Lucy & Willow, O’Connor oval
Mixed media on canvas, April 2022
76cm x 76cm x 1.5cm
Lucy and Willow, O’Connor Oval (Subtext: my life in dogs. Long post warning: sentimental canine related clap trap).
My family had a thing about Beagles, probably aspirational in that we come from working-class English stock. Maxwell (1975-77ish) was an older dog. Landed gentry gone wrong. Convicted of eating sheep and transported for the term of his natural life to the Canberra suburb of Downer. Maxwell was a streetwise, sly old dog. He would disappear for days at a time, turn up again as though nothing had happened, indulge heartily in food and pats and recuperate in front of the fireplace for a week before he would disappear again. The disappearances got longer and one day Maxwell never came back.
I taught Maxwell the difference between sheep and kids. Maxwell taught me that some men will stray, regardless of how much they claim to love you and you them.
I believe Paddy (Bitzer, hairy and orange, lost in time) was another wicked farm boy. Irish in nature and appearance. I don’t remember that we had him for long enough to learn anything from each other except that sometimes things happen without rhythm or reason.
Peepa (Beagle, 1978-80ish) was my first puppy. She had beautiful soft, velvety ears and a nose for trouble. A good looking but, in our care, under-stimulated dog. A nose on legs, Peepa was a Houndini, an escape artist with no road sense. Her demise, therefore, came quickly and was not unexpected. I taught Peepa how to sit. From Peepa I learnt that dogs need companionship and that companionship, like most important things in life, takes effort. I was only seven, so the lesson had to be learnt again with our next dog, Twinkles (1982-83ish, black lab cross.
My second puppy was as friendly and bouncy as you would expect. We got Twinkles on the condition that I would walk her. I didn’t. Twinkles died one night in my 13-year-old arms on the way to the vet. The Empire (of the car) strikes back. My dad, sensibly, said no more dogs. I taught Twinkles how to sit and from Twinkles I learnt about grief.
Danu (Rottweiler/Kelpie cross, not my mine, late 1980’s). I moved into a group house with my boyfriend, his flat mates, and his dog Danu. It was a party house (although I was also working and studying). One day Danu came romping into the front room frolicking around with a vibrating sex toy in her mouth. We never worked out to whom the big purple phallus belonged.
From Danu I learnt an important life lesson: dogs need to be walked at least once, preferably twice a day, even when hungover and that this is good for everyone. I don’t think Danu learnt anything from me, she was already a wise old earth mother.
Danu had puppies (not my idea) and we kept two of them (Ishtar and Cu Chulainn, more Rottweiler, less Kelpie. Although due to prejudice against Rottweilers, Ishtar sometimes got away with Labrador cross). Suddenly, at 19, I had a family to look after. Burdened by responsibility, I felt both loved and trapped.
An example of this feeling was holidaying with the Rottweilers. We had a disastrous trip down the beach where we all slept in the Valiant station wagon (hard to find accommodation with three rottweilers and no money). The Val broke down many times along the way. We had no sunscreen, no lights, no beer left and no NRMA membership. I remember hitching to Batman’s Bay barefooted, carrying a starter motor. Later, same trip, we were rescued by a hippy mountain man on the Clyde and spent a night deep in the forest while he fixed our car. The kindness of strangers. I taught Ishtar and Cu Chulainn how to sit and walk reasonably well on leads. Ishtar, Danu and Chulainn taught me about responsibility.
Ishtar (Rottweiler cross, daughter of Danu, 1990-2000). Dog of my 20’s. When I left that relationship (retrospectively good for both humans), I took Ishtar with me. She matured into a lovely dog who slept in my bed and looked after me as much as I looked after her. We were bros, that dog and I. She was the reason to return from travels and my stint of living in NZ. Fittingly, she also died on Melba S, in Downer, on an early morning walk. She stopped in the middle of the road, looked up at me and then light went out of her eyes. With her, died my youth.
I taught Ishtar how to sit, lie down, roll over and walk well on and off the lead. Ishtar taught me about unconditional love and that grief fades with time.
I didn’t have a dog for a while, until it became apparent that I needed another dog. Friends embarrassed by me constantly accosting stranger with dogs found me a puppy (Nellie, fawn, Great Dane/ Bull Mastiff cross 2001-2012). I credit Nellie with getting Kim and I together as we got to know each other walking, talking, and courting on the Majura playing fields.
Prerequisite for new boyfriend material based on previous experience: 1. A job, 2. A car, 3. A dog, indicating an ability to care for something other than himself. Although I wasn’t consciously looking for a boyfriend, (I had given up and was concentrating on bettering myself), Kim ticked all the boxes, which none of my previous boyfriends had. In retrospect, I wasn’t asking for much.
I taught Nellie how to sit, roll over, walk well on and off the lead and apart from more love and grief Nellie also taught me that I was okay.
Blended family. We had to get a dog phycologist in to stop Nell-dog and Mirri (Blue Healer, 1996-2009) killing each other. Miraculously it worked and the dogs settled into a long and happy relationship with each other and then our babies. Miri taught Nellie how to deal with cattle at our bush house. Nellie taught Mirri her place as the underdog. Both dogs learnt to be big city dogs and behave well in shared public spaces.
Mirri, broke the cycle of my dogs dying on Melba St by dying quietly behind the couch. Nellie got deeply depressed after Mirri died, but we hardly noticed as we were busy with toddlers.
We put off putting Nellie down for way too long, carry her down the stairs to go to the toilet when her back legs no longer worked. It broke my 6 year old Oby’s heart when I told him that she was no longer with us.
Kim and I taught Nellie and Mirri how to behave in a family, as well as how to hunt rabbits and when to back down from an argument. Nellie and Mirri taught our kids about love, how to behave around dogs, about grief and that old dog can learn new tricks.
Another break from dogs while we argued with the kids about what kind of dog to get next. Kids wanted a little dog, preferably a pug. Kim didn’t want another dog. I wanted a Great Dane or a Wolf hound. We compromised and got Harry, (Jug, black, 2015). Harry was rehomed with us. Harry was a brat with suicidal tendencies who hated children. It’s recent history so I won’t dwell on Harry. Harry was given back to his previous owner who had missed him, phew!
We didn’t manage to teach Harry anything. Harry taught us that collectively, we prefer big dogs.
Willow (spotty, Great Dane 2015) came shortly before Harry left and I blame Harry for teaching Willow how to hump. Willow was the only one of us who loved Harry. Willow is still with us and she is beautiful. But like all of us, not perfect.
One not very great, runt of a Great Dane is never enough, so shortly after that we got rehomed dog Magnus (Black, Great Dane, 2015-2020). We loved Magnus and Magnus loved us and our neighbour Martha. But Magnus was a hard work, special needs boy. Magnus the big idiot, loved cuddles and fundamentally wanted to do the right thing, but ended up being the terror of the neighbourhood. Magnus became scared of everything and fear aggressive, especially with other dogs (besides Willow, who he loved obsessively). We tried everything we could think of to keep Magnus safe (and others safe from Magnus) but with limited success.
Without doubt, the hardest decision I’ve had to make was saying goodbye to Magnus at the Vet’s and I still don’t know if it was the right decision. We all miss him, but not the stress he caused us.
We taught Magnus more fear than we realized. Magnus taught us a whole lot more about love, pain, shame, guilt and responsibility. He taught us that, sometimes, love isn’t enough, and he taught me that not everything that goes wrong is my fault. He reminded me that many things are beyond my control, but responsibility in life still needs to be taken. Magnus also reinforced that old cliché that “it better to have loved and lost, than not to have loved at all”.
And now we have Lucy Lu (2021-, black and white Great Dane) as well as Willow. Not exactly pretty (ugly, I think), stubborn and demanding, but exceptionally lovely with other dogs. Lucy is a weirdo, but mostly in a good way; let’s just say neurologically diverse.
We’ve taught Lucy to sit on the couch and enjoy watching TV, as well as (eventually) how to sit, not poo inside, walk well on and off the lead etc. She’s reinforced all our previous learning and reminded us that every dog is different.
With Lucy has come a renewal of sorts: a new group of dog walking friends and a sense community fitting to our current stage of life. Lucy has also ensured we get a minimum of 10,000 steps in daily trips to O’connor Oval to satisfy her beans and quell those social butterflies.
In this painting of Lucy and Willow on the oval, a lunch wrap on the surface, the light tower and the orange flags of the cricket pitch speak to the mixed-use of urban space. The face mask found dis-guarded on the oval and imbedded in the surface centers the painting in the here and now of the pandemic.
As often, in my paintings, there’s a hint of a path symbolizing the road taken and I hope a sense of beauty, playfulness and pleasure in the little, ordinary, and extraordinary things, that make up a life’s journey (with or without dogs).