AS an internationally-renowned artist, Arone Meeks has travelled the world and had the opportunity to live in many exciting places including Paris and India.
But the bright lights of the big cities cannot keep the KuKu Miidiji man away from his home in Far North Queensland.
“Coming back here was connecting with my family and my connection to country.”
Originally from Laura in eastern Cape York, Meeks received both a formal and traditional art education through his grandfather and other relatives.
His work features in galleries around the world and his illustrations for children’s books have earned him many awards including the UNICEF Ezra Jack Keats Illustration Award for International Excellence in Children’s Books.
Now based in Cairns, Meeks embarked on a radical program called Towards Self-Management in conjunction with UMI Arts more than four years ago to train young Indigenous people in Far North Queensland to record the stories of their elders.
“I saw there was a need for people to take control and record the stories of their elders because so many stories were being lost because there were people passing,” he says.
“Every two or three months I would go up there (to Cape York) and spend a few weeks there.
“We would work with crayon and use different techniques of painting. We would do drawing and teaching the kids to structure with things like perspective.
“It gave them the skills to educate people enough to begin to develop their own skills and their own stories, so it was helping them evolving the stories they already had.”
The first year of the program was mainly teaching participants to draw and map out exactly which stories they wanted to share. In the second year of the program participants exhibited their works locally, learnt how to store work and to document it.
“It was an idea that I came up with when I was sitting around with mates, and thought ‘why aren’t we recording the stories of our elders’,” Meeks remembers.
“What I’ve been trying to do and I’m getting there slowly, when people do visual arts they feel a sense of accomplishment.
“I’ve done a bit of training in mental health, in so far as being able to combine the visual arts and culture and skills to support them on that journey, they come out the better for it.”
Not content with empowering people in remote Aboriginal communities through art, Meeks also works as a sexual health worker for LGBTI Indigenous people in Cairns.
“I work at an organisation called 2 Spirits, whose focus is on sister girls, gay men, lesbians and brother boys,” he says.
“There is an important connection to community, so when I go in there and I start talking about HIV, I’ve got a pretty good audience that trusts and knows me.
“We do artwork together for World AIDS Day, we have an education component around HIV to debunk the myths around it.”
Meeks could live his life as a successful artist and not worry about giving up so much of his time to work in the Cape York and Yarrabah (Aboriginal community near Cairns) towns, but that is not an option he has ever considered.
“I think it’s important for me to give back and I have that connection to community,” he explains.
“I do have these skills and I’m keen to share them, and it’s a reward to share my knowledge with the students.
“The students haven’t heard of a lot of the great artists like Picasso or Van Gogh, so it’s great to see their development in their work.”