The day we arrived at Helen Norton’s home was very, very hot. Her husband is a truck driver in Broome and the property is dominated by a massive iron shed where his truck parts are strewn amongst her ceramics and canvasses. It might appear an uneasy alliance but in her eyes there is no hint that these two are at odds. The truck and the brush mush rest easily together because there is no way I can imagine this woman being subsumed by a man. It’s not that she’s fierce, but her energy is of such a high order that I’m sure it cannot be contained by anything else but her art.
Even the baby crawling around the unfinished projects of clay, materials, paint and paper cannot dampen her vigour. This woman can cope. She’s indomitable. Undefeatable.
She paints, pots, sews, builds, writes, researches, gardens, cooks, decorates. I’m exhausted already, just looking at what has been achieved here, tentatively calculating the hours of labour, trying to see how they can fit into twenty-four.
On the kitchen table are two little worlds she has created with clay, material, wood and paint. My son Jack, spends the hours staring into a little tableau of birds in trees. It’s exquisite. At first I think there are only two but there’s another one by the phone, three in the studio, four underway in the truck shed and canvasses everywhere. She reefs out story manuscripts, histories, monographs, working plant cuttings, placates the child and laughs merrily all the while.
Does she drink too much red cordial and eat too many jelly snakes? What can account for this cyclonic energy? Can the country tap it, run a hydro-electric scheme? When we get home to Apollo Bay a steady stream of letters, stories, photographs, transparencies, juicy news of the north, histories, everything, plump into our mail box. The Post Master is looking fatigued, we sit in our office shaking our heads, the vibrancy of the tropics attacking us like a column of soldier ants to the music of Disney’s Magicians’ Apprentice.
At the moment, and I’m talking about a moment last October, she’s reeling off a series of canvasses depicting the story of the Aboriginal warrior, Pigeon. Her research is phenomenal, her knowledge of the living relatives, admirable. We determined to use a Pigeon painting as we’d only just returned from his country up around Tunnel Creek and Winjanna Gorge. We saw Ernie Dingo there standing on a sandbank in the river in a red shirt. Later we saw him playing soccer up at Kooljamon (Cape Leveque) with a mob of kids from Fitzroy Crossing and dressed in a red sarong, splashed dramatically against the white sand, turquoise sea, and black glistening bodies. We wanted a Pigeon image, but somehow the image of the white fools in the house hide boat could not be denied. Foolish white explorers, discovered what had never been lost, and dying like flies, surrounded by food, water and people. Now, that is an Australian image, something all kids must learn at their desks before any genius tried to teach them how to spell Leichhardt.