Winifred Hilliard, who died at the age of 90, made a rare contribution to the development of Aboriginal art in Australia, following her appointment in 1954 as craft adviser at Ernabella Mission in the remote far north-west of South Australia. She applied herself with extraordinary commitment to the development of the arts and crafts skills of the Pitjantjatjara people.
When the Presbyterian Board of Missions transferred administration of Ernabella to a local incorporated council from 1 January 1974, she remained as co-ordinator of Ernabella Arts Inc until retirement in 1986.
Her long period of service contributed to the recognition given to Ernabella Arts as the longest continuing Aboriginal arts enterprise in Australia.
Winifred Hilliard was the eldest of four children of Robert and Helen Hilliard. Educated at South Auburn State School and Presbyterian Ladies College, where she studied art and craft, she later worked as an assistant in the PLC Geography Department. In 1941 she moved to the Munitions Department Drawing Office as a draughtsperson before joining the WRAAF in 1944 and training as an instrument repairer. After the War she worked at the Trans Australia Airlines drawing office. After training at the Presbyterian Church’s Rolland House (1948-50), she served as a deaconess in churches at North Carlton and North Albury.
Winifred aimed to follow the example of her aunt, Margaret Alexander, who spent many years in Korea as a missionary, but accepted a request to fill a vacancy as craft adviser at Ernabella. The craft industry had commenced in 1948. Younger women painted walka designs, based on symbols they had drawn in the sand while telling traditional stories. Older women spun wool from the mission’s sheep by adpting traditional method of spinning fibres.
At that time there were few Aboriginal art shops in Australia. Winifred worked hard to develop markets despite limited communications. She introduced new media on which the artists could display their creative work, painting their walka designs on burlap wall hangings, kangaroo skin moccasins, silk scarves and table cloths. Winifred encouraged pride in the quality of the work produced.
In the 1970s she nurtured the development of Ernabella batik art. Three of the younger women studied at the royal Batik Institute in Yogyakarta in Indonesia. This led to a relationship with the National Museum of Ethnography in Osaka, Japan, which she visited with two of the women in 1983.
Winifred Hilliard was given the Pitjantjatjara name Awularinya. She enjoyed occasional opportunities to go out for picnics in the bush with the craft-workers. It was intensive work with furlough in the mission era taken only every three years. She sought relief through a variety of interests including gardening, sketching, needlework, photography, reading and writing. Her book: The People in Between (Hodder and Stoughton 1968) was a valuable record of the life of the early years of Ernabella. Her sketches of children at play and of rocks and trees illustrated some of the mission’s publications. On alternate months, she recorded the weather observations four times a day, the Weather Bureau payments being used to purchase equipment for the craft room.
Following her retirement in 1986 Winifred Hilliard lived at Shoalhaven Heads on the South Coast of New South Wales. She continued researching the history of Ernabella. The National Museum in Canberra became the major beneficiary of her unique collection of books, papers, art and craft items, slides and photographs.
In 2008 she visited Ernabella for the 60th anniversary of Ernabella Arts Inc. Her final years were spent in a nursing home at Nowra. On Saturday 17 March 2012 Winifred Hilliard was buried at Ernabella close to the people who had in one sense been her family, and at the place that had been her home.
Rev Dr Bill Edwards (Former Superintendent of Ernabella Mission) published in Crosslight, No 222 June 2012.