Mighty exhibition by a true local eccentric

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Jack with video artist Anna Georgia… “To represent somebody else’s life and sensibility through the camera is a most delicate, absorbing and rewarding challenge.” Photo: Martin Ollman.

TUGGERANONG Arts Centre has come up with a mighty exhibition of more than 70 paintings by one of the true eccentrics of our region – 91-year-old Jack Featherstone.

An extraordinary assemblage of works painted between 1958 and 2020, it’s been curated by the centre’s Karena Keys and covers everything from the evacuation at Gallipoli and the Battle of Stalingrad to bucolic scenes of life in the Bungendore and Braidwood area.

Included are paintings from Featherstone’s “David” series, painted during a research trip to NT and WA in 1958, when he travelled in an old VW as part of a dental research trip with his local tracker, David. 

Everyone in Braidwood knows the town character who lives in the blue weatherboard house and who’s been variously called by his formal name, “John”, by the more commonplace “Jack” and by the nickname his three sons gave him – ”Kempsey” – because of his peripatetic lifestyle as a travelling dentist to far distant NSW country towns.

During a recent, packed-out launch at Tuggeranong Arts Centre, he was praised for imbuing his pictures of daily individual stories with “subtle otherworldliness”.

Jack Featherstone, “Moree with Catholic Mission”, Redfern Series, 1983, oil on board.

Indigenous art curator and academic, Brenda L Croft, who once lived in Braidwood, called him “a treasure and an amazing person in terms of his vision of the world”. Croft described the lively conversations she’d had over the years with Jack, particularly about his years working as a dentist at the Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern where, by coincidence, one of his colleagues was the young dental graduate Dr Chris Bourke, who later became arts minister of the ACT.

Jack Featherstone, “Maxfield near Bungendore”, 2019, acrylic on canvas.

Jack’s devotion to indigenous Australians was evident in the heroic speech he spent months fine-tuning, where he quoted everybody from Mozart to Mussorgsky, outlining his philosophy of art and music.

Music’s major and minor keys, he said, exposed both the happy and the tormented soul, while “art changes as generations change”.

Jack has been painting all his life and makes no bones about the fact that he was self-taught. Originally he used oils, but allergies have forced a change to acrylics. He’s painted with brushes and nails. He has painted on canvas but also on bark, stone and old boots, but his sharp eye for the reality of landscape and the commonplace life in Australia is evident in the finely-worked pictures on show, sometimes dubbed “naïve art”, sometimes “outsider art” and, by art critic Nigel Lendon, as “magic realist” art.

Jack Featherstone, “Sydney Harbour Christmas Party”, 1983, oil on board.

Quickly spotting the strong community appeal in the exhibition, the arts centre put it together as a complete project, accompanied by a video about Jack created by Anna Georgia and a prose reflection, “The Gift of a Father”, commissioned from his youngest son, respected Canberra-region novelist, Nigel Featherstone.

Nigel, quoting Irish writer Niall Williams, observes: “Your father is a mystery it takes your whole life to unravel”, as he attempts to understand Jack as the husband, father, dentist and lifelong painter who once wrote a poem about Cathy Freeman and who can, at the drop of a hat, still recite the whole of the Victorian poem “Abou Ben Adhem (May His Tribe Increase!)”

One thing stands out to Nigel: “Aboriginal medical service gave meaning to his life, as did music, to which he painted”.

Georgia spent the summer visiting Jack at his home, and says, “To represent somebody else’s life and sensibility through the camera is a most delicate, absorbing and rewarding challenge… Jack engages with other people selectively, preferring to spend most of his time ‘solo but not lonely’, reading books, listening to music, walking in nature and painting”.

Jack, John and Kempsey”, Tuggeranong Arts Centre, 137 Reed St, Greenway, until March 27.

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Helen Musa
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