tells of her time in the Great Sandy Desert with Jimmy Pike
Jimmy Pike hunting with one of his dogs, Uncle Mawiji and, inset, Pike’s Jina (footprints: husband and wife and their dog)
P AT Lowe is chuckling over a couple of comical portraits laid in front of us on the pristine bench in the Berndt Museum’s conservation laboratory, at the University of Western Australia. They are of Lowe and her husband, Walmajarri artist Jimmy Pike, who drew them in the early months of their three-year sojourn in the Great Sandy Desert.
‘‘ That’s Jimmy, of course, wearing what look like jodhpurs,’’ Lowe says drily. ‘‘ The one of me is very glamorised, except for my shins which are covered in little red dots. It’s spinifex rash — I came out in little itchy pustules.’’
Lowe is a diminutive figure with fair Englishwoman’s skin and one wonders fleetingly how she endured the scorching heat and satanic insects of desert life. But she did. In fact, she considered it a privileged existence.
She lifts a sheet of paper with a bare hand, oblivious to the slight wince of the gloved curator hovering nearby. We step back to allow her to arrange a dozen more images on the steel bench. Suddenly, the sterile room glows with colour. Pike’s bright felt pen drawings radiate warmth and dynamism, and each line pulsates like a force field. It’s as if life has flowed back into them, their power reactivated a decade after their creator died.
It’s not far from the truth. Jimmy Pike’s Artlines: You Call Desert, We Used to Live
There is a collection of drawings that have sat in drawers in the Berndt Museum since Pike died in 2002 and Lowe lodged his sketchbooks there. When they go on display at the end of this month it will be the first time many of the images have been seen in public, although their themes will be familiar to lovers of Pike’s work. Waterholes that give life, spirits that take it away; wandering dogs and bare-footed travellers; myriad stars in the desert night, a lone aircraft flying above fleeing figures.
‘‘ There are five or so themes that naturally emerge from them,’’ Lowe says: ‘‘ Stars, flowers, country, spirit beings and the modern world.’’ Surveying the images placed along the length of the bench, she adds quietly: ‘‘ I hadn’t really seen them all together before and they’re beautiful.’’
Like a breeze from the distant desert, this show will revive memories of Pike’s heyday as Australia’s most successful and recognisable indigenous artist. His art lies in every state and national art gallery and his work has been exhibited in prestigious galleries and exhibitions in a dozen countries. More remarkably, his silk-screen, linocut and fabric designs spread across the world as Desert Designs, a Fremantle-based label that pioneered the entry of Aboriginal art into international fashion houses and chain stores.
It was unique commercial success that emerged from a highly unlikely place. A photograph, taken by Lowe at their desert bush camp, encapsulates it. Pike is striding alone across a sand dune; he’s shirtless and fierce lines of scars from tribal initiation are visible on his broad chest. Spear in hand and dog in tow, he looks entirely at home.
Born at Japingka in the Great Sandy Desert about 1941, Pike grew up among his tribal nomad family with no contact with white people. The family group was among the last of their people to walk out of the desert in the 1950s. They settled on Cherrabun Station, where Pike learned to ride horses and work with cattle.
The cheeky, powerfully built young man got into strife when alcohol entered his life; he was jailed for a string of minor offences, then convicted in 1980 for a man’s murder. Sent south to Fremantle Prison, Pike met two young art teachers who worked with prisoners, Stephen Culley and print-maker David Wroth. His natural talent astonished them — taking a pile of linocut squares into his cell overnight, he emerged with superb black-and-white images that would later end up in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. and came back the next day with the most astonishing prints I’d seen, with all the raw energy of European expressionist painters. He didn’t need me to teach him; he’d done a lot of wood carving and was very skilled, so he used the cutting tool in the way he would a penknife through wood, cutting left then right in a zigzag fashion. His lines had that jagged look that gave them life.’’
Pike’s prints and paintings on canvas soon attracted buyers at prisoner exhibitions. Meanwhile, Wroth and Culley were inspired to form Desert Designs and open a gallery space — later named Japingka, after Pike’s birthplace — with business partner Ian Plunkett. With Pike’s collaboration, and initially while he was behind bars, Desert Designs converted his prints into fabric designs that were used in clothing ranges in Japan, Europe and the US. The licensing deal (which is ongoing) trailblazed indigenous rights over copyright of designs. And Pike insisted that explanations of Dreamtime stories and Aboriginal terms such as jila (waterhole) be appended to each item. People ‘‘ who had never met an Aboriginal person were wearing clothing with indigenous stories sewn into them’’, Plunkett says.
Pike was released in 1986 after serving 61/ years of his life sentence. By then he’d moved back to Broome for his final months in jail and met Lowe, a clinical psychologist working with prisoners. Lowe was struck by Pike’s wealth of stories and dry wit, and their friendship blossomed into an enduring relationship. ‘‘ I suppose for me, there’s ‘ before Jimmy’ and ‘ after Jimmy’ in my life,’’ Lowe says simply. ‘‘ It was a turning point being with him.’’
Lowe’s own life is hardly unremarkable, a point her friends often make when urging her to write her autobiography. Life ‘‘ before Jimmy’’ began in wartime England. Lowe was born in 1941 to a doctor father and a mother soon abandoned to rear her daughter alone. As an adolescent Lowe did ‘‘ some useless arts to Britain, she studied psychology and briefly worked in the British prison service before migrating to Australia in 1972.
On request, Lowe sends me a staccato version of her subsequent career path: ‘‘ Got a job as a psychologist with Child Welfare, did a two-year masters degree, went to work in prisons in Perth and Broome, ran off with former prisoner Jimmy Pike, three years in desert, writing first books, back to Broome with JP, more writing, more psychology, travels with JP to various places in Oz and overseas, mainly to exhibit his works of art. Environmentalist. ‘‘ What else would you like to know?’’ The Great Sandy Desert interlude was a watershed period for Lowe. But it was no idyll, rather a blunt necessity. ‘‘ Jimmy was doing his three years’ parole and he wanted to get out of town,’’ Lowe says. ‘‘ He used to laugh about it — he said he told the parole board he was going to a place called Kurlku. But there was nothing there!’’ she says, grinning. Their desert camp, accessed by a mining track, lay 200km southeast of the remote Kimberley town of Fitzroy Crossing. They’d drive into town every few weeks to get supplies, but only grudgingly. Isolation suited them both.
Lowe’s first impression of the country was favourable. ‘‘ Where we first camped, there happened to be a clay pan full of water, so it was like living on the banks of a lake with swans and ducks. So my reaction was ‘ if this is desert, I’m in!’
‘‘ That lasted a couple of months and then it got tougher. We had to strain the insects out of our water until there were small puddles left. Then we had to move to a mining bore, put down a pipe and pump it out by hand.’’
Daily routine was simple. ‘‘ The dog would wake me up and lick my face, because if it woke Jimmy it knew it would be grumbled at. I’d light the fire and make breakfast. I’d go for a walk, then Jimmy would start work on a canvas. I’d write down things I was learning. I’d send back lists of vocabulary to a linguist friend that I thought the Walmajarri dictionary didn’t have.’’
The friend urged Lowe to write a book. ‘‘ I sat down and thought: ‘ What will I write about? Oh, I’ll write about jila or waterholes.’ I’d write in pencil in a notebook.’’ She filled pages with vivid descriptions of desert life, language and culture, all sourced from Pike’s encyclopedic knowledge. She turned them into a half-dozen books, including Jilji: Life in the Great Sandy Desert, Yinti: Desert Child and Desert Dog. Stalking feral cats, spotting the first aircraft, witnessing the spearing of an accused man’s thigh — all the subjects of Pike’s art also became Lowe’s literary inspiration. Her graphic and unsentimental accounts are written in a beautifully spare, accurate style, interweaving Pike’s childhood in the desert with episodes from the couple’s shared adult years.
Lowe never shied away from difficult issues in which her own cultural sensibilities clashed with Pike’s. ‘‘ When we lived in the desert, birds of prey such as buzzards and hawks sometimes nested in trees near our camp,’’ Lowe writes in In the Desert: Jimmy Pike as a Boy. ‘‘ I delighted in watching the young birds develop and fledge; Jimmy used to threaten to kill and cook them. ‘ Kuyi [meat], that one,’ he’d say. ‘ I’ll shoot it?’ I begged him not to, and he never did. In any case, he said, turkeys were much better to eat, and with our rifle we were seldom short of meat.’’
When he wasn’t out hunting, Pike sat at a folding table drawing with his favourite felt-tip pens, mainly Artline 170 and 190 (the company was so taken by his work it sponsored this exhibition). He refined his trademark style using felt-tip on non-bleed paper, some textured, some plain.
Pike could produce intricate designs easily. Lowe says: ‘‘ He didn’t seem to regard it as work, whereas his painting he’d set up on the