It’s a bright and crisp day on Ngarrindjeri Country, and the roller door of Cedric Varcoe’s garage-turned-art-studio is wide open to let in the sunshine. Encircling Varcoe as he sits and paints are works on paper and canvas in various stages of completion, bundles of rushes collected by hand for weaving, and two well-loved flags: Harold Thomas’s red, black and yellow design, and the blue, white, red and gold of the Ngarrindjeri nation.

“I lived in Port Pirie for 10 years, and then moved here, back onto Country,” Varcoe explains, looking down the driveway towards the ocean. “I came to visit my mum some years back, when she moved to Goolwa. As we drove up, it was like a calling to come home. As soon as I got the opportunity, I moved back as well.

“It’s had a big impact on my art; being back where our story belongs, where our language is from, where my Miwi, my spirit, belongs. That helps inspire me to create work, because I can visit sites and places that are significant to our storyline, and it gives me inspiration of what to paint.”

Moving back onto Country has had a big impact on Cedric Varcoe’s art. Photo: Aubrey Jonsson

Varcoe spent much of his earlier life closer to his father’s Narungga Country at Point Pearce, and Adelaide, where painting had a cherished place in family life.

“I started painting when I was about eight years old; it was something that we did when we were bored, or it was family time on the weekend and we weren’t going anywhere ­– we’d sit and paint. My sisters and my mum were arty and crafty people, so we tried all different stuff, weaving as well.

“We’d go and find rocks, river rocks, smooth ones to paint, and little offcuts of wood from this little wood factory around the corner from where we lived in Adelaide. We used it for firewood, but would also sand them down and paint them ­– to make little coasters and stuff like that.

“I stopped for a few years, because life took me on a journey – I got carried away with life, and then I met my wife and we had a little family.”

Then based in Port Pirie, art began to play a central role for the next generation of his family.

“My daughter and son were about three or four. They would come and watch me; that’s when I thought about sharing stories and painting Countries, painting our stories from Country. Port Pirie’s not my traditional country but it’s close to my Narungga clan, it’s nearly at the boundary. So painting our story from Country kept me connected, even though I didn’t live on Country.”

Varcoe paints the stories and dreaming of his Ngarrindjeri Country. Photo: Aubrey Jonsson

Soon Varcoe started exhibiting his paintings locally, before being invited to paint larger mural works that 10 years later now form an important part of his practice. His latest mural, created during a residency at the CSIRO’s Waite Campus, is the product of a collaborative process between artist and community, and Varcoe enjoys taking time to invite non-Indigenous people to consider their place and role on Country.

“It’s giving non-Indigenous people a connection to something that they would not have without that opportunity, to sit and yarn and get a better understanding of Culture.

“Our art plays a big part in that culture, and expressing our story, our connection, our Kin, our belonging, all that into a work. And once they’ve helped contribute to that mural, they’ve got a connection to it, and pride in that artwork that they’ve helped create. Then they’re more passionate about looking after [Country],” he says.

“It’s in our spirit to look after Country because we’re born from it, we’re custodians of Country, our lands and waters.”

And, along the way, it also gives participants a chance to share in the sense of community, and deeper reflection, that Varcoe and his family have enjoyed over the years.

“That’s what art does, it brings you into the now, brings you into that moment when you’re creating it. You’re not worrying about the past, or the future, you’re in that moment and you’re in there creating. But your mind is clear, your spirit’s at ease as you’re sitting and creating ­– that’s what I enjoy sharing, and getting people into that moment.”

Cedric Varcoe’s latest mural, at the CSIRO Waite Campus, will be launched during Tarnanthi Festival. Photo: Saul Steed, courtesy Art Gallery of SA

Cedric Varcoe’s latest mural is the result of a collaboration between CSIRO and Guildhouse to present the CSIRO Waite Campus Artist in Residence program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. It will be on show at the campus from October 22 as part of the 2021 Tarnanthi Festival, which officially opens this Friday.  

In the Studio is a regular series presented by InReview in partnership with not-for-profit organisation Guildhouse. The series shares interesting stories about South Australian visual artists, craftspeople and designers, offering insight into their artistic practices and a behind-the-scenes look at their studios or work spaces. Read our previous stories here.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.