Kilmeny Niland (1950 – 2009) was a much-admired illustrator of children’s books. Her fascinating and inventive illustrations of animals connected with children and adults across the globe. They were on display recently at Artarmon Galleries in Sydney.
Her authentic illustrations captured and maintained the interest and concentration of children because she was an intuitive and informative educator. Through her compelling artworks she charmed children into the world of books and nurtured life-long learners.
Her poignant illustrations invited children to explore their own world gaining specific knowledge and understanding particularly about the animal kingdom.
Kilmeny Niland also offered children the opportunity to observe the visual elements of colour, line, shape, tone, pattern, texture and perspective through her creative and ingenious illustrations.
Even more powerful was her influence on encouraging and fostering children’s imaginative thoughts.
This legacy of Kilmeny Niland is difficult to quantify but children and adults everywhere continue to read and be inspired by the characteristic attributes of the innovative illustrations that abound in her books.
On the covers of her series of books published in 1994 and 1995 Animals at Play, Animals at Work, Animals at Large and Animals at Home she adroitly portrayed the front view of the animal on the front cover while contrasting this with the rear view of the animal on the back cover.
This template was a novel approach to illustrating book covers.
Her technique required precision and accuracy repeating the integrity of the shape and position of the animal in both views.
Specifically in Possum with Ladybird a watercolour that featured on the cover of Animals at Home, Kilmeny Niland exquisitely paints the shape, the angle of the bent head and the squatting position of the possum, perfectly balancing front and rear views.
The possum’s piercing glassy hazelnut eyes mischievously observed the movement of the ladybird as it crawled up the serrated leaf.
The sardonic expression of the possum was totally engaging and denoted Kilmeny Niland’s detailed knowledge and passion for her subject matter. She resourcefully attributed a personality to each of her animal studies arousing curiosity in the viewer and the reader.
This is evident in Zoo another watercolour illustration from “The Land and the Spirit” where she bestowed the facial expressions of the five animals with almost human personality traits.
The slant of the eyes particularly on the lion’s face advocated the paradox of zoos. Each of the animals held up a letter of the word Zoo as if defying their destiny and subtly posed the question of animal rights.
The unconvincing frivolity of the mood all the while indicated the protest was in vain but animal welfare issues were cleverly underscored. The quirky nature of Kilmeny Niland’s compositions was expertly demonstrated in this work of detailed flair and finesse.
Contrasting dramatically with the animal book illustrations were the psychological portraits.
Strokes of surrealism were eerily etched across these dynamic works creating surprise and inciting creative thought and liberating reflection.
The peculiar and profound nature of the compositions focused on more intellectual freedom of expression. The works were symbolic, questioning and infused with narratives of intriguing imagery.
These artworks of Kilmeny Niland would sit hauntingly on the jacket covers of adult fiction for example a Patrick White novel.
Memories, a Kilmeny Niland watercolour stirred my own memories from long, long ago.
Two years living in Africa witnessing the awe and wonder of animals roaming freely in their natural habitat came flooding back.
The playfulness of the elephant calf and the contrast of the elderly woman’s wistful expression were challenging and unsettling.
The elephant’s limbs moved agilely and freely while the elderly woman was awkwardly motionless. The complexity of the woman’s character, experiences and recollections were intensified by the simplicity of the setting.
A solitary standard lamp, the sharp edges of the mother-in-law’s tongue’s long slender leaves and the soft fall of faded drapes created a drab and worn backdrop. The mother-in-law’s tongue is a native plant to tropical West Africa and I marvelled at another reference to Africa.
The symbolic significance of leaves reaching in slithering movements disguised the pain of grief and failed ambition. The threadbare patterned mat and the muted tones of the walls were aged and withered. The old woman’s eyes stared wildly, anticipated the bitter edge of despair and sought inner revenge. The long grey white wisps of hair hugged the velvet blue of the chaise lounge and fell with acquiescence and defeat.
Reminiscing was also evoked in Faded Memories where the woman figure bore a resignation that was brutal and born of rejection and domination yet retained innocence and a wistful longing.
The very small scale male figure was sadistic, confident, greedy and lackadaisical in pose. With a cane in his hand he arrogantly pranced his fanciful gentlemanly legs. His physical appearance resembled Jeffery Smart or Alfred Hitchcock.
The ambiguity of the size of the two figures created conspiracy and triggered fascination. The distinctive geometric shapes of the table window and painting on the wall injected the work with a form of abstraction. The purple shades on the wall were complemented by the bright orange red of the floor. This unexpected use of colour consolidated the tragedy within the composition.
Kilmeny Niland’s talent was diverse and this exhibition honoured an artist of extraordinary creative talent, astonishing versatility and for an enduring contribution to the advancement of the human spirit.
Rose Niland, Special Features NSW, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015