Millie Skeen was born in the early 1930’s in her grand parents' country near Kiwirrkura, south of Balgo, beyond Lake McKay. In relating stories of her nomadic lifestyle as a little girl, walking from one place to another, she explained ‘living at Tjipirrkulu-big rock hole… we start walk to another place. Warlawarra. We camp there one night… Mother one carry me. I bin little' (1997: 18). Eventually Millie, along with her sister Rita Kunintji Nampitjin and her parents made their way to Tjalwan where the old Balgo Mission had been established in 1942. Their mother passed away soon after and the two sisters grew up in the mission making regular forays into the harsh surrounding desert searching for bush foods. She met her future husband Tommy Skeen at Balgo Hills in the late 1950’s. ‘Thomas Skeen come on a camel. He learn properly. Breakem, breakem, makem quiet. Fit saddle for camel to carry him. He bin gettem me for wife‘ (1997: 123).
Tommy, who had been born near Yaka Yaka, c.1930, grew up in the desert north of Lake McKay. After marrying, they lived the life of a cowboy and his wife as Tommy worked at various locations in the Kimberley cattle industry. By the mid 1980’s, at the time of the establishment of Warlayirti Artists, Tommy and Millie Skeen were living in Balgo Hills. Millie became one of the first women to paint in 1986 and, while it is possible that Tommy assisted her in her early paintings, this is unlikely, as her development as an artist at this time underwent a number of stylistic evolutions. However, it was common for husbands and wives to paint together at this stage in the development of the art movement and slowly, over time, Tommy would have shared a greater hand in Millie’s creative activity. By 1990 they had moved to live at Mullun, a community adjacent to Lake Gregory, an hour’s drive to the west of Balgo and it was here that they shared the remainder of their lives together.
While Millie’s early works employ the characteristically dark autumnal palette of Balgo paintings created between 1985 and 1989 she was one of the leaders of the movement amongst the female artists to adopt the brighter colours afforded by the broader range of student acrylics supplied to the artists thereafter. Her works were accomplished and distinguishable by the time Balgo held its first exhibition at the Art Gallery of Western Australia in 1989 and featured in Balgo’s first commercial exhibitions in 1990 at the Dreamtime Gallery in Broad beach, Queensland, and 1991, when Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery launched the Balgo artists in Sydney with the exhibition Warlayirti Artists Homelands.
Tommy and Millie’s most productive creative period together was 1990-1992 and it is likely that works created during this period were largely collaborative regardless of their attribution. However, by 1993 a group of fourteen senior law women, in seeking to further assert and revivify their culture, became founding members of the Manungka Manungka Women’s Association, and undertook the production of a body of women’s ‘culture’ paintings outside of the ‘official’ art centre in the community. This move was partially in response to their impression that Robin Beesey, the art coordinator at that time, was more interested in the creativity and welfare of the male artists. Millie Skeen was one of the most active participants in this movement and she created some of her finest works in this nurturing environment. The group held just two exhibitions before eventually dissolving. In November-December 1993 and March 1994 they conducted workshops and held public performances of their dances and songs at Alexandria Town Hall in Sydney, and in Melbourne.
Between 1994 and 1996, Millie painted along side her husband Tommy at their home in Mullun, each excelling at conveying the depth that exists within each articulated Dreaming story that they rendered. There is a dreamy quality evident in the way one can get lost meandering through the forms and paths in the work, just as one might get lost in the actual desert landscape. Exploring Millie’s work aesthetically is as joyful an experience as is possible when looking at an Aboriginal artwork. Her palette was distinctively a carnival of radiant colour. The contrast between fields of dots and flat blocks and lines of colour added a delicate tension, and together all of these elements resulted in paintings that are a delight.
In these works Millie delved into memories of her childhood hunting and gathering in the desert south of the old mission and the Dreaming stories passed on to her though her mother and from Tommy himself. Important narratives such as the Bush Potato and Bush Carrot Dreaming stories; the making of Tjimari (stone knives) for cutting Kangaroo meat; sites and aspects of the Tingari and Nakarra Nakarra song cycles that relate to Women’s Law; and the travels of the Emu Ancestors formed just part of the narrative elements of her paintings. The elaborate composition of her works reflects the patterns found in body and ground painting and defies a simple geographic reading. In Kutjungka culture the surface of the body is analogous to the surface of the land. This parallel explains the complexity of works of art, which do not merely portray iconography that can be literally translated, but also impart in a deeper, and more personally meaningful way, the eventful travels of Millie’s ancestors across the land.
Tommy and Millie Skeen painted relatively prolifically until 1996 after which both became increasingly infirm and their creative output began to decline markedly. While all of the senior women artists at Balgo Hills during the early 1990’s painted identifiably distinguishable work, Millie’s art exemplifies the verve and pride with which these women took to painting, thereby creating a distinctive art movement. Her works stand out for both the beauty of their realization, and the intimacy of their execution, as exemplars for future generations of Balgo women to emulate.