Lee Darroch is a well known and respected possum skin cloak maker from Victoria. Her home base is Gragin, otherwise known as Raymond Island, in the East Gippsland, Victoria. She was chosen as one of the Australian delegates for the 2008 Festival of Pacific Arts in American Samoa.
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Lee Darroch, of the Yorta Yorta, Mutti Mutti and Trawlwoolway peoples, was born in Melbourne in November of 1957 and grew up with her family in Lockington, Victoria, close to Dhungula, Kaila and Yalooka (Murray, Goulbourn and Campaspe respectively) Rivers. Darroch remembers a happy family life with her Aboriginal father, Bill, her non-Aboriginal mother, Monica, and two younger brothers, Craig and Mark. In 1975 at the age of 17 Darroch left Lockington for Melbourne and from 1976 to 1980 she studied social work at the Preston Institute of Technology.
In the 1980s, Darroch set off backpacking overseas, working as a kitchen hand & cleaner in North America & human rights worker in Guatemala. She returned to Australia in 1987 and eventually settled with her partner, David Clark, and two children on Gragin (Raymond Island) in the East Gippsland district of Victoria.
Darroch began her career as an artist in 1994, when she participated in a three-day arts workshop organised by and held at the East Gippsland TAFE College in Bairnsdale with Bundjalung artist Bronwyn Bancroft who inspired Darroch to investigate the visual arts further. Soon after Darroch began painting and in late 1994 she enrolled as a part-time student in a TAFE Aboriginal Art and Design course in Bairnsdale where she was introduced to printmaking, pastel drawing, screen-printing, textile work and basket weaving. She continued to work in all these media as well as sculpture and public art installation.
Upon finishing her TAFE studies, Darroch undertook a project that was to change the course of her artistic life. Along with Treahna Hamm and Vicki and Debra Couzens, Darroch was involved in the reclamation of the art of possum skin cloak making. This began in 1999 when the four women were creating etchings for Museum Victoria and were given access to view the museum’s collection of two 19th century engraved possum skin cloaks from Lake Condah and Maiden’s Punt (Echuca). Darroch wrote in the book that documents this project, Wrapped in a Possum Skin Cloak (Amanda Reynolds in collaboration with Lee Darroch, Treahna Hamm, Debra Couzens and Vicki Couzens, 2005) of the experience felt by all when they first viewed the cloaks;
“they pulled the Lake Condah cloak out of its box. Instead of it being under Perspex or glass we were right next to it. And then the whole room just burst out crying – even the fellow. “ (p. 2)
The women committed to work on reproductions of these cloaks (a project that Vicki Couzens named Tooloyn Koortakay meaning 'squaring skins for rugs’). Darroch, with Treahna Hamm, reproduced the Maiden’s Punt cloak whilst fellow artists Vicki and Debra Couzens worked on reproducing the Lake Condah cloak. To accompany the cloaks the artists also created a series of prints, drawings and related objects (weavings, tools and dance ornaments) inspired by the original cloaks. The works were completed in 2002 and are now in the National Historical Collection of the National Museum of Australia (NMA) and on display in the First Australians Gallery at the NMA.
Darroch’s exhibiting career began in 2000, the year after graduating from her TAFE course, when she participated in “Djiriyay (War Cry) Aboriginal Art Expo” at Homebush Bay during the Sydney Olympic Games. She was also a finalist that year in the National Indigenous Heritage Art Award at Old Parliament House, Canberra, where she received a Highly Commended citation for her work on paper, a limited edition etching printed at the Australian Print Workshop with master printer Martin King, entitled A Possum Skin Cloak for my Brothers. This etching was included in the 2002 – 2005 national touring exhibition “Native Title Business: Contemporary Indigenous Art”. In 2001 and 2002 Darroch was a finalist in the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory with various works. In 2004 her linocut and aquatint etched prints were included in the exhibition, “place made: Australian Print Workshop” at the National Gallery of Australia. The works in this exhibition were all from the Australian Print Workshop’s Archive 2 and were purchased by the National Gallery of Australia for inclusion in its permanent collection.
Internationally, Darroch has shown at the “Aichi World Expo” in Japan (2004), the Te Tuhi – The Mark Gallery in Auckland, New Zealand (2003) and in Greece (2003) as part of the Australian Indigenous exhibition in the lead up to the 2004 Athens Olympics. The exhibition “Tooloyn Koortakay”, which opened at the National Museum of Australia in 2005, was still being exhibited in the museum’s First Australians Gallery in 2008. Darroch was part of the Australian delegation sent to American Samoa to exhibit her possum skin cloaks at the 2008 Festival of Pacific Arts.
At the time of writing, Darroch sat on Arts Victoria’s funding panel for their Arts Development Funding Program, was a Director of Riverbark Arts Pty Ltd and a Board Member of Banmirra Arts; she was also a member of the Koorie Heritage Trust, the East Gippsland Aboriginal Arts Corporation and Bunjilaka Aboriginal Centre at Melbourne Museum. In 2006 she resigned from her community arts position at the East Gippsland Aboriginal Arts Corporation to concentrate on working with her own business, Gurranyin Arts.
Darroch has work in the public collections of the National Museum of Australia, the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria, the offices of Aboriginal Affairs Victoria, the Koorie Heritage Trust, Bunjilaka Aboriginal Centre at Melbourne Museum, Flinders University Art Museum in Adelaide, and Melbourne Grammar School.