The Art of Survival by Carla Dickens: “I would either go to jail or end up dead” | art
KArla Dickens’ childhood was marked by chaos but when she remembered her paternal grandparents, she choked. “Well, she was my rock,” says the 55-year-old Wirajuri artist. “I really felt the love.”
On school holidays and weekends, Dickens would gravitate to Mascot, in downtown Sydney, where her grandparents lived in a modest shack without a telephone. Her grandfather, a tall German named Tommy, worked in an iron foundry, and would scour the streets for things people had thrown away, to repair in his little workshop.
From Tommy, Dickens picked up a lifelong habit of visiting trash tips and streets in search of objects to incorporate into her collage art. From her grandmother, a little Aboriginal woman named Myrtle, she got life advice, such as telling people she was Italian if asked about her complexion.
The Myrtle family had come from western New South Wales to live in a slum in Mascot. Aboriginal children were being separated from their parents in what became known as the stolen generations.
Short-haired with thick gray hair and a sensitive vulnerability, Dickens recalled: “I woke my father up because we were going to the beach.” She was like, ‘Keep her out of the sun.'”
When We Meet at the Campbelltown Arts Center Dickens is putting the finishing touches on her first career survey, Embracing Shadows. Her work includes 2015’s Clipped Wings II, dedicated to her great-grandmother, Marie Anderson: sculpted two meters tall from rusted steel, torso-shaped like an iron torture case, and covered with chains and bird feathers.
Mary, Myrtle’s mother, was used as an unpaid domestic worker, abused and raped, according to Dickens. The shock led her to Callan’s garden [a psychiatric institution]where she died blind – just shock on top of shock.
Such family history and its traumatic past tell of Dickens’ sharp collages and sculptures, reflecting generational trauma, indigenous dehumanization, and cultural and environmental loss. Being from the working class, she always aimed to keep her work “open to the widest audience”. “She never wanted to be part of the art world,” she says with a laugh. “I’m still hesitating.”
Dickens was born into a life of “crisis”. She will not elaborate on her immediate family. In elementary school, she was creating art by cutting, pasting, remodeling and building, but she never envisioned art as a profession. “Life only seemed so big on a daily basis,” she says. It was just: ‘Do you feed? “
At 11, Dickens started smoking pot. Her parents moved to Maroubra Beach, then divorced, and at the age of 13 Dickens moved out of the house, where she stayed with her older brother, father or friends, while still attending school and later working in a surf shop.
At the age of 15, doctors gave Dickens his first mental health diagnosis. “I had nightmares every night, and then when I was 15 it was depression, and then the more medications I took, those diagnoses changed a lot.” Later, she would paint many more black dogs.
“At Maroubra Beach, it wasn’t like, ‘What’s your ID?’ Rather, it was, “What drugs can you get?” and “Where are we going to celebrate?” and she says, “I’ll take care of you.”
“I always found a place to live. I rented out my own from a really young age, but I was trans, and I didn’t want anyone to see what was going on, so I was good—and most addicts are—at carry on, shufflin’ and dodgin.”
At 20, she attended her first drug rehab facility. “I was devastated. I realized the party was over, and I was either going to jail or ending up.” But Dickens didn’t clean up until she was 24, by which point she had struggled with being “psychotic” and “non-verbal.”
Among Dickens’s sculptures in his later days are female figures in caged human zoos, reflecting Aboriginal incarceration rates. “I got close to being incarcerated, not just stupid things but illegal things,” she says.
“Even after you’ve recovered, you still feel trapped in your trauma, you still feel beautiful… locked in just this country’s history.”
Her friends encouraged her to attend the National School of Art in Sydney, which she loved; The late artist Roy JacksonBuddhist, was among her teachers. He helped Dickens understand art as a process, the importance of showing up at the right time, and how to work through “mental and emotional blockages”.
One of Dickens’ first exhibitions, at the now-defunct Black Fella’s Dreaming gallery in Sydney, was an exiting moment filled with heavily collage paintings full of vaginas with butterfly wings, which were about letting go of shame about her sexuality, and being a lesbian. “I just had to grow and accept who I was and who I wanted to be,” she says. Indeed, Women Business, the largest of the five rooms in the survey, showcases some 30 years of Dickens’ exploration of being a woman—sexuality, birth, death, and abuse—as well as her spirituality: statues of the Virgin Mary are transformed as protective figures of the Black Madonna.
Dickens moved to a bungalow in Northern Rivers in 2003, and gave birth to daughter Ginger in 2005, whom she is raising as a single mother. In 2007 they moved to Goonellabah, where Dickens continued to work in her studio on a hill, surrounded by her collected material, playing Tim Buckley or other psychedelic music from the 1960s and 1970s as she created her art. Her daughter, who her mother says has a good interest in visual art, is currently doing HSC, performing intermittently in theater and television.
Many of Dickens’ recent collages deal with global warming and the greed of mining companies. The area of Lismore where she lives has been devastated in recent years, due to a fire in 2019 and a flood in 2022 – the same year as Dickens’ close friend Black DouglasGodfather Ginger, who won the Archibald Prize for a picture of Dickens, is knee-deep in water and holds two leaky buckets.
Many of Dickens’ friends lost everything. She says, “The fire fades away, but with the flood, it makes a lot of chaos.” She has turned her long corridor into a place where the local community can bring salvaged clothes, blankets, and towels to lay on a stretcher to remove dirt, before soaking clean and then drying.
It’s another kind of trauma, but at this point in her life, Dickens has honed her survival instinct. “I was born into hectic conditions, and then I got into my own hectic conditions as a teenager and young woman,” she says. So, when [flood] Disaster struck, I just clicked into Mad Max mode.” She snaps her fingers. “I’m definitely a fighter, yeah.”