At Home: Phyllis Stewart

  • A woven octopus photographed against a blue background

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    Phyllis Stewart, Octopus

    Weaving, 2002. 43 × 49 × 43 cm. In collection Wollongong City Gallery.

  • A pair of soft slip-on shoes decorated with shells

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    Phyllis Stewart, Shoes

    2002, shell, fabric, cardboard. Shell work is something that my grandmother did years ago and is part of our tradition.

  • A pair of soft slippers decorated with shells

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    Phyllis Stewart, Slippers

    2002, shell, fabric, cardboard. I carry on this work as it connects me to my past and I am passing this tradition down to my children.

  • A pair of thongs decorated with shells

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    Phyllis Stewart, Thongs

    2002, shell, fabric, cardboard. The thongs are a new concept and contemporary idea in my shell work.

  • a black and white lino print on unbleached paper

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    Phyllis Stewart, Bean picking days

    Woodcut. As kids we travelled with our parents up and down the South Coast between Berry and Eden following seasonal work such as pea and bean picking.

  • a screen print of the underside of an octopus

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    Phyllis Stewart, The blue-ringed octopus

    Screenprint. Gift of the artist 2011, produced with Thomas Goulder at Duckprint Fine Art Studios, Port Kembla.

 

Born in Berry, and sharing family connections with both the Dharwal and Yuin communities of the south coast of NSW, Phyllis Stewart’s family earned a living from vegetable picking and seasonal work, moving up and down the coastline from “Sydney to the borders”.

Stewart has an unbroken connection to country through her mother’s Armidale ancestry and her "father’s father's people" of the Wallaga Lake region of the far south coast of NSW. There are close links with the Aboriginal community in La Perouse – the only Sydney suburb where Aboriginal people have maintained their territory from settlement until today and one which is famous for its traditional shell work.

Stewart’s talent as master weaver and maker is testimony to a rich and creative childhood spent helping adults harvest, weave and value-add from nature, observing and studying animal and plant life – a response to her Home country playing out directly in her art.

Her grass Octopus (2002), has been brought ashore, landed – her uncle’s powerful warning of the blue-ringed octopus’s poison informing detailed knowledge of anatomy and form – converted into woven form as art object.

Thongs, Slippers and Shoes explores the idea behind the ubiquitous, the everyday, the common and taken-for-granted.

Stewart uses the reflective surfaces of shells to decorate and reimagine everyday items into decorative objects. Three works in collection at Wollongong City Gallery, Thongs, Slippers and Shoes explores the idea behind the ubiquitous, the everyday, the common and taken-for-granted. Stewart renders these into objects purposed for considered examination and visual consumption. In this way she expands and redefines on an activity common to the La Perouse community from the 1950s and 60s of gluing shells onto cardboard cut-outs for sale to white tourists.

Stewart’s interest in the everyday and the utility of things is demonstrated in the group of Miniature baskets in the University of Wollongong’s collection (2009) – she has miniaturised them, urging us to squint and peer and closely examine them. This presentation removes them from being seen simply as ubiquitous tribal object or souvenir and offers them up into the realm of sculpture – constructed by elf-like fingers into an object of value; fragile and precious.

Phyllis Stewart is committed to Dharwal and Yuin country and works with her daughter Kristine to collect and curate the many species of native grasses and plant material and to protect the traditional uses while conserving those resources for current and future use. Her objects remind the viewer of the inherent worth of handmade things and provide opportunity to connect with the origins of material which is ultimately the land in which we live.

 

Phyllis Stewart's partner is Steven Russell who hails from the famous La Perouse Timbery family, one of the original owners of the land. Joseph Timbery was a member of the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association who initiated land rights proceedings for La Perouse in the 1920s and enacted the 1938 Day of Mourning to highlight the suffering of Australian Aborigines.

The Stewarts; Steven, Phyllis and Kristine have established Jungah Weavers artists’ collective based in Gerringong, all being master weavers. 'Jungah' is an Aboriginal word for octopus and is also used in reference to the police.

 

You can view Phyllis's Home country on the Aboriginal Language Map.

Museums & Galleries of NSW helps museums, galleries and Aboriginal cultural centres of NSW create exciting and inspiring experiences for visitors and strong, thriving local communities. We develop their skills, connect them with others in the industry, provide funding, point visitors their way, and give them access to ground-breaking exhibitions.

Museums & Galleries of NSW is supported by the NSW Government through Create NSW.

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