Artist Shirley Macnamara’s work uses materials gathered from the land to evoke powerful connections between her Aboriginal culture and history, and contemporary cattle station life.

Story By Sally Sheldon

Shirley Macnamara sometimes wonders why she does it. “Maybe,” she speculates, running a working woman’s hand absent-mindedly through her cropped hair, “it’s because you see stuff there, and it’s telling you that you’ve just got to say something – that you have to share.”

Whatever it is, it’s an impulse that’s driven Shirley to stretch her own life like a canvas – between roots that never shift, deep in the terrain of her beloved outback country, and creative ideals that carry her to ever-rising heights of artistic recognition, in cities far beyond.

Artistically speaking, her drive is paying off. Despite her local reputation as a “quiet achiever”, Shirley is attracting growing national acclaim for her signature style of sculpture: beautiful, evocative pieces, innovatively woven from the native spinifex grass that grows at her home near Mount Isa, in Queensland’s north-west. She is now a represented artist at Melbourne’s prestigious Alcaston Gallery and premier public institutions have long collected her pieces. In 2012, she was commissioned to produce a major work, Wingreeguu, for the 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at the Queensland Art Gallery’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA). The Australian War Memorial (AWM) purchased a more recent piece, Memoir.

Shirley crafted Memoir – a crucifix fashioned from spinifex, emu feathers, bullock bone, horse hair and ochre – “to remind us of the battles fought at home, and for those who lay in a distant land never to come home”. It is, in the opinion of Ryan Johnston, Head of Art at the AWM, an “extraordinary” piece, whose multi-layered messages made it a highlight of the 2015 Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, where it was showcased as a finalist.

Yet art, for Shirley, remains a part-time occupation, in a life that has been lived, first and foremost, as a cattlewoman. The child of pastoral-worker parents, Shirley spent her formative years on a string of the giant cattle stations that define the eastern Barkly Tablelands: Barkly Downs, Lake Nash, Georgina Downs, Morestone Downs and Rocklands. At the age of 15 she met her future husband, Nat, and for the next 25 years the couple ran cattle on a modest block near Mount Isa, supplementing their income by droving and timber harvesting. In 1992 they acquired Mount Guide, a 45,000-hectare cattle station south of Mount Isa. Since Nat’s death in 1994, Shirley and her son Mike, who also lives on the station with his young family, have co-managed and operated the property. The relentless work, multiplied by challenges of bushfire and drought, has kept her grounded in the landscape.

This story excerpt is from Issue #106

Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2016