Sylvia Wilson has only been painting with Martumili Artists for two years, but she’s practised art from a young age. In a return to her Martu heritage and her birthplace, she’s also only lived ‘back home’ in Newman since 2020. Despite these relatively short time frames, her drive and passion for art have quickly helped her establish a place as both an artist to watch and as Martumili Artist’s dynamic principal gallery assistant.
Testament to her motivation is the way Sylvia makes every minute count. Through the day she works in the gallery. At night, she paints and draws. The outcome of these nocturnal workings can be broadly grouped between two highly distinctive styles. The first, Sylvia’s ‘energy’ works, draw on her perception of the energy around her, within Country, and in her relationships with people. Sylvia has been developing this style since her late teens, influenced by the unusual and striking combination of the traditional works of her Martu forebears and New York street art. In these paintings, angular, geometrical forms are boldly outlined, while the shapes they create are filled with intricate and brightly coloured dotting. The second grouping, Sylvia’s portrait works, represent more recent experimentation, and reference the personal relationships she has with her Martu family members, as well as her fascinating and complex personal history. As Sylvia describes, resultant to being adopted to ‘whitefella’ parents at a young age, while at the same time belonging to the immensely strong and proud Martu cultural and language group, she has always ‘walked in two worlds’. In these frequently haunting and highly sensitive portraits, worked in charcoal and delicate gouache washes, features such as the eyes and mouth are often exaggerated to a beautifully emotive effect.
How do you like your cuppa tea?
I drink a cuppa tea in the afternoon when I’m relaxing, but I like to start the day with a strong long black coffee!
You’re in Newman at the moment, and the gallery and studio spaces have recently reopened after being closed over the Christmas break. How does it feel to be back?
I’ve been super excited to come back to Martumili. We’ve been setting up the gallery, doing install, and I’ve been learning a lot about the behind the scenes work in the gallery.
You’ve only recently returned to Newman to live, and you’ve had some unique, and also some really tough life experiences. Can you tell us a bit about your personal history?
My whitefella mum and dad, Pat and Sam Harper, adopted me and my sister in Newman in the 1980’s, and we moved to Perth with them. I was about three when I was adopted, and mum and dad had five older kids from thirteen to twenty years old. My dad used to work at the BHP mine. My mum passed when I was 25.
There was a lot of Martu mob that got adopted back in the 80’s, but they’re all coming back now. Coming back to Newman has been daunting. I didn’t get a handbook on how to be Martu- so I’m walking in two worlds. Me and my sisters are back home now, which is good. We’re still in contact with our adopted family, but I’ve gotta learn language, culture. I’m learning every day. It’s hard. When I first came back in 2018, I went and worked at Centrelink and then in the Women’s Shelter. I’ve worked in government for nine years- I worked at the Taxation Office in Perth before. I love tax [laughs]. I loved learning about superannuation and tax fraud.
Wow! That seems so different to your current focus in art! How did your journey as an artist begin?
I started when I was in high school twenty thousand years ago! [laughs]. I’ve always done my artwork. I went to Tafe and did Cert. three in Visual Arts, and then I did a five-week Diploma. After that I had to get a job. Mum said, “You need a job! Art’s not a job!” She was old school. So, I started working at McDonalds. I had to put my art on hold. But art was always my passion.
As an artist I’ve been in and out of Martumili in the last two years, but now I’m really getting experience every day. My dream job was to work in an art gallery, and it’s taken eighteen years of hard work to get here. It hasn’t even sunk in yet for me to say, “I’m here!”. It’s good.
Can you tell us about your paintings?
I love painting portraits, people’s emotions. When I do a portrait, I don’t really do it exactly how it is, but I do it how I see it and how I feel it. I capture their story in their eyes. Eyes are so powerful. [One of my favourite subjects is] Nanna Lorna. She’s my boss! We travel to go and see here. She’s getting old but she’s full of knowledge. She’s my blood grandmother, and she’s the same skin group as me.
My other style of painting, it’s more like energy. How I feel, how I see other people’s energy. You know you’ve got to feel someone’s energy, but also, I can see someone’s energy. You can see when someone’s sad and gone, their spirit’s gone. It’s not a landscape that I walk on, but the feelings around me.
I also like photography, capturing that raw moment. You can tell a lot from a photo.
What are some other things you enjoy doing?
I love travelling and working. I’ve travelled all over Europe.
Can you tell us about one of your dreams for the future?
I haven’t been to my grandfather’s and grandmother’s Country yet, but I’m hoping to go this year with Uncle Mathew Mintern and Serafina- my sister cousin. It’s out near Parnngurr community. It’s a place I feel I need to go. I think when I go out there it will change my artwork style.
What’s been your most exciting moment as an artist so far?
I think being confident in my portraits and drawings, being confident in my artwork. Just working in the gallery, you get more of an idea of people’s artwork and that’s helped. At exhibition time it’s been amazing seeing my works on the wall. For my first one, the ‘Paper Wangka’ exhibition, it was pretty daunting. To see it now- some on the wall, some off the wall- I’m not going to hold back anymore!
Words by Ruth Leigh.