Digby Moran sitting in his sand sculpture for Djurra at City Hall Lismore in 2017. Photo Tree Faerie.
The popular and highly respected artist Albert (Digby) Moran died suddenly this week in Lismore at the age of 71. He is remembered as a humble, spiritual and selfless man, always with a ready smile and words of encouragement for young people.
Digby was born in Ballina in 1948. His mother was a Bundjalung woman and his father Dunghutti.
Young Digby spent his formative years in the mission community of Cabbage Tree Island, in the midst of the Richmond River, between Broadwater and Wardell in northern NSW. Surrounded by a large, supportive family, he remembered his childhood on the river as an idyllic time.
At sixteen he left to work as a cane cutter and then as a boxer with Jimmy Sharman's travelling troupe, following in the footsteps of his father Teddy, who had been a heavyweight champion of the north coast. Digby also played rugby league for Lower Woodburn.
After the relationship with the mother of his children collapsed, alcohol and cigarettes took a great toll on Digby's health. It was only when he managed to give up both substances that he started painting seriously.
His first step was an art course at Ballina TAFE in 1991, but it was 'too European' so Digby started to create art in his own cultural style.
'Painting gives me great pleasure and brings me peace,' he said. 'It is a way for me to tell the stories that were told to me by my grandparents and elders when I was growing up.'
Digby's work soon brought him acclaim in the Northern Rivers and then beyond.
In 1995 he had his first work selected for inclusion in the Telstra National Aboriginal and Islander Art Awards in Darwin. Digby exhibited in this competition multiple times, winning the People's Choice Award in 2000 for 'Mullet Spawning'.
In 1998 a cabinet made by Evans Head craftsman Kristin Crisp and painted by Digby won the open art section at the Southern Cross Art Award.
Digby exhibited in numerous group exhibitions at Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Cooperative in Sydney, Fireworks Art Gallery in Brisbane and Berlin Aboriginal Art Gallery in Germany. In 2002 he showed at the New Media Gallery in Vienna, Austria.
In 2004 his work was part of the exhibition 'Energy of the Earth' at Germany's Museum Hamelyn.
In 2009 Digby temporarily became a 'Living Book' as part of the Human Library project at the Lismore Library. He always enjoyed talking to people and breaking down stereotypes.
A travelling Australia Day ambassador for many years, in 2010 he had a solo show at the NSW Parliament.
Despite his growing fame, Digby Moran remained firmly connected to his own country. 'You’ll never catch me painting things like barramundi or crocodiles,' he said. 'Water is a big part of all Bundjalung Dreaming. I have always been a saltwater man.'
With his studio based in Lismore, Digby was an important contributor to numerous shows in his own region, including at Lismore Regional Gallery and Tweed Regional Gallery. Both galleries acquired his work.
Country was very important to Digby Moran. In a 2013 interview he said 'I love walking around the coast especially at Goanna Headland, Evans Head, just to feel the energy of the place.'
Traditional carved trees and shields from the region informed Digby's art practice, particularly the distinctive interwoven diamond shapes of his ancestors.
In addition to his gallery projects, Digby was an active public artist, with well-known large scale works including 'Someone's Always Watching You' outside Ballina Woolworths, an 85 metre mural inspired by the local natural environment at the Goonellabah Sports and Aquatic Centre, and a major temporary sand sculpture, made in conjunction with Richard Clarke, on the grass outside Lismore's City Hall coinciding with NORPA's production Djurra in 2017.
It was during that year that Digby's home studio was devastated by the Lismore flood, with many of his current and past works destroyed by the mud and swirling waters. Undaunted, he went straight back to painting and transmuted the flood disaster into new art, reflecting on the swimming, camping and fishing of his childhood.
Gallery director Brett Adlington recalls that Digby's 'infectious laughter and smile would erupt under his curls with these memories'.
In 2018 a major solo show of this new work opened at Lismore Regional Gallery. 'Growing Up On The Island' became the most highly attended exhibition in the Gallery's history, apart from the Archibalds, indicating the special place Digby occupied in his community's heart.
But there was more to Digby Moran than his exhibitions.
Guided by what he described as spiritual instruction, Digby devoted a lot of energy to teaching children of all ages about art and creativity, both in Australia and the UK.
He also worked in drug and alcohol rehab at Namatjira Haven in Alstonville, showing others how art can help find a way out of the darkness, as it had done for him.
As news of Digby Moran's death spread, social media was flooded with memories from those who knew and were touched by the artist in different ways.
Mungo MacCallum wrote, 'A huge loss. His work has given us enormous pleasure over the years. We bought a few minor pieces and should have bought many more. In particular, while waiting for treatment for cancer at Lismore Base his great work was a genuine comfort – confirmation that life was worth living. Vale indeed.'
Film-maker Karenza Ebejer, who made a documentary accompanying Digby's final solo show at Lismore, said she was 'so sorry to hear of the passing of a great artist, Uncle Digby, who shared his life spirit with us through his canvas. My life is richer for having met him and hearing his story.'
Digby's partner Kerry Kelly said she was devastated by his loss. 'He is loved by so many people and will be sorely missed. Thank you all for supporting him.'
The Lismore Regional Gallery has opened a special display of work honouring Digby's artistic legacy, including a condolence book which visitors are welcome to use to share memories with his family.
People are also leaving flowers in the metalwork of Digby's Ballina artwork. Digby Moran leaves behind three daughters, a son and many much-loved grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The Northern Rivers community will not be the same without him.