• Hunter artist, the late Les Elvin. Picture: Lesley Salem (Supplied)Source: Supplied
TRIBUTE | From the time that he embraced his Aboriginality Les Elvin became a strong voice in the community, using his art as the medium to advocate for acceptance and respect for Indigenous history and culture.
Kate Eastoe

22 Apr 2016 - 7:51 PM  UPDATED 22 Apr 2016 - 7:51 PM

For Tamika Elvin, her grandfather, Les, was not just an inspiration as a renowned painter, but as an Indigenous community leader, mentor and father figure.

Spending time together at his archery club and camping by the freshwater creeks he loved, Les Elvin taught his grandchildren many life lessons of acceptance and respect. 

Tamika clearly remembers her despair in primary school, after telling her friends that her family was Aboriginal, and being told she must be lying because she was white.

“Pop always knew the right thing to say to cheer me up when I would come home crying, he made me realise that it didn’t matter what they said, that this is who our family is, be proud of it."

His words of inspiration and empowerment reached far beyond his family, to the wider community, regardless of their background or age.

Les believed that all children should learn about Aboriginal history, because without understanding it, they could not respect it enough to keep it alive. It was a fear of his, that the stories of Indigenous communities would get lost in time.

Like many of his ideas, Les hoped to share his message through the medium of art.  He developed a teaching curriculum for school art classes now used by a number of schools throughout New South Wales.

In 2009, his artwork featured on the Newcastle Knights' first Indigenous jersey in recognition the contribution of Indigenous players have made to the game.

'Fear of truth' and new beginnings

The stories of his ancestors, told through his paintings, were also imparted in person to his family, inspiring in them with a pride and connection with their Aboriginal heritage - something he couldn’t enjoy in his childhood.

Born in 1938 in the Hunter region suburb of Kearsley, Les’ family struggled to celebrate their Indigenous roots during his youth, hiding their heritage.

“There was a fear of truth, even that I remember from my childhood,” Lesley told NITV.

“Education was very important to his mother, she feared that he wouldn’t have the same opportunities as a young Indigenous boy, so she told everyone he was Spanish”.

After many years, when the family was finally able to express their true history publicly, it presented Elvin with a new beginning in life.

He believed that ‘you do things in life when it’s the right time’, remembers daughter Lesley. As a retiree he threw himself into learning the stories of the Wonnarua people and his Indigenous background. As well as studying his Fine Arts degree at 69, Les continued to learn the symbols of many mobs, selecting prevalent ones to use in his paintings. At 70, he was chosen as the NAIDOC national artist of the year in 2008.

Art, community and story-telling

“Painting has always been a huge part of dad’s life, even in his late teens and twenties he painted scenes on the walls of the kitchens and laundries of friends’ houses," said daughter Lesley.

Like Tamika, her favourite times with her father were spent in the big studio at Cessnock, where anyone was welcome to come and work on their art together.

“Dad would pull a huge whiteboard out when I had an idea for a painting. We would work through it together, the symbols and colours to use and how to do it. Anyone who was there would join in with suggestions and the images became a very communal experience.“

Les taught his family that Aboriginal symbolism is a language, capable of telling many stories. It was their duty to speak with their artwork, never to put paint to canvas unless they knew the story it would tell. Lesley recalls that he wouldn’t allow her to exhibit her work until she was 40 because her “dots weren’t quite right”.

Uncle Les sought to bridge the gap of cultural knowledge between non-Indigenous communities and the original land owners, encouraging youth to celebrate the heritage of their ancestors. 

Immediately after presenting a welcome to country speech at an Indigenous conference in August 2015, Les, aged 77, died unexpectedly. He left behind a legacy of pride, and sharing of knowledge in the capable hands of his children, grandchildren and the community he inspired.

An exhibition featuring Les’ final four paintings alongside works by his daughter and grandchildren is on display at the Cessnock Regional Art Gallery.

The exhibition, 'I Won’t Be Long: a tribute to Les Elvin’, runs from April 20 until June 5, 2016, with the official opening on April 23 at 5pm.

Les Elvin: Three generations of artists unite in Cessnock exhibition to honour a great storyteller
One of Australia’s most well respected Indigenous painters, Uncle Les Elvin, who passed away in August last year, aged 77, will be honoured in an exhibition at the Cessnock Regional Art Gallery.