ETCHED IN MEM­ORY

Glenn Ainsworth’s art is an ex­er­cise in beauty, tragedy and cathar­sis, writes An­drew McMillen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

It was the night be­fore the still­birth of his son that Glenn Ainsworth re­alised he needed to sketch Bax­ter. He and his wife, Ni­c­hole Hamil­ton, were stay­ing overnight in Bud­erim Hospi­tal, on Queens­land’s Sun­shine Coast, in Fe­bru­ary last year. It was a Wed­nes­day, and that morn­ing the cou­ple had been told Bax­ter had no heart­beat. They were of­fered sleep­ing pills, but both re­fused. In­stead they lay to­gether, numb with grief.

“We just both lay there all night, watch­ing the bloody clock,” says Ainsworth , a softly spo­ken 38-year-old. “That’s when I knew what I wanted to do.”

Hamil­ton gave birth to Bax­ter on Thurs­day, Fe­bru­ary 13. “We were dead tired; we’d been awake for two days,” says Ainsworth . “I was just star­ing at him, try­ing to burn him into my head. You know that your time’s lim­ited. You’re not go­ing to see him af­ter that day.”

At first Ainsworth chose not to tell Hamil­ton of his plans to sketch their son, but when he did, she wasn’t sur­prised. Art runs in Ainsworth’s blood. In­side the garage of their two-storey home at Pere­gian Beach is a stu­dio where the civil engi­neer paints and sketches, hon­ing a tal­ent he first picked up be­tween rugby league matches while grow­ing up in Biloela, a ru­ral town in cen­tral Queens­land. With Bax­ter’s sud­den death, the cou­ple were ush­ered into an ex­clu­sive club that no one joins vol­un­tar­ily.

“I thought still­birth was some­thing that only hap­pened in Third World coun­tries,” says Hamil­ton, 40, be­side her hus­band of 10 years. “No­body talks about it, and that makes it harder for friends and fam­ily to know what to say.”

In time, the cou­ple found their way to Sands Queens­land, an or­gan­i­sa­tion that pro­vides sup­port to par­ents who have ex­pe­ri­enced mis­car­riage, still­birth and new­born death. It wasn’t long be­fore Ainsworth de­cided to of­fer his skills to those who had joined the club. “It just grew from there, I sup­pose,” he says. “I thought it might be a nice op­por­tu­nity for other peo­ple: if they can’t do a sketch, I’ll do it for them.”

Says Ni­cole Ire­land, pres­i­dent of Sands Queens­land: “Glenn wanted to do some­thing. He sug­gested that par­ents could make a do­na­tion to Sands, and he vol­un­teered his skills to sketch their ba­bies. A lot of peo­ple are more com­fort­able dis­play­ing draw­ings rather than pho­to­graphs.” Par­ents can or­der a “free spir­its” per­son­alised por­trait, hand-drawn by Ainsworth, based on sup­plied pho­to­graphs. The pro­ceeds go to the or­gan­i­sa­tion, which is funded through Queens­land Health’s com­mu­nity self-care pro­gram as well as via mem­ber do­na­tions. “(Glenn and Ni­c­hole) ob­vi­ously have great sup­port around them,” says Ire­land, whose son Ni­cholas was still­born 10 years ago. “But (Glenn would) have to bal­ance his giv­ing back with his grief.”

In the cou­ple’s home, ad­ja­cent to the rooms down­stairs where Hamil­ton runs her phys­io­ther­apy clinic, Ainsworth sits at his com­puter and opens a scanned copy of his sketch of Bax­ter. His eyes trace the soft curves of his baby boy’s face, hooded in a blan­ket, his tiny hands grasped to­gether just so. “Some of them are quite dif­fi­cult, be­cause some of them are quite young in terms of the ges­ta­tion pe­riod,” he says qui­etly. “A lot of the bubs get a bit bruised, and have skin tears and stuff like that, which is just aw­ful. I look at the pic­tures, then don’t do any­thing for a cou­ple of weeks. I just have a think about it.”

He starts with the face, mak­ing sure to get the pro­por­tions right be­fore adding other de­tails. Some­times he draws com­pos­ite sketches based on sev­eral pho­tos. At the par­ents’ re­quest, he can sketch around tubes and cords, thus re­mov­ing their child from a med­i­cal con­text. He has com­pleted 11 sketches so far, av­er­ag­ing one a month, and usu­ally has an­other two or three wait­ing in the queue.

Mov­ing across to a fil­ing cabi­net be­side his workspace, he flicks through fold­ers un­til he finds his orig­i­nal draw­ing of Bax­ter. He holds it care­fully at the edges, silently tak­ing in his price­less draw­ing of a boy who was gone too soon. In the shock that fol­lowed his still­birth, nei­ther par­ent con­sid­ered tak­ing a pho­to­graph of their son. Hamil­ton’s sis­ter did, though, and in the months that fol­lowed those few pho­to­graphs be­came the cou­ple’s most im­por­tant pos­ses­sions. A framed copy of the sketch of Bax­ter hangs now in their bed­room. “I’m glad that Glenn’s art has a chance to help peo­ple,” says Hamil­ton. “It’s a beau­ti­ful thing to share. I love his draw­ing of Bax­ter.”

When asked how long each draw­ing takes to com­plete, he laughs and replies: “Put it this way: on an hourly rate, I’d be on about 20c an hour.” But it’s not about money.

Ainsworth tends to lose track of time down in the quiet of his stu­dio, with per­form­ers such as David Gray, Lady An­te­bel­lum and Amos Lee play­ing softly from the speak­ers. He sketches with a range of pen­cil grades and isn’t picky about brands or styles, opt­ing to buy what­ever the lo­cal art shop hap­pens to have in stock. He is a self-taught artist, and doesn’t pay much at­ten­tion to the work of con­tem­po­rary pro­fes­sion­als, though he is par­tic­u­larly fond of a New Zealand land­scape artist named Tim Wil­son.

The griev­ing process hasn’t been easy. Hamil­ton says that for the first year, she cried ev­ery day. Ainsworth’s ex­pe­ri­ence was much the same. “I’d get in my car each morn­ing and cry all the way to work, and on the way home, 40 min­utes each way,” he says. “I burst into tears all the time now.”

Talk­ing about the ex­pe­ri­ence in his home with a stranger isn’t easy, either. Hang­ing on the wall of his liv­ing room are some of Ainsworth’s art­works, in­clud­ing pho­to­re­al­is­tic paint­ings of a sea tur­tle and clown­fish. “You’ve got every­thing ready to bring a baby home. You go from the high­est feel­ing to the low­est,” he says. “I’m just climb­ing out now, af­ter 18 months.”

Los­ing Bax­ter has made the cou­ple stronger. “It’s welded us to­gether,” says Hamil­ton, smil­ing at her hus­band. “I couldn’t have sur­vived it with­out Glenn’s hugs and help.”

The fa­ther still ex­pe­ri­ences the odd mo­ment where the mem­ory of his son hits him like a punch to the ster­num, prompt­ing him to ask him­self: Holy shit, did that hap­pen? They both find it hard to hear other par­ents mak­ing com­plaints about their chil­dren.

“To hear your baby cry, you’d give any­thing,” says Ainsworth.

About 106,000 cou­ples ex­pe­ri­ence re­pro­duc­tive loss each year, yet it re­mains a dif­fi­cult topic of con­ver­sa­tion. In­deed, Ainsworth and Hamil­ton are highly at­tuned to how un­com­fort­able this topic can be. When new pa­tients ar­rive at her clinic and ask whether she has kids, there’s now a mo­ment of hes­i­ta­tion as Hamil­ton mea­sures whether to tell the truth. It’s much eas­ier to talk about a dead grand­par­ent than a dead son. “It’s not our dis­com­fort any­more, it’s theirs,” she says.

Since that Fe­bru­ary day last year, the cou­ple has learned a few things about how to best sup­port be­reaved par­ents. Just be there. Be an ear. Some­times a hug is the best re­sponse. Ask the par­ents: What was the child’s name?

For the artist, his is a project wrapped in beauty and pain.

“It’s some­thing to im­merse my­self in,” says Ainsworth, re­turn­ing to the com­puter and show­ing some of the other baby boys and girls he has drawn. “It’s this lit­tle guy’s birth­day next week, I think.”

He pauses. “It’s an aw­ful thing: no one should ever have to bury their child, ir­re­spec­tive of age. With still­borns, you don’t get to share any of those mem­o­ries. I do th­ese sketches for my san­ity.”

YOU GO FROM THE HIGH­EST FEEL­ING TO THE LOW­EST

GLENN AINSWORTH

Glenn Ainsworth’s draw­ing of son Bax­ter, left; Ainsworth and Ni­c­hole Hamil­ton on their wed­ding day, above

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