ARNOLD Williams is that rare kind of artist who seems totally comfortable within his own skin.
He’s lucky. His father, Jimmy or “Boze” Williams is one of Queanbeyan’s most sought-after artists, known for his dot-paintings that feature Bogong moths. His aunt is Ngambri elder and artist, Matilda House. His mother, Cheryl, is a Wiradjuri woman from whose land he claims his ancestry. Both his grandfather and great-uncle were artists, too.
Right now, the 33-year-old Williams is holding a one-man show at Strathnairn Gallery in Holt. It’s a big step for the quietly-spoken artist who has, to date, preferred to give his paintings away to his son’s school or to “people who will look after them”.
Persuaded in 2013 to enter a work in the Queanbeyan City Council Regional Art Awards, he carried off the Indigenous Artist Award, with judge Anita McIntyre praising his work as “beautifully executed”.
Encouraged by McIntyre, who is also the chair of Strathnairn Arts, Williams took three months off from his job as a house painter and threw himself into his art. The result is “My Country – Wiradjuri”, a significant solo show that looks set to sell out.
“CityNews” caught up with McIntyre and co-curator Carolyn Fitzpatrick as they were hanging the show, oohing and aahing over the fine dot-paintings of honey ants, witchetty grubs and fish, while admiring several new highly original works based on tree-carvings found on Williams’ home country near Peak Hill.
Later after a dash to Theodore, we found Williams relaxing under the air-conditioning on a scorching day with his partner of 20 years, Danielle, and their seven-year-old son Maliyan, (“eagle” in Ngunnawal).
Born in Canberra but raised in Peak Hill until age 12 when he was schooled in Queanbeyan for a time, Williams gets over to his maternal country as often as possible.
As a child he was taught the ancient art of hunting for goanna, turtle, wild duck and witchetty grubs by his grandfather, the dominant influence in the family, who fuelled the imagination of the young Williams.
It was a uniquely happy childhood.
“I didn’t know what racism was until I came back to Canberra,” he says, “I didn’t even know what an ‘Abo’ was when they called me one… I wasn’t angry, I just didn’t understand.”
To-ing and fro-ing between Peak Hill and Queanbeyan, he considers himself to have enjoyed “the best of both worlds… freedom gives you respect”.
In his view many over-urbanised children are estranged from their culture – “this is why a lot of kids are arrogant”. He doesn’t drink, and embraces a quiet lifestyle that gives him space to paint.
Williams’ sense of his Wiradjuri ancestry informs his art. Though not formally trained in art school, he spent some time in Papunya, NT, the home of dot painting to learn from the “old school” of elderly women who have mastered the art. Once they got him to dig a deep hole to find honey ants, now the subject of his finest works.
Although heavily influenced by dot painting, he follows his own instinct in using the colours of nature.
In an unusual decision, his whole family chipped in to buy the old mission on the river about 20 km from Peak Hill as a family retreat. Here he finds time to paint and introduce his son to bush culture.
There he and his family spotted several priceless burial tree-trunks that they are endeavouring to preserve and nine or 10 of the tree carvings that now form part of his art.
Though not conventionally ambitious, Williams would now like to devote more of his time to painting, especially in Wiradjuri land.
“It’s more peaceful there,” he says.
“My Country – Wiradjuri,” paintings by Arnold Williams, Strathnairn Arts, 90 Stockdill Drive, Holt, until February 16.