A 33-year-old indigenous artist born and raised in Ingham is ‘1 Step’ closer to success after taking a leap of faith to pursue his passion and launch an ecommerce art business and YouTube channel last month.
Leroy Whelan, who identifies as Warrgamay, Girramay, Biyaygiri and Torres Strait Islander, has sold 41 fishing shirts from his debut collection in just four weeks and racked up 27,000 views on a single TikTok video following the unveiling of 1 Step ART, an innovative venture that focusses on story-telling through art.
The humble full-time cultural mentor and father of one started 1 Step ART when he transformed a vibrant canvas print, entitled “Good Fresh Water” – or Marli Ngalu in language – into a striking fishing shirt that’s flying off the shelves – and now he wants to inspire others to “follow their passion.”
“I’ve worked in sales and business development and account management where I had the opportunity to help run the business, I really enjoyed that, but it wasn’t something that was community-based or something that gave back to the community or to our community,” Mr Whelan said.
“I wanted to do something like that, something a bit different, which is why I got into the cultural mentoring and also why I’m doing my art business and the promotion of other businesses,” he said.
“Art is something that I always loved but I never knew how to turn it into a business or turn it into something I could pay the bills with, so I’m hoping to be able to open that door for other people and help them find what it is that they absolutely love doing and turn it into something that is an economically viable situation.”
Mr Whelan said that he has found that the “best way to promote our culture is through our stories” so he will use his YouTube channel to support other businesses, showcase Indigenous Australian culture and share the stories behind the artworks that he and his fellow artists create.
“I do see my business as being an introduction to aboriginal culture, I want to create interest in aboriginal culture through art and storytelling.”Leroy Whelan
“On the YouTube channel, I will be promoting indigenous businesses and cultural teachers and practitioners. I’ll be sitting down and yarning with some of them, some will just be promotional videos,” he said.
“If an artist comes to me and says ‘I have this piece, Leroy’ and wants to put it on my website, I’ll then ask them, OK, will you sit down and record the story of your artwork and a little bit about yourself as well… so when someone goes to have a look at a piece of artwork they will also be able to see the story of that artwork online.”
Mr Whelan added that he won’t be solely focusing on indigenous businesses and that he wants to support “anyone and everyone” who has the right intentions and needs a little support.
“It doesn’t really need to be indigenous, so long as it’s community based, they have good ethics and they have goodwill,” he said.
“It could be a person trying to create their own profile and get themselves out there, I’m happy to do that too.”
Mr Whelan will be releasing three new fishing shirts this week including a crocodile design and a NAIDOC shirt, and he’s already responding to inquiries from schools and businesses for uniforms and specialty shirts, which he’s excited to pursue.
While he is “letting it grow organically to see how it goes”, the young entrepreneur has plans to expand into more products and will provide discount offers to schools, businesses and organisations that place bulk orders.
“I will be selling artworks as well. I do printed canvasses, I would do commissioned pieces, it’s something I’d like to explore, and I do some woodworking as well,” Mr Whelan said.
After spending his entire childhood in Ingham and graduating from Ingham High School, Mr Whelan moved to Townsville in 2007 but regularly returns to his hometown to visit family who still reside locally.
He is currently employed by Yalga Cultural Grounding, where he works with indigenous youth to “help guide them to educational or workplace pathways through strong cultural grounding and teachings” and connect them with elders from local and neighbouring tribes.
This passion for community and cultural mentoring will also form a part of 1 Step ART, with plans to offer cultural training to “absolutely anyone” from school students to corporate employees.
“I will be doing cultural training, but it will be totally different to what I’m doing now,” he said.
“I’m not set up for it just yet [but] my long-term vision is to have cultural awareness training available.”
Mr Whelan’s courage and commitment will hopefully motivate other local young people to pursue their passions and, more importantly, take 1 Step in the right direction.
Anyone who would like to learn more about 1 Step ART is encouraged to check out the Facebook page, YouTube channel or ecommerce store at the following links:
TikTok: @leroywhelan and @1stepart
Link to video (@leroywhelan) with 27,000 views: https://vt.tiktok.com/ZSd5ot1Vd/