Possum skin cloaks with Maree Clarke

Levels 3-6

Find out about possum skin cloaks with artist Maree Clarke. Discover how she made her possum-skin cloak and the personal meaning of the design, then create a design representing significant places or journeys of from your own lives.

Learning Objectives

  • Identify and describe the historical and cultural significance of possum skin cloaks to Koori culture
  • Discuss the materials, techniques, technologies and processes Maree Clarke has used to create her possum skin cloak
  • Analyse and interpret the meanings and messages in Maree Clarke’s possum skin cloak
  • Use symbols, patterns and colour to design a map of an important place or journey

About Maree Clarke

Maree Clarke is an artist and designer based in Melbourne. She is connected to the traditional lands of the Mutti Mutti, Wamba Wamba, Yorta Yorta and Boonwurrung peoples. She makes art to connect with her culture and she shares it with her family, friends and community to keep culture strong for the next generation.

About the possum skin cloak

Walert – gum barerarerungar, 2021, is a possum skin cloak by artist Maree Clarke. It is made from sixty-three possum pelts which have been stitched together using sinew from kangaroo tails.

Historically, in the cooler climates of south-eastern Australia, Aboriginal people wore possum skin cloaks to stay warm. They were given a possum pelt at birth and, as they grew, more pelts were added and the cloak grew with them. Possum skin cloaks weren’t only clothes; they were also used as blankets, to cradle babies and to wrap around the deceased in burial ceremonies.

Possum skin cloaks often have personal maps and stories illustrated on the inside. Traditionally, they are etched with mussel shells, possum jawbones or kangaroo incisor teeth. Today, cloak makers commonly scorch their designs into the pelts using burning tools, just as Clarke has on her cloak. Clarke has also painted black, red and green onto the cloak. These colours were prepared from a mix of wattle resin and ochre (the natural pigments found in soil, rocks and clay).

The seven map-like shapes on Clarke’s cloak symbolise the different language groups and places she’s connected to. Five of these are shapes of Yorta Yorta, Mutti Mutti, Wamba Wamba, Trawlwoolway Country. The other two, marked with green ochre, represent her connection to Tipperary, Ireland and Dunstable, UK.

Workshop instructions

Download worksheet

Discuss

• Talk to the person next to you and describe three things that are special about possum skin cloaks.
• Why do you think Clarke has decided to represent the places and language groups she is connected to on her possum skin cloak?
• What materials and processes did Clarke use to create her cloak? Why do you think she has chosen to use them? For example, why might she have used colour made from ochres and resin instead of acrylic paint like you use at school? Consider tradition and heritage, meanings and messages, and practical considerations.
• Why do you think it is important to learn about and practise traditional art making?
• Take a moment to consider the places that are special to you. What makes them so special?

Resources & materials

The activity sheet
• Charcoal, conte or pastel pencils in a variety of colours
• Thick grade A4 or A5 paper (brown kraft paper works best)
• Jute twine
• Hole puncher
• Scissors

Create

  1. Think of a journey or place that you know well.
    • Journey: It could be the walk to and from school, a trip to your grandparent’s place, or maybe a walk around the park. What are the memorable features of that journey? Who are the people and animals that you see on the way?
    • Place: This might be your house, a football field, or the beach.
  2. Sketch it on the activity sheet using either a journey line or topographical shape
    • Journey: Imagine yourself at the beginning and the path you take as you travel it. As you visualize your movements, map a journey line on the page with a pencil.
    • Place: Imagine you are looking at it with a birds’ eye view. Draw a line around its boundaries to make a map-like shape.
  3. Develop your initial sketch into a finished design on a new sheet of thick paper. Here are some ideas to help develop your design:
    • Make a shape: To turn your journey line into a shape, draw a borderline all the way around it.
    • Make a pattern: Transform your journey line by repeating it multiple times in parallel, or add a series of parallel lines within your shape’s border. Try alternating the colours, widths or styles of each new line to create contrasting effects.
    • Draw your shape multiple times: What would it look like if you drew your shape in lots of different sizes facing different directions? What effects could you achieve by evenly spacing the shapes on the page? How about grouping the shapes closely together?
    • Add colour: Just as Clarke has used green ochre to symbolise her family connections to Ireland and England, you might also like to use a special colour that reminds you of your place.
    • Use symbols to create meaning: If you travelled part of your journey by foot, you might symbolize it by drawing the shape of footsteps.
  4. Thread the class designs together (optional)
    • Use a hole puncher to make two holes at about a finger’s width apart in the middle of each side of your paper.
    • Thread a short length of jute string through the holes and tie it to someone else’s design from your table.
    • Repeat this process until all your class designs are tied together in a single artwork.
    • Pin the artwork to a wall or hang it up somewhere.

Reflect

Take a moment to look at all the journeys and places you have threaded together as a class.
• Which journeys and places do you share with your classmates?
• Did you notice different things about those places?
• Which features were shared? Which were different?
• What more can you find out about the places that weren’t familiar to you?
• What did the activity make you think about Maree Clarke’s possum skin cloak? Have you had any new ideas that you didn’t think of earlier?