Indigenous artists Bronwen Smith and Gavin Chatfield are contemporary, traditional artists who have co-owned Gwiyaala Aboriginal Arts since 2014. Originally from Batemans Bay, they now live in Sydney, and you can often find them selling their vibrant paintings at the Blak Markets in La Perouse.
Bronwen and Gavin haven't had easy lives, but becoming artists has helped them heal and forge happier lives.
A single mum, Bronwen, a proud Walbunga woman from the Yuin Nation on the NSW south coast, was endeavouring to bring up four children on a nursing home carer’s wage.
“I had always been into drawing, mainly black-and-white sketches, but I was often too exhausted from working and looking after kids to do any sketching, let alone painting in those years,” she said.
But an aunty and uncle who were artists felt Bronwen had talent and they encouraged and mentored her. When her kids were older and more self-reliant, Bronwen started to paint regularly and now does it full-time.
Gavin, a proud Wiradjuri man, had grown up in Batemans Bay. He also had country connections with Gilgandra, northwest NSW. Gavin had enjoyed art at school and shown real promise as an artist. But he got caught up in the vicious drugs cycle, and a crystal meth addiction eventually led to him being incarcerated for eight months in the South Coast Correctional Centre in Nowra.
While inside, he worked hard at getting clean and soon found support and purpose in an Aboriginal art class led by a respected uncle who came in every week to help the men heal and reform themselves through art.
“This uncle encouraged me to get into the art world to heal and make a living. I enjoyed the storytelling, learning the techniques and listening to all the men in the class with me. It brought me back to culture. I realised there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and for me, it was art,” he said.
Gavin also spent eight years working on an oyster farm to boost his income while establishing himself as an artist. “Oyster gathering was also regular work for the Yuin people, and this has inspired me," he said.
In 2007, Bronwen started Gwiyaala Aboriginal Arts (the name means stingray in the Yuin language). She added Gavin’s artwork when they got together in 2014. Over the years, they have created many compelling and colourful contemporary paintings in their Batemans Bay studio.
Both consider themselves contemporary, yet traditional, Indigenous artists. The ocean and marine life of the south coast particularly inspire them. Many bush animals also offer inspiration for their work, and so does their history and family connections.
Gavin often delves into his western NSW heritage with his artwork incorporating the red dust and ochres of the outback with the sea greens and blues of the south coast waters that also inspire him.
Bronwen and Gavin mainly do acrylics on canvas, and they also create reasonably-priced prints and greeting cards to sell at markets for people whose budget cannot stretch to a painting. They sometimes work together on projects.
They sell their work at markets and online via social media. In 2016, they started selling their work at Sydney’s Blak Markets and the National Indigenous Art Fair, which boosted their presence in the broader community. They credit the markets and art fair for helping to close the gap between Indigenous people and other Australians.
“We love talking to the tourists and locals who attend. When people visit your stall, you can turn it into a positive conversation about storytelling, culture and history. It’s a chance for us artists to showcase our art, not to mention others who do crafts, dance performances and food. We have found the wider community receptive,” said Gavin.
“Blak Markets have been a source of income, connection and exposure,” added Bronwen.
“I think the Markets have helped us grow as people and artists. We’re from small country towns, and coming to the markets has given us vital exposure. Teachers have approached us at the markets about doing workshops with their students, which we’re doing. Government officials have come to buy art or commission us to do jobs, and we have now completed several murals. The markets have been the number one door opener,” explained Bronwen.
Having a regular presence at the markets is leading to bigger things. Recently, a large clothing company expressed an interest in collaborating with Bronwen and Gavin on a casual clothing line featuring their designs.
Recently, the partners decided to move to Sydney to progress their careers and eventually, Bronwen would like to open a shop.
The south coast bushfires and the floods that followed had depressed them, and they felt a move to the city would let them be closer to markets and clients. Unfortunately, they moved to western Sydney the week before the second COVID lockdown in June 2021.
“We couldn’t even get to the post office to mail our work to people,” said Bronwen.
When asked about how Aboriginal communities are currently faring now that the lockdowns are over, Gavin said all communities were still feeling the economic and social effects of the pandemic.
“A way to help is to buy their work and support events like the Blak Markets and National Indigenous Art Fair because proceeds go back to the artist and the communities,” he said.