By Rebecca O’Shea
Artist, Arts Writer
Masters of Arts Administration COFA
Bachelor of Creative Arts UOW
In February 2013 Vic Chapman participated in a one-week Cicada Press Aboriginal Print Workshop along with Laurel Nannup from Perth and her son, Brett Nannup. He then continued to visit the printmaking studio each Friday once the 2013 academic semester began. At the same time, I was enrolled in Friday’s Custom Printing course so was fortunate enough to have him as a classmate and witness his work develop. Affectionately known by many as ‘Uncle Vic’, he is generous with his time and knowledge both in class and outside of school hours. I have enjoyed many insightful discussions with him about his art and life, his connections to my own stomping ground of the Illawarra, as well as his Aboriginal heritage.
Vic Chapman’s presence at Cicada Press was thanks to a joint invitation by Tess Allas and Michael Kempson. Tess Allas first met Vic in Wollongong in the 1990s, when she included some of his ceramic works in the exhibition she curated, Unjustified in 1995. Unjustified was the second exhibition to be staged at the newly opened Project: Centre for Contemporary Art (‘Project’ was the brainchild of Lisa Havilah, Glenn Barkley and Nathan Clark). This exhibition marked a shift in thinking about local Aboriginal art as the exhibition attracted private and institutional collectors. Wollongong Art Gallery bought many pieces for their permanent collection, including some of Chapman’s ceramic plates that depict Yuwaalaraay stories. From this early exhibition Allas and Chapman’s friendship was born.
In 2012, during the first National Aboriginal Print Workshop held at Cicada Press, Allas introduced Perth artists Laurel Nannup and Brett Nannup to Chapman on a day trip to Wollongong. During this visit they discussed the work they’d been developing at Cicada Press. It dawned upon Allas at that time that it would be great to get Chapman in the printmaking studio to see how his drawing technique and ceramic practice would transfer to the printmaking medium. Already familiar with Chapman’s ceramics, Michael Kempson was keen on the prospect and accompanied Allas to Chapman’s home on the South Coast of NSW in December 2012 to offer him a place in the February 2013 workshop.
One of the underlying interests of Cicada Press is to invite artists to explore how their usual practice can be transferred to the printmaking medium. Chapman has had an intermittent artistic practice, working primarily in pottery and ceramics, explaining to me that his only previous experience with printmaking was a brief stint of fabric printing while at teachers college. Keen to learn a new technique, Chapman welcomed the opportunity of a Cicada Press residency, noting that he learns through doing, so really enjoys taking part in the many processes printmaking involves.
To develop the imagery on his plates Chapman has been working with hard-ground and compared this stage of printmaking to the sgraffito process in pottery, as both involve scratching away a surface that reveals a different colour underneath. Many of the etchings Chapman has developed to date offer a direct relationship to his ceramic work, through revisiting the same subjects painted on his ceramic plates, platters and bowls. Each piece reflects on aspects of his personal history.
The students at Cicada Press (myself included) have been keenly interested to hear the stories of Chapman’s work, which he tells with enthusiasm, informing me that storytelling is an important aspect of his work, reiterating that he believes “every work needs a story behind it”.
Currawillinghi is the name of several stations in outback Queensland, close to the NSW-QLD border. It takes its name from the language of the Yuwaalaraay people, the original and continued custodians of the area, from which Chapman descends. Currawillinghi translates as ‘no women allowed’ as it was a place of initiation for young men. Chapman explained that later in life he became aware of reports that this is indicated by the bora ring located inside the entrance to the property, which is where the initiation took place.
The building in his print, Currawillinghi depicts Chapman’s family home, where he and most of his fourteen siblings were born. Chapman’s grandmother (‘baagi’ in Yuwaalaraay) was the local midwife and an avid fisherwoman (Chapman’s memory of her is depicted on ‘The Baagi Vase’, part of the National Maritime Museum’s collection). The Currawillinghi print was begun by drawing on a hard-ground surface and etching the line work. Following this, aquatint and burnishing processes were used to create tonal variation and highlights. The final colours for Chapman’s prints were resolved through consultation with Kempson, Chapman highlighting the value of having a clever teacher, who as Chapman describes it, “imparts knowledge easily”. For both the Currawillinghi and the similar Hebel State School prints it was decided to incorporate a gradation of four colours. As demonstrated in the following image, this involves the successive application of each colour on the plate from top to bottom.
Hebel State School depicts the one-teacher (20-25 student) school that Chapman attended from 5 to 10 years of age (1937-1942). In grade five Chapman moved to Goodooga Public School. While attending the school he was fortunate that his teacher, Mr McKinnon was an “individual thinker for the time”. Chapman explained that in the context of the time and place, Aboriginal people were excluded from participating with town affairs, were only allowed to sit in a sectioned area of the picture theatre and were not allowed to try on clothes in the shops. The expected norm for Aboriginal people, after finishing schooling at 12 or 13 years of age, saw females destined for domestic work and males for pastoral duties or labour. Attaining any form of community status or further education was seemingly out of the question. Mr McKinnon, not taking up the attitudes of the place, or fitting the societal mould, saw Chapman’s academic promise and applied for a State Bursary on his behalf for high school. Chapman chuckled when telling this story, remembering that upon receiving a telegram in the post which explained he would receive funding to attend high school, he and his family were bemused, having not heard about high school before; they wondered if it received its name from being built on stilts.
Upon travelling back to Hebel in 2013, Chapman framed a signed proof of Hebel State School as a gift to the school, saying that a group of nine-year-olds he met there were very enthusiastic about the print and keenly encouraged him to tell them more about the ‘olden days’ that they, coincidentally, were currently studying. Upon hearing their sentiment I felt a strong affiliation with their curiosity.
The opportunity for further education was the launching pad for Chapman, who later went onto teachers college, following a career as a teacher and later, as a principal. As such, Chapman has taken a natural role in the familiarity of the printmaking classroom, as both a student and as a teacher. Having expressed my interest in Aboriginal culture to Chapman, he was more than happy to impart his knowledge of Yuwaalaraay language and dreaming stories as well as offer insights to the D’harawal dreaming stories of the south coast of NSW.
As part of a print portfolio produced by custom printing students in 2013, An Australian Bestiary, Chapman contributed the piece, How the Black Swans got their Feathers, which depicts a Yuwaalaraay story about neighbourly compassion. The story begins with the swans being attacked by eagles that stripped the swans bare of their feathers. Then, as illustrated in Chapman’s print, black crows took pity on the swan’s hardship and bestowed their feathers to the swans. Offering a personal reading of the story, Chapman embodies the two swans as himself and his wife Ruth, who endured great loss with the passing of their sons, John and Murray. Chapman likens the crows to the compassionate people in their life, who poured gentle solace and sympathy to them through their difficult time.
Currawillinghi – the place – is a place of great significance to the Chapman family. It is Chapman’s ‘ngurrambaa’, which is a Yuwaalaraay term meaning the place where one’s spirit comes into the world and the place where the spirit exits the world – with proper ceremony. A person’s ngurrambaa is inherited through the father’s side, so Currawillinghi is Chapman’s ngurrambaa as it is where he (1932), his father (1875) and grandfather (c1850) were born. In tradition with this paternal linkage, it is now, sadly, where Chapman’s two sons were returned for their final place of rest.
A lighter memory of Currawillingi, is Chapman’s personal account of the devious Manumadhaay, a story previously depicted on a ceramic plate and now transferred into the printed from. While living in Currawillinghi, Chapman’s family had a large number of chooks, who supplied their eggs, and, “on special occasions, a poultry dish”. As there were many goannas in the area, frantic noises were often heard coming from the chook-pen as the goannas raided the nests for eggs. In his print Manumadhaay, Chapman depicts this memory. The title of the work, appropriately, is the Yuwaalaraay word for ‘thief’ or ‘robber’. The crafty ways of the goanna sometimes led to their karmic fate of becoming food for Chapman’s family, as Chapman confirms, “they’re good eating”.
Vic Chapman has enjoyed the atmosphere of working in the printmaking studio, and commented that it is quite different from all the lectures he has been a part of through the years, as the environment is so friendly and inclusive, adding that it reminds him of the early days of the Ceramic’s Society (which he was involved in in Wollongong) where it was a fun community atmosphere and the sharing of knowledge was encouraged. Chapman also noted that having artists such as Chris O’Doherty (aka Reg Mombassa), Euan MacLeod and Elisabeth Cummings, who are regulars at Cicada Press, has been really helpful stating “they are great people and have been willing to help with suggestions and tips for his prints”.
Chapman also found inspiration in the work of Saeed Akhtar, a well-known Pakistani artist, who at the time of writing was undergoing a residency at Cicada Press. Chapman stated that Akhtar’s “sketch book is very inspiring and impressive”. He was particularly impressed with Akhar’s line work and commented “you can see the speed of the lines he makes and the curvature in those lines is fantastic”. After seeing Akhtar’s work Chapman said he became very interested in utilising the circle in his next print.
Exercising his interest, later in 2013 Chapman employed the use of a circular etching plate, and inscribed references to his life at Currawillinghi and Wollongong. The outer edge of the plate features the big tractor tyre that is located at the entrance of Currawillingi. The inner circle of the tyre revisits a design Chapman assembled in a circular mosaic at Figtree in 1998, which was commissioned as a public art project by the Wollongong City Council. The image depicts the Yaroma Story of the D’harawal people of the south coast. The figtree has special significance to the D’harawal people being used traditionally as a birthing tree by the Timbery family. The Yaroma (‘hairy man’), the spirit of the figtree, is said to protect the area and ward off intruders to ensure women’s privacy. In this print, Chapman draws parallels to the Yaroma story of birth to his own birth place of Currawillinghi, connecting the personal significance of Currawillinghi and Wollongong and the cyclical nature of life. (He also noted the correlation between Currawillinghi translating as no women allowed being opposite to the figtree being a place where no men were allowed).
Chapman explained that the future prints he is considering producing at Cicada Press will continue to reflect on his lived experiences. In discussing these possibilities with him at the time of writing, Chapman revealed a drawing that represents a mapping of his personal journey, including references to his family tree and locations he has lived. He also explained his intention to represent the barriers he and his wife Ruth had to break through to gain acceptance for their marriage.
While revealing various societal barriers he has experienced, Chapman has also often noted the positive changes he has observed take place. He is enlivened by times that see a revival of culture and language that he was discouraged from connecting with when he was young -acquiring this knowledge self directed later in life. The once presumed improbable community status of Aboriginal people is accurately discredited; the esteem held for Chapman in the various leadership roles he has undertaken in the community, see him aptly described as a ‘legend’, ‘a scholar and a gentleman’. Adopted by many as Uncle Vic, he has been embraced like the resident indigenous elder of the printmaking studio at COFA.
Crino, Penny, 2010, ‘The Baagi vase Vic Chapman’. Signals 90 March to May
 Wollongong City Council ‘Yaroma Story’ http://www.wollongong.nsw.gov.au/services/artculture/Lists/ArtWorkInfo/List.aspx