Feb 18, 2016

Lawson returns to his childhood haunts

Denise Secomb

5th December 2015


Above: Artist Peter Lawson at his 2013 exhibition held at Barefoot Art Food Wine. Photo Debbie Denison

Peter Lawson, Townsville, Australia b. 1946, Light, 2015, oil on canvas board, 55cm x 75cm, courtesy of the artist, Peter Lawson (Photo: Shane Fitzgerald).



“I keep coming back to the creek of my childhood,” says Magnetic Island artist, Peter Lawson, 69, of yet another series, that of paintings done reflecting on his memories of Ross Creek, Townsville.

Townsville City Council's Perc Tucker Regional Gallery exhibited this collection before its sale and dispersal.

“We weren't supposed to go down to the creek when we were children. We were supposed to be at school,” says Lawson as he explains the endless fascination the area had for him with its slipways, pearling luggers, fish, crabs and mud to slop about in.

“There were what looked like Chinese opium dens along the street near the creek in the days I grew up. Townsville was the coastal port that serviced the gold fields of Charters Towers and Ravenswood to the west, so there were a lot of Chinese who had ended up in Townsville who had come from those towns and from the Palmer River gold fields on the way to Cooktown in the north.”

It is testament to Lawson's ability and dedication that he has forged such a long career as an artist, spanning 50 years. Curator, Gallery Services, at Perc Tucker Regional Gallery, Eric Nash, says of the gallery's Peter Lawson: Retrospect exhibition (December 4, 2015 – February 7, 2016) that Lawson's work features in many public and private collections in Townsville, around Australia and overseas.

An artist talk by Lawson will be held at the Perc Tucker Regional Gallery on Saturday, December 5 at 10.30am after the Friday, December 4, 7pm official opening. Live painting demonstrations at the gallery by Lawson will be held 11am-2pm on Sunday, December 6, 13 and 19. The official opening will include entertainment by Aquapella World Music Choir.

“Lawson's genuine passion and drive to continually learn and improve have underpinned his success,” says Curator, Eric Nash, with family, both immediate and extended, playing a defining role in Lawson's career.

The fire at Lawson's rental intruded upon an arrangement he had of spending a significant period of his life doing his share of caring for his aging father who finally passed away in 1997, his mother having died 10 years earlier in 1987. Albury retained his independence living across the road from the razed house for as long as possible before he was taken in by his son ahead of time in a nursing home as his dementia worsened.

As always, until he went to the nursing home, Lawson's father championed his son's career, badgering away at him while he was still able, convincing him to study and master framing techniques, saving a great deal of time and money as his only son prepared for his next trip on the road.

Albury used that last phase of his life, much as he had during his days as a lay preacher with the Baptist Church, during which the family had often given a bed to folk in need, except now instead of taking people in, Albury would visit Magnetic Islanders who ended up in Townsville General Hospital. He was particularly keen to support those who ended up in the psychiatric wards, where he regularly took in chocolates and fruit to cheer people up for he understood mental illness from family experience and was unafraid, believing in its ordinariness. This life of compassion and caring he shared with his beloved Daisy during their life together.

At 50, Lawson next married 22-year-old Sallyann Linane, his fourth long-term relationship, and his second marriage, the first having been to Townsville artist, Ruth Heiner, with whom he had three children, Ben, Sarah and Marc. Where Lawson and Heiner had struggled, selling art by the side of the road by the sea in Melbourne, Lawson and his new wife, Sallyann were able to buy a 32-seater bus to travel around Australia.

Lawson ripped the seats out, creating a travelling studio and the couple took off, embarking on a 10-year trip around Australia together, with Lawson active in helping Outback causes, such as the Royal Flying Doctor Service and many other charities and communities along the way.

The couple returned to Magnetic Island while they made the rest of their Australia collection available to patrons in an exclusive Townsville Mall outlet, Peter Lawson Fine Art, much of the work having been acquired by appreciators of art the length and breadth of Australia while they were travelling.

However, it wasn't always that Lawson could paint and have the luxury of such a fine gallery to sell through exclusively like at that point of his career.

Lawson's first wife, Ruth Heiner (nee Davison) made many sacrifices, the pair so impoverished after Lawson quit his sign-writing apprenticeship in Townsville after marrying and heading to Melbourne that they made some hard decisions.

“Ruth made many sacrifices because of the children. She was nine month's pregnant with our first born while working a tobacco production line and we were going from door to door selling our paintings at night.

“People must have thought we looked so thin and pathetic they often took us in and gave us something to eat and bought paintings off us...

“Our first exhibition together was in a park by the side of St Kilda Road. We tied a rope to a tree and strung it up to our car and leaned the paintings, shabby and unframed, against it. We sold one of our first paintings to a policeman. You could see the compassion in his eyes as he told us we needed a Hawker's Licence to sell by the side of the road as he shut us down.

“We returned home ... and I got my job back with Ian Morgan, of Murray Signs, where sign-writing meant freehand, with no computer images.

“I took off skydiving but I was a diligent painter in my spare time. Ruth was too.

“We had two more children but eventually the marriage ended. The relationship had begun when I fell in love with Ruth at a gig when I was 17. Today we have five grandchildren.

“Ruth and I are very supportive of one another as parents...Ruth still paints and exhibits and teaches privately and teaches art as therapy.

“During those years when the children were growing up, Ruth and I had a number of joint art exhibitions, in the early days exhibiting out the back of a chemist's, who later went on to have a fine art gallery, Ralph Martin's, in Townsville. We would often invite people over for a showing of our works and drinks and sell that way, too.”

Lawson's childhood was marred by tragedy, with his sister, Judith, 4, drowning while swimming at Alma Bay on Magnetic Island.

Lawson was at the beach with his sisters, Marlene, Lillian and Hannah and it fell to the 12-year-old boy of the family to fish his young sister's cold body from the bay.

“Dad asked me to drive while he gave my sister the equivalent of what we call CPR today,” says Lawson of this frantic drive over a narrow winding road to the island clinic run by Sister Cecily Steptoe, who then had the job of telling the family that indeed, young Judith had passed away and nothing more could be done for her.

Says Lawson of his earliest years: “Dad came to Magnetic Island when we were born.”

Albury Lawson (1916-1997) father of Peter Lawson, came to Townsville on the rattlers, having jumped trains all the way from Sydney after he and his brothers had been urged out of the nest so his mum could raise his younger sisters during the Great Depression.

“Dad was a Vicks salesman. He would grease the tracks on an uphill slope and the train would slow down as it spun its wheels and all the boys would climb on a goods truck under a tarpaulin and head north.”

Lawson's father was conscripted to fight against the Japanese in Papua New Guinea with the Australian Army while in Townsville, meeting his bride to be, Daisy Henderson, in 1943, with sister Lillian born in 1944 and Peter in 1946 during Albury's leave from the army.

“Dad became a PMG (Post Master General's) technician (the forerunners to Telstra) so we lived all over the place, often in Brisbane, so he could upgrade his knowledge of the new technology as it was introduced. My sisters were educated on Magnetic Island but I went to school in Townsville through to Junior (Year 10).”

Of his formal art training he says: “Mum organised a correspondence art course for me when I was 11.”

Lawson seeks to “speak to the people and glorify God through art” and he's been faithfully painting ever since his mother spotted he was more inclined to pick up a pencil and draw as a youngster, rather than play with toys.

The only exceptions have been two periods in his life – when he discovered girls at 13 and in the 1960s when British pop invaded Australia and fired up his imagination.

Lawson's band called themselves The Vacant Lot until they were made aware that name had already been taken by a Brisbane band. Lawson's lot changing its name to The Unleashed.

“In the 1990s, The Vacant Lot had a Magnetic Island revival when some local musicians latched on to the name after hearing the story,” he recalls.

“Dad thought our '60s band should have been called The Unwashed...

“My son is a professional musician today. But he's had advantages I've never had. He actually learnt to play. I just picked it up otherwise I'd have been out of the band.”

Lawson, on rhythm guitar, was told by the lead guitarist, Harold Sale, now a retired Magnetic Island bus driver, and former professional musician, that he ought to learn the chords if he wanted to play, so he eventually mastered the basics and stayed in the line-up.

Today Lawson heads off daily on the National Park walking tracks and beaches of his beloved Magnetic Island home and swims whenever he's painting on location near the water, winter or summer, or to freshen up after his walk if he's coming home to paint. He faithfully records the seasons and the North Queensland light that he, as a “died in the wool” northener sees in the skies and the leaves and flowers of the trees to open up the eyes of a fresh crop of southern and international visitors to the wonders of the dry tropics.

He is at peace with himself, largely because he is able to maintain his relationships with the women who have shared his life, and because he has entered a new phase of his professional life, teaching mature art students while himself painting on location.

He confesses Sundays are good selling days at his fine art studio at Arcadia declaring: “That's my church and my place of worship, my studio overlooking Geoffrey Bay. I feel very privileged to also be asked to the Perc Tucker Regional Art Gallery again, this time for a Retrospect exhibition. It is a wonderful honor heading into the city of Townsville's 150th year.”

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