A resilient, passionate and groovy grandmother, Deanne Gilson is retracing the matriarchs in her life, and through culture, art and family, finding a strength that is guiding her through the good and bad times.

Ms Gilson is an avid artist, creating every day. With a passion for drawing and painting, her work was shortlisted as a finalist in the 2019 R&M McGivern Prize.

A proud Wadawurrung woman, her artworks tell the stories of colonial disruption, the loss of family, language and traditions. She explores how this disruption continues to affect the lives of Aboriginal women today.

Daughter of Aunty Marlene Gilson; who is also painter and hosts her own award-winning art practice, Ms Gilson is currently undertaking her PhD in Aboriginal Women’s Business at the Institute of Koorie Education at Deakin University, Geelong.

“I’m looking on my Mum’s side at all my matriarchal women and what they lost through colonisation and how that has affected them … how that’s affected me today and how my art practice forms part of our healing,” Ms Gilson said.

“I’m coming up to my mid-50s, it’s nearly killed me but it’s been fantastic. I literally started and I couldn’t hold a conversation as far as the arts goes … they all say to me, now you got your voice sis!” she laughs.

Ms Gilson said her decision to study was driven by the thought that it would be the only time she could tell her family’s story.

“As an Aboriginal woman, our story is all the bad stuff, that’s all people know. Learning has been a painful story, it hasn’t been fun but I’m telling our story from an Aboriginal perspective.”

Born in Melbourne in 1967, Ms Gilson’s family moved to rural Victoria when she was seven. Although having rough beginnings, Ms Gilson found art was a way of finding her feet.

“We were the only Aboriginal family in our town really, we were outed. Growing up was painful. There was no love from anyone, apart from immediate family. You grow up alone, you have a lot of thinking time,” she said.

“We lived near a clay mine, and I started off making little clay pots in the clay mine. There were times when kids just ran free, there was no curfew – you just did your thing, you were never inside. We lived in a tin shed for a couple of years so there wasn’t really a house to go into anyway!”

“I really got into drawing a lot, by the time I was 16 I was in love with drawing the bush. I used to sketch with a pencil, nothing flash, paper from school.”

Her art and study have provided her with an avenue to heal and connect with her family past and present, as well as give the gift of knowledge to those to come.

“I’ve got two boys, I write about women’s business, but one day I’ll get a granddaughter or great granddaughter who will one day go, ‘Wow I can use all of Nanny’s stuff’,” Ms Gilson said.

“Our family have really strong roots here, I think we’ve been here [for] 3,000 to 7,000 years … I figure my spirit is here.”

“I’m a lot like my Mum, she’s a fabulous painter, she is gorgeous and we share that knowing. We are sociable but we are private. We don’t overshare.

“Mum has always said you don’t tell people everything. When the time is right, we will say what we need to say. And that is the whole point of the study, it’s basically with that knowledge of what happened to our women was horrific.

“It has made me stronger. I’m proud of myself … I didn’t have a voice right up [until] I was 39. I was too scared to speak. I feel like now my boys have got the Mum that they should have had. There’s been a lot of tears!”

Whether painting or pottery, Ms Gilson is constantly creating.

“I make art every single week, each day. I might make a little pinch pot, or a bigger painting. What I like to do now is I go collect ochre and I paint with that,” she said.

“The painting in the R&M McGivern Prize, that’s pretty much all ochre … the pink comes, straight from my Country.”

The Wadawurrung artist noted her surprise at her artwork being listed as a finalist.

“I was shocked! I think because I’ve used ochre and symbols … I didn’t think that I really ticked that box because I’m somewhere between contemporary art and traditional.

“It’s actually a creation story. It wasn’t done for the prize it was done for me. I had the most beautiful pink and red ochre near where I lived, and I wanted to do a big painting with it. I’ve done the big red gumtree, and that’s our creation tree.

“Because Ballarat was pretty much one of the first places to be colonised with the goldfields, everyone came here. Our family were massacred, torn apart and put into missions and separated.

“My mum’s grandfather was removed from his Mum, there is so much trauma so for them in Melbourne at such a big contemporary art prize, to acknowledge our story, our creation story … it’s so powerful.”

The R&M McGivern Prize is currently on exhibition, having opened on November 23, the prize will close on February 1. It is on show at ArtSpace at Realm and Maroondah Federation Estate Gallery.

For more information on Deanne Gilson, visit: https://www.deannegilson.com/.

By Rachael Knowles