Portrait of Canberra artist Katy Mutton with her work, Harbingers, at the Canberra Contemporary Art Space.

Portrait of Canberra artist Katy Mutton with her work, Harbingers, at the Canberra Contemporary Art Space. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Katy Mutton was about 18 when she first felt the reverberations of history in her life.

Or perhaps that's too strong a way of putting it. What happened was she pulled a book at random out of her grandfather's bookcase, opened it up and found an inscription inside - ''To dearest Kenny, from your brother George''. She had always known that her great-uncle had died in World War II, but had never put much thought into it.

''I remember closing the book and my grandfather coming in, and I said something to him about the book and he just had tears welling up in his eyes,'' she says. ''It was one of these moments in life, when you're 18 and you suddenly realise, that's actually his older brother.''

Prototype F23.

Prototype F23.

It's a memory that would come back to her years later, when she uncovered her great-uncle's war record by chance, and embarked on an artistic journey of questioning the nature of war, historical and contemporary.

Mutton hadn't always wanted to be an artist. Or rather, she had always secretly wanted to be an artist, but when it came to choosing a career, practicality won. Born in Canberra in 1975, she was the oldest of five children - the rest boys. Her mother was a nurse, and her father a virologist, moving the family from city to city throughout Mutton's childhood. It was while on a stint in Britain that her parents divorced, and her mother moved the children back to Canberra.

''We didn't have very much money. We lived at [community housing] Havelock House, and every Wednesday we would go to the Hare Krishnas and get a meal,'' she says.

In the Air.

In the Air.

''We had very little because mum had pretty much sold everything to come back to Australia. There were the five kids - I was 13, the youngest was probably six. She'd been a nurse so she did nursing at night to try and support us, but she was also finding herself, I think.''

Despite their straitened circumstances, her mother managed to study and complete a master's degree in theology. She was a model for following your dreams, but three years in Havelock House had made the teenaged Mutton's mind up. ''When it came time for me to make a decision about what I wanted to do, I just didn't want to be poor. I just didn't want to struggle, I just wanted some stability and security, and so I just worked,'' she says.

She travelled around, worked in retail, and had a stint in Brisbane working in insurance, eventually realising that she needed some real qualifications.

''My mum encouraged me to go to the art school, so in about 1999, I came back from living in Brisbane, and we went to the open days,'' she said. The choice came down to art school or a degree in interior architecture, and she chose the latter.

''I thought, that's practical, that's vocational, so I'll do that … It had that creative element - but I still had in my head that I couldn't be an artist, really, without being really poor.''

She graduated from the University of Canberra with a degree in environmental design in 2002, and took a job with Canberra firm Collard Clarke Jackson, specialising in sustainable design. She eventually became an associate.

''I had the security, I was doing something that I believed in, but after 4½ years or something, I just realised there was something missing, and I wanted something more,'' she says.

''I was still really interested in art, and maybe I felt braver, or something. Maybe it was also an awareness that if I didn't do it soon, maybe it would be a bit too late to go and do it, maybe it would be a good time to do it while I was in my 30s. And so I did it.''

She knew, after her first week at the ANU School of Art, that she had finally found her place. She enrolled in ceramics but quickly switched to print media and drawing, and also met her future partner - sculpture student Stedman Watts. And, during her three years there, shades of her mother surfaced: she worked part-time for Art Monthly magazine, fell pregnant in her second year, gave birth to son Louis during semester break, and went back to complete her degree in 2010, barely missing a beat. In the interim, Watts had hip replacement surgery - the first of several stints in hospital, returning home the day she went into labour.

She admits that while she was surrounded by supportive people, it was a ''really full-on'' time. But she has always been driven to take on multiple projects. These days, she works full time as the administration manager at Gorman House, while Watts stays at home with their two children - Louis, 4, and Sophie, nearly 2. But she has also fought to maintain her own art practice in the midst of a busy home and work life - a familiar scenario for any artist.

And, like many artists, her personal preoccupations and compulsions have inevitably fed into her art and her work. We're sitting in the courtyard restaurant at Gorman House, a stone's throw from both her office, and the Canberra Contemporary Art Space gallery, where she has some of her work showing in the yearly Blaze Eight exhibition of emerging artists. The works are part of a trajectory that began a couple of years ago, when she was fiddling around on the internet, and discovered the National Library's search engine, Trove. As an artist, she had long been interested in histories and stories, and had recently worked with old photographs and ephemera. Trove, with its masses of digitised newspapers, was an endless source of distraction and fascination, and she found herself clicking into obscure rabbit holes of information. This clicking led to another goldmine, the National Archives of Australia, where she discovered the collection of war records.

''You start looking for people you know - you want to search for something and you don't know what to search for. I knew that my great-uncle had died in WWII in a plane crash, I thought, so I just looked up his service record and it just happened to be accessible,'' she says.

''Not all of them are, and his one was. And I was just blown away and completely stunned to get access to vision-scanned real documents, like letters and typed memos and things crossed out, forms and papers that people had written. [It was] so, so exciting, and because everything is so [about] email now, too, it makes it all the more special, I think, to look at the written word.''

She learnt the crash that had killed George was an accidental runway crash at a secret air base in Indonesia, near Palembang.

''Part of what intrigued me was it wasn't that idea of what a hero's death is … It was an accidental death on a runway … I found handwritten letters from my great-grandfather, correspondence between him and the RAAF, basically wanting his son repatriated,'' she says.

''It was just very moving because George had died just before the Japanese had taken over that area of Malaya, and the Japanese took over the base and that region, so the forces couldn't go in. It became really overgrown and no one really knows where the grave is. He was buried and had a small service there and then the Japanese moved in.''

Until this time, her great-grandfather - George's father - had never been anything more to her than a shadowy family figure, but suddenly, here was a man who had lost his son in a foreign land. The correspondence between him and the RAAF spanned 10 years, from George's death in 1942 until the last year of his own life in 1952 - 10 years of frustration and nothing from the RAAF but fruitless status updates.

''Finding those things was an opportunity to think about the broader picture of a war in the context of that time and what it did to people,'' she says.

''It just got me interested in what the culture was like then and how people survived that, and how different contemporary experience is. Then that got me interested in everything to do with that, around war time, and more recently, looking at more modern air warfare and air surveillance.''

She staged a solo show in 2012, Secret Aerodrome No. 2, that incorporated her great-uncle's history, as a symbol of many such stories of the era.

''But then, I got so interested in the things that I didn't know, and planes as objects, and that kind of idolisation of planes, the romanticism of planes, the model making for boys, and observer drawings,'' she says.

''Observer drawings are amazing, the way they train people to recognise the shadows of planes. That was George's job, he was an observer, so that he could recognise whether it was a friendly silhouette or an enemy silhouette, which is just phenomenal.''

She also incorporated into her works impressions of what the far-off land of Indonesia might have left on a pre-internet, pre-television society. The show caught the eye of the Australian War Memorial, which purchased one of the works for its collection that year.

She was the recipient last year of a studio residency at Canberra Contemporary Art Space, which included a solo exhibition, Rise of the Machines, which opens on Thursday. The show represents a shift in subject, although the focus is still war and aircraft, with works on Japanese kozo paper, in inks and carbon.

''It's about a morphing of topography and space in the sky, thinking about what it's like to be underneath these things, to live underneath them, what it's like to be above them,'' she says.

''I'm always interested in design anyway, I bring design elements into whatever I do, just because I've had that training, and they're just fascinating objects. But there are a lot of elements that interest me about drones and fighters in modern warfare, because they don't have pilots - or they have pilots but they're remote pilots. It's a whole new breed of warfare and surveillance that's completely different to what you see in World War II and World War I.''

She's also fascinated by the changing nature of post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by war, and the different implications for pilots who are manning drones, rather than flying planes.

''It's almost like a cult of drones. Not just drones - air warfare in general. The show really is exploring air warfare and exploring those machines, and the imagery is about how they sit, how we feel about them as objects,'' she says.

''They're quite beautiful, but they're also quite sinister, and there are a lot of contradictions in them as objects. But visually, the morphing between sky and topography is interesting, and I think it's really thinking about the three relationships - there's the object, then there's what effect it has on people who are underneath, and the effect of people looking down from above, if that makes sense.''

It has, she says, been as much an educational journey as an artistic one, questioning how the effects of war square with the idolisation of the objects that perpetuate it.

Katy Mutton's exhibition, Rise of the Machines, opens at Canberra Contemporary Art Space in Manuka on Thursday, March 6.