Remembering Uncle Les

Mr Les Elvin, or “Uncle Les” as he was affectionately known, passed away suddenly on 16 August, aged 77.

Uncle Les was a proud Wonnarua man who dedicated much of his time to helping others. He worked tirelessly within the local community, the Lower and Upper Hunter. A respected Aboriginal elder, artist and teacher, he has been remembered as a humble and generous man who touched the lives of everyone he met.

One person who was inspired by Uncle Les is CatholicCare Social Services Senior Caseworker, Early Intervention and Placement Prevention program, Kylie Pratt.

Kylie and Uncle Les first met in a collaboration to deliver a workshop for young Indigenous people in Dungog over six years ago. “His warm and merry nature was evident from our first meeting,” Kylie reflects. “It was a friendship that developed easily. Every person Uncle Les met, he welcomed with open arms,” Kylie continued.

Each year Uncle Les assisted CatholicCare with its NAIDOC Week celebrations, collaborating with Kylie to deliver an Indigenous art and culture program each year.

The first year saw a successful gathering of Indigenous students from Mt View and Cessnock. The students were taught traditional art techniques specific to the Wonnarua area, as well as general culture appreciation. In the following years, CatholicCare extended the program to families of Indigenous teens in the area and in many cases, families would return each year to participate. This community engagement led to friendships and a strong sense of belonging.

The program concludes with a display of the artworks at a NAIDOC exhibition held at the Cessnock Regional Art Gallery. “Seeing the young people beaming with pride was success in itself,” said Kylie.

Uncle Les worked as an electrician in Hunter coalmines until his retirement at age 60. He suffered a back injury in his late forties and was given oil paints as therapy. This is when his love of painting began. Not knowing how to use the paints, he initially painted portraiture style, before studying Aboriginal culture. His passion for Aboriginal art led to a rewarding career as a painter. Uncle Les won the NAIDOC Aboriginal Artist of the Year award in 2008, and the following year designed the Newcastle Knights inaugural Indigenous jersey. He was named Cessnock City’s Citizen of the Year on Australia Day 2012, recognised for his dedication, commitment and outstanding contribution in helping to bridge the gap between non-Indigenous society and our original custodians through the medium of art. This June, he was awarded the major prize at the Weston Art Show.

In 2014 Uncle Les played a part in Cessnock Council’s bid for Asian Cup pre-competition camp, painting boomerangs that were sent to all 16 countries involved, and a further 50 for the Japanese team. He was chairperson of Cessnock City Council’s Aboriginal Advisory Committee and was a strong advocate in the development of Council’s draft Reconciliation Action Plan.

Many people were touched by Uncle Les’ good and giving nature. He paved a way for understanding and acceptance. Kylie remembers Uncle Les as “a very passionate man wanting to keep his culture alive. He exemplified acceptance of all people − no matter their culture or background − by the way he greeted anyone and everyone warmly, always having time for them. He will be sorely missed.”

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