Mary Durack Miller’s ‘Carrolup Collection’

David Clark looking through the Mary Durack Miller Collection at The J.S. Battye Library of West Australian History on his first visit with Mike Liu and Cathy Coomer. Photograph: Michael Liu, 6th January 2016.

I find it hard to believe that it is seven years since I first came across Mary Durack Miller’s collection of material at the Battye Library in Perth related to the Aboriginal child artists of Carrolup.

At the time, Mike Liu and I were involved in a project focused on the life of Carrolup artist Revel Cooper. However, after looking through this amazing collection and meeting Noelene White, daughter of Noel White, the teacher who inspired the Carrolup child artists), and later John Stanton, I decided to focus my attention on  researching what happened at Carrolup and in the period afterwards.

Here is what I wrote at the beginning of the Preface of the eBook I later wrote, Connection: Aboriginal Child Artists Captivate Europe:

“When filmmaker and close friend Michael (Mike) Liu and I were first shown work of the Carrolup artists Revel Cooper, Parnell Dempster and Reynold Hart by our close Noongar friend Karen Hume in 2014, we were stunned by the beauty of these artworks and beguiled by the stories we heard.

Some months later, Mike by chance met Catherine (Cathy) Coomer, a relative of Revel Cooper, whilst he was fishing with his young son on Matagarup (Heirisson Island on the Swan River). Cathy told him that she had a copy of Uncle Revel’s papers from the State Records Office. Mike and I poured over these documents, fascinated by what we read. Cathy also told us how she had met Revel Cooper in the late 1970s. He introduced himself and after asking who she was, told her that he was her uncle. Cathy’s description of this meeting brought Revel alive for us.

Patsy Millett, daughter of author and historian Mary Durack Miller, suggested that we look through her mother’s papers at the Battye Library in Perth. In these box files, Mike, Cathy and I found a wealth of fascinating information, particularly about the Aboriginal children of Carrolup Native Settlement and their drawings. Carrolup was one of the two Native Settlements set up in the South West of Western Australia by the State government, as part of their policy of removing Aboriginal children from their families.

We learnt how teacher Noel White had arrived at Carrolup in May 1946 to find Aboriginal children living in squalor. Noel couldn’t initially communicate with the children because they were so fearful. He eventually connected with the children through a unique education programme and inspired them to create beautiful landscape drawings that gained public recognition.

Mary Durack Miller’s papers also provided a wealth of information about the 71-year-old Englishwoman Mrs Florence Rutter, who visited Carrolup and was so impressed by the children and their drawings that she bought a collection that she would later exhibit and sell in Australasia and Europe. The drawings soon gained international acclaim. Mary and Florence became firm friends and wrote to each other from opposite sides of the world, providing Mike and I with further insights into the story of Carrolup.

Seventy years after Noel White and his family arrived at Carrolup, Mike Liu and I visited Noel’s eldest daughter Noelene at her home in Perth. Noelene, who was 12-years old when she arrived at Carrolup, still had clear memories of her time on the settlement, including playing with the Aboriginal children. She showed us her family’s memorabilia relating to their time at Carrolup (and before and after) and brought the story of Carrolup alive for us. Mike filmed Noelene and I talking about the events of all those years ago.

I remember vividly one particularly poignant moment when Noelene said, ‘And my dad thought, and mum thought, that it [the story] was gone and lost forever.

I replied, ‘But it’s not now.’

Noelene broke down and cried. I knew then that I had to write the story of the Aboriginal child artists of Carrolup. And Noelene of course encouraged me to do so.”

I will always be grateful to Patsy Millet for suggesting that Mike and I go and look through her mother’s collection of papers. I love research and so I was in my element – as were Mike and Cathy – as we pored through letters, documents, copies of the children’s artworks, photographs, newspaper clippings and more. I was at the beginning of what has turned out to be an amazing journey.

And of course the material in Mary’s collection led us to other collections in the Battye Library and to other material in a range of other places. To John Stanton and I, it was so important to have this material, as we have been able to use the words of the people involved in this inspiring story and provided other people access to the material. And as I said on this website in the promotion material for my eBook:

‘CONNECTION uses ‘faces’ and ‘voices’ of the past, providing access to a wealth of photographs, pictures of the children’s art and schoolwork, letters, documents and media clippings, that help bring the story ‘alive’. The book plunges us into a world where Aboriginal children show resilience in the face of great adversity. Their achievements challenge the very foundation of a government’s racist and dehumanising policies. Their art inspires four generations of artists… and takes a 50-year journey, encircling the world before returning home.

CONNECTION is a story of trauma, and the overcoming of trauma. A story that resonates in today’s world of the oppressed and their oppressors. A story of Hope, Heart and Healing.’

I would like to take this opportunity of thanking Patsy Millett and staff at the Battye Library.


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