It is with deep regret and great sadness that I have to announce that Noelene Melville White, beloved daughter of Carrolup teachers Noel and Lily White, passed away Sunday night in Perth. She was 89 years old. I received the news Tuesday morning from Noelene’s close friend Stephanie Lamb and I immediately called my colleague John Stanton and great friends Michael (Mike) Liu and Tony Davis to give them the sad news.
I am now in Albany for the launch of Tony’s book White Sails & Charcoal: Stories of Coincidence, Bella Kelly and Carrolup and the art exhibition Miaritch: Collections of Noongar Art and have been talking about Noelene with friends and others here.
Mike and I first met Noelene in 2016, seventy years after her family arrived at Carrolup. 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. She gave me access to all her family treasures relating to their adventures in Carrolup and the Aboriginal child artists of Carrolup.
Noelene also encouraged Mike and I to meet her good friend John Stanton, which we did. The rest is history, as they say. John and I started to collaborate on a project about Carrolup. We launched The Carrolup Story website on 9 November 2018, on Noelene’s 85th birthday. We have made contact with a number of family members of the children of Carrolup, and given a number of talks in the community.
The most moving talk for me was the one I gave at The Royal Western Australian Historical Society in Perth in September 2020, which was attended by Noelene. I felt deeply moved talking about Noelene’s parents and the long-lasting impact of their time at Carrolup, with Noelene looking up at me. Noelene could see and hear people getting excited about the amazing things that happened as a result of her father Noel connecting with, and inspiring, the children at Carrolup.
I published an eBook entitled Connection: Aboriginal Child Artists Captivate Europe in June 2020. In the book, I included the following section of Noelene’s memories:
‘The Art: Once the children, particularly the boys, started drawing they wouldn’t stop. Paper was very short in the early days, so the boys would draw on one side of a piece of brown paper and then turn it over and draw on the other side. Later, some of them were working with pieces of paper which were too large for their school desks. They would lie on their tummies on the floor, drawing and not looking up at all. They were totally focused on what they were doing. It was quite a sight to enter the classroom and see a small group of boys working in this way.
Dad would exhibit the children’s work at the Katanning agricultural show every year. People were always approaching him, asking who had done a particular piece. Many people initially refused to believe he wasn’t doing the drawings, but they soon realised the children’s talents. Art would be snapped up at these shows, and Dad used to give many lovely pieces away. People would ask if they could come out to the school, and then be amazed at the schoolroom walls adorned in artworks. Everyone agreed the children’s work was beautiful, but we never realised the long-lasting impact it would have.
Sadly, I did not keep many of the drawings myself. Those that I did have, I passed on to the Berndt Museum of Anthropology at The University of Western Australia. These drawings remain very close to my heart.
One artist I remember fondly is Claude Kelly. I found him to have a gentle manner. His art was wonderful, different to the other boys—well, at least at that stage of his development. I particularly remember the vivid colours in his drawings. Sadly, there do not appear to be many examples of his work that have been identified today.
Attention has been focused on the boys’ drawings, but the designs drawn by the girls were also special. I remember Dad receiving many letters about the art, including many from people abroad. Some people sent cash, wanting to purchase a piece. At one time, I told Dad he needed someone to help him deal with the mail.’