She sat on a wicker chair in her kitchen in front of her easel. She wore a sun-hat with a large brim, despite the dim firelit kitchen. The hat was to protect her from the spot-light pointed at her painting.
I sat, fourteen, in the corner, trying not to be seen for once, so I could take it all in.
Kenneth played a string instrument resembling a guitar, his children at his feet on the plank floor. Simeon cooked. Damien and Serena shouted at one another about the horses, who were apparently ‘pig-rooting’ — whatever that was. A barn needed renovating.
She stayed in her world, painting, smoking her pipe. Lord knows what was in that pipe.
South Hill is a heritage estate, complete with servants quarters without servants and a ballroom without balls. With five sons, enough balls.
There was a wombat in the kitchen. Peacocks. A pantry filled with chipped Royal Doulton dinnerware. Old plumbing. Cold showers. A coach-house, dairy, large stables and a shearing shed. Her world and we joyfully peopled it. Even though we couldn’t get a fucking hot shower in the coldest NSW town in the universe.
Later she said to my parents “Send her to art school”.
I had never painted with actual paint. I had covered reams of paper with reminisces and colourful swirlings. I adored taking a sheet of white paper and covering it in pigments of some kind, I didn’t care if it was biro or texta or bootprints.
Miriam knew that art was for the misfits and the craft of it would come along in time.
After my year nine work-experience ended, that could have been the end of knowing her. Two weeks would have been enough to carry me through a lifetime of memories. In a world filled with female role-models that didn’t entice or apply, here was the gold of my future. I had finally met someone who I wanted to emulate.
A few years later the first of my three younger sisters met Simeon at my place in Darlinghurst. Corner of Crown and Burton. I have some blurred memories of that party, particularly the upstairs bedroom and some people trying to get in, but that’s another story.
A lifetime with her, grandmother to my nephews. Hundreds of paintings later she still smoked her pipe and tended her garden and kept to herself.
“Leave her alone” she said when someone was berating me.
“You’ve still got it” she said when I was thirty, insecurity was really taking hold, and I was trying to teach what I didn’t know.
“The most beautiful child I’ve ever seen” about my newborn baby son, despite the fact she had 6 children and 11 grands.
Her paintings are allegorical meanderings into the things she has seen and imagined. Biblical and pastoral themes transposed into Australian landscapes, the flora and fauna rendered carefully and in detail, with none of the one-point perspective favoured by the western canon. She called herself naive and she was proud of it. She was unimpressed and untainted by the big-dicks of art.
She used colour straight from the tube — and oh! what tubes she had. I know because I’ve been sorting them out these past days.
Her view was wide, taking in landscapes, grand themes, personalities and eras. Her composition was impeccable.
Her paintings live on of course. Watch this space, I will be collecting their reproductions.
She’s gone now, a couple of years.
I’ve got her paints. Damien gave them to me. I’m sorting through them slowly and tenderly. I can feel her here.