Bluey Roberts I was born at Meningie, other side of town, I was born in 1937. I wanted to be an artist but I didn’t know where to start and how to start. It’s like somebody who could’t make up their mind, they knew they had it there but they didn’t know when to time it right.
Noris Ioannou So what got you going?
Bluey I used to do some fruit picking up around the Riverland back in the middle of the 1960s, to the lates 60s and early 70s. I had an arm injury which put me back, I couldn’t do any heavy work. I was unemployed for a long time and I got bored sitting at home doing nothing, because I wasn’t going to sit down on the dole and that.
I mean, there is some work, but you’ve got to be skilled at something to get a good job now. Im self-taught, I never learnt off anyone, just doing a bit of painting and mucking around with a bit of wood, and somebody said that the work is good, you know, why don’t you start selling it, have an exhibition, so I just started doing a bit more. And then I learnt a bit more about my art work and I started getting involved a little bit more about it, so it just took off from there.
Noris Did you actually start with emu eggs, was that your first thing?
Bluey No, I started painting pictures, on boards, I used house paint. I didn’t know what sort of paint to use, so I just used ordinary house paints, just using oil paints and acrylics.
Noris Do you put a date on them?
Bluey No, you don’t stick a date on them, because with traditional work there’s no time limit on it, you know. You’re carving in the past from the past.
Noris Did you pick up some of your ideas from your Dad?
Bluey No, Dad was a shearer, and in those days art work wasn’t worth anything, you could just about get them given to you. Aboriginal art works weren’t recognised, so everyone had another trade or learning another trade which was shearing or stockmen. My mum came from the lower Murray, upper Murray, and my father came from over Ceduna Minippa Way, he came from Coonaba Mission. I’ve got my mother still left but she’s the only one. There’s a lot of old people have had a little bit of knowledge, they’re finished now and the art work has gone and the knowledge has gone with them, but stories are still left, you know, it’s like a book, it’s like a memory, a bank, it’s just kept there you know.
Noris These carvings are like the memory bank, put down into objects.
Bluey Into objects and stories, and sort of translating them. If you have an exhibition on, if you exhibit your art, well people don’t buy the art work because of the value or anything like that, they buy it because its part of the person, because they like the artwork it appeals to them. I put a lot of work into it so that people get the same sort of feeling I get, because Im sharing my art work with other people. If I didn’t do it they wouldn’t see it, because that’s why I do it.
Noris Don’t you have a desire to pass this on to your son, maybe get him to do the eggs, or your daughter, maybe?
Bluey The carving, well it’s there if they want it, I don’t want to jam the culture down their throat, it's up to them, if they want to do it they’ve got a choice. But they’ve shown a lot of interest in it. They’ve seen it, it’s not as though they’re going to say, I didn’t see that, it doesn’t exist. They’ve got it here, so later on they might do it, later on in life. I mean, after they’ve settled down, because I didn’t really settle down until I was about 26, 28.
Noris Would you say you can teach someone to be an artist?
Bluey Oh, you could teach, yes, but a person’s got to show a lot of interest first, he’s got to have a lot of patience, time. It’s no good getting somebody in who’s only going to come in and listen for five minutes and then he’s got to duck off because he’s got to meet somebody up Hindley Street. So the person’s got to be having some feeling for the bush. I mean it’s better if you grow up from the bush, for somebody to come from the country, he’s more in contact with what you want to do. So I suppose the same as different artists will, when they teach art, everybody express different things in objects and paintings.
I like landscapes, landscapes are nice. Like Albert Namatjira’s western landscape, beautiful. The big desert sand paintings, the dot paintings, they appeal to me a lot, but any sort of art work, to do with art work, I mean Aboriginal art work, European art work, it’s all different, you’ve got a big range, it’s there for people if they want to learn, like birds and artefacts.
That opening we went to, back there, East Terrace, that electricity building they handed over to the Aboriginal people, a lot of that was you know ... I remember Mr Don Dunstan back in the 60s when he was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, before he was Premier, beause he helped to change a lot of ways and laws and that, so we had equal rights you know, but it was very hard back in the late 50s and early 60s because they were still taking away Aboriginal children, kids taken away from their parents and put them in homes and that.
Go back and see some of the old things that people used to do in the early days, because after you get away from that time until now, you lose all that, it gradually loses its flavour. It’s like a chewing gum when you’re chewing it, you’re losing it. You’ve got to detour and go back around from that time again, because some of the early methods, the old methods, was good stuff. Well it had to be, otherwise you would’t be in business, you know what I mean, you’d be walking the road like a swaggie.
Going back to Mum and Dad’s day, when the Depression and that was on, to make a few bob then you had to be pretty good you know, for an artist or craftsman, or even to get a job. The same as with the Aboriginal culture, the urban Aboriginal that’s why he’s got to go back into the bush and look at things and get the feeling so he’s on the right track again. He can’t see it but he can feel it. He can sit down and meditate in one place, sit down and imagine what it used to be like and work from there.
It’s good to get people’s response to your art work. I mean, I think that’s what doing art work is about, not do your art work and then somebody after you’re dead twenty years or something and then they discover, gee, his art work is good, he should have been recognised then you know, not after, which happened to a lot of early painters of landscapes.
Noris Ioannou is a freelance art and craft writer, based in Adelaide.