Before she came to the Lord, Aboriginal artist Fern Martins saw Christianity as an imposed colonial concept. As a sculptor, printmaker and artist, her early work was politically motivated, and as a university lecturer, she taught the buried history of atrocities to Australia’s First Nations people. She even describes her past self as a “reverse racist”.
But one evening in 1993, as a newly separated single mum, Fern read the Gospel of John in a caravan at Caves Beach, NSW, and her spirit was transformed.
“I had gone out of a darkness into the kingdom of light. It was an immediate transformation,” says the Waka Waka, Ngarabul and Bundjalung woman who has been creating art for the past 50 years.
This is why Fern hopes her beautiful new book, God’s Christmas Promise, created in partnership with Bible Society Australia, will break down cultural barriers to Christian faith such as she used to feel.
“It’d be lovely to have God’s favour on it and to touch people’s hearts with the story of Christ.” – Fern Martins
It’s a children’s picture book that tells the nativity story from the Gospel of Luke in Fern’s words, accompanied by her beguiling illustrations featuring Aboriginal artistic iconography, such as Aboriginal tribesmen camping around a fire with a dingo and some sheep.
“It’d be lovely to have God’s favour on it and to touch people’s hearts with the story of Christ that would normally see it as just a colonial concept, not understanding the depth of spirit, the depth of life that God has given us through Christ. That is my aim,” she tells Eternity.
For this reason, Fern has used dot painting styles extensively, which she usually avoids, as a path in for Indigenous people.
“I had to think of the audience it was going to, and if it was going to take the blinkers off Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people to see the gospel, to see Jesus, I used the dots as a tool to draw them into the story rather than dismiss it because it was in a European style. That was the reason why I used the dot work, to attract a different audience to knowing about the birth of Christ and the promise.”
Beginning her career with her own exhibition at age 19, Fern has had a varied career as an artist. She helped set up the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative in Sydney and supported the Aboriginal Land Councils and the very early treaty movement.
“It was like a blessing from God for me to do this.”
But after her conversion 30 years ago, Fern moved out of the mainstream art movement, concentrating solely on painting God’s glory and illustrating the Scriptures.
“When I came to the Lord, I was very much in the art scene, and I destroyed all my work because it was an idol. And I didn’t want anything in front of my Lord and Saviour.
“About 18 months later … I picked up the brush again, but my work was completely different than my work previous to that. It was a remarkable change and I’ve just followed that,” she explains.
Unfortunately, because of her strict focus on spiritual subjects, Fern has been unable to sustain herself by her art practice alone and works looking after children in after-school care. Her fervent prayer is that God would show favour on her creativity and prosper it so that she can concentrate purely on her art.
“So it was like a blessing from God for me to do this,” says Fern about God’s Christmas Promise. “It wasn’t easy because you want God with you in everything you do. So it was a challenge. I just kept on praying about it and then I had to make sure that I was absolutely respectful to God’s word, but also respectful to Aboriginal people at the same time, including a reflection of us in the story rather than it being a blonde, blue-eyed Jesus.”
Stay tuned for an illustrated Easter book by Fern, coming in 2024.
A digital version of God’s Christmas Promise is available on the Bible Society Australia website. Hard copies of another children’s book – Who? What? Why? How? Christmas, written by Susannah McFarlane – are available in bulk for churches and ministries. For these books, along with a host of other Christmas resources, go to biblesociety.org.au/resources.