Eileen Harrison

Eileen Harrison, 2013
Eileen Harrison, 2013
Image: James Henry
Source: Museum Victoria
My artwork has helped me to tell my story.

My mob's Gunai/Kurnai. I was born at Lake Tyers Mission Station. Now it's known for its traditional name, Bung Yarnda. I grew up there with my parents and ten siblings, my grandparents, my uncles, aunties and cousins.

I was happy there. My favourite memories would be a bit of everything. Going to school, swimming, sports. I liked athletics - running - I know I was good at it. Jumping over those hurdles, going on picnics. There were lots of good things - sitting by the huge fire out in the dark, stars in the sky, listening to stories. There were stories about the Doolagahs and Narguns, Mrarts, all those myths and legends. I think they're easily the things that inspired me with my art.

I left school when I was 14. I started studying in my early fifties, back in 2000. I was a bit terrified to go back to study but I thought it was a good thing because I didn't have an education after I left. I had nothing. My siblings, cousins, didn't want to go. I must have become a leader, like a role model for them, and they followed me. Studying brought me a lot of achievements which I never thought possible and I'm really proud of myself. I started painting when I went back to study. It helped me to go back to all the things that I remembered.

What inspires me is what I see - the trees and leaves, the water, the grass, all those little things, even the markings on the stones when I'm having a look around the beach. I see patterns and symbols in everything. Those are the things that inspire me. It helps me.

I 've noticed in the last couple of weeks when I've been out there talking about my artwork, I've left some kind of an impact by telling my story because the artwork is involved in my whole life. I remember telling my brother about my life story. He was very interested and he said to me, look sis, you should write a book. I said no, I don't think so. I came back to Warragul about 1999 and I met a woman, Carolyn Landon. She was the author of Jackson Track: Memoir of a Dreamtime Place. She loaned me the book on Jackson's Track and I read it. It gave me some inspiration on doing my own story, so I approached her to ask if she could help me with my book. She wasn't too sure because she said, what would people think for a white woman to help a black woman to write her story?

We met up at my house maybe once a week. It took us about three, four years to complete the book. So there was lots of meetings and lots of teary times, like it was really hard for me to tell some parts of my story. I think every time I cried, she cried. Then a bit later on I had all my artwork, also photographs out on the table one day and she asked if she could take them home with her. As she was typing up what was taped she'd be looking at the artwork, then she realised that my artwork also came out into the story. My artwork has helped me to tell my story. Yeah, I think without it, I wouldn't be able to tell it.

The manuscript was done and I had an urge to ring them and tell them to cancel it. I in the end I just put the phone down, I thought, oh no, I won't worry about it. Then a week later it arrived and I re-read it. I must have read it about three four times and I was completely satisfied with the book because it helped me to understand all the things about my life and why it happened. Also to be able to forgive my parents. I know life wasn't meant to be like that for my parents as well because I know they suffered too as well as my siblings. So my book has helped me to really understand a lot of things, even with white people, how we were treated. I think it's important for them to know what happened. It gives them some insight on the impact. When my grandchildren have children, they can just pass it on to them and look, this is what happened to your great grandmother and you should be proud of her because she achieved all these things. I want them to be proud of me.

I get a lot of good comments on the book from people. I've collections of letters, cards, articles on the book. My artwork as well. I completed the Koorie art and design 2001-2002, so that's two of those awards. I'm really forgetting what I've achieved! I also got the 2004 award for Victorian Artist of the Year for NAIDOC.

In the very early stages of Yulendj, I really didn't know what I was getting myself into. But then I found it very interesting, a learning experience for me, to be able to work with staff members and to come out from Warragul, just helps me to get away outside and enjoy myself up here. I love every bit of it.

I can't wait for this whole project to come an end to see all this beautiful work out there. I think it was really interesting to have a look at all these objects, to find out if there was anything belonging to my father because he made artefacts, and also looking at the baskets. My grandmother's a well-known basket weaver.

I'm proud of what I'm doing for my people in East Gippsland. I am excited about it. The other project, possum skin cloak, that was a big thing too but this one's quite different. I know it's going to be huge.