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‘In preserving the story of what I experience, I live doubly; the past will return to me, the future is always there’– Eugène Delacroix, 1824

This summer I am looking for my father. Things have happened – things are always happening, but this is different – and I know time is running out. If I do not do this now, all that I will be able to say is I wish, I wish, I wish.

My father is not missing, and neither am I estranged from him. We have maintained a good relationship over the years: I do not remember any arguments. When I was a child, if my mother wanted my father to do something – put out the garbage bins, clean the pool, fix a leak in the roof – she would send me to tell him. More than once I asked why I had to do it; couldn’t she speak to him herself? ‘I’m asking you, Nigel, because you don’t annoy him.’ So, obediently, off I went to pass on the message. I have told friends that I know what sort of old man I will be because I have been following my father’s life. ‘In forty years, I’ll be him.’ With that they nod and smile, a little alarmed.

Yes, my father and I are similar people, so what exactly am I trying to find? Perhaps I am not trying to find anything; I want to interact with him in a deeper way, to better understand him, to experience the way he lives in the world, to know him – before it is too late.


Keep reading here.

Thank you to the Tuggeranong Arts Centre, which commissioned this essay to accompany Jack, John and Kempsey, an exhibition of my father’s work, held from 6 February to 27 March 2021, ACT, Australia.

For most people it doesn’t happen every day, but for Jack Featherstone it’s barely happened at all.  Until now.  For the first time in 35 years, and for only the second time in his life, yes, my father is having an exhibition of his paintings.  And it’s at the Canberra School of Art.  Which is not bad – and slightly ironic – for a self-taught artist who has next to no connection with the art world whatsoever.  For the last sixty years he’s just been painting, just doing it, just making shapes and colours on whatever he can find – canvases, bits of stone, bits of bark.

When my brothers and I were kids our father would escape into the roof of the family house where he had a very basic studio – essentially it was just an easel balancing precariously on the joists.  Later, he was able to upgrade to a ‘studio’ beneath the house, where he’d sit amongst the damp soil and cobwebs and boxes of toys no longer used. The way I remember it, he was always painting – he just always seemed to be doing it.  Of course, it’s never been his ‘profession’; no, to bring in the cash, he spent his life fixing people’s teeth.  Did he want to be a ‘professional painter’?  I have no idea, he’s just painted.  He’s never had classes, and I very much doubt that he’s ever considered – however briefly – the thought of actually learning to paint.

Ten years ago he retired to Braidwood, a small town in New South Wales, where he spends his days painting and walking and feeding his chooks and doing more painting.  Every so often he’ll submit something to the folk-art section of a regional agricultural show and score the odd ribbon, but then he just bunkers down again and gets back to it – making shapes and colours on whatever he can find.  He’s never thought of having a formal exhibition, mainly because he had one thirty-five years ago, in Sydney, and the critics tore him apart.  Well, one critic did, and I’m not even sure it was a proper critic, just someone who clearly didn’t have an encouraging bone in his or her body.  I guess it was the 70s back then – it was a time when people said what they wanted to say, and offended all and sundry in the process.

So Jack Featherstone kept painting, just doing it, because he’d fall apart if he didn’t.

Then, a year ago, Associate Professor and Associate Head of the Canberra School of Art, Nigel Lendon, dropped in to my father’s little blue house at the bottom of the mainstreet, fell in love with the work stuck on every surface and hidden behind furniture and vowed that he’d work towards putting on a proper show.  Last Wednesday, that ‘proper show’ became a reality.  Within 24 hours, my father was interviewed on ABC radio and had stories appear in the print media.  A senator even turned up at the launch; my father shook his hand and there were smiles all round.

I won’t go into the qualities of my father’s work – over the decades most people who were lucky enough to see his pictures considered them the output of a ‘naïve’ painter – but Nigel Lendon, who curated and launched the show, has written an expansive piece over at Iconophilia.  It’s well worth a read.  For me, it’s all about someone who has just painted, not to have work shown, nor for the accolades (though this recent event has certainly been very much appreciated).

What is it that makes someone want to create?  Is it about seeing something and wanting to make some kind of record?  Is it about interpretation – not understanding something until it’s been taken apart and put together again?  Or is it about simply having something to do?  If it’s the latter, then why not just have a veggie garden, or make model airplanes?

Obviously, part of this post is about pride, pride at what my father’s achieved.  But it’s also about realising that for some people – perhaps many people, many more than we care to think – there’s an innate need to make, to create, to explore, to communicate.  But there’s something else: it’s about doing something for life (in more ways than one), sticking with it, being determined, but not necessarily having aspirations, just a desire to do, to keep at it, not to achieve any kind of end-game, because the making is the point.

Because creating makes us feel properly alive.

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The past