Southern Mallee artist Shirley Newton shares lifetime of memories at first solo art exhibition — at 92 – ABC News

Southern Mallee artist Shirley Newton shares lifetime of memories at first solo art exhibition — at 92 - ABC News
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When her husband passed away 30 years ago, Shirley Newton wanted something to occupy her time. 

“It was a toss-up whether I’d paint or get a piano and take lessons,” she said.

“But a friend of mine up the street one day said, ‘We have a painting class I go to. Come along … I’ll bring a board and some paints’.

“I suppose that day I was hooked.”

Over the following three decades, Shirley painted dozens of pieces and earlier this month, at the age of 92, opened her first solo exhibition.

She lives in Rainbow, in Victoria’s southern Mallee region, but grew up on a property outside the nearby town of Netherby.

A brush with nature

The exhibition, being held at the local Turbo Gallery in Rainbow, is fittingly called Brushes with Nature.

During her early years on the farm, Shirley developed an affinity with local fauna and flora that inspired her later artworks.

Shirley has memories of seeing nearby Lake Hindmarsh when it was full and popular with tourists.(ABC Wimmera: Andrew Kelso)

“You look at nature more when you’re out in the country,” she said.

“When I was a little girl I used to walk around the timber with the trees and look in the nests of the birds.

“There wasn’t much else to do there, you just made your own entertainment, and I’ve always loved birds — I still do.”

History on both sides of the canvas

Most of Shirley’s paintings are landscapes or still-life pieces, that reflect her memories of the Wimmera-Mallee in the 1930s and 40s.

In bright and vivid colour, her works depict touring cars cruising up dirt streets, and local buildings in their heyday.

“I have done a painting of my dad’s horse team when we lived out at Netherby and I remembered all the names of the horses; they’re written on the back of the painting and that’s pretty special,” she said.

Shirley has produced hundreds of paintings over the past 30 years.(ABC Wimmera: Andrew Kelso)

“I found I always walked up close to a painting and looked at it, but I can only ever remember drawing an apple at school. We had no art classes there that I can remember.”

She can still remember a time when dirt roads, advanced machinery, and electricity were all fairly new.

“It was a different world then. No television or anything like that,” she said.

“Dad used to have to bring the car battery in so we could listen to the wireless, and then when we’d go to get in the car to go somewhere we used to have to push it because we’d run the battery down.”

One of her most prominent paintings in the exhibition shows old cars driving up the main Federation Street in Rainbow, when it was still unpaved.

“I can’t tell you who drove those cars. Someone might, then again they’d have to be fairly old to remember, too, because it was the 1920s and that wasn’t yesterday, was it?”

Shirley Newton grew up in the nearby town of Netherby.(ABC Wimmera: Andrew Kelso)

Out of the dark

Shirley says she does not like to use black in work because it has a “deadening” effect.

“I just paint as I see, I just see something and think, ‘Oh, that would be nice to paint,'” she said.

“As we were driving along in later years … I’d look at the trees and I’d say, ‘Oh, isn’t that a lovely tree?’ I’m sure the family got a bit sick of me.”

But she said her family had been incredibly supportive of her artistic endeavours, with her son currently in the process of photographing her paintings to put them in an album.

When she began painting at the age of 62, Shirley says it didn’t take long for her to develop a “hunger” for it.

“If you didn’t feel like painting you just can’t paint but you get up, you have that hunger for it, and you feel, ‘Oh, I’ve got to paint today,'” she says.

Shirley Newton has captured one of the Mallee’s renowned sunsets on canvas.(ABC Wimmera: Andrew Kelso)

“Everything else could be forgotten — the washing, the ironing, and the cooking. 

“One night I remember painting at the kitchen table, I looked up [and said] ‘Oh, it’s 2 o’clock in the morning.'”

Although she hasn’t created much in the past few years due to failing eyesight, Shirley is proud to be opening her first solo exhibition.

“It’s incredible, really — you just look and think, ‘Is this happening?'”

Brushes with Nature runs until July 30 at the Turbo Gallery in Rainbow.

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