George Cooley lives and works in Coober Pedy, approximately 850 kilometres northwest of Adelaide. He is a painter, opal miner, and Chair of the Umoona Community Arts Centre that opens in 2024. Cooley has pushed for an art centre in the community for twenty-five years, his efforts reflecting the geographic dilemma of a town ‘…not far enough north to be in the remoteness of the country…’ yet not quite far enough south. ‘For this generation, I think [the art centre] means a lot because it exposes them, it identifies them, and gives them an opportunity for employment – one of the biggest things is self-employment.’
The landscapes north of Coober Pedy are the subjects of Cooley’s paintings, particularly the Kaṉku -Breakaways, a geological formation that dramatically rises from the surrounding opal fields. The name Coober Pedy is an anglicisation of Parnkalla and Kokatha words kupa (ghost) and piti (a bowl to carry water or quarry), together meaning ‘white man in a hole’–a turn of phrase that reflects Coober Pedy’s status today as the opal capital of the world. Although Cooley is not a traditional custodian of these areas of Antakirinja Matu-Yankunytjatjara Country, his paintings translate a deep love and close observation of the area, having first visited with his father–an opal prospector–in 1958.
From an early settler perspective, the Kaṉku-Breakaways were regarded as having terrestrially ‘broken faith’ with the nearby Sturt Range–a surreal figuration of the geological formation that is, much later, echoed in the post-apocalyptic cinematic world of Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome (1985) filmed in Coober Pedy. The word kaṉku, in contrast, describes shelter, and recognises the importance of water in shaping the region’s unique geology. The mesas, flood plains and formation of opals are the results of deep time and an ancient inland sea.
For Cooley, having spent his childhood years traversing, camping, hunting, prospecting and learning cultural knowledge of the area, the richness of the Kaṉku-Breakaways is witnessed in My Painted Country 1, 2, 3 and 4 (all 2023). These are mnemonic works that prompt Cooley to remember this place. The sweeping gestural marks capture an opalescent spectrum of colours in both the ground itself and the landscape as a living site.
The colour and scenery change as you move along the road. Although it looks pink, it’s reddish and has stand-out whites, yellows and purples and some areas where it’s almost black. During sunrise and sunset, the colours change, and I try to capture all these qualities and transformations in my paintings.
The granite rocks, sweeping hills, plains of ochre and mulga scrubs (from which ‘Umoona’, meaning ‘long life’ and the Mulga tree takes its name) are the focus of his large-scale paintings. Cooley’s pictorial treatment–surreal pink and grey skies, plains of colour, bold brushstrokes and sharp accents–describe days, seasons, a lifetime of observation; ‘I’ve got a different way of telling the same story.’
 George Cooley quoted by Peta Doherty, ‘The outback artists hoping to share their creations with the world’, SBS News, 28 December, 2021.
 George Cooley in correspondence with José Da Silva. Inner Sanctum | 18th Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2024.
 George Cooley quoted in Qantas Travel Insider Magazine, November 2022, p. 33.
Books and Articles
Da Silva, José. Inner Sanctum | 18th Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2024.
Doherty, Peta. ‘The outback artists hoping to share their creations with the world’, SBS News, 28 December, 2021.
‘George Cooley’, Qantas Travel Insider Magazine, November 2022, p32-33.
Nace, Trevor. “’Virgin Rainbow’ Opal Literally Glows in the Dark,” Forbes, 25 July, 2016.
‘George Cooley’, APY Gallery, website.
‘Tarnanthi: Umoona’, AGSA website, 28 September – 2 October, 2021.
‘The Studio: Opalescence’, AGSA website, 1 March – 2 June, 2024.
‘Umoona Art Centre’, APY Gallery, website.
The main subject of Cooley’s paintings, the Kaṉku-Breakaways, is a geological formation at the edge of the Coober Pedy. The area is home to almost 60 native flora species and various wildlife, such as red kangaroos, echidna and the fat-tailed dunnart.
- Find photographic images online of the Kaṉku-Breakaways.
- What do you find surprising about this scenery?
- Investigate the area where you live. What flora and fauna are endemic to this place? What flora and fauna are unnecessarily threatened, vulnerable or endangered in your area? What strategies can be taken to reverse their threat level?
George Cooley has recorded six songs about his life and connection to Country. Listen to these below. Write a song or poem telling the audience about your life or a memorable moment.
George Cooley Playlist
Did you know that Coober Pedy has one of the largest opal deposits in the world? Opals are multi-coloured gems that consist of spheres of silica arranged in patterns.
- As a class, brainstorm what you know about opals. Where have you seen them before?
- Precious opals are rare – even more than diamonds –because the natural processes that create them rarely happen. What is something precious to you? Is this object rare? What makes this object special to you?
- Research different types of opals and find out how opals get their colour and formation. Select an image of your favourite opal and zoom in on this section. Experiment with oil pastels, pencils or paint to recreate the ‘play-of-colour’ within your chosen section. You may even try marbling or squeegee painting to recreate the coloured patterns. Create a large class collage by cutting up your experiments, layering and joining interesting sections.
Cooley said that he tried to capture the colour of the scenery of the desert scenery as it changes during sunrise and sunset.
- Look outside your house at sunrise and/or sunset.
- Photograph this scene for one week at the same time each day. You might wait for 15-30mins, taking additional photos and observe how the light and colour change.
- Compare how your images changed from day to day. Edit and manipulate the saturation of your photographs to emphasise the colour.
- Select two images to use as reference for two large paintings. Pay close attention to capturing the contrasting colours between the sky and the ground.
More: Take a look at 365 sunsets by photographer Trent Parke
As an opal prospector, artist George Cooley has experienced the Coober Pedy landscape from high above and deep below, with the layers of earth beneath the surface revealing iridescent flashes of colours held within the precious gem.
- Think of the vivid colours that remind you of a place. Is it your garden after the rain or sun setting over the sea or sun rising over the hills?
- Select three colours associated with a memorable place. Colour your surface with oil pastels. Cover your colours with a layer of black paint. Once dry, scratch the surface by drawing your memory of this place to reveal the spectrum of colours that lie beneath.
Research layered formations of sedimentary rocks and earth. Look at the distinct layers that have occurred over a long period of time.
- Create a collage of a place special to you using a ‘sedimentary layered’ composition. For example, if I was going to make a collage that represented the different layers of the Karrawirra Pari track I might paint a textured blue sky, followed by a strip of eucalyptus leaves I found on the ground, then the next line could be pieces of bark etc.
- Create a collage that represents the timeline of your life using a ‘sedimentary layered’ composition.
The Gallery’s Learning programs are supported by the Department for Education.
This education resource has been written by Dr. Belinda Howden with contributions from Jose Da Silva, Kylie Neagle and Dr. Lisa Slade.