecca Wilson has spent years researching Kate’s life to bring her out of Ned’s shadow in her exhibition, Kate Kelly: Sister of an Outlaw.

Rebecca spoke to Robyne Young about the exhibition, her research into Kate’s life and some of the surprising connections with her own life she’s found along the way.

Rebecca, the focus of the exhibition is on Kate, but there is a definite nod to Nolan’s iconic works of her brother Ned. Was this a conscious decision?

I was acutely aware of the shadow that Nolan had cast over the Kelly subject. He is the father of it and rightly so. His grandfather was one of the troopers at Glenrowan I believe, so his personal connection and fascination shone through.

What I had to do was to bring a female perspective to the female side of the male legend, but most importantly a unique body of work to tell Kate’s story as my own. I also I felt I had to pay homage to Nolan because his works are part of the bigger Kelly story.

How did you pay homage to Nolan?

The scene in Harvest Moon Eternal Life has the wallpaper from the Fitzpatrick scene in Nolan’s work, Constable Fitzpatrick and Kate Kelly.  I wanted to refer to Nolan’s depiction of Kate being harassed by Fitzpatrick, because I don’t think this is what happened. I think Kate was having an affair with Fitzpatrick quite willingly. In Rendezvous and Fateful Night at the Kelly’s I’ve advanced the theory that has also appeared in folklore, that Fitzpatrick fathered a child with her.

In the work Ode to Nolan – Gun Mystery I refer the gun, covered in lard and wrapped in leather strapping, uncovered during renovations in Browne Street, Forbes. This had Kate’s initials on its handle and a few years ago it sold for $77,000.

Rebecca, when you first went to live in Hill End you had no electricity or running water. Some people might say that you took ‘walking in Kate’s shoes’ a little too far. How did that impact on your work?

I felt that I could relate to Kate and the conditions she lived in, but as I researched more and more I found that I had even more ties with her than I was aware of. Through my research about Cadow station near Forbes where Kate had worked as a servant, I discovered that the station had been owned by relatives of mine. Then it turned out that ‘Bricky’ Foster who she was married to at the time of her death had family at Hill End.

However, one of the eeriest connections arose when I became aware that I used to ride around Lake Forbes and there was a section I never liked to ride past because it always felt weird to me.

Importantly, I wanted to represent Kate as being more than a black and white character, she was a real woman. And there was nothing black and white about any of the Kellys, so this exhibition is full of colour.

How important has been the support from your regional community i.e. around Hill End and Bathurst, and even a bit further afield at Forbes where the exhibition has been scheduled to coincide with the Kalari Lachlan River Arts Festival?

It’s been great to get the support and see the connection with the community. I spent three years working toward the idea and then pitched it.  I’ve had fabulous assistance from the Regional Arts Board,  Arts OutWest, from Margot Jolly of the festival, the Forbes family history group and the Hill End Gathering Group.

It was fantastic to have Tracey Callinan, the Regional Arts Development Officer from Arts OutWest and Margo open the exhibition in Blackheath.

Kate Kelly hasn’t just held a fascination for you: she’s had books, poetry and even a song cycle that was performed in Forbes a few years ago written about her. At the opening of your exhibition at Leichhardt Library, Member for Balmain, James Parker said the power of the exhibition was in the role of women in history. But what is it about this woman that makes people want to know her story?

With the concept of our obsession with Kate, it tells me that people want to hear female stories and they want female heroes.  It also tells me that a lot of folkloric material about her must be weighted in truth or her story would have faded.  Plus the obvious thing about Australians – we LOVE an underdog!

Humans love a good yarn and her story has everything in it that makes for a great story with many emotional hooks.  Additionally, all the issues that resound through Kate’s story are still completely relevant today – she is timeless.

I actually felt a huge inner pressure to do Kate justice.  I wanted to tell her story as accurately as I could and try to capture the essence of who I thought she was. I was trying to convey the emotion and the tragedy within her story and intimate the personality I felt shone out through all my research.

Naturally, Kate’s story made me reflect on my own story and how the two stories had many threads that joined each other.  Kate’s is a huge story and it took me a long time to research and develop how I would depict her. Eventually I decided to try and record her image based on just a couple of photos that exist of her.

Rebecca you’ve also used interviews and even this excerpt from a bush poem, Ye Sons of Australia, to inform your work …

The daring Kate Kelly how noble her mien
As she sat on her horse like an Amazon queen,
She rode through the forest revolver at hand,
Regardless of danger, who dare bid her stand.

May the angels protect this young heroine bold
And her name be recorded in letters of gold,
Though her brothers were outlaws, she loved them most dear,
And hastened to tell them when danger was near.

There’s a lot of myth and legend that has been attributed to Kate, including that the horse she rode was shod backwards to put the police off the trail of the Kelly Gang, trick the police, but how important has it been for you to present Kate as a real person rather than a person of myth?

Kate definitely was a real person. She suffered trauma and there’s also more than a suggestion she may have suffered from post natal depression. In an interview around 1911 with journalist William Cookson, her brother Jim said, ‘They found her dead in a waterhole … It must have been awful for her … The doctor said it was milk fever and she had gone mad.’ This is supported by evidence the neighbour Susan Hurley gave at the inquest into Kate’s death. ‘… (Kate) said that she did not like the baby because it was on the bottle and she asked me to take it and that Mr Foster would pay for its keep, as she wanted to go away for a couple of days to get it straight.’

What has the response to the exhibition been so far, and what reception do you think it will receive when it gets into ‘true’ Kelly country?

I am overwhelmed and thrilled about how people have received the exhibition.  People are really connecting to her story through my images and are so surprised when they read the story cards I have completed with the works.  There are so many things that people just don’t know about our fabulous Kate Kelly.

Researching and painting Kate has been a deeply personal experience, especially with my links to both Forbes, Cadow Station and Hill End.  There’s an interesting link between story and country and I will feel complete when the work has been in front of the real experts – the heart of Kelly country.

The exhibition is heading down to Wangaratta Library for all of December and I am excited and terrified at the same time.

I really hope that I have done Kate justice according to the people in the heart of Kelly country. I just hope they enjoy what I have produced.  I’m really looking forward to chatting with other Kelly buffs and hearing what they see, think and feel about my work and my research.

 

Kate Kelly: Sister of an Outlaw has exhibited in Blackheath, Hill End and Bathurst and is currently at Leichhardt Library until 31 July. It will return to the Central West in Orange in September before travelling to Forbes from 21 September to 31 October. In December it will travel to the heart of Kelly country, Wangaratta.

About Rebecca Wilson: A graduate of the National Art School in 1997 and the College of Fine Arts in 2002, Rebecca Wilson has twice been a finalist in the Blake Prize at the S.H Ervin Gallery in 2001 and 2007 and the accompanying exhibition tour in 2001-2. Her solo show Australianism, 2007 was held at Mary Place Gallery in Sydney, and she has previously exhibited at various artist-run spaces in Paddington and Surry Hills. Her works are included in the annual group show and open-studio trail at the Jean Bellette Gallery in Hill End. As a guest lecturer she has focused on colour theory and art history at institutions in Thailand and she currently teaches painting and drawing at TAFE Western Institute.

You can read more about Rebecca and her work at rebeccawilsonart.com