At a fascinating and emotional artist’s talk on 15 December, accomplished ‘matchstick painter’ Adrian Cameron told the gathering how the only escape from prison was to withdraw into the world of his artwork, sometimes painting day and night to relieve the boredom and oppression of jail.
It is no secret that Adrian has experienced a tough life, becoming a ward of the state from the time he was born in Lismore Base Hospital.
Frequently institutionalized as a boy, he found himself imprisoned in adulthood, turning for solace to painting, his only real interest since primary school years.
Even then his main themes were the traditional imagery of the Widjabul clan of the Bundjalung Nation, including local animals like goannas and snakes, water life, sacred places and dreaming stories such as the Rainbow Serpent.
While largely self-taught, he gives credit to some of the teaching support he received in jail, including help from the mother of acclaimed country singer Troy Cassar-Daley, “a beautiful lady”.
The greatest surprise, apart from the high quality of his work, is Adrian’s technique.
“I get a match, burn the end and then dip it in the paint,” he answered in response to a question about his technique.
When asked how many matches he needs to produce one finely worked painting, which may take up to six months to complete, he replied, to gasps of amazement, “Just the one.”
Also speaking at the event were Dr Andrew Binns, who discussed the value of ‘art as therapy’, and Adrian’s former probation and parole officer, Patrick Coughlan whose family has known him for 25 years.
“This is a good and proud day for you, Adrian,” Mr Coughlan said, tearfully, recalling how the artist had lived in their house for some time after release from prison.
“I was always touched by the way he talked about how his people had hunted in these hills and fished in the rivers. It is a real privilege to see how his artistic talents have blossomed.”
Mr Coughlan said that painting was the one thing that had kept Adrian going in jail, keeping his spirit up, and stopping him falling into despair.
“It’s definitely true that his art was his therapy. Now we can see his painted homage to the Bundjalung story.”
Medical and personal support for Adrian has been provided by Jullums, the Lismore Aboriginal Medical Service, whose visual theme, The Four Jullums - mullet and medicinal plants - features on the signboard outside the Uralba Street facility, and the Rekindling the Spirit men’s group. His work will be part of an extensive Indigenous collection at the new regional gallery due to open in late 2017.
The current show, ‘Widjabul Dreaming: 20 years of paintings by Adrian Cameron’, runs until 4 Feb 2017.