Funeral at Santa Teresa

1993, 123 x 264 cms  NFS    

Lizzie Johnson was back in hospital, needing nursing throughout the night. She had lost control of her bowels, had an inactive thyroid gland and muscular atrophy. One night she managed to get a taxi and stood at our door in her hospital pyjamas. I nursed her to sleep, promising to locate husband, Dominic, whom she had tried to find that morning. She breathed deeply like a candle sucking air from the lounge. She woke me to assist her to the toilet. 

Dominic was at Whitegate when I drove her to camp after breakfast. I left them together. She was angry that he had ‘spoilt her $100’ on the taxi. Early on the next Sunday there was a rap on the door. I dragged a towel about my waist and answered it. Noelly Johnson put his hand on my shoulder and spoke quickly.

My sister, and your sister, that old man’s daughter, been pass away. Domo, got no wife.’ A file of people, Patrick and Eva Hayes, Joe Cleary, Roselita Ryder, Raphael Turner and some kids touched hands.

I shrugged over to Whitegate to grieve with Aranye who was sitting in the old men’s quarters with Harold Wheelchair Ross and Edward Neal. I stroked his back, saying sorry.

Several months elapsed after Elizabeth Johnson's passing before I asked her father, Aranye if it was okay to make photographs for a painting of her funeral, Funeral at Santa Teresa. 

I needed to set the scene in the appropriate tableaux and drove to Santa Teresa with Ronja planning to photo the graveyard at dawn. Ronja picked up a bunch of plastic flowers from a grave inside the gate which she wanted to place on Lizzie’s grave. These were retained in the painting. The long table-topped mountain to the west of the community was pivotal in setting the location.

I consulted a reproduction of the Burial at Ornans painting by Gustave Courbet. It amused me to think, when freighting my paintings to city galleries, of the famous, and much slower travel of Courbet’s masterpiece in the mid nineteenth century. Painting in his native Ornans, he described a local event with people he knew. From relatively quiet beginnings in its place of origin, its reception got progressively antagonistic as it was exhibited closer to and finally in, Paris.  From him I borrowed the centrality of the grave and the notion of keeping the figures boxed below the skyline. A war photo from Iskveren, in Turkey was the biggest help. I borrowed its heavily clothed, lumpen bodies, seen exclusively from the rear, as a model for the Whitegate men, leaning into their digging.