Carmel Marie Nicholson was born in 1930 at Ray Station near Quilpie in south-west Queensland. She was the daughter of Rosie Dick, great-granddaughter of ‘Kangaroo’, leader of the Buntamurra people and sole survivor of a police massacre at Cameron’s Corner at the beginning of the 20th century. She was also the daughter of English stock man, David Nicholson.
For the first six years of her life,Carmel lived with her mother at Ray Station where Rosie worked for the Tully family.Carmel remembered going fishing and picking wild flowers along the creek with her mother and in later years these memories would inspire an output of joyous paintings that are her legacy to a nation still in need of true reconciliation.
At six years of age Carmel was forcibly removed from her mother and taken to Cherbourg Mission. Rosie followed Carmel and both mother and daughter remained at Cherbourg until they were finally released into the care of the Tullys. In a statement made by Carmel at a ceremony organised by the Good Shepherd Sisters at Ashfield on National Sorry Day 1998, she refers to Cherbourg as ‘a prison’ and recalls being frightened of the dark, having sores all over her body and having her head shaved.
By the time Carmel and Rosie were released from Cherbourg, Carmelwas seven years old. However, the Queensland Government’s policy of removing children of black and white descent had not altered, so when Rosie returned to Ray Station, Carmel was placed firstly in the care of the Carmelites at Auchenflower and then with the Good Shepherd Sisters at their convent in Mitchelton. Carmel would spend the next fifty-six years at Mitchelton.
During these years Carmel received a basic education and demonstrated remarkable talents for singing and playing the violin. She was taught music by teachers from the Conservatorium, sang in the Brisbane City Choir and performed in amateur theatrical productions. At the age of fourteen she began working in the commercial laundry and later took over management of the Home for Girls’ kitchen. When the Home closed, Carmel moved into a sponsored house with friends from the convent where she remained till she moved to Sydney in 1992.
Unlike many members of the Stolen Generation, Carmel maintained some contact with her mother. Once every couple of years Rosie would visit Carmel at the convent and Carmel wrote to her mother every month. On rare occasions Carmel received small packages of wild flowers that Rosie picked after the rains at Quilpie. These flowers would dry out and wilt on their way to Mitchelton, but they were Carmel’s precious lifeline to her mother and when she began painting, Quilpie wild flowers became a recurring metaphor for the love between mother and daughter.
In 1996 Carmel attended the Eora Aboriginal Art College in Chippendale and the next year was awarded a grant from the Australia Council for the Arts to develop her first exhibition. In preparation for this exhibition,Carmeltravelled to her birth country at Quilpie – her first visit since being taken away at the age of six. This experience was a highly emotional one for Carmel and for some time afterwards she was unable to paint at all.
Carmel’s return to Quilpie coincided with a period of heavy rain – the country was a mass of wild flowers, like those she remembered picking with Rosie and those her mother had sent her at the convent. When Carmelbegan painting again she filled her boards and canvases with Quilpie wildflowers. In response to her first exhibition, Rosie’s Story in 1998, Ken Watson, then a curator at the Art Gallery of NSW, wrote, Carmel uses her paint both sensuously and confidently. She has a direct and literal use of visual imagery which is obviously influenced by some of Australia’s greatest desert painters.
Rosie’s Story established Carmel as a serious artist and was followed by two equally successful exhibitions: Buntamurra Dreaming in 2000 and Eternal Echoes in 2002. By 2002 however, Carmel was suffering the effects of advanced dementia. For the Eternal Echoes exhibition, however, Carmel produced a series of beautiful and joyous paintings that were so full of life the wildflowers appeared to dance on the surface of the canvases. This was Carmel’s artistic triumph. The exhibition was officially opened by the Governor of NSW, Professor Marie Bashir and during the course of the exhibition Carmel was interviewed by Rachael Kohn for The Spirit of Things.
In 1999 Carmel was interviewed for the Bringing Them Home Oral History Project. Her interview and her painting Eternal Echoes are both featured in the final publication. In 2003, the North Sydney Council invited Carmel to exhibit her paintings in the Guringai Festival, A Celebration of Aboriginal Culture and Heritage; the Council has subsequently acquired two of Carmel’s paintings for their civic art collection. It meant a great deal to Carmel that she was accepted as an Aboriginal woman whose life experiences were being validated and considered valuable.
Carmel’s cheerful, loving nature and her positive disposition meant that in life she was surrounded by friends who loved her dearly and now miss her terribly. To us, her achievements seem outstanding, but Carmelwas a woman of deep and intuitive wisdom. On the occasion of the opening of her last exhibition, I said to Carmel, How do you feel? To which she replied, I’m happy Judith, I have everything I want.
Carmel passed away on 14 October 2005. Her life was celebrated by her sister Barbara Bond, her large network of close friends and family, and Father Richard Pascoe at theHoly Cross Church in Woolawin on 21 October. As was her wish, she rests with her mother at the Pinaroo cemetery in Brisbane.
Judith Salmon (as printed in Sydney Morning Herald)
Carmel Nicholson Outback Music Scholarship
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