Recently I caught up with artist Michael Daly at Artlands Victoria (Regional Arts Australia biannual national conference) Whilst others were networking or processing the talks and demonstrations Michael could be found absorbed in drawing what he was listening to or seeing.
Born in Melbourne . Lives now in Mission Beach.
Artform is drawing.
I am 55 years old. My sister was born on the 18th June 1961, the next year my sister was born in 18/6/62. This went on for a bit … with 4 of us born in the same week of June.
What was happening 9 months earlier?
My dads birthday! Finally my mum got him a pair of socks for his birthday .
How did you come to live in Mission Beach North Queensland?
With 7 kids under 9 yrs old, my father working for a factory in Melbourne got a government admin job in Townsville so I grew up in Townsville 2 hrs south of Mission Beach.
I did 10 years schooling in Townsville and then I went out on my own…
How did you get into the arts?
I got work as a sign writer learning the trade. This was proper art, first year apprenticeship I got to do lots of different things – I got the apprenticeship after working every Friday after school for free. They had two long walls and 12 sign-writers. All were skilled in different areas, fine art, lettering, I got to learn so much. I sat down and drew with pencils, then pastels and pen and ink learning the art, but signwriting by hand now is redundant because you can do it on computer, same as so many crafts, glassblowing, etching, silk screening, woodblock and printing … all medieval trades being replaced as tools change.
When computers arrived businessmen came into the trade rather than artists.
Now anyone can produce a sign.
How did these shifts impact you?
Sometimes when you are in a box you can’t see outside the box. I had an opportunity to have a young artist help me so I put on a young person to help me with computers and a website.
Sort of an apprenticeship like you had been given?
My artwork is quite detailed and I wanted to be able to view it like you can view things on google earth. To zoom in and look at it in more detail. That would have taken me a year to learn so I used a young person to help.
Has living at Mission Beach changed you or your art?
When I grew up in Townsville I grew up as an accidental racist… Palm Island was something we were taught as kids was a penal colony. I did 10 years out at Mt Isa where I was playing football, but when we moved to Mission Beach I bought a house on a hill that over-looked the beach. It was directly opposite the old mission site.
Out of of curiosity I thought I would look it up. I couldn’t find any information. I went to ask one of only nine Indigenous people in a town of 2000 at that time. What I did find was that what had been there was destroyed by a cyclone in 1918 and there were people buried on the hill. After the 1918 cyclone the Indigenous people were moved to Palm island.
The superintendent and his daughter were buried nearby but no one knew where. So I started to research and got in touch with the local Indigenous elder and he started telling me about the whole history of Mission beach and the whole history of North Qld and Palm Island.
The history is fairly simple…. basically in 1872 Cardwell was the most northerly settlement but in 1872 there was a shipwreck at Bramble Reef off Townsville and the survivors made it back to what is now Mission Beach. They were attacked and some were killed, including the captain. The survivors made it back to Cardwell. Robert Johnstone was the sub-inspector of the Native Police and he sent a party north to look for culprits and survivors. There was a massacre of the tribe at South Mission Beach.
How did that make you feel?
I started to get angry that when I was a kid no one had ever told me the true history so I made it a mission to tell the story without glossing over the facts.
So, then I started to use TROVE to get information. I would talk to Leonard a local T.O. (traditional owner) and artist and he would tell me how his stories would coincide…
So I began to investigate Hinchinbrook Island, what happened to the people… it had a massive Indigenous population. There were a couple of fishermen killed on an island near Hinchinbrook - on Goold Island. So a Native Police party went over to find out who killed the local fishermen and take retaliation. When the local missionary went back to the Island there was no one left on the island. Of the people that were on the island, some did escape but no one has come back to the island and ownership of the island is still to be settled.
I feel passionate and angry about the conspiracy of silence about the local history, so we put it together in picture form and put it online. If you go to my website you can see it all there.
So then I started working with schools to bring the local history to the local kids.
Why do you think local history is not known or taught in schools?
There is a fear something bad is going to happen. In Tully they were still hunting the Indigenous in the 1920s.
And Mission Beach?
There was no mission, it was a settlement, run by an ex-native police officer…. people were there in chains (more info)
What are you passionate about?
I tell stories. If I go down to the beach…. I don’t see empty beach, I see memories or past activities. I fill a space with memories.
Who is the audience for my stories? Anyone who shares my view so we share some kind of an association with the place.
It’s a way that I connect to people when I travel around. When I visited my friend in Crows Nest, in the local pub I was just drawing. The publican put me up end fed me as long as I drew.
Another old bloke told me about an artist Joliffe, how he used to travel around and have shows in little towns, pick people out of the audience and draw pictures of them. I guess I do that, even here for Artlands.
I give some of my drawings to young people so they can paint them but they have to do it with other young people. It’s a non-pressured way of getting people to connect with each other with no expectation at the end of it.
What are your art ambitions?
My dream in life was to sit around and draw. So now, every day I get to sit around and draw. I am living the dream. I am expecting at any moment something is going to happen to take that away, but at the moment I am just drawing and I will have it to remember if it [the dream] goes away.
Can you support yourself on that?
I make enough money from selling artwork, selling posters. My website is a place for my passion for storytelling and also a shop for my artwork.
I also work with Flying Arts doing workshops.
I was successful in the small schools grant to be like an artist in residence. The schools in my area applied for grants and we were lucky enough to get two out of the eight.
What has been the impact of these residencies?
It’s very hard to explain the impact, and as I said the past is dark in that area. El Arish was given over to the soldier settlers for selection in 1918. There were still local Aboriginal people trying to eke out an existence in that area but the soldier settlers wiped them out… towns had a strong connection to the RSL and not to the Indigenous history.
Through circumstance and doing the research leading up to doing the workshops in art, maths and heritage, I realised how starved they were on the heritage side of it, and that it had never been introduced to the school.
My artwork has changed since I hired a young person to help me with the digital space. We are woking on how to animate and make a map of the area, an interactive thing for the region, as an educational thing.
Was there a block to understanding or studying history because of the area’s connections with the past?
After 100 years the reason it isn’t taught in school is because they just don’t teach that history in these schools…the block had become institutionalised.
So I worked with Mission Beach School and the arts person at the school. I would go in and help with art projects alongside the teachers. Art becomes the connection and builds partnerships.
Now they have a dedicated arts teacher.
I give them extra visual art experience that they don’t otherwise get. I complement the scant nine hours they are getting as part of the curriculum. In the small schools in my area, I teach them the basics, colour theory, how to use water colour. Art becomes the connection and builds a partnership.
Did you learn that through your work?
No, the art teacher I had was royal academy trained. Most of his talents were wasted on us as teenage boys, but some lessons stuck.
And other impacts?
Because I worked with some progressive people when I did the project in El Arish they did finally do an acknowledgement (to country) for the first time in over 100 years to the rainforest people. They had been held back by the fear of a backlash. When I was doing the story with them, there had to be truth. Many Indigenous people want to forget, don’t want to remember the past . This often stems from when they were brought into the church. I researched eyewitness reports on TROVE, found history that correlates and corroborates the stories, did an audit with the elders who gave approval to the story.
What does art mean to you?
I guess everyone is on a journey just to be happy, and I am just happy. If I am in a coffee shop poring over a drawing you may not see how happy I am, but if I am poring over a drawing, I am living the dream.
If you could change anything in this world what would it be?
The level of fear - it is way too high in this country. I would set the level a lot lower than it is at the moment. Now it is turned up to 10 I would turn it down to 1 and see what happens.
Our views on multiculturalism - it’s more like being absorbed into one dominant culture in Australia. I would change that to living in harmony alongside each other.
Sorry Day… is not that you have to apologise about the things that happened in the past. It’s a day for feeling empathy for the people that it happened to.
To contact Michael: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.Artyfaction.com