By Ian Williams
Not many artists have the distinction of their designs flown all around the world – repeatedly. But then very few have such skills as gifted Aboriginal artist, Susie Betts.
For the past 30 years, Susie (pictured left in headline image with nephew and Adelaide Crows forward Eddie Betts and grandmother Veda) has been the creative force behind distinctive Aboriginal designs that have featured on everything from jumbo jets and Volkswagen cars to Coca-Cola bottles and, most recently, the Adelaide Crows guernsey.
Susie, 47, discovered a love for art at kindergarten in Port Lincoln and, when she reached primary school, was shown the work of 15-century Italian artist, Leonardo da Vinci.
“He was a real inspiration for me. I just loved his work and he’s still very much a big influence on my art today,” says Susie, who owns the Port Lincoln art and workshop studio Wiyana Spirit.
It wasn’t until Susie entered high school that she started exploring her own cultural identity – she’s part of the Wirangu, Kokatha and Mirning people – and experimenting with Aboriginal design.
Her big break came at 16 when she won an apprenticeship with one of Australia’s leading Aboriginal design studios, Adelaide-based Balarinji, founded by John and Ros Moriarty.
“They really took me under their wing and I learnt a lot from them. It also helped put me in touch with my roots,” says Susie.
It was while at Balarinji that she created the striking Nalanji Dreaming design for a Qantas 747 and the coke bottle design which now features at the World of Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta.
After a period freelancing in Adelaide, Susie returned to Port Lincoln in 2010 where she’s been promoting Aboriginal art and culture in the wider community.
With her family, she established the Warna-Manda Aboriginal Corporation which runs cultural camps for school groups and families. They are taken to the traditional home of the Wirangu, Kokatha and Mirning people on South Australia’s far west coast.
“It’s such a spiritual place for us but that connection has been lost, so it’s all about getting them back to the country,” she says.
Another major focus for Susie is mentoring young Aboriginal people and building their cultural identity through creative workshops.
She has also just launched a children’s colouring book, Love, Earth Spirit, and is finishing an illustrated children’s adventure novel which she’s been working on for several years.
Then there is the artwork on commission – the most recent being the Adelaide Crows guernsey for the Indigenous round in May.
Susie is Aunt of Adelaide’s super-talented forward, Eddie Betts, and was thrilled when he asked her to design the guernsey. It featured a spiritual crow and was voted the best among all the clubs.
“Knowing what the Crows have been through over the past 12 months with Phil Walsh’s passing I knew straight away what I wanted to do,” says Susie.
“The crow has special meaning in our culture as the guardian of the gateway and spiritual messenger,” she adds.
Susie isn’t taking all the credit, but she quietly points out that, since wearing the guernsey, the Crows have enjoyed one of their longest winning streaks ever.