By Ian Williams
Another chapter has been added to a remarkable outback art story that began 67 years ago in Central Australia – and there’s little doubt that Albert Namatjira would approve.
It was in 1949 that A.B. (Arty) Potts trekked to remote Hermannsberg in the Northern Territory to teach the celebrated Aboriginal artist the finer techniques of oil painting.
Three generations later and Arty’s great-granddaughter Ellie Scutchings is back in the red centre working with local elders on another unique art project which has been recognised with an SA Governor’s multicultural award.
A senior constable with the South Australia Police at Ernabella in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands, it just so happens that Ellie has inherited her great-grandfather’s artistic genes and is a talented wood sculptor.
After being posted to Ernabella as a child abuse investigator in 2013, Ellie quickly immersed herself in the Aboriginal culture and was fascinated by their artistic skills.
“I discovered they had art centres in each community and I was interested in watching them because it was such a great experience,” Ellie says.
She was particularly interested in the work of Anangu elders Margaret Dagg, Imuna Kenta and Tjimpuna Dunn.
Ellie observed the elders carve snakes and goannas from roots and burn images with hot irons. The results were impressive and – like great-grandfather Arty – she recognised an opportunity for a fusion of Aboriginal and western art.
A self-taught artist, Ellie started out sculpting two-metre totems from redgum logs with a chainsaw. Finding the whole experience rather exhausting, she switched to carving large plywood creations with a jigsaw.
It was a technique she thought could be integrated with Aboriginal designs.
“As the idea progressed I sat down with them but they couldn’t really comprehend my type of art,” she explains. “But they did realise it was easier if I did all the cutting and they didn’t have to go digging for roots.”
Margaret, Imuna and Tjimpuna created stories of their lives and the APY Lands with sketches in the dirt and Ellie carved the designs onto large pieces of plywood for the elders to burn their patterns.
Their efforts resulted in 17 unique carvings that were a highlight of last year’s South Australian Living Artists (SALA) Festival.
Ellie’s family own Bleasdale Winery at Langhorne Creek which hosted the exhibition and a launch which featured the elders’ cousin – Pitjantjatjara singer Frank Yamma – and a feast of toasted witchetty grubs.
Buyers of the artworks were given a commemorative book designed by Ellie with photos depicting the Aboriginal stories and art process.
“The art project was a great way to engage with the communities and help break down the barriers as well as being a great way for me to relax in my spare time,” says Ellie. “We’re now looking at what we can do together next, including different styles of art.”
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