Uncle Laurie was known for sculptures and paintings that featured his tribal totem, the emu.
The eldest of 13 children, he was born to a Norwegian father and Mandandanji mother in Roma, southwest Queensland.
He completed a three-year certificate course in commercial illustration at the Queensland College of Art and later returned to help found Griffith’s renowned Contemporary Australian Indigenous Art (CAIA) program.
“An absolute trailblazer”
Former CAIA program leader and newly appointed Head of Indigenous Research, Dr Bianca Beetson, said Uncle Laurie would be remembered as “an absolute trailblazer”.
“Laurie’s family and ours were the only two Indigenous families in Roma, so we had that family connection,” she said.
“He was my first boss after I graduated from uni, when I went to work at the Fireworks Gallery, and we were both members of the Campfire Group and ProppaNOW.
“He was a true inspiration and a really good bloke.
“He was a mentor to everyone, and always did everything he could to support our young Indigenous artists on their journey.
“He helped found the CAIA program, and taught there for the past 25 years. He was an inspiring teacher and generous storyteller. It was so important to have an Elder there to guide our students and provide that link back to the community.
“He was also one of the country’s first contemporary Indigenous artists.”
“A friend and mentor”
Contemporary Australian Indigenous Art alumnus Tony Albert said Uncle Laurie was “more than just a teacher”.
“CAIA was unique; it was the only art degree in Australia established specifically for Indigenous students and the nature of our tight knit community ensured that students and teachers alike formed a close bond,” he said.
“For me, Laurie very quickly became much more than just a teacher. He was a friend, a confidante and perhaps more importantly, my first mentor.
“Laurie not only taught me technical skills, but also introduced me to the Brisbane art community and encouraged me to explore new ideas in my practice.
“After graduation we remained friends but became collaborators.”
An exhibition of Uncle Laurie Nilsen’s work is on show at Fireworks Gallery, Bowen Hills until 21 March.