Kate's tale

The tragic story of Kate Kelly, the sister of bushranger Ned who came to Forbes to start a new life only to die aged 36 in mysterious circumstances, is resonating with a new generation. 

Every artwork in Gria Shead’s new exhibition Flash Kate sold within 36 hours of the show opening last week.

“It’s the best show I have ever done, one I am really passionate about,” Ms Shead told the Advocate yesterday. 

Ms Shead started to explore the lives of pioneering rural Australian women while living in Hill End.

In recent years she picked up Peter Fitzsimons’ Ned Kelly and discovered his sister Kate.

“I hadn’t read anything about Ned Kelly because I thought it was a really male-centric story, but then I found out about Kate,” she said.

“I heard about Merrill Findlay (of Forbes) and spent a day in Forbes with her, going to all the sites, that was really helpful.”

She also spent a day going through the historical society’s resources on Kate. 

Ms Shead describes her work as figurative and painted the pieces from live models, depicting scenes of key points in Kate’s life to tell her story. 

“There are 18 panels almost like a comic strip,” she said.

“The main paintings are key moments in her life.”

There are paintings that depict the Fitzpatrick incident, Kate’s new start in Forbes and Kate in Ned’s signature homemade metal helmet. 

“I felt I had to paint a portrait of Kate with her children, she was a mother,” Ms Shead said. 

“The painting with the helmet is about her being very involved in the Kelly gang, she took on her brother’s armour in a psychological way.

“Breaker Kate is a reference to the great horsewoman that she was, something Merrill Findlay brought to my attention.” 

Liminal Lagoon is about her death in Lake Forbes. 

Local writer and author of the Kate Kelly Song Cycle Merril Findlay is delighted that young artists are exploring the life of Kate Kelly. 

“Women played a fundamental role in rural life,” she said. 

“I am delighted that young women artists are embracing the story and telling the Kelly saga from women’s perspectives.” 

Ms Findlay spent a day showing the artist around the places Kate worked, lived with her family and died – from Warroo Stud Farm to Browne Street and Lake Forbes. 

Ms Findlay has been interested in Kate Kelly for years and researched her intensively.

She believes Kate’s story is important in Forbes as it is so rich a part of local folklore, but also has a broader appeal.

“Everyone identifies with Kate,” she said.

“She was a poor country girl thrown into extraordinary circumstances, at 16 a celebrity.”

Ms Findlay concludes in her paper Kate Kelly on the Lachlan, published in Rural Society in February 2012, that Kate Kelly came to Forbes to disappear from her life as the bushranger’s sister. 

“She came here to Forbes and changed her name and her life,” she said. 

“She settled on the Lachlan to escape her past.”

Ms Findlay believes women in every generation share Kate’s story – isolated, with young children and separated from their family. 

Stories and a record of arrest of Kate’s husband William Foster for “indecent language” indicate she was also a victim of family violence. 

“I believe she suffered post-traumatic stress, depression and post-natal depression,” Ms Findlay said. 

“She had a tragic life.

“She gave birth to six children and saw two die, then the third baby died after she did.

“Her husband was remembered as a violent man.”

The exhibition is on show at Art Equity until Friday July 25th at Level 1, 66 King Street Sydney. Open Monday to Friday 9am-5pm or by appointment.

More on the exhibition at artequity.com.au

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