LISMORE, Australia — It was early on a blindingly hot Thursday morning as Karla Dickens, short, stocky and friendly, with thick graying hair pouring from beneath a fisherman’s cap, chatted amiably with her fellow regulars outside the local garbage dump. But once the doors opened, they got right down to business, scattering to rummage through mounds of junk.
Ms. Dickens, an acclaimed Aboriginal mixed-media artist, was thoughtfully at work as she foraged among discarded building materials, broken toys and industrial waste. She cast an expert eye over the sea of rubbish, not looking for anything in particular but knowing from experience that the right things “will come to me.”
On that day, she was looking for boxing tents or anything evoking circuses for a new work she’s calling “A Dickensian Circus,” which will honor the famed Aboriginal boxers and performers who once toured Australia’s rural regions. The concept won her a prestigious new visual arts grant last year.
Ms. Dickens headed straight for a pile of sporting junk and grabbed a pair of grimy boxing gloves, grinning triumphantly. Soon her cart was filled with stuff: a rusting firefighter’s reel with decaying rubber hose still dripping; ancient leather-bound books with disintegrating pages; a large disc of plywood; and, of course, the gloves.
It was hard to leave things behind — “I’m still in love with garbage bin lids,” she murmured wistfully — but her studio was already crammed.
An affinity for the broken, the damaged and discarded infuses all of Ms. Dickens’ work, influencing both her medium and her deeply political message. She has been a practicing artist for decades and her work is featured in major cultural institutions, but there is a sense that her rightful recognition has only just arrived.
“It’s definitely Karla’s time right now,” said Tina Baum, the curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the National Gallery of Australia. “She’s an incredibly talented and exciting artist.”
Born in Sydney in 1967, the year of the referendum that finally allowed indigenous people to be counted in the national census, Ms. Dickens did not feel politically conscious growing up. Her own Aboriginality — then a source of deep shame in a virulently racist Australian culture — was rarely discussed, but she nevertheless internalized her family’s traumatic history of forced separations.
“I always had a darkness,” Ms. Dickens said. “I just wasn’t a jolly, cheerful kind of child. I was always making crosses for the dead animals in my pet cemetery, things like that. I would talk to my dead grandparents a lot.”
This strong “shadow side,” as she put it, drew her to religious imagery at a young age, despite her family’s powerful loathing of the Christian institutions that mistreated indigenous Australians for generations. Her great-grandmother, forced into training as a “domestic” — a euphemism for something more akin to slavery — was “brutally abused, like a lot of Aboriginal women” and died in a prisonlike psychiatric asylum.
Ms. Dickens was reticent about the details of her own troubled adolescence, but she said that she began using drugs at 11, left home at 13 and spiraled into a life of addiction, homelessness and terrifying bouts of psychosis.
“When you’re psychotic you have a lot of deep dread and fear, so I used to collect things that I thought would protect me,” she said.
Those fears have not completely vanished. Past her front door was an arresting shrine to the Black Madonna, whom she called the patron saint of misfits and the oppressed. Painted statuettes of the Virgin made by Ms. Dickens from charcoal-colored clay sat alongside a vast number of other Eastern and Christian religious icons, and odd little figurines of British colonial soldiers draped in cobweb-like veils.
It was a startling paganistic temple of sorts where animals, saints and gods jostle for space, with a framed photograph of her great-grandmother at its center.
After a decade of addiction and living on the streets, Ms. Dickens finally found her way to a drug rehabilitation facility in her early 20s.
“I somehow knew at a gut level that time was up for me,” she said. “I had two choices: to die, or face the trauma and heartache I was running from. I had to choose to live, no matter how scattered, broken and bruised I was.”
After rehab, supporters helped her enter the National Art School in the heart of Sydney, a new turning point in her life.
‘I used to get there early, I’d stay all day and all night,” she said. “It was a healing, beautiful place. And it gave me a language. At the end of my addiction I had no voice, I just stopped talking. Making art gave me a way to speak, and I made all these energetic, wild works in that language.”
Art school taught her discipline and aesthetics. She started as a painter, but necessity drove her toward collage.
“I couldn’t afford the paint I needed, so I used to just pick up stuff, rubbish, on the way to classes,” she said. “Old band posters, bits of fabric, magazines.”
After art school she lived alone for four years in the Hunter Valley, north of Sydney, in a house she built herself from junk.
She described her time there as difficult and lonely, but said it was then that she began truly to heal, to embrace her heritage as a Wiradjuri, Australia’s second-largest Aboriginal tribe, and her lesbian sexuality. And she met a neighbor, Pat Hall, an older woman whom Ms. Dickens revered and who became an unofficial mentor.
“Pat was a bit of an outsider herself,” Ms. Dickens said. “She had a form of autism and was a very powerfully spiritual person. I felt safe with her, and understood. She was quite aloof, but very astute.”
“She inspired me because she showed me that there was a way of being ‘other’ in the world that was also very capable,” she added. “And she didn’t hold back on telling you the truth. I felt quite naked before her in a way. You couldn’t hide yourself from Pat.”
Some of the truths she told were painful. One day, Ms. Dickens chose one of her best paintings as a gift.
“But when I gave it to her, she said, ‘Ugh, I don’t want that! It’s so angry, Karla — you can’t expect people to want this, you can’t share your anger in this way,’” Ms. Dickens said. “I was heartbroken, but I respected her. And I really took that on board.”
After some years, she moved to Lismore where, single and in her early 40s, she gave birth to her daughter, Ginger. Despite Ms. Dickens’ successes, life as an artist remains precarious.
“Most of my life has just been about trying to keep my act together, trying not to go mad, looking after my daughter,” she said. Like many of her artist peers, she is virtually unknown outside Australia.
But a powerful moment came three years ago when images of her work opened the epic “Songlines” show, lighting up the sails of the Sydney Opera House during the 2016 Vivid Festival. Ms. Dickens grew tearful as she described standing with thousands of people at Sydney Harbour, watching the monumental light show unfold as it was beamed to millions of viewers around the world.
‘I’ve always been an outsider,” she said. “So to see my work, these images of grief and loss — very dark stuff — being accepted and embraced and included in that way was just mind-blowing. Standing there with my daughter and my dad, being acknowledged by so many people on such a scale, I can’t imagine anything topping that moment.’
As Ginger enters adolescence, a new humor and lightness has formed in Ms. Dickens’s work. She is absorbed with her work on the circus, back in the rhythm of creation. And something has changed.
“There’s a feeling of coming out of that old, deep age of darkness and pain,” she said. “A feeling of coming out into the light.”
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