Updated: Mar 17
A story of the cycle of life...love, loss, learning and rejuvenation.
I haven’t painted with oil paints for years. Running now into decades. The iconic collection of paintings that had their home in the Heaven and Earth gallery in Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building seem like they belong in another lifetime. And, in a way, they do.
As life took customary unexpected turns I transmuted into a mural artist. A busy one travelling the country creating panoramas and cameos that bring marked change to cheerless spaces and learning environments, often in disadvantaged communities.
The response to the work on walls has been nothing short of profound.
But my yearning to dig deeper and reconnect with the source of the original oil paintings has nagged me like it wants me back and I want it. I miss Big Sam, the inner creative with full freedoms to trust without question, guided by the wisdom of the over-soul. Three years ago I decided to test my nerve. Too afraid to paint in oils I worked with acrylics to paint And the Walls Came Tumbling Down. Then I stopped again.
The calling became more urgent this year. As I age the wear and tear on my body is felt. I’m beyond 250 walls and I have left many kilometres of technicolour trails. My shoulders hurt from having my hands active above my head for hours on end. My children have grown into adults and it’s time for me to return to the small scale.
With this in mind it didn’t take long for the universe to respond, as it always has, in haste and in the present. What I call the magical approach takes over and lands me where I belong.
The summer holiday was in full swing and I was relaxing on my deck. My phone made a little noise and there she was. In her message, Kathy said she used to visit my gallery in the QVB and would regularly sit in front of a painting ‘Cleansing the Heart’. We had in fact met thirty years’ ago. On one of her lunch hour visits I had signed a print of ‘Cleansing the Heart’. Kathy went on to say that she wanted to buy a present for her brother, a painting of mine titled ‘And the Walls Came Tumbling Down’.
On the last day of 2019 Kathy sent a message asking if we could meet at my place on her way home from spending Christmas with her brother in Queensland. She could see the painting and view my other works.
I am now going to attempt to explain the significance of our second meeting.
There was an instant, magnetic warmth. Kathy and I both had stories to share of the years between contact. The most intimate recount was the recent loss of her partner Mick from heart failure. It was clear that Kathy was grieving a great love. Here we were in the first week of January and he had left in November. Kathy sat with me in a state of grace. She told me that she feels Mick is around her, often when she sights two birds.
Before she left to continue her homeward journey, I shared a story of a portrait I’d once been commissioned to paint for the Lismore legal fraternity. The story had in it proof that the subject, a well-loved lawyer who had died suddenly and a person I had never met, had been around me as I painted him. The portrait of Richard Rowed hangs in the Lismore Courthouse. The story is too personal to share here but it was a revelation when a close colleague and friend of both Richard’s and mine, verified my intuition as fact. Kathy and I spoke about a painting of Mick, if a similar experience was to occur.
Uncle Digby Moran is a Bundjalung artist I have worked with on painting projects that encourage and engage students and the disadvantaged. A man who helped his community on so many levels over decades, a true Elder, died on 13th January 2020. The ripple effect of his passing will be everlasting.
The day after his passing I had a facial. Juliet practices her magic out of home and I go there because she sends me to a place of deep relaxation. About 45 minutes in I was elsewhere and Uncle Digby and Mick were present. It was emotional and clear. The anticipation of a painting rose like a wave and it appeared spotlessly in my mind’s eye. In it there were cosmic elements and the circle format of the last painting Uncle Digby and I had painted together plus imagery pertaining Mick.
Like the ripples from a stone cast on water, the painting is a series of concentric circles. On the periphery bleeding down the sides and knowing no bounds is the stellar cosmos. As it contracts inward it kisses an ocean that wraps itself around the Mother, the water skirted by beach. The land stretches onwards meeting the Great Dividing Range and ripples of red dunes terminate at the epicentre; the source of the painting, the first stone cast, our sacred Rock; Uluru.
Within the landscape are two birds; a Kookaburra and Magpie symbolic of the time Kathy and Mick flew together. The birds glide in a vortex and follow Mick’s lead forming a trinity in unity. Mick launches onwards through the gravity bound clouds, his big hands, (that often appear to Kathy in her dreams) reach beyond a setting sun, towards infinity. He soars above Lennox Headland, a favourite place, leaving it all behind.
And on the other side of the masculine sun is the feminine moon that casts light on footprints made by Kathy’s mum who left Earth not long before Mick.
A cloud above Uluru has within it the shape of an eye and a heart for a pupil. Symbolic of Kathy’s lesson in love, surrender, growth and grief. The cloud cries tears of rain on to her Rock and those tears become arteries and veins that revive the desert landscape.
As in my experience with Richard Rowed’s portrait, there was a mystical incident in the process of painting this piece. I was puzzled how to include Ireland in the painting because I felt it to be a strong part of the brief. I couldn’t recall the significance so I searched through my correspondence with Kathy and I couldn’t find the reference anywhere. Assuming it had been during our initial meeting, I inquired. Kathy told me it was because she hadn’t mentioned Ireland but, as an element of Mick’s and her own life, Ireland had mattered. Kathy had lived in Ireland for a year and Mick enjoyed her stories, his brother, a lover of Irish music returned from a trip there to be at his side when he died. At his funeral a recital of the Irish blessing May the Road Rise Up to Meet You was spoken. In the hospital a nurse gave Kathy a lock of Mick’s hair and she had made a locket inscribed with the gaelic words Micheál mo ghrá (Michael, my love).
On the other side, over the oceans from Lennox Head, is where I painted Ireland.
From the moment I met Kathy in the QVB gallery, aptly named Heaven and Earth, it feels as though life has come full circle. Not only has the process assisted in her recovery, it has affected my own. To smell and experience the alchemy of oils takes me back to my own genesis as an artist, the break-up of my marriage (which is when I put the oils away) and the yearning to return to my inner Garden from whence the original collection grew. I need a purpose and a story to tell and I know, in my own heart, that Resurrection is the first painting of many more to come.
It all began in 1994, when I was a fresh-faced 25-year-old doing the corporate thing in the Sydney CBD and finding my way in the world.
One day during my lunchbreak I took a wander through the Queen Victoria Building, admiring the ornate and historic architecture that had only been restored a few years previously, and it was there that I stumbled upon a beautiful art gallery – Heaven and Earth.
I was immediately mesmerised by a painting of Uluru, depicted as a heart, its arteries irrigating the majestic red centre of Australia. Titled Cleansing the Heart, by Samantha Wortelhock.
I had not long returned from my first and, as it happens, only visit to Uluru (to date anyway). While there I was entranced by the array of colours cast upon the awesome monolith by the sunrise and sunset, and equally blown away seeing the stargazing afforded by the lack of artificial light in the vicinity. The wonderful Dreamtime stories told with vigour by the local Elders brought the spiritual and historical significance of the site to life that much more. My only disappointment was the one weather event missing from that trip - heavy rain. I had seen plenty of photos depicting the myriad of waterfalls that form all around the rock in such conditions. I instantly recognised that this very image may have formed the inspiration for Cleansing the Heart.
From then on, I would visit the gallery whenever time allowed, to enjoy all the art but primarily to meditate upon my fave depiction of Uluru, trying to formulate a way that I could afford to buy it. Alas, fate decreed otherwise – but in a fortuitous way. I eventually purchased a print of the painting and on that day, Sam just happened to be at the gallery and she signed my print for me. I was elated to meet the creator of this beautiful piece. To this day I treasure my Cleansing the Heart print, complete with inscription:
Fast forward another 25 years. December 2019. I spent Christmas and New Year in southern Queensland, needing a change of scenery after my beloved partner Michael (Mick) passed away in November after a long battle with heart disease. This was only a year on from losing my much-loved mother so the time for rest, introspection and healing was well overdue. I stayed with my brother and his family, who had just moved to the area. I told them that I’d love to buy them a meaningful piece of art as a house-warming gift for their new home. After chatting a while, we got onto the subject of Cleansing the Heart and a couple of other prints I’d picked up at Heaven and Earth thereafter. My brother, a staunch environmentalist, loved the artwork and all that it represented. I told him that I recalled that Sam was based around Byron Bay, just a couple of hours’ drive south of there, and that I could check whether she was still in the area. I searched and happily found that she was indeed still local, now operating under the name Breakaway Art. I recalled that Breakaway was the name of yet another of her wonderful signature pieces, which always had pride of place in the QVB gallery.
I noticed a recent work on her website titled And The Walls Came Tumbling Down. My brother and his wife were intrigued by this piece and wanted to know more. So, after revelling for a long moment in a sense of déjà vu, I emailed Sam – not knowing that I was setting in motion a serendipitous chain of events. She replied immediately, sending screenshots of her recent works. My brother and sis-in-law confirmed that And The Walls Came Tumbling Down was the one for them! To my immense joy, I was able to purchase the original of this profound work for them. Happy brother/sis-in-law, happy me. And happy Sam – she was very pleased that a painting that meant so much to her was going to a home where it would be enjoyed and appreciated.
I then made a slight detour on the trek back to Wollongong and visited Sam at her Mullumbimby digs. It was then that Sam shared with me her journey, and I realised that our re-connecting was true kismet. Only a few weeks earlier, she had put a call out to the universe for a sign as to whether she should return to painting commercially. The universe duly delivered in the form of my (apparently!) happenstance email. Sam and I talked about my love of Cleansing the Heart, and how any kind of heart-related symbolism is even more significant to me nowadays, having been through Mick’s cardiac journey with him, supporting his fierce determination to keep his tired heart beating for much longer than predicted; similarly, when he and I first met, my emotional heart was bruised and battered after a particularly difficult time, and he devotedly and lovingly brought me back to life. So I am now carrying the mantle of fierce determination, to take care of my heart (physically, emotionally and spiritually), and to live my best life – being open to wherever it may take me and how ever long I am destined to be here.
Leading on from this discussion, Sam proposed a commission whereby she would create a new work based on Cleansing the Heart but focused on honouring my relationship with Mick and our journeys, past and future, together and separately. And my mum – she is also never far away. This proposal brought many emotions to the surface for me, but I knew from the outset that it was meant to be. The ultimate way to honour my man, our relationship, his legacy, and my onward journey. All of which are, naturally, intertwined.
Among many things I love about this endeavour, is that I have had input from the get-go – it has felt truly collaborative. I shared with Sam stories of Mick and our relationship, photographs, his love of the Australian landscape and his adventurous nature.
Another piece of symbolism that has remained constant since he crossed over is that of birds. Any and all kinds of birds – magpies, crows, pelicans, kookaburras, currawongs, cockatoos, right through to the usually detested but ever-present seagull. Whenever I see or hear a bird, particularly one that is displaying decidedly un-birdlike behaviour, I feel he is near. The song we played at his funeral was Free Bird by Lynyrd Skynyrd.
The opening lines being hauntingly appropriate.
“If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be travelling on, now
Cause there's too many places I've got to see
But if I stayed here with you, girl
Things just couldn't be the same
Cause I'm as free as a bird now
And this bird you cannot change…”
A song with a melancholic and yet also uplifting vibe – it has provided comfort to me, the thought that he is healthy and whole again, as free as a bird in the spirit world. And indeed he is - as illustrated in the beautiful tribute titled Resurrection. The inclusion of the birds encapsulates Mick’s free spirit, and also my intention to soar into this next chapter of my life. Both of us truly resurrected.
My dearest wish is that Resurrection, its theme and the story behind its conception might offer hope to others whose lives have been irrevocably changed by loss and grief of any kind, and help restore faith that together we can heal ourselves and the world at large. That from despair and heartbreak, new experiences and opportunities can emerge, and offerings to the world be conceived and birthed. That expression through art and our collective and individual stories can aid our personal and universal healing and guide us to our true path, a path that we likely may not even be aware of, much less have dreamt about. That healing is, in and of itself, an art.
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“Art is a constant agent of transformation and is indeed the soul’s drive to health.”
― Cathy Malchiodi
“Stories are a communal currency of humanity.”
― Tahir Shah, In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams