AN ONLY child raised by her mother in the bayside metropolitan suburbs of Chelsea and Chelsea Heights, Karen Sandon studied chemistry, physics and maths for VCE after her art teachers in her middle years had crushed her confidence in the area she loved most. An abstractionist even then, but with no art history knowledge to defend this choice, her non-realistic representations did not match the school’s view of art, and she was chastised for it.
“This wouldn’t happen today, thank goodness, but in those days there were considered to be right and wrong ways to draw,” she says.
Contrary to this non-literal bent in drawing/painting, the young Karen was also passionate about photography. She remembers little of her father who died when she was only six, but treasures the memories of how he taught her to take photographs using his old Luxor camera. When he died, she cherished this camera and made it her own.
From high school, after a brief couple of years working at the Chemistry Department at Melbourne University, Karen returned to study social welfare. She worked in many roles in that field, but one in particular was to change her life. She was offered a role working with the Department of Human Services Staff’s youth policy branch to review the recommendations of the Muirhead Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, determine their application for youth residential services, and then design and deliver appropriate training to 5000 DHS staff. Here was she, a young white woman with a rigid middle class upbringing, seeking to help in a political and professional work environment dominated by black males suspicious of white female social workers, for good historic reasons.
But Karen persisted.
She says she “sat in people’s spaces until they talked to me.” When Victorian Aboriginal leader Alf Bamblett questioned her credentials, she replied “You know and I know that this is a whitefella government job that I (female, young, white, middle class) shouldn’t really be doing – but I want to make it work. So let’s talk.” And they did. Together they worked on a cross-cultural education program with youth workers and prison workers. Interestingly many of those became aware of their own Aboriginal history which had long been buried either deliberately or unintentionally. She still thrills at her recollections of those hardened prison workers who realised their own connection to the first people of this land and appreciated that they did not have to fear differences in people. The culmination was the first official welcome to country for a Department of Human Services CEO in Australia, undertaken by Kulin elders on the grounds of Camp Jungai – an Aboriginal-owned co-operative a couple of hours north of Melbourne.
The job changed her life forever, and still underpins what she does and who she is.
All this time Karen had been living in Richmond but, suffering from allergies and asthma, she and her husband decided to move to Coronet Bay. She set up a training business and over 10 years trained more than 3500 students across the state in human services and business. Then, after her business partner bought her out of the business, Karen went back to her first love – art.
She enrolled to do a bachelor of visual arts at Monash University. In her undergraduate degree she majored in photography and took like a duck to water to the old processes in the dark room. She describes the darkroom process of watching the image appear as ethereal, as though she is painting with light.
A challenge from Marie and Gina at La Provincia Restaurant in Corinella led to one of her first local public artworks. For the walls of the cafe they wanted photographs of their farm that tied La Provincia to their family village in Italy. To capture the scene Karen had in her mind’s eye she was hoisted up in a fruit box on a forklift complete with several cameras including a huge medium-format camera she calls “the Elephant”.
Having become proficient in computers in her corporate work, Karen continued to challenge herself with photographic processes in the digital “light room”. In her honours year, she received the Monash University Pro Vice Chancellors award for excellence for her image “Past Elders Watch”, which incorporated contemporary imagery and ancient printing processes.
Artist printmaking was a natural extension. She studied intaglio and relief printmaking, carving etching and other mark making onto copper and lino plates which were then printed on an ancient 1835 letterpress. She was also commended for her photopolymer prints, a process where a digital image is transferred using light onto an aluminium-backed polymer plate, which is then inked up and printed onto paper in the same way as other intaglio or relief prints.
Print making, Karen says, “is a culture of its own, it holds its own aesthetic, with its own values and language that is not widely understood, even among painters and other artists.”
But it is not just about aesthetics. After a professional life in social welfare and education, she says art that doesn’t have something to say is not for her. “I can appreciate technical beauty and excellence in a landscape, still life or portrait, but I am rarely excited by it. I want to look at a work and ask ‘what is being questioned here? What do I think or feel in response’.”
She hopes others may find this in her own works. Her current work is of swans, innocuous at first glance, until you see the writing overlaid. It is a quote from George Bass when he first encountered this part of the coast. “We were met with a moving sea of black.” He is referring to the hundreds of black swans that he saw before him. Today, Karen laments, we see so few.
As well as the obvious environment message, the more subtle layers of the message refer to the local Bunurong people, the colonisers, and to the Eurocentrism of art history, showing the multi-layered thoughtfulness behind Karen’s works.
For the major work of her master’s project, Karen walked along the same section of her local beach each day at around the same time for nine months to gain a better knowledge and respect of how Aboriginal people had walked that piece of country. She took onsite rubbings, photographs and sketches on the walk, but removed nothing else from the site. The work, called ‘Mutations’ consists of 12 limited edition etchings on copper plate. She is still developing new images from the rich materials that represent the stretch of beach that she continues to walk.
“These works speak to questions about identity, our relationships to place, and my own window on the world as a white descendant of the colonisers,” she says.
“Hopefully those echoes may be heard by others, and thoughts might turn to how we respect country and each other.”
Karen Sandon’s Corinella workshop gallery, a-binding-PRESS, is open between Thursday and Saturday and at other times by appointment. Phone 0402 455 795.