Cliff Reid: A Passionate & Generous Storyteller

A master storyteller of the Ngaanyatjarra Lands, Cliff Reid possessed what has been described as a ‘magnetic force’ that drew people to him, to his stories, and to his art.  

Vanessa Merlino, Head of Research at D’Lan Contemporary, recently spoke to former art centre manager Dianna Isgner, who worked alongside the artist during his time at Blackstone, and with Arnaud Serval, a passionate collector of his work since 2009.

Their personal insights – which we are privileged to share – reveal a passionate and generous storyteller who was, in their words, both interesting and interested in the world beyond the vast region of the Ngaanyatjarra Lands.

Cliff and Ruby Reid in Peppermint Bay, Tasmania. Photograph courtesy of Dianna Isgner.


Dianna Isgner was working at Blackstone Community when Cliff Reid began painting for the art centre in 2003. The connection she formed with Cliff and his wife Ruby was instant, deep, and long lasting, and their friendship continued after Dianna left Papulankutja Artists in 2009. The couple sadly passed away in 2010, just weeks apart which, to all who knew them, was no surprise. Dianna says that their love and companionship was so intense, it just had to continue after death without missing a beat.

Here, Dianna shares with us a conversation she had with Cliff Reid on what life was like growing up in remote Australia…in his own words.

I was born in 1947 at Wannarn, Ngaanyatjarra Lands in Western Australia, and when I was around ten years of age my mother, father, and sister moved to Warburton mission.

I attended the mission school and my mother and father continued to live in the bush, coming to the mission from time to time with dingo skins which they traded for stores, such as flour, tin meat, sugar, tea, and tobacco.

Life at the mission school was busy and regimented – we did chores in the morning then reading and numbers in the afternoon. We also had religious education and sporting activity. We marched to each activity and prayed before school, meals, and so on.

I remember the bomb testing at Maralinga in the mid-50s. There were clouds of bad stuff that come over Warburton.

When the mission closed around 1960, I wandered off, down Laverton way, where I worked as a drover and yard hand.

In 1970, I returned to Warburton where I married and lived for a while. The children from that marriage live in the Wannarn area now. I was born at Warnnan and the Seven Sisters Story is strong for me on my mother’s side. There is important country and Secret Men’s Tjurkurrpa at Wannarn, but I am not free to talk about that one.

I have lived a long time at Blackstone with my second wife and children. My wife’s father founded this community when he brought his family back here to live in the early 70s. He never made his home in the mission; he always lived the traditional life and was the custodian of many important dreaming stories. This land is very sacred and that is why we live here – to look after it. Through my wife and her family, I feel a strong link to this place and through my birthplace and my father, I have a strong continuing link to the country at Wannarn. My mother being linked to the Lewis family belonged to the area immediately north of Blackstone. This is now my country also.

In 2003 Kumanarra Isgar came to Blackstone, and I started to paint for her. I feel that I have set a good example to the other people in Blackstone and hopefully to the younger people as well. I have been a leader in the artwork. We will soon have a new art centre and I think that I have been a good influence for that to happen. The Papulankutja artists is a strong organisation and very important for the future of Blackstone.

William Mora, Cliff Reid, Ruby Reid and Arnaud Serval in Alice Springs January 2010. Photograph courtesy of Arnaud Serval.

Arnaud Serval, a passionate Australian First Nations Art collector, was first introduced to the work of Cliff Reid through William Mora at his gallery in 2009.

He was so taken by it that he bought almost every work in the exhibition and then flew to Alice Springs so he could meet the artist. At that time Cliff was recovering from heart surgery and was staying at an aged care facility. Cliff shared stories of his country with Arnaud and there was discussion about undertaking a project together, where paintings, recordings and film would be shared to fully capture his gift of storytelling. Sadly, the couple passed away before the project was ever realised.

VM       How were you introduced to the work of Cliff Reid?

AS I was first introduced the work of Cliff Reid through my good friend William Mora. I was instantly seduced by his work, the original message, his transmission of stories and the epic journeys of the Dreamtime heroes. That’s what he paints, stories from his country, his way. He had his own way to express what can be said by the original dreamtime stories and landscape through the fantastic stories that he told us. He showed us the marks in the landscape and that everything is true. My main motivation behind my collection is to find those who know the truth. The true stories of the earth, the universe and life.

VM     What do you find most interesting about his work?

AS There are two sides to what I find most interesting. The first is the historical side. Because he was brought up with Christian imagery and knowledge, he has his own special way to express the mythical stories of the Dreaming. He holds the oldest Dreaming stories, from the oldest cave paintings and the Law.  I love that about his work, but I also love the way he paints.

That’s the second side. I love the boldness, the rawness, and the roughness; like in the cave paintings. And I love the three dimensionality of his work. The white outlines, it’s like everything is in motion. It’s special. The way he depicts everything – the people, the animals, the scenery, it’s fantastic – to the point and beautiful.