Six time Archibald finalist Angus McDonald and up-and-comer Karlee MLak talk about what's behind their creative connection

Angus McDonald and Karlee MLak. Photo by Marc Stapelberg.

Angus McDonald and Karlee MLak. Photo by Marc Stapelberg.

IF YOU ask Karlee MLak how she would describe herself as a painter, her "brain goes numb".

She's not trying to be any sort of artist, she says.

"I'm just doing what comes out of me. I haven't read the art books. I've got the living the art book - Angus sharing with me all the information I need ."

Her mentor, six time Archibald finalist, film-maker, Angus McDonald, on the other hand, is an internationally renowned realist painter.

His portrait of Kurdish Iranian author and former Manus Island refugee, Behrouz Boochani, is currently exhibiting in The Archibald prize at the Art Gallery of NSW. Earlier this year, his film, Manus, qualified for selection in the Documentary Short category at The Oscars.

Of Karlee's work, he playfully jokes that "she can't colour between the lines, and maybe that's her talent!"

The two met in 2009, at a time when both were in a period of transition. While their work remains very different, Karlee says of Angus: "he influences me in everything I do".

Angus began as an artist in 1993 when he turned away from a career in banking to study at The Julian Ashton Art school. The respected academy was established in 1890, whose notable alumni include the likes of William Dobell and John Olsen. He then followed on in the traditional paint strokes of many of The Great Masters spending two winters as an artist in residence in Florence, Italy, during the nineties.

Since the age of 16, Karlee was one of Australia's first female free surfers.

"Up until then I had been blinded by wanting to be a surfer and didn't know anything else."

Angus paints Behrouz Boochani for The Archibald, 2020.

Angus paints Behrouz Boochani for The Archibald, 2020.

She travelled the world, and soon returned to Australia from London where she decided to give up her sponsors, Rusty and Electric. Two things led to a profound shift in her direction. She found herself pregnant and she'd seen Julian Schnabel's movie about the American street artist. Jean-Michel Basquiat. She then nearly died giving birth.

"My whole perspective on life changed. I decided to re-invent myself and changed my name from Kalm to MLak.

It was also then, she met Angus and their creative relationship began. Angus was also in a transition stage.

"I was looking for a studio assistant at the time to help me with a new area of work.

"I remember seeing Karlee in her grubby terry toweling hat painting council pots in the middle of Lennox Head, going up to her, and asking if she could draw. "

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It wasn't long before Karlee started working in Angus's Lennox Head studio on NSW's North Coast and also began her own unique practice under his guiding eye. He affirmed in her that to be an artist it's "not about what anyone else does. it is about finding your own voice".

Karlee is now showing at The Thom Gallery in The Byron Bay Industrial Estate and has moved into her own studio.

She can hardly keep up with commissions that have her diary chocked up well into next year.

The point is, says Angus: "she really is a bonafide artist. She is able to express her view of life in a unique way and I always knew she would make it."

What is also important, he says, is to have a foundation for that voice.

"No matter how free your practice, structure and discipline are at the bedrock of your ideas and accomplishments. It is universal."

Over the past three years Angus, (with help from his editor, Nolan Verheigh-Full) has gone on to become a prominent advocate for the humane treatment of refugees.

Photo by Marc Stapelberg. Karlee in her studio in Byron Bay.

Photo by Marc Stapelberg. Karlee in her studio in Byron Bay.

His conviction is borne of the years in his career between 1996 and 2001, when he lived in Greece. During the 2015 European migrant crisis, he was impressed by the humane way the country treated those fleeing persecution.

"I decided to see if I could use my art to make a contribution to changing our government's appalling response to our own refugee's situation."

Angus's debut painting as an Archibald finalist was in 2009. He was runner up in 2011.

He is now an ambassador for Human Rights Watch Australia, with a new exhibition in the pipeline.

"I feel very honoured to be in a position to help others. I have always remembered the people that helped me as a young artist and, as a mentor, it is great to be able to pass on those short cuts.

"Karlee is now delivering something both symbolic and lyrical. She has a certain energy. She now trusts her subconscious to be free and innovative. She is now more doing than searching."

"I do now believe I am a painter, says Karlee. " I want to paint. In fact, believe is my word. In the middle of that word is 'lie'. Social structures are made up of belief systems, and that is what I am exploring in my art."

Maybe, just maybe, she has now learned how to describe what she does after all.

This story Multiple Archibald finalist inspires protege to find her voice first appeared on Northern Rivers Review.