Mossman Gorge Family Responsibilities Commissioner, Karen Gibson, wears many hats and is a woman of many talents.

There is a constant tug-of-war between Karen’s urge to paint the stories of her family—and her social commitment to help paint a brighter future for the Mossman Gorge community.

Both endeavours have brought her recognition. Earlier this year, she received the Order of Australia honour for her work as a Family Responsibilities Commissioner, while her art is nationally acclaimed and has attracted buyers from interstate and overseas.

“I am wearing too many hats at the moment,” she admits with a laugh.

Art is her calling. “God gifted me with being an artist when I was born,” she said. “I just have to use it and express it more … the question is when and how?”

With connection to both Kuku Yalanji and Kuku Ngunkal peoples, she is dedicated to community. “Being part of people’s journeys, helping to influence positive changes in their wellbeing,” she said.

Apart from her FRC responsibilities, she is also the acting chairperson of Bamanga Bubu Ngadimunku Inc. and a board member of the Cape York Land Council.

“I could be a glutton for punishment,” she chuckles.

Born artist

Karen, who grew up in Mialo, just north of Mossman, can’t remember a time when she didn’t love art.

“I had a really serious relationship with pens and paper—almost an obsession,” she said. “I got into trouble at school at times, because I was always drawing in my books.”

She enjoyed a close relationship with her grandfather, George Kulka Senior.

“He had a lot of time for me,” she said. “We used to try help out with his gardening, he had chickens and ducks where he lived.”

But it wasn’t until Karen reached adulthood that she began to question her grandfather about her cultural heritage, as a member of the Kuku Yalanji people.

“I really didn’t appreciate much about my culture until I was 21,” she said. “That’s when I finally got to really know my grandfather. It’s just a matter of opening the door and asking questions. I was fascinated.”

Respect for women

Karen’s cultural heritage began to spring to life through her art.

“She’s got her great-grandfather running through her,” her mother, Isobella Ross-Kelly said. She is also a story-teller and source of inspiration for her daughter’s art.

Or as Karen’s son, Hadlee, put it: “Grandma is a story-teller. Mum tells those stories through her painting.”

Many of Karen’s best-known works to date, such as Women’s Business, highlight the important role of women in traditional Indigenous societies: gathering wild berries and fruits, digging yams, and collecting clams and mussels.

These paintings capture a vibrant sense of dignity—which Karen also strives to inspire through her FRC role. She and the other two commissioners at Mossman Gorge (both women) have worked hard to build self-respect surrounding women’s issues.

“Some people are not frightened anymore to pick up the phone and call the police,” she said. “They realise they don’t have to put up with abuse. They have just as much rights as anyone else.

“Although with some people, we are still working to change their mind frame.”

Emotional inspiration

Karen, a widow, cherishes her own family time. The mother of three adult sons, she currently lives with Hadlee and his two young sons, aged five and two—“plus a six-year-old boy I claimed”.

“At home, I’m a different person. I am a mum and a grandma. There is that respect for me from my sons,” she said.

Karen doesn’t have an art studio at home. And she doesn’t like to “label” her art, she paints with diverse style.

“My art reflects my moods, how I feel at the time,” she said simply.

When Princess Diana died in 1997, the Mossman Gorge artist did a painting “out of sadness”.

“I did it just for her family,” she said.
“I didn’t even take a photograph of it. I felt I could express what I felt and put it on canvas to get some sort of release on an artistic level.”

When an English friend returned to Britain, he contacted Diana’s ancestral home, Althorp, in Northamptonshire, to deliver the painting.

Weeks later, Karen received a letter of thanks from Earl Spencer, Diana’s brother.

Global or personal, “there are still some sad times I wish to address on canvas,” Karen said.

Political art

Then there are her “political” works, painted to the sounds of “an occasional dose of political music”.

“My sons have sometimes had to explain to their mates that it’s their mum playing heavy metal in our house,” she said, “but that rarely happens now. Thank goodness for earphones!

“Why does this music make me want to paint? The theory would have to be the political statement that this sort of music expresses: it encourages an energy to release what I feel inside.

“But my political side is a secret between me, Rage against the Machine and Midnight Oil,” she added with a smile.

Some years ago, Karen and a group of her people were invited to “go walkabout in the forest” with the environment-conscious lead singer of Midnight Oil, Peter Garrett, then share a take-away meal in Cape Tribulation.

“He was sitting just two metres away,” recalls Karen. “My niece was saying to me, ‘Tell him’, but I didn’t.

“Although, I managed to smile at him while I was chewing my burger,” she recalled with a chuckle.

Karen may not have caught the rock singer’s attention, but others—including strangers—are instinctively drawn to this magnetic artist. She not only “paints from the heart”, but also colours the world around her.