Pat Lowe

tells of her time in the Great Sandy Desert with Jimmy Pike

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

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

Jimmy Pike

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