Dog Painting: Gregory and Janet Johnson

  1990, 122 x 304 cms  NFS

    I made several dog paintings. The painting of Gregory and Janet set at Pepperill Creek has Gregory’s dogs informally ranged across the landscape, not impressing their self-importance unduly on the eye.

       Though the caterpillar stories were embedded in the immediate environment, Alice Springs was also dog’s dominion. The Larapinta basin on either side of the Todd bears one of the great tales of the fighting dingos and their puppies. In camps around town, the kangaroo mutts languished in the dust, nestled between human forms in the shade, and competitively tore into food remnants. Pups pawed at the plastic carry-bags, tree-snared like Christmas decor. These white bags were everywhere, blowing up to several kilometres from camp. Though whitefellas decried the close proximity of people and dogs in camp, blackfellas not only ascribed them skin-names and relative status, but also insisted that they kept camp healthy, by cleaning scraps.

          I would think about this as I watched flea-ridden beasts snorkelling around their turds for sustenance. Health workers tried to reduce camp dog numbers. Sample cases indicated that health in the camps improved after dog eradication programs. Surely, I thought, a needle to make the dogs impotent would help ease the burden. The scabies, the lice, the malnutrition, if noticed at Whitegate, wasn’t treated.

          The dogs of blackfella and whitefella cultures didn’t entwine. Blackfellas coming into town came dogless. When the odd mob of camp dogs crept into town there were dogfights, and shame for the owners as angry shopkeepers berated them. By not having their dogs in the town streets for protection, Aboriginals were prey to the abundance of suburban guard dogs.

 But they weren’t singled out in this respect. There is a mania in the town for keeping surly guard dogs. The fear they inspire affects black and white residents. During a September bike ride, a German Shepherd had pulled me to the ground while its owner looked on helplessly. It was a fluke of timing that Ronja hadn’t been on deck, in the baby cradle. In the hospital later, in search of tetanus vaccine, I lay between two other dog victims and churlishly suggested that a dog ward should open in Casualty. *

          Once Raphael Turner came with Dominic to ask if I would drive him to Mt Nancy camp to retrieve his magnum gun and his dog, ‘Big Head’. Big Head was a crossbreed pig dog with teeth like a sabre-toothed tiger. I’d seen him pop the skull of another dog in camp as easily as a machine punches holes in a button. One bite and its brains spilled. We drove a few kilometres north to Mt Nancy. I waited while the men got the dog and gun.

          ‘He be give your neck lockjaw if you get too cheeky,’ chipped in Dominic.

          Drop me by gate, Rod. Better walk him on rope into Whitegate.

        ‘Better cool ’im for other dogs to see. He can still smell his grandfather, old Aranye.’ I let Dominic and the dog out.

          Most of the dogs had drolly-apt names. A miserable little black and white pup absolutely riddled with fleas, more fleas than fur, was called Flea. One, with a stuttering yodel, was called, Flat Battery. Eric Neal had a grey-flecked thing that seemed to limp on every leg, a doozey of a dog, which he called ‘It’ll do.’ And there was Betterboy, a hairless brute with a broken baritone. They provided a sentry of sorts, rushing my car as a horde, then promptly slouching to the shadows to which each seemed to have been allocated a private slap of shade.

           I had in mind Gregory on those Sundays, strolling ahead of Janet, with all his dogs strung out between them like beads on a necklace. It wasn’t unusual to see the man of a couple walking at some distance in front of his partner. Public displays of affection, kissing, and cuddling, even holding hands were a rarity.

        I decided to paint the two of them, set early morning near Pepperill Creek. Ronja had camped out there with me. We were giving Elaine a break on and off during October, hoping to stop Ronja’s nightly interruptions to Elaine’s sleep.  With a new baby on the way, Elaine realised she’d have to wean Ronja. I set up our little tent in the creek bed free from the river gums that seemed to be dying upright in slow degrees. Their upper branches were riddled with holes, nests for budgerigars. Ronja and I would drive the two kilometres out to the creek after supper. The sun had seared out of the burnt sky. We’d pretty much both fall asleep within minutes of me telling her a story, as she put it, a ‘magination’ story.  

          The track leading to the creek would be an appropriate setting, as Gregory and Janet often spent Sundays strolling the countryside there, scanning for bush tucker. When Ronja and I had woken, we’d walk the track, running beside the creek, before breakfast. The introduced buffel grass was rampant on the low creek plains. Ronja would break their stooping stalks. She tried to copy the patterns of grass calligraphy scribbled in arcs across the sand by the action of the wind. I framed Gregory exiting left of this same track. The dogs shared his trudging disposition. I made Janet’s scale proportionately larger than Gregory to hint at the mythic status she held for me. Much as I disapproved of the man-at -one- with-nature thing, which made images of Aboriginals into demeaning, kitsch clichés, Janet’s earthiness reminded me of how such a notion arose.  When the Whitegate mob saw the painting they reckoned Gregory was casting across the ground looking for apwerte/coins. The composition was based on the slow, snaking track. I broke the trail of dogs by having two of them respond to something out of the frame, following the stream of light to a flicker, scent or sound.

         When Xavier saw the painting a year later his sole comment was that the yellow dog in the middle of the work had just been crushed under a car. Although dead, and kwementyaye, he said the painting would not offend anyone.