Karla Dickens’s childhood was marked by chaos but when recalling her paternal grandparents, she chokes up. “Well, they were my rocks,” says the 55-year-old Wiradjuri artist. “I just felt really loved.”
On school holidays and weekends, Dickens would gravitate to Mascot, in inner-city Sydney, where her grandparents lived in a humble cottage without a phone. Her grandfather, a tall German man named Tommy, worked in an iron foundry, and would scour the streets for things people cast away, to fix in his tiny workshop.
From Tommy, Dickens picked up a lifetime habit of visiting rubbish tips and streets for objects to incorporate into her collage art. From her grandmother, a small Aboriginal woman named Myrtle, she got life advice, such as telling people she was Italian if asked about her complexion.
Myrtle’s family had come from western NSW to live in a humpy in a shanty town at Mascot; Indigenous children were being removed from their parents, in what became known as the stolen generations.
“She roused my parents ’cause we’d go to the beach,” recalls Dickens, who is short, with thick, greying hair and an affable vulnerability. “She was like, ‘Keep her out of the sun’.”
When we meet at the Campbelltown Arts Centre, Dickens is putting the finishing touches to her first career survey, Embracing Shadows. It includes her 2015 work Clipped Wings II, dedicated to her great-grandmother, Mary Anderson: a 2-metre-long sculpture of rusted steel, torso-shaped like an iron maiden torture case, and draped with chains and bird feathers.
Mary, who was Myrtle’s mother, had been used as a domestic worker without pay, grossly mistreated and raped, says Dickens. “The trauma led her to Callan Park [a psychiatric institution], where she died blind – just trauma on top of trauma.”
Such family history and her own traumatised past inform Dickens’ sharp-witted collages and sculptures, which reflect intergenerational trauma, Indigenous dehumanisation, cultural and environmental loss. Being working class, she’s always aimed to keep her work “open to the widest audience”. She “never wanted to be a part of the art world”, she says with a laugh. “I’m still reluctant.”
Dickens was born into a life of “crisis”; she won’t elaborate on her immediate family. In primary school, she would create art through cutting, pasting, reconstructing and building, but never envisaged art as a career. “Life seemed big just on a daily basis,” she says. “It was just: ‘Do you get fed?’”
At 11, Dickens started smoking pot. Her parents moved to beachside Maroubra, then separated, and at 13 Dickens moved out of home, staying with her older brother, her father or friends, while still attending school and later working in a surf shop.
At 15, the doctors gave Dickens her first mental health diagnosis. “I had nightmares every night, and then when I was 15 it was depression, and then the more drugs that I took, those diagnoses changed quite a lot.” Later, she would paint many black dogs.
“At Maroubra beach, it wasn’t like, ‘What’s your identity?’, it was, ‘What drugs can you get?’ and ‘Where are we gonna party?’ and ‘I’ll look after you’,” she says.
“I’d always find somewhere to live. I rented my own places from a really young age, but I was transient, and I didn’t want anybody to see what was going on, so I was pretty good – and most addicts are – at just keeping on, shufflin’ and dodgin’.”
At 20, she attended her first drug rehabilitation facility. “I was broken. I realised the party was over, and I was either going to go to jail or end up dead.” But Dickens didn’t get clean until she was 24, by which point she had experienced being “psychotic” and “non-verbal”.
Among Dickens’ latter-day sculptures are female figures in human zoo cages, reflecting Indigenous incarceration rates. “I’ve come so close to being locked up, not just dumb stuff but illegal stuff,” she says.
“Even after I got clean, you still feel trapped in your trauma, and you still feel pretty … caged up in just the history of this country.”
Her friends encouraged her to enrol in the National Art School in Sydney, which she loved; the late artist Roy Jackson, a Buddhist, was among her teachers. He helped Dickens understand art as a process, the importance of turning up on time, and how to work through “mental and emotional blockages”.
One of Dickens’ earliest exhibitions, at the now defunct Black Fella’s Dreaming gallery in Sydney, was a coming out moment, filled with heavily collaged canvases full of vaginas with butterfly wings, which were about letting go of shame about her sexuality, of being a lesbian. “I just had to grow and accept what I was and who I wanted to be,” she says. Indeed, Women’s Business, the biggest of the survey’s five rooms, displays some 30 years of Dickens’ exploration of being a woman – sexuality, birth, death and abuse, as well as her spirituality: Virgin Mary statues repurposed as protective Black Madonna figures.
Dickens moved to Bangalow in the northern rivers in 2003, and gave birth to her daughter, Ginger, in 2005, who she is raising as a single mother. In 2007, they moved to Goonellabah, where Dickens continues to work in her home studio on a hill, surrounded by her collected materials, playing Tim Buckley or other psychedelic music from the 60s and 70s as she makes her art. Her daughter, whom her mother says has a good eye for visual art, is currently doing her HSC, having intermittently performed in theatre and television.
Many of Dickens’ recent collage canvases deal with global warming and the greed of mining companies. The Lismore region where she lives has been devastated in recent years, by fire in 2019 and flood in 2022 – the same year Dickens’ good friend Blak Douglas, Ginger’s godfather, won the Archibald prize for a portrait of Dickens, knee-deep in water and carrying two leaky buckets.
Many of Dickens’ friends lost everything. “The fire taketh away, but with the flood it just giveth, like, so much mess,” she says. She turned her long driveway into a place where community could bring salvaged clothing, blankets and towels to lay out on a gurney to remove dirt, before a clean soaking and then drying.
It’s another type of trauma, but by this stage in her life Dickens has honed her instinct for survival. “I was born in hectic circumstances, and then I walked further into my own hectic circumstances as a teenager and a young adult,” she says. “So, when the [flood] disaster hit, I just clicked into Mad Max mode.” She snaps her fingers. “I’m definitely a fighter, yeah.”
Karla Dickens: Embracing Shadows is at the Campbelltown Arts Centre until 12 March
In Australia, support is available at Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14, and at MensLine on 1300 789 978. In the UK, the charity Mind is available on 0300 123 3393 and Childline on 0800 1111. In the US, Mental Health America is available on 800-273-8255