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Natural Wonder: The Art of Survival

From homeless teenager to actor, stuntwoman, and professional artist… The talented Charmaine Tracey shares her insights on creativity, nature, and the “attitude of gratitude”.

How did you become an artist, Charmaine?

Everybody is an artist, darlin’! I’ve never met a three-year-old who can’t paint. I’ve been making art since I could first sit up on my bum. I’m 75 now, and there’s always something new to learn – spinning, weaving, sculpture.

I was a bush kid. I grew up in the Royal National Park, near Wollongong. From about three years old I’d wander off into the bush.

As a child I discovered a clay pit deep in the bush. It was porcelain-quality clay, and I’d spend a lot of time making these wonderful, huge, statuesque creations – fantastic figures and creatures. There were Koori art caves in the bush, too. I’d often sleep in those caves. I did that from an early age.

At age thirteen you became homeless. How did you survive that time?

I’m a survivalist. My mother was a very dangerous lady. There’s only so many times you can go to hospital and tell them, “I fell over.” So the court gave me permission to leave home at age thirteen.

There was no assistance in those days. Nobody would have rented me a flat. So I lived in an old graveyard. The gates were locked at night, so I felt safer there.

During the day I worked in factories. I looked quite old for my age, but I lied and said I was older. I worked alongside the guys, wearing a leather apron, melting hot metal to make lawnmower parts.

In the factories I was a suffragette, fighting for equal wages. I’d ask the men, “How much did you pay for that apple? What about your bus fare?” They’d say, “The same as you.” And I’d say, “So why do I get a third of the wage you’re earning?”

You’re a self-taught artist and photographer. What other skills have you learnt over the years?

I had to teach myself to read and write. I never went to school. They didn’t know about autistic people back then. When I was fifteen I went to the biggest library in Sydney and told the [librarian] I wanted to learn how to read and write. She helped me.

As a teenager I learned taekwondo so I could defend myself. I got my black belt in my twenties. I’d always wanted to act, but I couldn’t go to NIDA because I didn’t have the education. So eventually I went to Paddington [in Sydney] and started making comedy. I was a stuntwoman on [1970s TV series] The Aunty Jack Show. It was like Australia’s Monty Python. I worked with some great people, like Norman Gunston [Garry McDonald].

You’re part of Open Canvas, which supports artists who’ve experienced homelessness and adversity. How did you get involved?

Someone told me this lovely man [founder Dan Rath] was going to ring me. That he was encouraging homeless people to paint, helping them to buy art equipment. People who need that little spark, Daniel gives them a platform to express themselves. He works hard to get our work out there.

It’s wonderful. We’ve all got such different talents and styles. We’ve had exhibitions at Federation Square and fortyfivedownstairs. It’s such a pleasure to know people are enjoying your art.

What about your next painting – do you have a subject in mind?

In the bush there were lots of disappearing creeks – they just vanish underground. If you fall in, you’re not coming out. As a kid I used to make these big carved sticks, like in Harry Potter. Once my stick fell into the river and went “Whoosh!” over this waterfall. It went straight down a hole in the ground. I had to climb down a cliff to get it. It was a primordial place, like dinosaur territory. So that’s my next painting: my disappearing waterfall.

After a tough start, you’ve lived an amazing life. Do you have any advice for young people?

I want kids to realise that you may just be a little pebble in a pond, but your life does have meaning. You might get a bad start, but you can still create big ripples. Don’t give in to all the crap that’s around you. And don’t do drugs!

Life gets better as you get older. You gotta have that attitude of gratitude, darlin’. To see the beauty of life. Everything is beautiful if you allow it to be.

Interview and write-up by Meg Mundell.

Charmaine Tracey is an artist, nature-lover, and living legend. Open Canvas is a social enterprise that helps disadvantaged artists create, exhibit, and sell their work. Artists receive 70 per cent of profits from each sale.


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