AFTER a traumatic period in her life Fiona Clarke found solace and healing by creating stunning art pieces. JENNY McLAREN finds out more.
FIONA Clarke still relives the traumatic experience, as a nine-year-old, of watching helplessly as her mother died from a heart attack.
For the little Koori girl already battling a life-threatening illness, it was a cruel blow that would cast a decades-long shadow over her life.
The pain of losing her mother remains, but gradually Fiona found solace in the healing power of art.
Putting brush to canvas provided the therapy that would help mend her broken heart, calm her body against the invading illness, and ultimately open the door to career opportunities that she never dreamed possible.
"When Mum passed away it was the hardest time of my life," Fiona recalls. "My life was pretty sad. I think a lot of feelings were hidden away for a long time."
Now 56, the Kirrae Whurrong woman who grew up at Framlingham Aboriginal Settlement just out of Warrnambool has stepped out of the darkness and into the spotlight to become a lauded Indigenous artist.
Her work has gained prominence on the world cricket stage, in the public art arena, as a children's book author/illustrator and most recently with her own active-wear fashion label.
A decision to move to Melbourne two years ago to better access commission opportunities is paying off, although Fiona is adamant that "Warrnambool will always be home".
Her symbolic 'Walkabout Wickets' cricket design has been a game-changer for the artist. Initially selected by Cricket Australia in 2016 to mark the 150th anniversary of the First X1 Aboriginal cricket team and its subsequent tour of the UK, the design has now come to symbolise cricket's reconciliation movement.
It has featured on Australia's national Test uniforms, on bats, balls and stumps, on a massive silk banner and even on postage stamps.
In conjunction with Cricket Australia's inaugural reconciliation round for community and premier cricket clubs this weekend, the Aussie women's T20 side will sport the logo on their shirts when they meet their English rivals in today's Walkabout Wickets match in Canberra.
Walkabout Wickets was also adopted as the title of an internationally-screened documentary honouring the First X1, two of whose team members, Johnny Cuzens and Jimmy 'Mosquito' Couzens were Fiona's ancestors.
For Fiona, it all adds up to a growing public profile that she finds hard to reconcile with the sad little girl of her childhood.
"I've really got to pinch myself sometimes. I'm pretty grateful to be here today, doing what I do, and with so much support for everything I do," she reflects.
By rights, Fiona Clarke shouldn't be here today.
Born in Warrnambool in 1963, the youngest of respected Kirrae Whurrong elder Banjo and Audrey Clarke's six children, she was diagnosed with epilepsy at just three months.
Prescribed medication and sent home to Framlingham, Fiona's future appeared far from promising. Her parents were told she would likely die, with a life expectancy of 20 at best.
But the difficulties and limitations of life as an epileptic child and later the disappointment of being denied her dream of becoming a lawyer only strengthened her resolve to make something of herself.
It was at the age of about 12, watching her siblings painting around the kitchen table, that she first found relief and a glimmer of hope.
"There was always painting going on at home. Pat (Patricia) and Bernice were both painters and Lenny was a great drawer," she recalls. "Mum once painted on a boomerang that Dad made as a gift for someone.
"It was mainly Pat I used to see painting a lot of landscapes and Aboriginal art. She was a great inspiration for me."
When Fiona decided to try her hand with a paintbrush, she found it not only enjoyable, but she was rewarded with an unexpected health benefit.
"I used to find it was very calming for my epilepsy," she says. "It just calmed everything down."
A self-taught artist, Fiona initially began with dot paintings before switching to her present style of line work.
Sadly, it took the deaths of her brother Ian, 36, and niece Samantha, 18 in 1989 to provide the catalyst for her first serious foray into the visual arts.
"That really motivated me to do something with my life. That was when I put brush to canvas and became more of a serious artist."
Her first work was a simple painting of two turtles, a fitting symbol of the artist's slow but determined path to success.
Resolving to nurture her talents with formal training, Fiona studied a Diploma in Studio Textiles at South West TAFE in Warrnambool in 1993, later adding an Advanced Diploma of Art and Design to her resume.
Before long, the student became the teacher, tutoring Aboriginal TAFE students in Aboriginal art creation and production.
Fiona's exposure to the arts community opened the door to a stimulating new world of creativity and opportunity, including having her portrait painted by noted artist, the late Brian Dunlop. The 1993 oil painting, "Sundown, Sunrise" was exhibited in the National Gallery of Victoria and today hangs in the Warrnambool Art Gallery. Dunlop's subjects would later include Queen Elizabeth 11.
There followed a diversity of projects for Fiona, among them several album cover designs including two for south-west musician, Goanna front man Shane Howard. Then came a lead acting role in the documentary, "Ursula Frayne: A Woman of Mercy", her breakthrough first solo painting and tapestry exhibition in Melbourne and her first major commissioned work with renowned New Zealand artist Chris Booth on his sculpture "Strata" at AXA Plaza on Melbourne's Little Collins Street.
In what evolved into a successful professional collaboration with her husband, artist Ken McKean, the couple's first joint project was a mural for the Port Fairy Folk Festival in 1998. Another project Fiona is particularly proud of is their second major commission by City of Melbourne for the sculpture "Eel Trap" at Birrarung Marr park.
In recent months the couple has collaborated on a substantial public art project with their indigenous designs embedded on the forecourts of five new and renovated train stations on the Melbourne-to-Ballarat line.
It was on Christmas Eve in 1998 that Fiona's life reached a major turning point with the arrival of the couple's daughter Trish.
"My life changed in several ways," Fiona recalls. Not only were they overjoyed with the new addition to their family, but miraculously, the birth also signalled an end to the epilepsy that had plagued her all her life.
"It was the best thing that ever happened to me," she says. Now 21, Trish is also following the family tradition as an artist with several mother-daughter collaborations to their credit.
With the encouragement of editor Claire Jennings, Fiona turned her talents to children's Aboriginal picture books. The result was the 2012 release of the popular title "Minkgill Chases the Rainbow", a "cute, colourful little book" that Fiona says helped to lift her art to a brighter place.
Her second, book, "The Rainbow Serpent is Coming", is due out in the coming weeks.
While her latest project, an active-wear range featuring her indigenous designs is gaining momentum, Fiona cites her work with Cricket Australia as perhaps the highlight of her career so far.
A keen supporter of the game, she is also intensely proud of her family's place in the sport's indigenous history.
She is a firm believer in the role of sport in the reconciliation process, and hopes her art can help bring its healing powers to the game as it has her own life.
Cricket Australia's latest Reconciliation Action Plan announced in December, paid tribute to Fiona's contribution to the process, saying: "Walkabout Wickets is and will remain a prominent symbol and reminder of Australian Cricket's respect to Australia's First Nations peoples and an enduring connection to the 1868 Aboriginal Team who toured England.
"Cricket Australia thanks Aunty Fiona for her significant contribution to keeping the spirit of the Aboriginal trail-blazers of 1868 alive through art."