Lives: heroic, ordinary and somewhere in between

What makes a hero? Exceptional bravery, self-sacrifice and moral excellence? Honour, compassion and fortitude? Because the media loves heroes (and villains) we hear about them a lot. But true heroes are those who have faced adversity and endured the seemingly unendurable, proving that it isn’t the hard time itself which creates the hero – it is, in fact, the catalyst for our inner hero to be revealed. It is only then, when we are really tested, that we know what we are capable of.

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Ordinary people, heroes and the heroes who walk amongst us are on my mind as I set off from my homeland in the West End to the Big End of Town to hook up with the artist Kate Wilkins. She has been hearing our heroic and our ordinary stories as she’s travelled across the city with her Big Green Chair art project. As a concept its brilliance is in its simplicity: Kate sets up her chair (which, yes, is big and green) and invites passers-by to sit down and have their portrait drawn. In return she wants to hear their Newcastle story. The payoff? You get to keep the professional portrait.

Hundreds of images later and hundreds of stories later the project has hit a welcome milestone; it was time for the exquisite crayon and charcoal portraits to go on show. Last Saturday the old Newcastle Post Office was transformed as Kate displayed her now enormous collection of portraits in their entirety, wrapping the exterior of the abandoned building with the sketches and in doing so bringing the building alive again. From the Post Office’s façade hundreds of Novocastrian faces looked out at their city.

The day was a joyful, exuberant celebration of this street-based art project, which has so engaged the city. If you weren’t among the delighted participants who got to see themselves up on the Post Office and then take their portraits home you are still in luck, the project is far from finished. So keep a watchful eye out for Kate, her crayons and the Big Green Chair. Sit down and tell her your stories: epic, hilarious or just plain ordinary she wants to hear them all.

While we are on the subject of heroes (well while I am) Anzac Day is about to roll around again, a time of stories about military heroes, bravery and gallantry. Whether politicians employing hero worship for their own good troubles you or war itself appals you, the sheer slaughter that was Gallipoli compels us to reflection.

If you want to have your own private Anzac remembrance, without joining in a big public celebration, there is a perfect place to do it right here in the West End, in our local park named for Anzac military commander Lieutenant General Sir William Riddell Birdwood. This British military leader of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps has been described as the ‘soul of Anzac’, a man who was close to his soldiers, walking the trenches with them and camping near the front line where his headquarters was open to Turkish shelling.

For WWI this was most unGeneral-like behaviour and made him a very visible and approachable man, distinct from other British officers at Gallipoli. Australia’s official war historian, Charles Bean, explained ‘His delight was to be out in the field among his men, cheering them by his talk, feeling the pulse of them…. Above all, he possessed the quality, which went straight to the heart of Australians, of extreme personal courage.’ He summed Birdwood up as a ‘rare leader’. All accounts have him held in genuine affection by the Australian soldiers he led who were known to call him ‘Birdy’. It seems that the very ordinary human values of Birdwood, his compassion and connection with his soldiers, in fact made him extraordinary.

The Big Green Chair project is continuing. If you would like to know where Kate will be doing portraits, or to have your portrait done, phone Newcastle Now on 4929 4644 or email katewilkinsart@gmail.com. William Riddell Birdwood’s autobiography is Khaki and Gown (1941) he has also written a short book of reminiscences In My Time (1946). Charles Bean writes about Birdwood in The Story of Anzac, Volume 1, (1941). Photographs of William Birdwood are available via Trove, National Library of Australia http://www.nla.gov.au and the Australian War Memorial http://www.awm.gov.au

Kimberly O’Sullivan

Have you chosen the West End as your home or as the perfect place to run your business? Do you have a West End tale which deserves a wider audience? What inspires and infuriates you about the West End? If you have a story to tell I would love to talk to you! Here’s how to find me: kimberly@netspace.net.au; 0413 250 155.

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One response to “Lives: heroic, ordinary and somewhere in between

  1. I so enjoyed my months chatting with and drawing Newcastle’s lively inhabitants! As this blog says..there are so many heroes out there who’s stories aren’t in books or the nightly news.. four of Newcastle’s heroes for me are- 1)a young man, covered in body art and piercings, and a bit scary looking if I’m honest, who wanted his portrait done for his beloved grandmother, who he was caring for in the coming months before her inevitable death from cancer… 2) A man who had recently conquered his inner demons enough to get out of his bed and his flat for the first time in months and get out into the day to see if there was perhaps a future he could enjoy..I’ve heard from him since- turns out there is! …3) the two sitters with severe cerebral palsy and quadriplegia who firmly turned down my offer of a green cloth to put over the backs of their wheelchairs- they were going to bloody well sit in the real Green Chair, have the same experience as everyone else- even tho’ they had to be uncomfortably hoisted into it, and it took effort like you or I running a marathon for them to stay upright in the chair for the half hour of drawing….. and many many others…
    -Kate, aka BIG GREEN CHAIR

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