Without a Trace

I am arriving at an austere old derelict looking building it is used as a youth detention center. The weather is weird for Darwin, the sky is white and there is a chill in the air that feels like it is not moving at all. Everything in sight is shadows of grey to white.

There is a process of course and I have to sign in as a pre approved visitor. The girl on guard looks surprisingly like Amy Winehouse a dark beauty fully clothed in military style clothing and boots, with the fashionable thick intense drawn on dark brows of the day to enhance her mysterious tough look. She also has amazing black hair all pilled up on the top of her head and she is efficient.

No cameras, no phones, ID please, sign in time, date, both in and out of the building. Keys rattle, doors open and I am let through to first base the office to prepare my materials and wait until the participants have finished lunch. We will start at 1pm sharp and finish at 3pm as the boys are locked up at three for the afternoon and evening.

Time to go to the class room space for workshop, I am led by the team leader through a silent yard, quite large, minimal, dusty surrounded by a high wall adorned with a linier twist of double edged barbed wire and shards of glass. There is a white tower central to the yard which seems to merge with the white sky and one would never suspect that 29 boys between the ages of 12 and 18 live and breathe behind the walls of the surrounding austere buildings as one can hear a pin drop. Total silence permeates a scene of white in a dusty baron landscape. And I wait, guards come and go no sign of any boys and I wait.

Right on one pm I see a small group of Indigenous boys different ages and sizes and two guards walking down a pathway in my direction, they enter the compound I am in, we walk to the classroom in an orderly fashion of course a couple of the boys ask if they can help carry the materials and canvas and off we go.
More keys and regulations and we enter another small compound with a high powered hose, drain and a small concrete room off to one side. It has one table and I think perfect place to sit on the floor with two 2mt x 2mt canvases and paint. The guards position themselves either end of the room and instruct ‘keep the noise down’. The boys ask what are we supposed to do miss?

Okay we are going to paint two big paintings today on these canvases in groups. Who would like to think about the earth colour, sky colour, water colour? Not a great deal of response so I deligate , who said sky , who wants to work with this guy?

Hands go up and people join to work together.

And so it goes and before long we have four grouped around one canvas and five the other. What should we do miss? Mix colour , purple , yellow, pale blue, green, pink, earthy red, and white and black to add or paint shapes with. Paint a shape from the edge with your colour into the canvas then fill in the spaces with other colour. So we spend time mixing and painting and swapping colour, brush sizes and ideas and silence and focus fills the space as we sit on the concrete and in harmony with each other feel our way into multi coloured grounds drawn from the environment and this moment in time.

When the canvases are covered in coloured shapes I encourage the boys to think about their own mark, story, texture line work or signature, which can be worked over the top of the surface. One or two are resistant and seem insecure about such a commitment but with gentle coaxing we talk about feelings from home country, textures of the earth, movement of the sky and ways to lay images over the top and it happens quite naturally. An image of stick figures of a boy and girl under a rainbow emerges as a solemn young man eludes that this may be an image of him and his girlfriend. Some masterful cultural dot painting under high levels of concentration, delicate hatching in fine reds over green start to bring the surface to life.

The head psyche and team leader of the juvenile detention center come to take a look at how things are going and were amazed at the quiet and focus and stuck around for the rest of the afternoon. They had some one on one chat with the boys and even pushed a bit of paint around and spent some quality time.

A young boy from Alice Springs about 12 is helping with all the mixing and swapping of colour and is so helpful and well mannered I comment to him that he has lovely manners and his response to me is ‘ your very welcome miss’.

Delicate tracks meander across the vast interior of the painting as pathways are explored and compositions emerge from sensitivity and feeling. Nearing the end of our time together I ask who would like to sign and three or four boys carefully signed their names on the edge of the work.

‘Miss can I use my hand or foot to sign? ‘Sure but be careful not to spread the paint everywhere, ‘miss can you do this for me paint my foot? ‘ Sure , what colour come over here hold my shoulder and I will paint your foot, and he gracefully place a large purple footprint over the orange section of the painting and hops into the courtyard to hose off. Two or three other boys lined up and I painted hands and feet, signatures were made and printed on canvas.

At this point I looked up and one of the small boys had painted a blue purple mask on his face, the guards were grinning, I wondered if it was such a good idea…. Then white wrist bands were painted on bodies, blue hands, patterns on faces and (my kingdom for a camera and permission to use it ) the boys were in the grip of creativity and paintings were make on bodies and canvas.

At this point the guards became anxious about three o’clock lock down and cleaning up and boys were instructed to go into the courtyard with the big hose and clean themselves and any paint on the floor up. This of course was a bit of fun as they has been under lock and key most of their stay and smiles and eyes were shining with stars. A couple of older boys were taking turns cleaning the floor with a mop and two large paintings were moved into a storeroom to dry. I thanked the boys for having me and they thanked me for coming and we parted.

I was instructed that time was up and myself, team leader and head psyche gathered materials and headed back to the office .
The Amy Winehouse look alike signed me out of the compound and I left feeling a strangeness knowing that I will never see those boys again and a feeling of hope that those boys could find their way.

I suspect quite a few of them could be natural painters, and I left with no real trace of ever being there of course but for this story.

Paula Payne
Artist, Brisbane.

Paula is part of Jugglers Art Space Inc “Citywell” project, a curated rotating installation of sculptural and 2D pieces by Brisbane artists installed in Public Buildings in Brisbane’s CBD – 111 George Street and 33 Charlotte Street.