Gallery Exhibition - Kate Kelly: Sister of an Outlaw

Exhibition: June 17th to July 31st 2016

Hill End-based artist Rebecca Wilson presents her solo exhibition of recent paintings Kate Kelly: Sister of an Outlaw. The show is a travelling, “pop-up” tour, which echoes the westerly trail followed by the pioneering settlers from Sydney to Blackheath, Bathurst & Hill End, then Orange, Forbes (as part of the biennial Lachlan-Kalari River Arts Festival in October) and finally, to the heart of Kelly country, Wangaratta. The nucleus of this travelling show consists of over 40 paintings.

Kate Kelly (1863-1898) was the younger sister of Ned Kelly, the notorious bushranger. Kate approached the Governor of Victoria to plead with him to spare Ned’s life. This created scandal and scathing media reports. Surprisingly, Sir Henry Parkes, five times Premier of NSW, is linked to Kate Kelly’s plight for her brother Ned. The pardoning of bushranger Frank Gardiner by the NSW Governor in 1874, had led to the fall of the Parkes government. In 1880 the media displayed harsh anti Kelly sentiment, ridiculing Kate’s attempt at achieving mercy for her brother and reminding the public & politicians of the Gardiner incident as a reason for Ned to hang and the government to maintain a harsh position.

Artist Rebecca Wilson grew up in Forbes, where Kate Kelly spent the final years of her life and it was Rebecca’s relatives who gave Kate Kelly, then known under the alias Ada Hennessey, her first job as a domestic servant at Cadow Station. Wilson has deep family roots in the Central West. She is a descendant of the pioneering couple Pierce and Mary Collits, who founded the famous, heritage-listed Collits Inn at Hartley Vale at the western edge of the Blue Mountains. It is well known that Pierce Collits, who had been transported to Port Jackson from London in 1801 for receiving stolen goods, had many connections with bushrangers in his days running the Inn. It is likely that the Collits’ and their descendants had closer dealings with the Kelly gang than is fully recorded, as Cadow station was frequently visited as a common stock route from Central Western NSW to Victoria.

As part of a long-term project, Wilson has researched the life and times of Kate Kelly for many years. She has fond memories of her late uncle telling her stories of how lovely Kate was, in tales that had been passed down to him by relatives. The local lore holds that Kate was an extraordinary woman who found herself in extraordinary circumstances. In her ongoing series of paintings, Rebecca Wilson has felt compelled to provide a personal vision of Kate’s life and how it intertwines with her own family history.

Wilson’s portraits are partly based on illustrations and vintage black-and-white photographs of key players in Kate’s life – her mother Ellen, her husband “Bricky”, her sisters Grace, Maggie and the eldest Anne (who died giving birth to a policeman’s baby while her husband was in gaol), her brothers Dan and Jim, fellow gang members Steve Hart and Joe Byrne, and Constable Fitzpatrick, who the artist strongly believes may have been the father of one of Kate’s children. Through ongoing research, Wilson asserts that Kate’s sister Alice, was possibly her daughter instead. There are references to the pair as being lovers but perhaps a lovechild too.

“During my research it became apparent that some local people viewed Kate as a drunk and a no-hoper while others, including my uncle, told me that she was known as a lovely and generous woman. In fact, people were sometimes offended by my desire to tell Kate’s story. They see it in black and white, but her life was simply not like that. My research revealed an innocent person born into a family who suffered greatly and who were often the victims of circumstance.”

“I have my own biases now about the people and the dramatic events in Kate’s life. I have also developed a strong compassion for Kate and the Kelly family, plus a deeper understanding of the amazing strength and resourcefulness she demonstrated throughout her life. She bore the most horrible depths of sadness and trauma. The troubles that unfolded in Kate’s life were mostly through the decisions and actions of men, typical for that era. These men were either in her life directly - her brothers, husband, lovers, various local policemen - or part of the wider political realm.”

Wilson’s larger landscape paintings depict crucial events in the Kelly saga, as well as intimate daily scenes. The broader settings include goldfields, maps of the town of Glenrowan where Ned Kelly was ambushed, Cadow Station near Forbes superimposed with ancestral faces, and Kate breaking-in colts, or riding a horse through bushland as a decoy. Wilson portrays images with highly charged emotions. We see the dubious joy of Kate’s wedding day to “Bricky”, Kate visiting the Governor to ask for mercy for Ned, the death of her sister Maggie, and the corpse of Kate at the lake’s edge, a muddy waterhole in the drought of 1898.

A graduate of the National Art School in 1997 and the College of Fine Arts in 2002, Rebecca Wilson has twice been a finalist in the Blake Prize at the S.H Ervin Gallery in 2001 and 2007 and the accompanying exhibition tour in 2001-2. Her solo show Australianism, 2007 was held at Mary Place Gallery in Sydney, and she has previously exhibited at various artist-run spaces in Paddington and Surry Hills. Her works are included in the annual group show and open-studio trail at the Jean Bellette Gallery in Hill End. As a guest lecturer she has focused on colour theory & art history at institutions in Thailand and she currently teaches painting & drawing at TAFE Western Institute.