Fremantle Stuff > Fremantle History Society > Fremantle Studies > 6 > Culley

Six years without a suicide:
art at Fremantle Prison

Stephen Culley

Culley, Stephen 2010, 'Six years without a suicide: art at Fremantle Prison', Fremantle Studies, 6: 66-87.

When I was asked to give this talk, it was an opportunity to gather my thoughts together and also to talk to some of the most important people who were my associates during that period. I spoke to in particular Andrew Smith and Bryn Roberts. Andrew Smith was the Deputy to the Director of Prisons and Bryn Roberts was head of Education at Fremantle Prison. It was really interesting speaking to Andrew because he set the scene for me about what had happened in prisons before I started in 1978. He told me that there were riots in 1966 and there was quite an enlightened character who was head of prisons at that time, Colin Campbell. And he was drafted by the then Minister to drag the prisons into the 20th century because they were very, very primitive places. One of the first things Campbell did was to employ Andrew Smith with the charter of modernizing the prisoners education.

Although I started in 1978, the seeds for change had been sown much earlier. It was a Victorian physical environment with Victorian attitudes and while we think of Fremantle Prison as a great architectural building and of historical significance, it was a very grim place indeed, a place really fit for torture. There is an old pine tree out in front of the prison and every time I went there it screamed. It never seemed to have any kind of foliage, not even a needle; it just had these seeds, a metaphor for all the human potential that was just rotting away inside the prison.

I started in Fremantle Prison in 1978 after years of painting and travelling around the world. Having finished a Fine Arts degree at Curtin University, or WAIT as it was in those days. I got this part-time job through a friend. It was a one day a week class in what was the old assessment centre at Fremantle Prison. I was interested in landscape as an artist and I also had an interest in and a fascination with indigenous Australians. It was really the first job I had with any kind of real sense of responsibility, and it turned out to be wonderful. I was teaching about fifteen or sixteen Wongai artists from the Warburton/Mt Margaret area, most of whom had quite substantial artistic talent. These prisoners had been through the Mt Margaret Mission and were really skilled at landscape painting, far more skilled than me in many ways. I was inspired by Paul Klee and European art movements of that time, whereas these guys were painting direct from the landscape and had that Namatjira handwriting down pat.

The assessment centre at that time was run by the Education Department and there were almost no students there. The prison art class was the only dynamic part of the education set up at the time and I inherited that. But the assessment centre itself and the education staff there looked like they’d retired. They were looking for as little conflict as possible and they certainly weren't interested in rocking the boat within the maximum security prison environment. So as far as I could see, the only students they had were one or two paedophiles who had to be protected from the main body of the prison population. As far as I could see there was not more than one or two percent of the prison population doing education. Unbeknownst to me, a guy called Rod Broadhurst and Bryn Roberts had been planning to set up a Department of Prisons-administered education centre. And I was probably the only thing that survived from the old system, because they could see that I had a passion for what I was doing. In 1979 when they took control they asked me to stay on while they replaced all the other Education Department employees.

I was a bit of a hippie in those days. I had long hair. It was a moment of great change in the history of prisons in Western Australia. For the first time people with drug-related crimes were coming to prison, which meant that there were middle-class criminals coming into the prison for the first time. Before that I think that prisoners and prison officers got on pretty well. They all came from much the same sorts of backgrounds. One lot had chosen one sort of path and the other had chosen another but they had a sort of respect for each other. Mind you, punishment was dealt out in pretty brutal ways. I was a middle class kid; my parents had Culley’s Tearooms, which turned out to be a godsend for me. They had a business that’s been going in Fremantle for over 85 years and I had spent my youth and childhood looking at Fremantle Prison, wondering what was going on inside. So when I was offered this opportunity to work here I took it up quite enthusiastically.

I got the job through a Fremantle sculptor, Arthur Kalamaras. He was teaching at the technical extension service at TAFE at the time and I’d gone through art school with him. There weren’t many people lining up to teach art at the prison. He put my name forward to Chris Thorman, who was the head of the extension service at TAFE. Chris had been stationed with my uncle in Darwin during World War II and knew the Culley name well, so that was helpful.

Chris became a guiding light for me. He got me to do a postgraduate degree in Education and set in place some fundamentals for a career in the arts. He mentored me and also stood by me, because as the years unfolded at the prison I became a target for what was then known as the ‘Purple Circle’, which was a union power base within the prison. I was only twenty-four when I started and I walked into Fremantle Prison full of ideals and started to teach people about how I painted, in a colourist, abstract expressionist/impressionist sort of style. And they got it. In one or two weeks they all started painting like me. I thought, this is a joke, this isn’t what education is about. Having sixteen Aboriginal people learning to paint like me was going to be a folly. And so I abandoned that.


Rakarrala Kumbunda - early morning sunrise over desert Jilji country. Rays come straight up colour all the sand hills. Sheridan sheets with design in foreground. (Desert Design)

They were Wongai people, very big, barrel-chested indigenous people, and the biggest of them all was a guy called Russell Robinson, and then the other talented individuals in that group were Jackie McArthur, Neville Gable. They were in for violent crimes. At Mt Margaret Mission, where these guys had just about all gone, the principal ruled with an iron fist. And all these tribal Aboriginal artists, although they’d been born to a tribal traditional life, had not gone through the law. The Mission had isolated them from their traditional ways but had taught them to read, write in copperplate writing, had forced them to learn, taught them to paint. They were really highly-skilled full-blood Aboriginals. I think they couldn't get jobs, there was so much racism around at that time and little expectation that Aboriginal people were educated and could perform. They were rejected and they rebelled. None of them saw themselves as artists at that stage. It was just one of the skills they’d learnt. But I’ve asked myself before why there were so many Wongai people in Fremantle prison. They’re one percent of the population of Australia, and 30% in prison were Aboriginal. And that broke down into the Kimberley and Pilbara tribal groups, and the Nyungar south-west groups, who were really the urban Aboriginals. There were quite aggressive factions in those two groups, at war with each other. But despite that it was quite a joyous time; I developed great friendships with these Aboriginal artists, some of whom were mighty powerful men. I’m sure if they’d chosen a different course in life they could have been very serious professional boxers. They were lightning quick, and they were giant men. We struck up a rapport and they liked me. And they looked after me.

The prisoners were on my side. The prison officers weren’t, mostly. Some of them knew my family, knew where I came from. But most of them saw me as a long-haired hippie. They really thought that going to prison was the start of the punishment and that it was their role and their duty to punish prisoners every day. And they saw the art class as frivolity, as a chance for the prisoners to learn and enjoy themselves and by and large they didn't appreciate it. It took years before that would change. It took years of Andrew Smith and Rob Broadhurst and Bryn Roberts implementing a very successful educational program before people started to realize how important it was.

When I was starting to prepare for this talk I met one of the doctors from the Fremantle Prison, and he said to me: ‘Do you know that during the six years you were at Fremantle Prison there wasn’t one suicide within the prison?’ And it was a really meaningful thing for him to say. I would like to think of the art class as a circuit-breaker which gave people release from a very intense and intimidating environment and a way to express themselves and perhaps vent some of the psychological issues that they had to deal with.

Unbeknownst to me, the group of inmates that controlled the prison population saw the art class as the token Aboriginal event. The prison was a jungle and within the jungle there were the mightiest of the inhabitants. They were the Eddie Withnells and the Archie Butterleys, the people still notorious today. Archie Butterley died in a shoot-out. Eddie was head of the Coffin Cheaters. And they actually became friends of mine.

But they and some others ruled the prison through brutality, through weight of numbers, through influence, through intelligence, through the same factors that work in society, just in a starker, more brutal way. And violence was very much part of the way they enforced their views. Apparently one of the views was that the art class was a token gift for the indigenous prisoners and no white person was to attend. I didn’t know this. I just had this group of indigenous guys whom I liked very much, who were phenomenal characters, and I rocked up to the art class and worked my five hours a day, one day a week, and enjoyed it.

I did think it was strange that there are 600 prisoners in the prison I and only sixteen were coming to art. And no white blokes, no one but tribal traditional Wongai, Kimberley and Noongar artists. Apparently there were rolls called from the yards in the morning and at lunch time; the art class was called and they'd be marched out and over to the assessment centre and up to a gate, and then once they had all assembled at this gate they'd be allowed through to the art class.


Jila - dreamtime man left food buried around Jila. Green stones like emu eggs (were left) where food  was buried. The people know that there is food at  this place. (Desert Design)

One day I walked to the gate and there’s a white guy standing in front of it and he’s got abrasions and cuts and blood all over his face, and he looks like a hard man. He looks like a real hard man, but he's a white bloke all right. I didn't say anything, and he just walked in, I said to the prison officer, ‘Who's that?’ He said, ‘That’s Johnny Chester’. Johnny Chester was the first environmental terrorist. I didn’t know anything about him then, but he’d blown up a conveyor belt on a woodchip mill or something like that in Bunbury. He got a lot of jail time for this, around ten years.

Anyway, Johnny Chester just walked in, didn’t say a word. They all painted on easels up against the wall and I just gave him some paper and he started painting. He painted these magnificent paintings of crucifixes. Burning crucifixes on the cross, that’s all he ever painted, and they were just fantastic; they were primitive but really powerful. It turned out that when they made the roll call in the yard he’d stood up to line up with the indigenous artists to come to art class, and the heavies in the yard had said: ‘No, you don’t. You’re not going’. And he’d said, ‘Oh, yes, I am.’ And he’d had to fight his way out of the yard. He’d had to fight his way to the gate. There are four yards within the prison where the different societies would gather together. They were holding pens, exercise yards. So he fought his way out, and when he got to the art class he had torn ears and lips and eyes and blood everywhere. But he got there.

It turned out he was a Golden Gloves boxer and he could fight. And he did fight. And that broke the nexus. From that point on more and more people started to attend the art class until the prison ruled that it was a security threat because at one stage there were something like 60 people, which was about 10% of the prison population.

I ended up being pretty well full time. It just grew like crazy, and we started to have exhibitions and the exhibitions went off very well. Minister Bill Hassell opened our exhibitions at Fremantle Arts Centre. All the television stations would be there, they thrived on it, they loved it. So the prisoners took it very seriously; it was an opportunity for them to show something positive to the outside world, to engage with the outside world, and it became a very important part of my education program to do two exhibitions a year. That gave a real focus to everyone.

They weren’t all good, and I also had people that I thought were really good, in a naive Henri Rousseau-type way, who refused to acknowledge that they were good and wanted to be taught to paint like everybody else. And maybe that's fine, maybe that’s a way through to another level. The most important thing I always felt as a teacher was essentially that if you had something to say you’d find a vehicle to say it. Whether it was art or music or dance or theatre or literature, if you really had something to say you'll let nothing stand in the way.


Jila rug. (Desert Design)

So it was easy for me. I was the only permanent teacher, although I had a lot of guest lecturers. I was probably the best-funded art school in the southern hemisphere, a fact that I didn’t realize at the time. It created enormous pressure on the administrators of the education system at the prison. I was using three or four times the resources I had been allocated. The way I survived and thrived was to make individual students teachers. So Jimmy Pike ran a tribal traditional Aboriginal painting school, Jacky McArthur or one of the other Wongais ran a Namatjira landscape school, and there was a guy who had come from Long Bay who had learned to forge classical Renaissance paintings and he ran a forgery school. There was a guy called Ray Williams, the famous Barbarella’s murderer, who was a sign-writer in the old days when the Peter Stuyvesant ads were hand-painted and he could paint anything he wanted and became quite a significant artist in his own right. Then there was another, Des, he ran an abstract painting school, and Shane Finn, who was Shirley Finn’s son, was incredibly talented, and I think is now planning to do a Ph.D. in Fine Arts. The last time I spoke to him he was planning to do it on Fremantle Prison, on the prison art classes and the influence they had on him.

These people all had their groups. I would stream them, and within each group there was a hierarchy: people who were teaching, people who just wanted to be left alone. It was fantastic. The leaders within the groups all had great respect so there was no threat. Each group respected Jimmy Pike and other indigenous people who came there for what they could do. Maybe I contributed something. I really loved indigenous art and 1978, 1979, that was early in the history of its recognition.

Just about all of the leaders in the prison art class were murderers. A lot of them were highly intelligent and they were really there for crimes of passion; they might never have committed a crime otherwise. But from the prison officers’ point of view the art class was a very dangerous place; it was full of the hard men in prison. Because a person who is sentenced to life loses respect for the system, he's got nothing more to lose. Certainly in the first few years they become quite anarchic; they’re against the system, they don't want to listen to anyone. No one can hurt them any more. And they were often suffering from incredible guilt and having to come to terms with what they did. There were psychiatrists and psychologists in the prison, but it’s a difficult thing to come to terms with. Having Russell Robinson, the guy I was telling you about, the Wongai who was the most powerful man in the prison, as my personal bodyguard helped me feel secure.

Strange thing to say, but there was a feeling of love in the prison art class. The numbers were huge, but everybody loved it, everybody recognised how special it was. I had a philosophy that anybody who came to the prison art class to see whether they were interested or not got a little sketch book and a set of texta pens or a little tin of watercolours that they could take away regardless of whether they stayed or not.

In retrospect it was probably too much, but what it did was give people a positive educational experience. A lot of these people had gone through life not being very high achievers and always fighting the system. All of a sudden they walk into this prison environment where they’re given something with no strings attached, something they could take away and use to express themselves. And they could bring it back. Some people were in the art class on a remote basis, they were working from their cells.

In fact, when we start talking about Jimmy Pike, the moment when the genius became absolutely undeniable was when David Wroth did a print-making class in Fremantle Prison and Jimmy didn’t attend it but at the end of the Friday class he went up to David and asked if he could take some lino blocks and some lino carving tools back to his cell and David said, 'I don’t know, I’ll ask Steve’. So he asked me, and I just said flippantly, ‘Whatever Jimmy wants, Jimmy gets. ‘I had seen the first line Jimmy had drawn in our class and could tell that this was a man with so much to say. I use this story that I taught Jimmy to paint, but he taught me what painting was all about, he knew how to paint better than I did the day he started. He was a law man. Indigenous people sing, dance, paint, draw in the sand, carve sculptures, like boomerangs that come back, that perform at an engineering level. So they’re quite extraordinary, their all-round talents in the arts. Jimmy could sing, could dance, could carve, soon to paint brilliantly. So I said to David to let him take what he wants. So he took twenty lino blocks over the weekend. The following Monday morning he brought them back and I would defy anybody else in the world to produce that body of work. The National Gallery collected the lot of it. I tell you, Matisse couldn’t have done anything greater than jimmy Pike did. And David and I just looked at each other - genius!

Jimmy had taken a set of wood carving tools to carve the lino and I wondered whether these posed a problem from a security point of view. Yes, of course it was a security issue. Chisels, even small ones, could represent weapons. By this stage the officers had started to understand what the benefits the prison art class were bringing and some officers tended to be quite supportive and would bend some of the rules.

We were running sculpture classes, and we had Ron Gomboc from Gomboc Galleries coming in to teach them carving, we were doing stone sculptures. I actually ducked a 12” wood chisel. One of the prisoners had a fit and fortunately somebody pulled me aside and into a room as the chisel went flying over my head.

The prison officer and I had a security pin which could set off an alarm which I never used. In retrospect, it was me protecting the prison officer. The art class prisoners were fine as long as the prison officer just did his job, just sat there and checked people in and out. Essentially it was self- policing. People valued the art class; nobody would let anything untoward happen. This guy who threw the chisel had deep-rooted psychological problems. He had an explosive personality. And he was still welcome in the art class. I probably understood why he got so cranky and I would like to think that in future I monitored the way I acted a bit better. The prison officers’ job wasn’t particularly easy, but at the same time they ended up rostering the same officers, the officers who were sensitive to it.

But let me address the Purple Circle issue, because that was quite a powerful period in my life. The Purple Circle was I think Scottish Protestants, essentially. They weren’t the union. It was a body of guys in the administration who had the power to roster people on and off certain shifts. So if you did what they said, they would roster you on a Saturday or a Sunday when you would get double or triple time. They could literally generate substantial income for you as long as you were toeing the party line. They used this power to prosecute an unwritten policy against me as it seems that they had taken a dislike to me and the arts program I was running.

Andrew Smith has talked to me at length about how he took them on. And essentially what I did, which perhaps exposed them a little, was that I was their victim. I was the one person who worked in the prison who wasn’t employed by the Prisons Department., I was employed by the Education Department, and my boss, Chris Thorman, was a tough man -- he’d been in the army with my uncle. And he didn’t take truck with anybody abusing or discriminating against his staff. There were standards that had to be met, and those standards had to be afforded to me. And my understanding is that - and it could be false, but I’m sure that there’s an element of truth - I was one of the most charged professionals that had ever worked in Fremantle Prison. It used to feel like I was being charged weekly.

The Purple Circle had issued an edict that if they could just bring a charge against me - and the charge didn’t even have to stick, and that was their mistake. So that they were essentially just putting black marks against my name. I got charged with a whole series of things. I got charged with trafficking, I got charged with conspiring with Reggie Moolarvie because this traditional aboriginal inmate always whispered, you had to lean really close to hear him, which gave an officer a excuse to charge me with conspiring. They would then close the art class, drag me out and put me in front of the Deputy Superintendent, who would then have to hear the charge. I might have to wait an hour - during which time they’d march all the prisoners away, and I’d have to sit like waiting to get caned at school, in front of the Superintendents office. I got charged with inciting mutiny, because one of the art classes they moved me to didn’t have access to toilets. They had to escort prisoners and myself to a bathroom, so they put a transportable toilet in the middle of the art class and told me that I had to teach in an art class where people had to use a visible bucket. And I said something like: ‘Hey guys, this is not acceptable to me,’ and that was considered inciting a mutiny. I was kicked out of the prison.

Andrew Smith was walking into the prison as I was being frog-marched out, and he said to the superintendent ‘What’s going on?’ And he said, ‘Oh, Culley’s gone too far this time. ‘And Andrew apparently said to him: ‘Look, you need him more than he needs you. Sort this out. ‘Andrew was the Deputy-Superintendent of Prisons at that stage. And they did sort it out and eventually I did get back in.

But part of what happened was that I was moved, the art class kept getting bigger and bigger and they needed to find bigger and bigger spaces for me. So they moved me to a gym, which was right in the main body of the prison near the yards, and security was very tight in these areas. They couldn’t give me my own set of keys, so they decided they’d give me my own personal officer to escort me everywhere. Which was supposed to be a huge compliment, or they presented it to me as a huge compliment, meaning I could go anywhere in the prison at any time. I had the run of the prison.

The Purple Circle interpreted this to mean that I was that much of a security risk that I couldn’t get in the front gate without having an officer having to pick me up. So I went from being able to walk to the school on my own to an area within the main divisions, the dormitory area of the prison, to being picked up at the gate every morning, which meant that I was completely at the whim of the prison officers as to how and when they would pick me up. I would turn up to work, ring the front doorbell, they’d open the main access door and say ‘Oh, it’s fucking you again,’ and slam the gate in my face. Every day I’d start work with the door being slammed in my face. And I’d have to sit outside, sometimes for fifteen, twenty minutes - up to an hour - waiting for the officer who was rostered to me to pick me up at the gate. I couldn’t get in without this officer. The Purple Circle had changed the rules. And from that moment on there’d be cat-calls, and abuse from the prison officers as this officer would escort me in. It was a really trying time. If it hadn’t been for the support of the students, the prisoners, I wouldn't have been able to survive it.

The students couldn’t leave the yard until I was in the art class, so they would just have to wait. It was a way of getting at them, and getting at me. But then the Purple Circle was smashed and the power of rostering overtime was taken away from them by the Prison Department. That’s a great story in itself.

So - many great things happened to me, it was a period of intense creativity. The art school was very, very successful, the charges that were brought against me were all dismissed. The prison officers fell into two categories, there were those who would despise me and what I was doing, and those that knew my family, knew my father and my grandfather, knew that there must be some good in me, that I couldn’t be all bad. And that helped me enormously, being a Culley and coming from the cake-shop. Without that I probably wouldn't have survived. Because the Superintendent and senior officers knew my father. The hostile environment eventually settled down and it became a very dynamic place. The exhibitions and the creativity on display at the exhibitions we regularly held at His Majesty's were very successful and rewarding.

I was also painting in the class; I was doing portraits of the prisoners. When I was doing landscape I would just sit down in front of it and react to it, and now I was doing the same with portraits. So they were hideous, they were ugly, they were tormented, they were really frightening. Not many of the prisoners liked sitting for me because they didn’t come out looking gentle, serene studies of human beings. They came out looking full of torment.

I had close contact with some of the major people around the prison, like Thomas the one-legged rapist. I could talk for an hour about him. He was extremely talented, extremely bright, but he worked in another department or workshop called Arts and Crafts, and I think they had one or two inmates that worked there. On average there were twenty students in the art class and one or two in the Arts and Crafts. And Ross Thomas worked in the art and craft area. And he produced an enormous amount of work and it sold primarily to the prison officers - landscapes and coffee tables and things like that. And we got on fine. He came to the art class when he felt like it.


Japingka Jila -Japingka is a big waterhole/The people tell the Spirit Snake to look after this place and bring rain. People all stand up all round, that’s a big law. After that, the Linjirr comes up. That’s small clouds in a big long line. When you see that long line of clouds, that means rain is coming up. (Desert Designs)

I was working at Barton’s Mill and Ross Thomas was on the way out, soon to be released, and therefore at a minimum security jail. He had committed some fairly violent crimes, but he’d served a long time in prison and was obviously fairly soon to be released. Anyway, he was in my art class and he started pinching, essentially appropriating, paintings that people had left to finish later on, finishing them and putting his name on them to increase his output because he’d sell them for ten or twenty dollars to the prison officers. I told him that wasn’t on and he didn’t like it. He threatened that when he got out he’d kill me. And I took it fairly seriously. Actually, I was fairly frightened of the guy.

Anyway, when he escaped - quite a famous escape, from Albany Prison - a one-legged man escaping from a maximum security prison. He apparently got a bike that hadn’t been used in years and rode through the bush all the way from Albany to Perth and was caught eventually at his sister’s place. I had spent that time thinking of ways to protect myself if he came through the door. I’m sure he had better things to think about than trying to get even with me.

But there was another more famous attempted escape which was supposedly from the art class and he was supposed to have built a ladder using the stretcher frames from the art class, you know the frames that you stretch the canvas over. He supposedly built a ladder, leant it up against the wall, climbed over and dropped down the twenty metres or whatever it is on to the rocky outcrop that was down below. And for some reason everyone believed it was possible. Apparently if you tried to climb this ladder that he’d made it wasn’t capable of taking the weight of a human being.

And what he’d actually done was hide himself under the slate floor in a room between the art class and the arts and crafts centre. And unfortunately, after they had come to suspect that he might still be in the prison they started searching, and during those searches they shifted a wardrobe. So he’s lying in a ground gutter underneath slate stones and they’ve shifted a wardrobe on top of him, which means he can no longer move the stone that’s above him. And it rains, there’s torrential rain, and the gutter fills up and there’s rats and cockroaches and everything else teeming through this gutter, and he’s got his lips pressed to the crack between the slate stones. Otherwise he's under water. And this lasted some time, until I think he had to start screaming and they found him and got him out.

That caused him to get additional time for attempted escape, and eventually he was moved to Albany where he did escape. And that caused the Prison Department enormous embarrassment and he was sentenced to a long period of time in solitary confinement. I knew he loved to paint. I could only imagine what solitary confinement was like, but after several weeks of knowing he was in there I asked if I could take him some materials and did, and got to see him. It was a horrific place. I mean, it was pretty much blacked out. Maybe I saw it at a particular time, but it was tiny, and maybe it had some electric light without windows. I can’t remember exactly, but I know it caused him great psychological anxiety. And he spent considerable time in there, and I heard that the art materials were well received.

The prison was full of characters. Clearly, Jimmy Pike was to have the greatest influence on me. I do believe he was a genius. Interestingly, he was drawn to texta pens because they had the luminosity and intensity, the vibrancy of colour that reflected the light in the Great Sandy Desert. He produced an enormous amount of work on paper with texta pens. And David Wroth and I were concerned that these were not collectible pieces. They were impermanent, so we started to edition them, to make them into edition prints. So that’s how the print-making - Jimmy’s history as probably Australia’s leading indigenous print-maker - started first with the lino blocks and then the need to transcribe texta pen drawings.

Mostly prisoners are young. The average age is early twenties. With the prisoners who commit murder, they can be somewhat older. Pike came to prison as a mature man, probably in his mid-forties. He was born around 1939 in the Great Sandy Desert and he lived in the desert for around 13 years, so he had all the skills that a desert nomad could have. Prior to Pike’s arrival I had tried to get traditional Aboriginal art going in the prison. In a very naive way I had been buying books, the books Geoffrey Bardon from Papunya had just started publishing, the Papunya artists’ books. I’d been buying them and showing them to some of the indigenous artists. I’d be opening up these books and showing what were then unbeknownst to me secret and sacred paintings to young Aboriginal men who hadn’t been through the law and did not have the right to look at them. They were often from another tribal group and they weren’t supposed to see them anyway. So they were recoiling in horror and as I was later to find out, you had to go through the law before you had the authority to produce traditional Aboriginal art.

Anyone can produce art, but to own stories of cultural significance like Pike did you have to be initiated and you have to be entrusted with these stories. And these men were too young. So if they were going to be influenced to paint in a traditional style it would just be a design, without the fundamental underpinning. In the first or second year there had been a guy from Jigalong called ‘Sambo’ Samson come to the prison. He was in his late 60s or early seventies and he had done some traditional work, but apart from him there hadn’t been anyone. And all my attempts to get traditional Aboriginal art going at the prison had failed.


Fashion shot featuring Japingka Jila image. (Desert Design)

With Pike’s arrival he was able to take young Aboriginal people under his wing and to instruct them in fine art in a traditionally sensitive way. And it became quite a marvellous little area. At this particular time we had an art school that had individual rooms, so there was a small room assigned to Pike, and there would be traditional singing coming from it, and chanting, chap sticks going. They were really enjoying a journey back to their country, through both song and paint. So Pike helped to create something of a moment in time where quite substantial work was being produced by a number of indigenous people within that prison.

But predominantly by Pike. He was drawing, painting, sculpting, carving and print-making. We developed, as I did with a number of indigenous and non-indigenous people, a very strong bond, a strong friendship. At this stage I had already been in the prison for three years, and the thing that had started to worry me and concern me and intrigue me was how so much talent seemed to have no way of expressing itself on release. I was conscious of so many prisoners, particularly the Wongais, who were clearly very talented, and the Namatjira School of landscape was popular. There was a market for it. And yet these guys would serve their sometimes very lengthy stretches in prison, would be released, and within four or five weeks would be back again for equally substantial periods of time. So it was clear there was no way they were engaging with anyone who could give them secondary care, give them the opportunity to make some money, to engage their talents economically in the broader community.

So I guess it started me thinking. I felt that the art classes had been very successful. I felt that it was a circuit breaker within the prison for some of the aggression and tension. I knew there were people learning skills and they were learning how they could share their own skills with other inmates. I was thinking that the art exhibitions were successful in a number of ways, that the prisoners were choosing what paintings to exhibit and put prices on their work on their paintings themselves, that they were engaged in the economic sphere. I’d negotiated with the Prison. The Prisons Department believed that they owned the paintings, and I’d actually negotiated with them to give a third of the sale of the paintings to the prisoner. So there was some economic reason to be involved. So it was starting to come about that I thought the next phase needs to be how to prove how some of these skills, talents and attributes that were emerging out of their involvement with the prison art class could get them to another level where they could get some economic engagement, some opportunities in life that they were otherwise missing.

I had developed a support network among the prison officers by this stage, particularly the senior ones from the superintendent to the senior officers. They saw that these were high points, the prison was really engaging and doing things that could be seen to be positive for the prisoners and the community was enjoying it and seeing a positive side of the Prisons Department The others, the ones who were cruelly hanging on to a Victorian attitude, were atrocious in the way they behaved towards me and the prisoners. The abuse, the names they called indigenous prisoners in front of me, really forced me to confront them and it caused me again to get into trouble with the prison establishment. It was a difficult environment.

What had happened for me was I had got married, I’d had a child, I'd met Andrew Smith who persuaded me to run for local government, so I was now a councillor in East Fremantle. I’d bought a house, I’d settled down, and I suppose the kind of personality I am, I’m a gregarious person, a very outgoing person. But what had happened was that all my social needs were being met within the role I was playing at the prison. I had so many people that I really felt needed me. I was the one person the prisoners could talk to and, they could talk to me about anything. And I would never judge them. I never wanted to know what crimes people had committed. I was really just there to do the best I could, to create a creative environment where people felt at ease. So my life had become work, and that also satisfied my social needs. The need to go out and party was replaced by this. In fact, I was really exhausted by the end of the work day.

My friends outside the prison just couldn’t understand what I was doing. It was something that people weren’t particularly interested in. You’d go out and people didn't want to hear about what was going on in prison. At that time it was why are you bothering? It was like I was working on the rubbish dump of society. That was what people’s attitude was: there’s a reason why we have prisons. And there were people inside those prisons that I was truly scared of. People who would look you in the eye and you knew straight away that your life was nothing. And there were people that I really didn’t believe should be allowed out into society without really major engagement with psychiatric help. They were really evil, damaged.

As I went on I became more and more unstable, essentially. So my behaviour became more and more erratic. Things like taking responsibility for the brushes, things like that. The budget also came more and more under constraint as the powers that be realized that you didn’t need all the money I had got initially to run an art class. So I had to take much greater care of the materials we had. And there was a hierarchy of materials: everyone got Target quality, but there were people who were working with professional artists’ materials and were doing really collectable pieces.

At the end of the day you were dealing with people who had anger- management problems and as I became more and more unstable, I was challenging people who genuinely cared about me but weren’t used to being disciplined. There was a guy who strapped explosives to himself, he was 6ft 7" and he walked into Boulder prison and threatened to blow up the whole place. He was probably the most powerful man I had ever met. There was a grate at the prison that was too heavy to pick up, and he could pick it up and throw it. And I stood there screaming at him to clean his brushes.

And that was very near the end of my experience at the prison. In the end, people had to pull me away and tell me that I was putting him into a situation where I was asking too much of him, emotionally and psychologically. I was past the limit where he could control himself, and yet I was still in his face. He was exhibiting all the restraint that he could, and I still wasn’t leaving him alone. I’d just lost it, I had no fear. The whole experience had finally taken its toll on me and I had lost some contact with reality, I suppose.

When I came out I was exhausted. I suppose if I have one great strength it is that I can communicate, I am accessible to people. I was fortunate that I had the stability of a loving home environment with a young daughter, and I could just engage with her. And I had taken on that role as a councillor, so with that there were issues of community, playing a role in the community.

I've always been quite entrepreneurial, so the prisoner art exhibitions were an opportunity for me to engage With the public and put together quite complex logistical exercises. And I’ve mentioned this idea that prisoners could move to another level, could take this prison experience and use it to be self-sufficient in the wider community. And it was obvious that Pike had this enormous talent, to the point where I felt an obligation. I certainly developed that passion and commitment to Jimmy when I left the prison. I started Desert Designs and I felt I was a promoter of this wonderful exotic world that people just hadn’t seen, I felt a responsibility to get it out to show to a wide market and engage in the economic opportunities that arose. There were a lot of talented people in the prison and there were probably half a dozen who were operating at a pretty professional level.

But Pike was brilliant in a way I’d never seen before. I'd never seen anyone put colour together like that before. I’d never seen people who could generate power and images in black and white on lino that were so complete. Clearly, the image was fully established in his head before he started. I brought in anthropologists to start writing down his stories as we started to recognize the significance of what was being unveiled to us. Before Pike, no-one really knew what the art of the Walmatjari people was really like; it had happened in the Great Sandy Desert where there are few if any caves. I don’t know of any rock art in the Great Sandy Desert. So the work had been done on body-painting or sand-painting and the range of colours - Pike had no inhibition about using fluorescent colours. The colours were what I had seen in the desert. So we were just kindred spirits when it came to colour. I knew exactly what he was talking about, the frequency, the intensity, the heat, and he was getting it across. At the same time he was documenting his tribal and traditional stories. I don’t know how many paintings he did in prison, but there were thousands: drawings, carvings, paintings. So every time he went back to his slot he was revisiting his country, he had another world to go to.

It was fortunate that the education system in the prison at the time was sufficiently flexible that I was able to invite people in to work more closely with Pike to record the stories, to compile an understanding of what he was actually revealing to us. And with the carving of the black and white lino blocks it became evident that it was something that was so meaningful and such an opportunity that it could change both Pike’s, David’s and my life.

I was asking him to take on larger and larger canvases and boards. It wasn’t only David and I that could see the power of Jimmy’s work there; was a number of inmates able to recognize the power of what was happening. The art class environment was setting up an atmosphere of mutual respect between what may otherwise have been hostile groups.. So at that social level there was something going on in terms of demonstrating that this indigenous art was worthwhile even though this was probably looked on most sceptically by the Namatjira School of painting. They had thought that they’d gone to this mission and they’d learned to paint in the western way, so they’d left behind their traditional art. And now I was asking them to go back and re-visit it. So that was challenging for them.

With those lino blocks we looked at each other and said: we have to do something with this genius. We have to put Pike in a position to assume a dominant role within the Australian fine art scene. Indigenous art had really only just started to emerge, it wasn’t common. There weren’t a lot of recognized Western Australian indigenous artists. It was very much early days.

Mike O’Farrell wrote a critique saying that ‘on the national front the emergence of Jimmy Pike and his collaborative role in the development of Desert Designs represent an important stand in the evolution both Aboriginal artists’ contribution to Australian culture and their engagement in new opportunities made available by the changing nature of the international commercial and cultural interchange’.

The funny thing was we didn’t start off thinking of it as a fashion label or that we were going to build a brand of commodities. It really hadn’t occurred to us. We started off wanting to promote Pike’s paintings, and we wanted to translate the texta pen drawings into prints. In translating the drawings to prints you end up with all these silk screens. And for some reason, I don’t know why, I started to think of applying the screens to textiles. And that was the beginning of Desert Designs.

This was happening while Jimmy was still in prison, and I was still teaching in the prison. From the moment that we started to apply them to textiles we got a couple of lucky breaks. There was a woman working in the prison as an education officer teaching remedial English, Nina Boydell. Nina was interested in sewing, so she made some early prototype garments. Interestingly, the literacy angle was another strength of the education program and something that I haven’t covered - the art class brought so many illiterate people to access literacy classes. And drawings were a way to tell stories. So there was a great connection between the art school and school proper in terms of how you support their learning to read and write and produce illustrated books. So there was a very vibrant literacy program running within the assessment centre.

But getting back to the silk screens. I started to apply them to textiles, and the woman who lived over the road, Lon Riely, was a lecturer in fashion at Bentley Tech. And we started to talk about how they could be applied to garments. In fact I think I started applying them to textiles - my wife made a jumpsuit for my one year old daughter and that was the first garment. We saw how it could work and she developed a collection. We got some press coverage and immediately our business grew, it was unbelievable. We went from nothing to three million dollars turnover in eighteen months.

We ended up licensing the designs to manufacturers. The first manufacturer we licensed was Sheridan Sheets, and they applied it to duvet covers and bed linen, sheets, pillow cases. The second one was to children’s wear, women’s and men’s wear. So we were just showing manufacturers the art work, and they were seeing instantly the commercial application of the designs. Then we went on to show it to Oroton and they did scarves and bags. So it was a happy chance, it was just meant to be.

I had very little business experience, but I had a great passion. My brother from Culley’s Tearooms was an accountant and he was trying to help us to structure the business, to steer us away from actually being a clothing manufacturer and more towards being a design house producing prints and textiles. We started out manufacturing the garments ourselves and he recognized that that was a skill set that we didn't really have and that we would be better off licensing professional and experienced manufacturers

It was a time when there was a saying going around that art was everywhere, it was a state of mind, it was how you saw it. And Pike’s work was the perfect vehicle for it. You could be hanging it on a gallery wall; you could be wearing it; and you could be sleeping on it. At the time a lot of people thought this was an abuse of his fine art skills, that he should have been a fine artist and that taking him into the commercial world was a mistake. I personally don’t think so. My reasoning was to engage in economic opportunity, to have jimmy Pike be a self-sufficient artist.

The popularity of indigenous paintings at that time was still only emerging. And the fact that we were able to achieve national and then international prominence in the textile and clothing area was a powerful economic driver. Pike had no problem with it. Aboriginal people saw art and culture as one. You manifest your ideas and your culture, and you use it, you decorate woomeras and your body. It’s applied. With respect to selecting images for commercialisation, this was Jimmy’s preserve and to make sure that we weren't using secret and sacred images. But the application of his designs to product wasn’t a problem for him. It was quite natural. In fact, Pike had an instinctive commercial awareness. jimmy was the one who said to me when he first exhibited his paintings at His Majesty's that he put prices of $30 on them. I said this is ridiculous, these prices are too low. He said you develop a market for them, you sell them all and they’ll come back for some more and then you can charge more. He was very savvy. It taught me something. I looked at him and I thought, yeah, you’re right, you make it affordable and you build up a reputation. And that’s what actually happened.

So we were looking after limited edition prints and the paintings, and it was very much marketing a brand as an art concept. We were exhibiting at major galleries around Australia and internationally and we were relating the product to that fine arts gallery environment. So it was never that we weren’t promoting Jimmy as a fine artist, but at the same time as one of Australia’s most significant limited edition print makers.

The story from then is a rollercoaster. I took Jimmy’s work to Ratti, which is one of the great silk printing houses in Italy. It was in Lake Como. I went to see them. They have showrooms that are villas and in their gardens they have original Rodins in the sculpture gardens overlooking Lake Como. It’s like the upper echelon of industry in Italy set in a heavenly setting. I showed them the Pike images, and they clearly thought that it was the most significant and most original collection of images that they’d seen. They were basically saying, this looks like it’s come from another planet. We’ve never seen anything like this before.

The one skill I had was that I could open doors. I could make people take the work seriously and look at it. I was drawn to and used the term archetypal. The imagery relates to us all, there’s something inside us that lets us get it without even understanding the story or the meaning. It’s so from the earth. It’s consistent with our evolution, our imagery, our signposts. So you've got an incredibly sophisticated artist who has access to these stories that go back to the beginning of time.

I’ve just read enough Jung to believe in this - these are archetypal images. These images transcend culture. The more sophisticated a culture is the more they get it. The Japanese really got it, the Italians really got it, the French really got it. They really understood what was so special about it.

Jimmy’s wife, Pat Lowe, is a psychologist and she’d met Jimmy earlier, before I met him. I’d become friends with Pat through working in the prison. And I said to her, ‘Look, we've offered Jimmy a Toyota to sign a contract, to allow us to exclusively control the copyright and to promote his art. This was when he was in the prison. And people just didn’t understand what we were talking about. And she took it to him, the agreement - at this stage he’d been on work release, and work release for him was putting him on an outstation a couple of hundred kilometres from Fitzroy Crossing in the desert. And she’d taken the contract to him to talk him through it and to ask him if he was happy to sign it. We’d engaged Aboriginal Legal Service and private lawyers to draw up the contract. Nobody had ever seen one before. It was probably one of the first copyright agreements signed with an indigenous artist. Anyway, they ended up falling in love and getting married. She went out there and something magical happened.

The Great Sandy Desert is one of the hardest places on earth. And yet the richness of the artwork that came out, and the vitality - would it have happened if he hadn’t gone to prison? Did it help, in a sense, in a roundabout way, that he was in prison incarcerated like that, locked in this tiny little room, with this incredible mind that was able to revisit his country, to visit the subject from many different perspectives seeing the same place from a traditional viewpoint, from a child’s viewpoint, from a seasonal viewpoint, from a spiritual viewpoint. He could see the one place in so many different ways and put it down and record it. Many of the works have the same name, but what they’re about is a place seen through different eyes. When people ask why is this resource so great I say to them that with indigenous people, there’s a freedom. There’s a structure, but then there’s a freedom to re-interpret it again and again.

So out of this incredibly minimal environment has come this legacy of amazing richness and vibrancy. Jimmy Pike is ranked in the top 100 fine artists in Australia, indigenous artists. Should he have been in the top ten? I think so. If there has been a failing in the role Desert Designs played that I regret it’s that he is not better known for his fine art.

I know he’s one of the great textile artists in Australia, judged against anybody. He would be in the top five limited edition print-makers, judged against anybody.

And then there are the children’s books that he’s written with Pat Lowe. So story-telling could well be right up there as well. He’s right up there. It’s an extraordinary life; extraordinary achievements.

Fremantle Studies Day, 2008

Garry Gillard | New: 12 April, 2018 | Now: 9 May, 2019