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Artistic Bloodlines

For Lauren Freestone, her Indigenous artworks have never been more in demand and life has never been busier, but a solid connection to family and country has kept her feet firmly on the ground as her artistic career soars.

Walking into Lauren Freestone’s Newcastle home that she shares with husband Lucas and children Indi and Otis, is a bit like walking into a nature-inspired art gallery. Muted earthy tones and collected mementos from nature fill the rooms, and the only thing as calming as the canvas artworks that spill across the walls of each room, is the thick bushland that peeks through the windows at the back of the house.

An Indigenous painter, who was raised with brushes and canvases filling her father’s home, for Lauren, art runs in her blood. Her grandfather, her ‘Fafa,’ is an artist who makes Yidaki and boomerangs on Birapi country and her father, Lee Freestone, a celebrated and exhibited artist in his own right, is particularly well known in the Scotts Head area on the NSW Mid North Coast.

Growing up in this small coastal town on Gumbaynggirr country, Lauren says the tight township of around one thousand people, as well as the bush and the beach, filled her childhood with happy memories and art was always in the background. “I was creative and loved art at school and my friends remember coming to my dad’s place and there were paintings, wood carvings, decorated emu eggs and art everywhere,” laughs Lauren. “But dad got really sick a few years ago when his appendix burst. We thought we were going to lose him and that’s what kick started this need to paint deep inside me and to share that with him, so I got a bit more serious about it.”

Dad got really sick a few
years ago when his appendix burst. We thought we were going to lose him and that’s what kickstarted this need to paint deep inside me and to share that with him, so I got a bit more serious about it.

Friends and family were among the first to buy Lauren’s work, but interest grew quickly, and she was asked to take some pieces to the well-known Lee Hampton Black Door Gallery in Penrith. “I took three of my paintings and Lee asked me for the prices and when I told him he just laughed!” says Lauren. “He tripled the prices and sold them straight away… I couldn’t believe people wanted to buy them! It was a real confidence boost and a turning point for me.”

Shortly afterwards, one of Lauren’s paintings was included on the hit TV show The Block, sending her artistic career to a new level. “Things went a bit crazy after that, with contestants Kara and Kyle doing a feature with my painting and everything snowballed…” says Lauren. “Jumbled Online wanted to take me on, as well as Fenton and Fenton. It all happened at once and I felt so overwhelmed, but I slowly picked myself up and thought how amazing all these opportunities were.” 

Lauren’s background working in visual merchandising for stores like Freedom, gave her a taste for modern contemporary design, and this is reflected in her unique approach to her art. “My work is definitely more modern, whereas my dad’s is more traditional in his hunting and creation stories,” explains Lauren. “I use a modern colour palette and try to take all of my family history and put it into my paintings. Hopefully one day, my kids can look at them and say, ‘Oh okay, that’s where I came from and that’s the landscape my ancestors walked on.’”

I use a modern colour palette and try to take all of my family history and put it into my paintings. Hopefully one day, my kids can look at them and say, ‘Oh okay, that’s where I came from and that’s the landscape my ancestors walked on.’

Despite growing up by the sea, Lauren’s Indigenous family originates from the Mudgee/Rylstone area in NSW, Wiradjui country, and this land plays a distinctive role in her art. “I’m really inspired after I come back from being on country with my dad and that’s when my paintings seem to just spill out of me,” says Lauren. “When I get home, I start working on a few pieces straight away because I just need to get it out.”

In Lauren’s work Tree Carvings, the trees along the bottom of the painting represent the three generations of her family, and the trees on the top are the three generations before her, with two meeting spaces joined by the river in the middle. “Wiradjui are river people and there’s always a connection between the past, the present and the river,” says Lauren. “Being on country with dad is so special. It is about building connections and talking about our family but also reflecting on the hardships that our ancestors endured.”

Fiercely proud of her Indigenous culture, Lauren says the journey of delving deeper into her Aboriginality has been painful at times. “My whole family has endured a lot of racism and I want to say it gets easier as you get older, but it has definitely followed me around my whole life and that’s been very hard,” says Lauren.

Being on country with dad
is so special. It is about building connections and talking about our family but also reflecting on the hardships that our ancestors endured.

“My daughter started Kindergarten this year and it took me straight back to when I started school and I had my first brush with racism when a boy called me ‘Abo.’ I didn’t understand it at that age, but I knew it didn’t feel good and it always stuck with me. It was something I never wanted my children to experience.”

Celebrating and embracing her Indigenous culture through art has been healing for Lauren and seeing her own children growing up amongst her canvases and paints is like her creative journey coming full circle. “My daughter sits in the studio and paints with me sometimes and it’s so nice,” says Lauren. “I don’t separate my art from my kids – they just sort of hang out while I’m doing my thing. That’s how it was for me, and I want it to feel normal for them, too.”

With a range of exciting projects on the horizon, from textiles to painting collaborations, Lauren is also busy working with several organisations close to her heart including MiiMi Mothers of Bowraville and Warlga Ngurra, an Aboriginal owned refuge for women and children escaping domestic violence. “Last year I donated around $20,000 to some amazing organisations,” says Lauren. “That was a really proud moment which made me feel thankful to be able to give back to my community.”

After spending time in Lauren’s home and with her family, it’s clear that she has a continuing reverence for her Indigenous heritage, a deep connection with nature and an unwavering love for her people that centres her. “When I first started painting, I went back and gained permission from the elders in the community which is really important, and I only paint my family’s history and that makes my art more authentic,” says Lauren.

When it comes to Indigenous art, Lauren lists the Ken sisters, Miimi & Jiinda as well as local Newcastle painter Tom Croft as among her favourites. But it’s her dad’s intricate dot paintings that inspire her the most. “For a really long time, dad and I have been saying that we need to do a collaboration,” says Lauren. “I’ve actually left a spot on one of my blue paintings of Scotts Head where I want him to add his part because it reminds me of growing up back up the coast and how dad really was the one who inspired me to follow my dreams from the start.”

When I first started painting, I went back and gained permission from the elders in the community which is really important, and I only paint my family’s history and that makes my art more authentic.

Words: Odette Tonkin | Photography: Zoe Lonergan

As seen in Swell Issue 14.

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