Internationally acclaimed Australian Aboriginal artist Dr Leonard Smith is passionate about telling the story of his people and his ancient culture through his beautiful and vividly coloured artworks.
It can take the acrylic painter – who’s art goes by the name ‘Thomas’ to pay tribute to his late twin brother – many hours and even weeks to recreate scenes of his beloved Australian outback in contemporary Aboriginal dot art.
While the intricate patterns carefully placed onto canvas with accurate precision is a challenge at times – Dr Smith hopes his hard work shows how proud he is of his Indigenous heritage.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have occupied Australia for more than 65,000 years. We are the oldest continuous nation on Earth,” Dr. Smith, a descendant of the Biripi people on the mid-north coast of NSW, says.
“My whole aim of my art is to educate from the ground up – children and adults alike – about Aboriginal culture and history with its storytelling.
“Our history and social structure is very complex. I’m still learning about it, and it’s such a wonderful journey to be part of. I want to encourage people to join me as we learn and discover more about Aboriginal culture and history,” Dr Smith says.
Dr Smith’s interest in art begun at a young age. His ‘beautiful’ mother, Jean Bunyan, who was also an artist, was the source of his artistic inspiration.
“I remember just how beautiful and talented she was. She could sing and draw, and she could literally grow anything. People would say if she planted a telegraph pole it would grow,” Dr Smith recalls.
“She was just an angel.”
Deeply heartbroken from the loss of his mother and then his father almost four years later – Dr Smith, then aged 7, entered a colouring competition, hosted by local Taree radio station, 2RE.
“I drew Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man,” Dr Smith says of the competition.
“When I took it down, the radio announcer put [the show] on an ad and had a look at my drawing. He said ‘Len this is a beautiful drawing, but we want a Christmas theme’. He could see the disappointed look on my face and he knew I lived just up the street. He said ‘Young Lenny, you’ve got an hour, quickly go home and draw a Christmas theme’. So I dashed home on my pushbike and raced inside.
“I did a Christmas theme with Santa in it and maybe a sleigh?
“I remember, I got back [to the radio station] with five minutes to spare and the radio announcer said: ‘Wow, Len, that’s pretty good’.”
Dr Smith won that colouring competition and secured the coveted prize of one shilling and six pence. As part of the prize, he also had the opportunity to wish his beloved grandmother on radio a very Merry Christmas, which he recalls, “brought tears to her eyes”.
“For me being just seven, it was a very big deal to be able to speak on the radio,” Dr Smith says of his first win as a young artist.
From then, Dr Smith dabbled in and out of art while enlisted in the Australian Army, then onto a successful corporate and business career and finally excelling in academia, which took him all over the country and the world to lecture at universities and schools.
But his passion for art was reignited, particularly traditional Aboriginal dot art, years later.
“I had an accident in 2000 where I sustained a fracture to my neck. I needed to do something and I decided to pick up a paintbrush and start painting again,” he said.
“I just found it so cathartic.”
From there, he couldn’t stop.
“I just find inspiration from my childhood, experiences and the outback,” Dr Smith says of his art.
“I did a six week outback tour in 2004 and took many photos [which he uses for inspiration in his art].
“When I was younger I flew over Uluru, I went right up to the Kimberley and Darwin. I learnt traditional Aboriginal art and the mixing of colours from clay from the locals in Arnhem Land in 1970.
“I just couldn’t get enough of it. I’m a very hungry person for knowledge,” he says of his character.
Most recently, Dr Smith was commissioned by The Hills Shire Council to create a colouring challenge, which he named ‘Kangaroo Dreaming’.
The templated work, which was launched during NAIDOC Week, is based off Dr Smith’s original painting, titled “Big Red”.
Dr Smith says he is proud to take part in the challenge and encouraged Hills residents to get involved.
“I hope children and adults learn more about the beauty of Aboriginal art, particularly dot art,” he says.
You can download your Kangaroo Dreaming template from The Hills Shire Council’s website.
Completed artworks will be digitally displayed on The Hills Shire Library Service’s webpage and Facebook page.
Library members are also encouraged to keep their original artwork and take it to their local library branch once COVID-19 restrictions are eased and libraries are re-opened to receive a special reward.
Physical copies will go on display at Castle Hill Library for a month. Conditions apply.
For further details, visit: www.thehills.nsw.gov.au/Library/Kangaroo-Dreaming-Colouring-Challenge.