Karlee Rawkins


September 19 - October 3 2009

Karlee Rawkins is a profound talent. Her 2003 prize winning entry in the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship was a unanimous favourite with the judging panel because of its ‘integrity and visual literacy’. In the ensuing years Rawkins has gone on to produce a significant body of work. 

Functioning both as narrative and lyricism, her paintings aim to stimulate the viewer into finding new interpretations and relevance amidst the everyday. For Karlee Rawkins the conceptual tying of her life with the people, places and things of her environment is prerequisite to art-making; ‘In pursuit of personal imagery and motifs, I endeavour to create works that are archetypal in the sense that on a larger scale, they deal with all human conditions.’

The Orchard paintings extend Karlee Rawkin’s early interest in the alchemy of signs and symbols; ‘I have been influenced by medieval imagery and tapestries for quite awhile now and along with all the beautiful hunting and forest scenes that I have been looking at, there are these gorgeous trees and plants that are more symbols than anything botanically correct. Like the animals in previous works, my trees are intentionally ambiguous and awkward with the aim of conveying emotion.’

Consciously or unconsciously, symbols lie at the heart of social and cultural identity. Since prehistoric times, tree symbolism has facilitated human understanding of the cosmos and our place in it. As symbol, the tree has multiple meanings: it can represent fruitfulness and the bounty of nature, endurance and longevity, or the web of family relationships. Rooted in the Earth but with its branches pointing to the Heavens, the so-called ‘tree of life’ or ‘world tree’ has been central to the religious and mythological ideologies of virtually every civilization.  Ancient peoples worshipped in sacred groves where the tree trunks and canopies of branches would later be echoed in the design of churches. Trees also possess powerful environmental and ecological connotations. Interestingly, the words ‘truth’ and ‘trust’ are derived from the Old English word for ‘tree’.  

Orchards too, are laden with metaphorical meaning. The loftiest notions see the fruit bearing tree as the symbolic expression of a long psychological development which culminates in the attainment of inner riches or wisdom. Every Neolithic and Bronze Age paradise involved a land of orchards. Mediaeval folklore continued this tradition, most famously in the Arthurian romances about Avalon - the mystical Apple Isle. Rawkins’ latest works embody similar dimensions: ‘The Apple Tree, besides the more obvious references, was partly inspired by an image I found in Norse mythology of the goddess of spring, Idun, guarding the magical apples that granted eternal youth. I am also interested in the various attributes of the Nordic shape-shifting goddess Freyja, who is generally associated with fertility.’ 

Rawkins’ imagery in The Apple Tree work is strangely indeterminate. Wanting to incorporate elements from an earlier animal-based series, the tree’s branches subtly mimic her wolf and dog legs. Like some ancient tree, the limbs look weighed down with eons of seasonal change and multiple harvests. The shapes of its sparse foliage hover above the picture’s surface, or submerge beneath it, only to re-emerge through textured layers of selective over-painting. There is as yet, no fruit on this tree. It seems dormant, liminal - at the threshold of a new cycle. Against the apple tree’s earthy, ochre backdrop, the trunk appears to totter on its spindly, leg-like roots, but between them spreads the crimson colour of lifeblood, sustenance and renewal.

The sheer aesthetic potency of Karlee Rawkin’s imagery animates our visual sensibilities. Coupling spontaneity and deliberation, she takes control of pictorial space with a remarkable confidence. Vacant expanses of monochromatic colour compress the tensions between figuration and abstraction while fragile, scraffito-like patterning defines shape and gives compositional accent. The curiously unfinished quality to much of Rawkin’s work hints at a missing ‘something’; an invisible part needed to achieve completion. Shades of meaning gradually accrue to trigger a series of perceptions, emotional responses and finally, understanding. The Orchard paintings are like ancient puzzles left behind for the viewer to solve.



Karlee Rawkins has always lived ‘far from the madding crowd’ and it seems to have invested her art with a quiet, introspective depth. Born in the Queensland country town of Toowoomba in 1977, she fondly remembers growing up on the family farm. The Orchard paintings reference these halcyon days: ‘As a child I played in the giant fig tree that my mother and her siblings had also climbed. My cousins and I would graze all day on the figs, mandarins, mulberries and tamarillos in my grandparents’ orchard.’

More recently, Karlee Rawkins and her long time partner and fellow artist, Marc Renshaw, moved to a rainforest property in the remote wilderness region beyond Bellingen, NSW. Here they discovered their own, albeit overgrown, orchard: ‘We really had to cut the forest back and chase out the lizards when we moved in to this house as no one had lived here for 5 years. We are still reclaiming our orchard and have discovered a few avocados and mangos and a lychee, peach, orange and pecan tree. We are aiming for at least part self-sufficiency here, if the bower birds, ‘roos and possums will leave us some!’ 

Last year Karlee and Marc’s first child, Raji, was born into this paradisiacal-like wilderness; ‘I have been thinking about these Orchard paintings and how they are perhaps working as symbols of fertility and even reproduction... perhaps referencing my recent experience of these things? Marc is sure I am... for Raji is a unique fruit himself!’  Informed by ancient mythology and personal experience, the Orchard paintings were created in the mud brick studio which was part of the attraction they had for this hill-top property.  Karlee Rawkin’s works speak both eloquently and profoundly of Nature’s bounty and great cycles.

Karlee Rawkins commenced her Bachelor of Arts (Contemporary Art) at the University of Southern Queensland in 1998, finishing it with an Honours degree at Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW. In 2003 Rawkins won the fifth Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship. Administered by the Art Gallery of NSW, the scholarship afforded her five months at the Cite Internationale des Arts in Paris, with visits to New York, London, Portugal and Spain. She was also a recipient of the Pat Corrigan Artists Grant (NAVA & Arts Council Australia) in 2001 and the William Fletcher Trust Grant in 1999. Rawkins is a full-time practicing artist and has participated in numerous group and sell-out solo exhibitions.

Rawkins visited Vietnam and Laos in 2008 and travelled throughout India and Nepal in 2000 and 2001. Those experiences still inform much of her work today as is evidenced in her ongoing interest in pattern, symbolic motifs, sumptuous colour combinations and the flattened perspectives which are a hallmark of her painting practice. 

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