Karla Dickens’s childhood was marked by chaos but when recalling her paternal grandparents, she chokes up. “Well, they were my rocks,” says the 55-year-old Wiradjuri artist. “I just felt really loved.”
On school holidays and weekends, Dickens would gravitate to Mascot, in inner-city Sydney, where her grandparents lived in a humble cottage without a phone. Her grandfather, a tall German man named Tommy, worked in an iron foundry, and would scour the streets for things people cast away, to fix in his tiny workshop.
From Tommy, Dickens picked up a lifetime habit of visiting rubbish tips and streets for objects to incorporate into her collage art. From her grandmother, a small Aboriginal woman named Myrtle, she got life advice, such as telling people she was Italian if asked about her complexion.
Myrtle’s family had come from western NSW to live in a humpy in a shanty town at Mascot; Indigenous children were being removed from their parents, in what became known as the stolen generations.
“She roused my parents ’cause we’d go to the beach,” recalls Dickens, who is short, with thick, greying hair and an affable vulnerability. “She was like, ‘Keep her out of the sun’.”
Dickens’ work adorning the walls at the Campbelltown Art Centre. Photograph: Document Photography/Campbelltown Art Centre
When we meet at the Campbelltown Arts Centre, Dickens is putting the finishing touches to her first career survey, Embracing Shadows. It includes her 2015 work Clipped Wings II, dedicated to her great-grandmother, Mary Anderson: a 2-metre-long sculpture of rusted steel, torso-shaped like an iron maiden torture case, and draped with chains and bird feathers.
Mary, who was Myrtle’s mother, had been used as a domestic worker without pay, grossly mistreated and raped, says Dickens. “The trauma led her to Callan Park [a psychiatric institution], where she died blind – just trauma on top of trauma.”
Clipped Wings II is dedicated to Dickens’ great-grandmother, Mary Anderson. Photograph: Document Photography/Campbelltown Art Centre
Such family history and her own traumatised past inform Dickens’ sharp-witted collages and sculptures, which reflect intergenerational trauma, Indigenous dehumanisation, cultural and environmental loss. Being working class, she’s always aimed to keep her work “open to the widest audience”. She “never wanted to be a part of the art world”, she says with a laugh. “I’m still reluctant.”
Dickens was born into a life of “crisis”; she won’t elaborate on her immediate family. In primary school, she would create art through cutting, pasting, reconstructing and building, but never envisaged art as a career. “Life seemed big just on a daily basis,” she says. “It was just: ‘Do you get fed?’”