On 16th June I was completing a mural at Leeville Public School when I heard the news that my beloved Mullumbimby home had sold. I was painting a pathway disappearing into forest on the classroom door. It was the first mural for that class and the last of many I had done for the school. Having bonded in a life-long way with principal Annette Clarke, this moment before the final bell, was steeped in emotion, for us both.
It requires an energetic second wind to get my gear into the car and ladders on the roof when I complete a job. I am often hours from home, tired, hungry, and filthy. Sometimes I set off wondering if it’s safe to drive. I use the radio to focus and leaving often coincides with the 3pm ‘Conversations’ podcast on Radio National. That afternoon, with smarting eyes, the distraction was essential.
Richard Fidler’s Conversations guest was Alexandra Seddon, a woman with a spell-binding life story of courage, commitment, and sacrifice. She lives in the Bega Shire, on the South Coast of NSW. The place I was heading to call my new home.
I couldn’t have been in better psychological care on the journey back to Mullumbimby. As Alexandra’s story unravelled, her example was so powerful it resonated deeply. Listening to her soft, elegant, kind voice was a gift that fuelled reassurance, hope and resolution. I wanted to meet her, to veer onto her road.
A baby born of (often brutal) Royal Russian ancestry, Alexandra grew up in Australia. As a young girl her innocence was stolen yet she emerged, butterfly-like into a woman who boldly chose to devote her life and fortunes to the defenceless, be that human or creature. Her story is one I urge you to explore. Follow this link to the podcast: https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/conversations/alexandra-seddon/13393024.
The weeks to settlement were so hard. My youngest son stayed in Mullumbimby to continue his apprenticeship (distance from him continues to be a source of leaking eyes even though he is flourishing.) It was agony to say goodbye to friends of 30 years, to abandon our home that holds no sadness or drama. Not so hard was walking away from the ghosts, the consequences of poor choices. The intensity was so great that I had to stop saying goodbye. I knew I’d be back to visit.
The calling for the South Coast was loud and clear. Yuin Country had sung to me on my road trip a few months prior. Once home the echoes were impossible to silence. I had become a bit reclusive in Byron Shire. The fast-changing culture and busyness ran counter to my sensibility, but it wasn’t repelling me. It was more like a magnet was pulling me.
And so, I left. Six weeks after that day at Leeville School, I packed the car, popped Duncan on the seat and we set off. I spent the last night with the best of friends, knowing without question that they would hold me, not judge me, would love me.
With Duncan riding shotgun we headed south and on that open road I thought of Alexandra. She was my touchstone, a presence that helped as I drove further away.
Friends and collectors of my paintings, Hugh and Hilary Cairns offered that I land softly in their holiday home in Merimbula. I was greeted by Sally, their neighbour with keys and a welcome smile. Sally opened the door, we walked up a few steps and the best view in all of Merimbula reduced me to tears. There’s landing softly then there’s landing in a place that makes you feel the greatness of our natural world. A place where Southern Right whales pounce and where you can see Eden.
My son Seth reminded me that home is where the paintings are and where the dog is. Well, I have both here. This home, the paintings on the walls, some of which are mine and my dog have kept me sane these past few weeks. I don’t know how or why I deserve this degree of support and kindness. Hugh and I have worked on projects that fulfilled the reasons why I became an artist. It was hard for me to feel worthy of accepting any more from this family. That I am here has made possible my long-term aspirations because lockdown arrived soon after I landed. But not before I met Alexandra.
I made it a priority the very first week to go directly to Cowsnest, a community farm Alexandra set up near the picturesque hinterland village of Candelo. There I bought the best blackberry jam since my grandma’s, plus so many other delectable treats. Cowsnest offers shelter and purpose to those who seek belonging. It is based on the cooperative principles of sharing and a one-in-all-in approach to ensure the ongoing viability of the farm.
The following day I visited the wildlife sanctuary, saved by Alexandra. Potoroo Palace (https://www.potoroopalace.com/) is where I sat with manager Maree. I explained the work I have done with Bushfire Wildlife Rescue and Support; Maree contacted Alexandra, then Alexandra contacted me and we agreed to get together.
Alexandra lives in Oaklands Road, behind Pambula. As I veered onto her road, just out of the village, I felt like I was home. Since selling, I’d harboured the vision of a simple skillion roof, colourbond-clad home as the ideal option for my next dwelling. A few bends down the road I saw a home that reflected the picture I’d held in my mind’s eye. I made a mental note to be bold, knock on the door on my way home and chat about the build.
Sitting with Alexandra is something I will never ever forget. It was like being in the company of an angel. She has a pretty, timeless, face. She is radiant, humble, adorable, and a little frail. More than I expected her to be. In saying that I don’t think I’ve ever sat in the presence of anyone more committed to life and not just her own. We shared stories; we laughed, and we cried. Her beautiful partner Nicho made us a platter and the best cup of tea of my life (I’m still in recovery). We spoke of possibilities that could become real once I’d found a place to land.
On the drive back along Oaklands Road I scanned the country until the house I recognised appeared. It wasn’t necessary for me to knock on the door because Sharon, the owner, was at the fence next to the road. I was still on a high from Alexandra’s soul and Nicho’s tea and I effervesced to Sharon about her house, my vision, and the attraction of Oaklands road. I gave her my card and she said she would be in touch about the builder. As I turned towards my car, she mentioned a block of land that might be coming on the market. I hoped with all my heart that she would make contact.
And she did.
Today, I became the custodian of that block of land. It’s next door to Sharon’s. It is a blank canvas taking up just over an acre of this planet. It is a place where that simple dream home will become real, where paintings will be born, and their life will give life. An orchard will be planted, dignity restored in a garden full of natives. A work in progress. A sanctuary where sons, friends and paintings can finally come home. This has happened after a raw brush with the property feeding frenzy here (and everywhere). A menacing trend that contributes to the disparity between the haves and the have-nots. Such a far cry from Cowsnest Farm.
Throughout lockdown, it has been the kindness of old and new friends that has enabled me to stay strong. To Hilary and Hugh (who are here in spirit but in lockdown in Sydney), Sally and Duncan, to Jane and Lisa, to Sarah and Sharon and Joy. To Tabitha and Chris, the seals, the whales, the wombats, to the ocean and wild beaches and blood-coloured rocks.
There is so much hope and potential, I could squeal.