Kate Kelly: Sister of an Outlaw
A collection of narrative paintings and art book touring 2015-2018 and beyond.
Rebecca Wilson’s travelling exhibition and book has just returned from London. The Kensington Central Library in London hosted Rebecca’s talk on Kate Kelly and her paintings and prints were exhibited at Kensington Town Hall, having been invited to the Parallax Art Fair.
Kate Kelly (1863-1898) was the younger sister of Ned Kelly, the notorious bushranger. She was an independent woman who, with support from campaigners for the abolition of capital punishment, approached the Governor of Victoria to plead with him to spare Ned’s life. As a folkloric icon, Kate Kelly has appeared as a character in films, novels and even as the subject of a song by the pop group the Whitlams.“Now you do horse tricks in a wild west show. Sharp-shooting Kate, the last of the Kellys. Now the queen of a rodeo.” (The Whitlams, Kate Kelly, 2002)
Harvest Moon, Eternal Life 2012, 120 x 120 cm
At the inquest into Kate’s death Bricky stated that on the last night she was seen alive, he had chastised her for her recent bout of heavy drinking. When Kate disappeared she had a five week old
baby and three young children. Her body was found eight days later in Forbes Lake.
Kate’s life was filled with tragedy, overtaken by exceptional events. She married William “Bricky” Foster in Forbes when she was pregnant with their first child. An excellent horsewoman, she rode as a decoy for the Kelly gang and was known for delivering supplies and ammunition when the gang was hiding-out. She even once took a bullet, according to “Bricky’s” relatives. She became a celebrity after her infamous brother Ned Kelly was hanged in Melbourne Gaol in 1880.After the Kelly gang’s demise, Kate travelled widely with her older brother Jim, performing on horseback and exhibiting weapons and other Kelly memorabilia, until she moved to Cadow Station near Forbes to escape the limelight. Kate’s life ended abruptly at the age of 36. She was found dead, possibly through suicide, in Forbes Lake about a week after she had been reported missing. Kate’s surviving brother Jim collected her three remaining children (three others had died) and “Ma Kelly” (Ellen) then raised her grandchildren at Eleven Mile Creek.
“I see Kate as a strong female figure of skill, adventure, love and spirit,” says Rebecca Wilson. “At the same time, like all of us, she was flawed, complicated and probably misunderstood.”
With My Heart, Goes My Sister 2011, 120 x 120 cm
Maggie dies in Victoria, far away from her beloved younger sister, Kate. At this stage in Kate’s tumultuous life, she had already lost her father, two sisters, two brothers and two of her children. Kate had been very close to Maggie. She reportedly spoke of suicide after Maggie’s death.
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.
Fatal Bloodline – Glenrowan 2013, 120 x 120 cm
A portrait of Ned Kelly based on Thomas Carrington’s drawing
printed in July 1880 in the Australasian Sketcher, a journal
of illustrations, engravings and articles about public and social life and events.
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.
“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.”
Sisters in Arms 2013, 80 x 120 cm
Kate, Maggie & Grace Kelly surround their injured brother in Glenrowan, after he had been shot. In a letter donated to Melbourne Library in 2012, an eye- witness describes the Kelly sisters wailing in the street and Kate with her arm around Ned’s neck.
Wilson’s larger landscape paintings depict crucial events in the Kelly saga, as well as intimate daily scenes. The broader settings include gold-fields, 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 for the police. 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 floating in the lake.
‘Til Death Do Us Part 2011, 160 x 120 cm
The wedding day of Kate Kelly to William “Bricky” Foster
Rome-based art critic Jonathan Turner writes: “In her ongoing series of figurative works exploring the myths and legends surrounding Kate Kelly, Rebecca Wilson brings to life the pioneering spirit. She focuses on the adventurous feminism of early Australian settlers, when women were often left alone in the bush, battling against hardships and a frequently corrupt constabulary, while the men shirked responsibility. Furthermore, she references outspoken writer Germaine Greer in several paintings. Wilson partially reproduces the cover of Greer’s seminal book The Female Eunuch, making a further comment on the objectification of women and the revolutionary role of the early Suffragettes.”
“Rebecca Wilson captures different moods in her subjects, alternatively energetic and lethargic. Some figures are shown in sharp outline, as though they are stiffly posing in a studio, frozen in a formal 19th Century family photograph. Horses appear as recurring motifs. The artist sees the horse as a metaphor for the untamed Kelly bloodline.”
“In Wilson’s confident paintings, the narratives shift. The perspective is tilted, with shadows and forms overlapping and shimmering in the outback sun. She uses a vivid palette of gold, ruby, sapphire, emerald and other jewel-like colours. Some of her portraits give a respectful nod to Sidney Nolan and his renowned paintings of Australia’s favourite outlaw, as well as to the newspaper illustrations from the late 1880’s by Thomas Carrington, but Rebecca Wilson’s graphic and original compositions remain as bold as Ned Kelly’s bush-ranging.”
Rebecca Wilson’s exhibition retells a visual story of events and folklore inspired by the life and times of Kate Kelly, re-interpreted by the artist to include a collection of portraits based on photos discovered by the artist during her in-depth research over the past five years. According to the artist, “It seemed like every chapter of her life was a painting waiting to happen.”
The nucleus of this travelling show for 2015 consists of about 40 paintings, and will be adapted to each venue, and supplemented by archival material. After Blackheath, the exhibition will travel to Bathurst’s Wholefood Kitchen & Gallery in June, the Leichhardt Library in Sydney in July, the TAFE College March St Campus in Orange from September 1 and finally to the Rosie Johnston Gallery in Forbes from September 21– October 31. The Lachlan-Kalari River Arts Festival is organizing aligned events and exhibitions around Forbes from October 30-31. The show appears in 2016 at Grenfell Art Gallery. See beow for a link to their website.
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 galleries in Australia and overseas. Recently, Wilson completed a residency at the famous Red Gate Gallery in Beijing, China. Her Kate Kelly work has been in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Melbourne and she has appeared on TV to dicuss her research, paintings and book. 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 at TAFE Western Institute in the Central West.
For further details and updates, visit facebook.com/rwilsonart or riverartsfestival.org.au To arrange interviews or hi-res images for publication, or for book and artwork sales enquiries please contact: Rebecca Wilson E: firstname.lastname@example.org M: 0400 216 069