The year 2011 shapes up as a landmark year for Ben McKeown with two major awards already to his credit. In March he was announced the winner of the prestigious Deadly Art Award in Victoria’s Indigenous Art Awards, and late last month oversaw the installation at the State Library of Victoria of the Australian Tapestry Workshop’s transformation of his image “Spring Street End”.
“This project has been a long time in the making”, says the State Library’s Director of Collections and Access, Shane Carmody. “Its genesis was in an overture made by the then Chair of the Tapestry Foundation of Victoria, Janet Calvert-Jones, to our CEO at the time, Anne-Marie Schwirtlich.”
Some six years after the project was initially discussed, the first hurdle was cleared when the estate of the late Marjorie May Kingston emerged as a benefactor.
“Anne-Marie Schwirtlich always had an Indigenous artist in mind for this project,” says Mr Carmody. “It’s a central aim of the SLV to honour and acknowledge Indigenous visual traditions, and for me, an emerging Indigenous talent was the way to go.”
From then on, the process has been relatively straightforward. The State Library approached the local universities that practise the fine arts, the three nominated artists submitted their designs to a ‘memory in Victoria’ brief, and Ben McKeown’s image “Spring Street End” was ultimately successful.
Mr McKeown has been at the Victorian College of the Arts “on and off” as he describes it, for some years, having completed a postgraduate diploma in 2007 and a Master of Visual Arts in 2008. He is currently undertaking his Master of Fine Art under the supervision of Associate Professor Jon Cattapan, the coordinator of graduate coursework programs and principal lecturer in the School of Art.
“You could say that I’m very comfortable here,” says Mr McKeown. “The VCA provides amazing support for the arts in general, and has been incredibly supportive of my work over the years. It’s good to be around other artists from varied disciplines, being able to bounce ideas off one another. In an environment like this, you never know who you might be able to collaborate with.”
Even before formally enrolling, the VCA provided support and direction for Ben McKeown’s prodigious talent. Working in collaboration with its former Dean, William (Bill) Kelly, Mr McKeown was involved in various projects, the most important of which was a 1999 print for the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
The tapestry of his image “Spring Street End” now hanging in the State Library features bold, stark, vibrant colours. Placed on the wall behind the marbled-lined staircase leading from the Cowan Gallery to the domed La Trobe Reading Room, it stops library visitors in their tracks.
Ben McKeown’s mother is a Wirangu woman from the west coast of South Australia. His step father, also from South Australia, is a Nauo man. Because of his father’s job in the army, the family moved a lot, including stints in Ballarat and finally, Mornington. Painting was a feature of his upbringing, with both his mother and grandfather being practising artists.
For Mr McKeown, the top end of Spring Street represents the essence of Victoria. “It’s the scene of everything,” he says, “the heartbeat of Victoria, holding the official history and the memory of tomorrow.”
“In terms of Indigenous history, it’s the destination for William Barak’s three long walks from the Coranderrk Mission in Healesville to present Chief Secretary Graham Berry, and later the Victorian Premier, with petitions to save the mission.”
“These various pasts and places came together in “Spring Street End”.
“On one level it relates to my small South Australian community and follows the tradition of Indigenous dot iconography, on others – the stark, black sections and city-colour palette – it refers to the bleakness and contrasts of the landscape where once-dirt roads are now populated, bitumanised. “Spring Street End” represents great things, the memory of Victoria, the mapping of country, hinting of history, and with suggestions of what’s under country, its foundations.”
For Pamela Joyce, a senior weaver at the Australian Tapestry Workshop and its director Antonia Syme, working with Ben McKeown was an exciting experience. “The work translated beautifully into a different medium,” says Ms Syme, “and even netted a new ‘Ben McKeown blue’ to our already-extensive palette.”