Rock stars

Husband and wife Adam and Elley Warrior are emerging Ngadjuri artists. They painted one of two huge rocks at Sevenhill to commemorate the deep bond between the Jesuits and their own ancestors.


Painting in front of a live audience was a first for Ngadjuri artists Adam and Elley Warrior. Commissioned to paint one of two huge slate rocks – one weighing six and a half tonnes and the other eight tonnes – near the entrance to Sevenhill, they were delighted to have a variety of onlookers.

Not Jesuits. Not parishioners. Not townspeople. Not tourists.

There were kangaroos and koalas, magpies, kookaburras, crows, rainbow lorikeets and even lizards.

And as Elley exclaims, “There were butterflies too. We can’t forget the butterflies. There was this one butterfly that just kept coming up all the time and sitting on Adam while he was painting. The creatures all just came up to see what we were doing. It was very magical.”

So I provide some context to the conversation. I point out to Adam and Elley that I’ve just spent three days at Sevenhill, walking right around the property multiple times, starting from the pre-dawn stillness, right through the hot daylight hours and eventually during the lingering warmth of dusk. Not once, I tell them, did I ever see kangaroos or koalas. Nor did I hear a kookaburra. And there were certainly no butterflies, not even when I walked in silent contemplation among the vines.

They respond in unison. “Really? Wow! We were surrounded by them. It’s so weird to hear you say that because we thought they were up there all the time. We just assumed that, but a lot of people say they don’t really see the animals up there. And the butterflies.”

“It was a beautiful week when we painted those rocks,” says Elley reflectively.

“And being out in the open, in summer, surrounded by the trees,” adds Adam.

Did they get the feeling that nature was looking on while they painted?

“Yeah, they were just watching us,” replied Elley, “and I can’t honestly describe the feeling that we got.”

There is a momentary silence before Adam says: “Maybe we were meant to do it.”

Elley agrees, without hesitation. “Yeah, we were definitely meant to do it.”

The story behind the rock project really goes back to 2016. As Fr Brendan Kelly SJ, Superior of Sevenhill, explains, “There was a gentleman called Ian Marr, an artist and lettercutter, who came here and told Mike Christophersen, who was then the general manager of our winery, that there were two huge columns of Mintaro slate available. He asked if Mike would be interested in doing something with them to acknowledge the original inhabitants of this land.”

Fr Brendan Kelly SJ. Photo: David McMahon

Mintaro, a historic town in the eastern Clare Valley, is situated almost 130 km north of Adelaide, but is conveniently located about 10 km from Sevenhill. Slate, a naturally occurring sedimentary rock, has been quarried there since the mid 1860s and was extensively used in the old colonial homes and public buildings of Mintaro. Acknowledged as one of the best slate varieties in the world, Mintaro slate was used in the construction of the St Aloysius’ Church at Sevenhill, which was completed in 1875.

“The suggestion by Ian Marr was how it all started,” says Fr Brendan. “Mike Christophersen then spoke with the head of the Sevenhill Cellars Board and they decided this would be a good thing. It was then raised with the Trustees, who gave it the go-ahead. The stones were delivered by semitrailer. They were placed not where they are now but were laid flat, just beside the road, not far from the entrance to the property. They remained there for quite a while until we decided exactly where we were going to place them, and what was to be inscribed on them, in consultation with Ngadjuri elders.”

Adam takes up the narrative: “When Fr Brendan first approached us, he explained to us the story about how the Jesuits first came to meet the Ngadjuri people and the bond that was formed between the two. Therefore, our painting represents the journey of the first Jesuits over to these hills, and it incorporates their first meeting and subsequent encounters with our people, as well as the exchange that took place between the Jesuit ways and the Ngadjuri ways. It was all about the bond that existed, how it was formed and how it was strengthened. That’s exactly what the painting describes. That’s what the centrepiece of our art is on these rocks.”

Adam and Elley continue, finishing each other’s sentences so harmoniously that their ideas and voices take on a unified flow. “Fr Brendan spoke to the elders about the rock-painting project and the elders decided that the two of us would do the artwork. It was decided that the most appropriate course would be for actual Ngadjuri people to do the artwork. There are a lot of Aboriginal painters but they’re not really any Ngadjuri painters. At the moment, we are the only two, and we actually come from here. So that was how the decision was reached. When Fr Brendan first spoke to us about this, it was around the middle of 2022.”

And had they ever painted something similar in the past?

Adam’s answer is equal parts brevity, sincerity and wonderment. “Nah. Never.”

Elley elucidates. “We had painted on walls and on canvas, but that was the first time either of us had painted on a rock.”

“In the past, we’d done big murals, five metres by eight metres on kindies and places like that. But this was the first time we had ever had to paint on rock. We actually did it pretty quickly. Once we got the go ahead, it didn’t take us long at all.”

Ngadjuri artists Elley and Adam Warrior. Photo: David McMahon.

“It only took us about five days to paint,” explains Elley. “The longest part of the process was all the negotiation between the elders and the Jesuits. That actually took the most time, but it was a conversation that needed to be had. Once we got the go ahead, we planned it together and then we painted really quick. We sat on the land for a little while and we just stood at the rocks and reflected on the stories that we’d been told. Then it all just came together.”

How long did their own joint process of contemplation take?

“Coupla hours,” replies Adam.

Ellie chips in with some context. “But we had all those months to come up beforehand, every weekend, and we’d sit for a little while.”

Adam concurs: “But when we sat down for the main thing and drew everything up, it was probably only about four or five hours all up.”

The questions come tumbling out in a torrent. Did they approach the task differently? Did they have to use different types of paint from their normal art? Was the project a big learning curve? Because their artwork is entirely exposed to the elements, is there a chance that the heat and the cold and the rain can basically damage the painting?

“No, no,” says Adam. “What we did was we used non-toxic cleaning agents to clean the rocks but it was important to use something that wouldn’t damage the rocks in any way at all. Then we painted on the rocks as we normally would. But in order to protect the rocks as well as our artwork, we found out about a sealer that you can’t actually see on the rock surface. It preserves the paint in any type of outdoor conditions. That was really important.”

How long did it take them to work out how exactly to protect the painting?

“Not that long,” says Elley.

A few days or weeks?

Adam laughs. “About an hour. That’s all it took to research it. it’s actually just a natural waterproof sealing agent in a can. It’s a matte effect, so it won’t make the paint appear shiny. It’s not going to change the effect of the paint or the look of the rocks.”

It’s time to talk about the meaning of their artwork. The three big circles represent infancy childhood and adulthood, don’t they?

“Yeah, yeah,” says Elley.

And yet the three circles carry a strong parallel with the Holy Trinity. Do they also see it that way?

Ngadjuri Art at Sevenhill

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Rock art at Sevenhill. Photo: David McMahon.

Elley agrees. “It does tie in, yeah, it does. And the yellow lines around it represent the seven hills. And then there’s another element: the three water holes. Inside the circles there are also water holes in blue. When we painted, the rocks were already in position. They had been brought in and placed securely in the ground, so it was a bit like painting a really narrow wall. But it was actually one of the most relaxing paintings we’ve ever done! I don’t know exactly why, but maybe it was because of the surroundings and the fact that it was natural, a rock formation.”

“And being out in the open, surrounded by the trees,” adds Adam.

Did Elley’s parents watch them paint?

“Not while we were actually painting, but they came after we finished. They loved it. Not just my Mum and Dad, but the rest of the elders as well. I think after we’d finished painting the rocks, I’d say we’ve established ourselves as artists and now they take us a little bit more seriously, which is good.”

Adam volunteers a crucial detail. “We smoked it and played a bit of the didgeridoo before and after we finished.”

“You could really feel the energy,” muses Elley quietly. “Another thing we think about all the time is that our kids are only little right now, but one day they’re going to walk past those rocks and say proudly, ‘Our parents painted these rocks’.”

“Not just our kids,” Adam concludes, “but their kids and then their grandkids in turn. The way we’ve portrayed history will have its own history as well, for future generations.”

By David McMahon, Communications Manager, Society of Jesus in Australia