The Curious Life of an Artwork: a circuitous tale

In over forty years of art-making much work has been created. Some resides in Australian and a couple in international public collections, many in private collections here and overseas including those gifted to friends. The process of making an artwork, like any act of creation, is complex. It can be challenging, difficult, even painful at times; it can also be thrilling. It is a journey of discovery and when the labour is complete, relief, surprise or joy accompanies it. Once sold or given away, the artist may never see the work again. For me, it’s always a bit of a jolt and an unexpected pleasure to be reacquainted with one of my works in a friend´s home. I have (mostly) been rigorous about documenting since I began exhibiting in the late 70´s; thus this tale is quite curious.

My father died aged 100 years in 2005. With no other family in Australia and my 96-year old mother extremely fragile, I moved back to Melbourne to care for her. It is a rare thing at their great age for one partner to outlive the other by several years and thus this arrangement continued for much longer than one might have anticipated. Jon and I now had a commuting relationship; every two months we spent two weeks together alternating between Melbourne and our home in the Whitsundays. This did not go unnoticed. One friend commented that her husband would never have put up with it; one of my mother’s friends was astonished that I would remain in Melbourne for more than a few weeks. It is a measure of the man that he supported me so wholeheartedly in my need to be there for my mother, (and a measure of my mother that, in the last year of her life, she sent me home realizing that it was no longer feasible for me to remain.)

In the absence of a studio I found myself creatively stifled. Joining a classical choir was a good move, stimulating and quite a challenge but after a couple of years I badly needed to make art again and went ‘back to my beginnings’ with oil crayon on paper, making landscape-based, en plein air works inspired by walks along the Yarra river and at Lake Tyers in Gippsland on the property of a good friend. On returning home permanently in 2009, I added more pieces depicting our home, garden and natural environment, referring to the series as the 2008 Landscapes. Some have sold, some hang in our home, some were gifted and some still reside in my artwork drawers. Many are included in my subsequent website (WORKS ON PAPER).

And so the tale unfolds….. A few days ago, Thursday April 8, 2021, I received an email from an unknown person in Melbourne, Jon W. with the attached image, a drawing from the above series.

My piece jon W. bought at the op shop

JW: Hi Bonney, I was wondering if the picture below is your work. It’s a very relaxing scene. Hoping you can help. And thus the adventure begins, an email correspondence unfolds, several passing back and forth on the same day.

BB: Hi Jon, yes my work, curious as to where you saw it (?on my website) and who you are. Regards Bonney

JW: Thanks for your reply. I purchased it today from a Fitzroy op shop (thrift shop for those of you not acquainted with the terminology). I noticed, after a bit of looking, it’s signed “Bombach ’09”; I did an online search and found your website. Am I right in saying it’s an original crayon on paper? I’m a Melbourne pensioner who visits op shops, buying books etc, for a hobby.

So now I am VERY curious. As so many works leave my studio, I would, without good record-keeping, mostly be unable to remember where they went to. Of course I recognize the work in the photo he sends (ho hum) but cant recall where it is, so go to my files and find it is indeed on record- it went to Wee (Australian nick name though I referred to her by her real name, Sumitra), the Thai wife of Big John, a fellow in our area. I send another email to Jon W. in Melbourne filling him in on what I have found.

BB: Hey! What a funny story…I actually live in N. Qld and gave this drawing in 2014 to Wee, the wife of a fellow in our area. They have since separated but the drawing would have stayed with him. How it ended up in Fitzroy op shop I have no idea.  But Melbourne is my home-town (long ago) and I am glad it is somewhere being appreciated. Enjoy. Yes, oil crayon on paper. Good hobby of yours! Have you found other interesting works in similar shops? Certainly plenty of good 2nd hand bookshops in that area. I found a wonderful signed poetry book of Alex Scovron’s work in same area a few yrs ago, inspiring poet. Best Regards Bonney

JW: The drawing was framed by the East Ivahoe Framing Company, East Ivanhoe, if that’s any help. Yes, it will be appreciated. I have found other interesting works over the years; your drawing caught my eye in the op shop because I had another painting with sun chairs called ‘The House at McGregor Rd’, which may be in Suva, Fiji, by Huw Wellu or Wellur, but can’t find a thing about the artist. I’m hoping it’s a practice piece by Brett Whitely but not holding my breath. Have found a few rare books over the years as well. Good Luck. He attaches this image of his other ‘deckchair’ work.

Jon W’s other deckchair painting

We are both busily engaged by now as you see! Next day, Friday April 9, I write back.

BB: Well good luck with the Whitely! Now that would be find. E. Ivanhoe framing throws no light BUT you wont believe, I grew up 5 mins. from there!

And then I start thinking about phoning Big John with whom I have only intermittent contact these days, thinking how I might go about this without embarrassing him as it seems he has ditched the work.

Ring ring, ring ring, he picks up. Hi John, its Bonney…I tell him I am on a mission and need to ask him something and my intent is NOT to embarrass. I explain what’s transpired, how Wee’s drawing is now with this person Jon W. in Melbourne. I don’t care where the work is and that you have passed it on but am curious as to how it got to a Melbourne op shop, I explain. So now Big John reminds me that it was actually a wedding present, which I had quite forgotten and tells me it is hanging on his wall!! Hang on, he says as he walks over to where it is apparently hanging and starts describing it to me-the orange pool tiles, the two deckchairs, the tropical foliage. Well yep that’s it, I say, how weird and together we try to fathom….someone must have made a copy, he says. Well, if they love the image that much, I don’t care, I quite genuinely quip before thinking that it’s a bit cheeky! I ask Big John to please send me a photo of the work.

Now I want to share this latest strangeness with Jon W. in Melbourne. Sat, 10 Apr 2021.

BB: Hi Jon, such a funny story! I wanted to delve further as it’s sparked my curiosity and imagination…perhaps a short story in the making….so I phoned Big John, the guy to whom I gave it as a wedding present and lo and behold he tells me he still has the work hanging on his wall! That sent me checking my documentation. I do a double take…is this the same work? I take another look at the pic you sent of my piece and find it’s different; but curiously I had no record of yours and have no recollection of who I gave it to (almost certainly a gift to a Melbourne friend). So thank you for all of this…I now have a record of a forgotten work, you have something you like, Big John has the wedding present (of a now defunct marriage) and I discovered the image of your other deckchair work which I had somehow overlooked! Ah, will send you pic of the one that caused the confusion. Best, Bonney

the wedding gift

As you can see the two works are quite similar but I must have given or sold Jon’s one soon after it was made; strangely no documentation and no recollection of it. So I feel obliged to inform Big John. A busy Saturday!

BB to Big John: Hey, just checked and see it is a different image from yours…I had forgotten this one and don’t have a record of it! And then I write to Jon W. in Melbourne again bringing him up to speed. He replies: Yes, the story is becoming curiouser. I acquired your work at this op shop, one of my favourites, https://www.sacredheartmission.org/op-shops/find-an-op-shop/fitzroy-north. The staff may remember who donated it. Hope your Melb friend is still alive.

So now I contact Sacredheartmission and speak to a woman called Penny. BB: You will think this is a funny story, I commence, and tell her the ins and outs of it, bla bla, conveyed with humour- my mission and curiosity. She is clearly enjoying the ride, is laughing but is kind and helpful. She suggests I contact Robina who might be more able to help though we agree it’s a long shot. So I email Robina.

BB: Hi Robina, Penny gave me your email address and says she will/has filled you in on my mission to try to track down the name of the person who donated my work which has obviously passed through a few hands. The most recent is a fellow Jon who bought it from your op shop and tracked me down via my website. We now are playing a game about the mysterious life of this work. I want to write a story about it. If by chance you can assist that would be a miracle but wonderful. Thanks, Best regards, Bonney in N. Qld

BB to JW: Very kind, thank you. Have just phoned them and whizzed off an email. Unlikely to succeed but I now want to write a little story about the life of this work.

JW: Bonnie, I purchased the drawing last Thursday. I’ll return to the op shop on Monday, I live in Carlton, and enquire while I’m there. A bit more detail. In the shop a male, 30’s long black hair, served me. When I asked was it a crayon drawing he got a lady from the backroom, she was in her 60’s short, stout, grey hair, possibly the manager. She would likely remember it, as we agreed it showed a relaxing scene. When I got it home, I was surprised by how much dust and grime was on the glass panel when I cleaned it with a damp cloth, it had evidently been in storage for quite a few years. I’d love to read the story some time. Jon

BB: Really? You don’t have to do that (return to the shop) but sounds like you are joining my detective work! Now I am curious as to why you wanted to follow me up in the first place and why you purchased the work. I will forward you the email I sent, as Robina is is the person apparently most likely to know who the work came from but it’s a long shot I reckon. And yes, if the story is any good, will be happy to share.

The following day he replies: JW: I like to research the pictures, books etc I buy from op shops that’s all. Most people just drop off their donations so tracking the drawing will be a long shot. I’m retired, the place is 5 mins away by tram and I thought I’d have another browse around but I’ll leave it in your hands. Anyway, it’s been nice meeting you.

I don’t want him to feel I was ungracious about his offer to return to the store so flick off another email.

BB: Pls don’t feel that I thought your offer to go to the store intrusive…if you feel to go there and maybe find another treasure and see the same person as before, by all means do. Also I love that you take the time to research your finds. If I write my story (which would probably end up as a Post on my website and will take some time), I was going to refer to you as Jon W, maybe include the emails without showing your name, assuming you would prefer anonymity. But now that we have this correspondence going, I am curious about you too. If you would like to share with me a little of who you are which I would then include in the story, that would be very cool but entirely up to you. I then ask him if he has looked on my website at the series the piece comes from and direct him to it ART/WORKS ON PAPER/ scroll down to 2008 LANDSCAPES (not RHS dropdown menu, stay in the mail works on paper section). Have a good week, Bonney

A few days later Robina from the sacred heart mission op shop kindly emails me saying she doesn’t recall the piece and asking if Jon remembers when he purchased it. I will show my deputy when she is in again on Friday, she says and then wishes me best of luck in my mission to find the person who donated this to us. Now I am starting to feel slightly silly about my pursuit but, never one to leave a job unfinished, I push on.

On the same day I receive a reply from Jon W. regarding my invitation to share something about himself. It is quite a surprise! The discrepancy between the imagined and the actuality is an interesting phenomenon; the mind’s eye view of person or place never concurs with the reality, and yet trying to grasp what one had imagined, is elusive. So who might this man be who visits op shops, buys a work of mine, finds unusual unspecified books, a pensioner who lives in Carlton? Carlton – think Melbourne University/hip/once exclusively working class and immigrant, Italian/Greek back in the day when I was at university. And what does ‘pensioner’ imply? There are many types of pensioners defined variously by age, financial status, health, employment. But I am assuming he is over 65 years of age. Does he jump on that tram to go to the op shop wearing jeans and a loose shirt, perhaps a cool older dude with a ponytail? An art and book collector of sorts? Is he attracted to the very relaxing scene because he is a tense or a laidback sort of guy? Or perhaps a very orderly person who likes to categorize his ‘collectables’, deckchairs being the common theme between my work and the other painting he mentions? And then he responds a few days later, April 13.

JW: Bonnie, I’m 70 and until a few years ago was involved with market research/mystery shopping, while also doing casual freelance writing. I’ve had more 100 pieces published over the years. I used to write regular historical feature stories for Turf Monthly mag (until it changed format). I’ve long had an interest in UFOs (not so much now) and the paranormal and my stories on those have appeared in (the defunct) Aust’asian Ufologist mag., more recently New Nexus mag. and Phantoms & Monsters blogsite. I’m currently finishing a long article ‘The Kelly Gang Paranormal Story–Revealed’. I enjoy a punt on race horses and, once or twice per month, the local op shops. Love the Internet. Keep in touch with 4 brothers and 2 sisters. Live alone and enjoy my own company. Also do homebrewing and breadmaking. Had a look at your website. You’re very versatile and prolific.

See what I mean… I love this, so utterly unexpected. Market research, UFO’s, published articles, monsters, paranormal, a bit of a punter. Our world’s couldn’t be further apart. It’s only when we get to the mention of family and breadmaking that I ‘feel at home’ again. And yet, here we are connected in this strange and unexpected way. This is now a little shape-changing, pushing my boundaries. It’s bothering me, but perhaps this is not a bad thing? We spend too much time talking to like-minded people, comfortable but not necessarily challenging. Thank you, my little drawing!

Allow me to digress, speaking of ‘bothering me’, perhaps a constructive thing. My dear artist friend Michael B. gave me a fascinating book, Parallels and Paradoxes: Daniel Barenboim & Edward W. Said – Explorations in Music and Society. At one point they are discussing how Barenboim (the great conductor/pianist) is a custodian of a great musical past, the Western musical heritage, Beethoven symphonies, Mozart operas etc but Barenboim, of course is also fascinated by the music of today, composers like Boulez, Carter, Birtwhistle. Barenboim says he considers Beethoven a modern (but not contemporary) composer whose music has the same importance as something being written today, and that playing the music of a contemporary composer such as Boulez should be played with the same familiarity that one associates with the works of the past. Edward Said responds by saying that he feels there is a certain ruthlessness in history, that one feels that certain things are unrecoverable because they are past, and proceeds to give an example of a contemporary piece by Alban Berg in which the final movement, a Bach chorale, appears and how moving he finds this precisely because it is so at odds with the material. Barenboim has quite a different take on it, saying it bothers him that such a foreign element has been introduced. Said retorts that it is the bother itself which interests him!

So I find myself reflecting upon all this, Jon W’s ‘weird’ interests and I turn to Mr. Google to check out New Nexus, the magazine in which some of his articles have been published. It comes up simply as Nexus. I quote: NEXUS is a bi-monthly alternative news magazine covering health breakthroughs, future science and technology, suppressed news, free energy, religious revisionism, conspiracy, the environment, history and ancient mysteries, the mind, UFOs, paranormal and the unexplained. NEXUS Magazine is not affiliated with any political, religious or spiritual groups or organizations whatsoever, and has been published since 1986. The magazine is on sale in shops across Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, UK, France, Italy, Holland, Greece, Poland, Croatia, Japan, Romania, Serbia and Russia. The inclusion of the words ‘conspiracy’ and ‘religious revisionism’ sets my alarm bells jingling a little louder. I am now feeling a bit wary. After all, I have encountered a couple of conspiracy theorists who hold truly alarming beliefs, racist and some quite off the air. Is my Jon W. one such? How do I respond? I can’t just ignore the man and Edward Said’s wisdom is still ringing in my ears, so I take time to reflect upon the possible benefit of being ‘bothered’ by what I am discovering, and how it might reflect on Jon W. After several days I get myself together and decide I had better ‘own’ my feelings without being unkind. After all, he has been nothing but kind to me. On April 16 I reply.

BB: Jon, always so odd, the discrepancy between how you imagine someone might be and how they are….interesting line of investigation, though one can never quite pin down how one actually imagines someone might be! Anyway, appreciate your sharing. You are a prolific writer – though I find it easier to relate to breadmaking, relationship with family, even home-brewing  than the paranormal etc. Had a squizz at Nexus and got a bit creeped when, amongst other things, I saw it covers conspiracy theories. Hope you arn’t a follower! The nice woman Robina responded to my email and mentioned you had been in the shop again. I suppose I should ask a few of my Melbourne friends if any of them had been given the work but I don’t want to embarrass anyone! Now that I know what a prolific and published a writer you are, perhaps I will be shy to send my thing  (when finished)! -it will probably take the form of a short blog on my website. Regards, Bonney

A few days later he replies: Bonnie, I don’t think I’m a conspiracy nut, but do take an interest in the weird ideas out there. I guess it was a bit embarrassing the picture ended up an orphan in an op shop; people separate, divorce, move out, move on, forget… somebody found it in a cupboard or garage and donated it…. if it makes you feel any better, I also found a Banksie in a skip last year as well. Not a proflic writer, just an occasional scribbler. Look forward to seeing the story.

BB: Hey thanks for this Jon. Just to clarify, I am not the least bit upset about the work ending up in an op shop although admittedly have been a bit upset in the past, when on a couple of occasions over many years I noted that a work I have given a friend was never hung! Anyway I am enjoying the oddity of the story and my chase and ‘meeting you’ along the way. Don’t worry, will send when finished but don’t expect too much! Best Bonney

So I give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he isn’t a conspiracy theorist who believes ‘foreign agents’ have micro-chipped us, that there is something evil in the Covid vaccine, that the Holocaust never happened or that shape-changing lizards rule the earth, or whatever! Plenty of crazies out there.

Only as I transcribe this into the blog I realize I have not commented on his Banksy find, Banksy, well known as the dark, elusive master of street art, the anonymous vandal, political activist, genius. If it’s a real Banksy, what a great find! So I now have to flick him a response.

BB: April 22 Hey Jon, as I transcribe this into my little story, I realize I omitted to mention the Banksy print you found. If it is for real, it’s quite a find! Probably also with monetary value. Did you ever have it checked out?  I presumed he only made work on walls but….would love photo of it if that’s easy. If not, don’t bother. Enjoy your upcoming wk-end. Best, Bonney

Almost immediately he replies: Bonnie, this is my found Banksie (print), I doubt it’s worth very much. Jon. And equally fast, BB: Very cool indeed! So as its showing the brick wall, is it a photograph of the work or perhaps a print has been made from a photograph? What do you think? Is the work on paper or canvas? I had a quick look online as no doubt you have done, and see that some images are clearly prints on canvas from photos of original work on wall. In which case I agree it wouldn’t be worth much. Still, a quirky thing to have. Good on ya!

I love Banky’s irreverence. Lovely timing too. Lying…many police (and others) are corrupt and have no problem lying, so a great outcome in yesterday’s verdict on the George Floyd case. That bastard cop got what he deserved and justice is served. Black Lives Matter now has a big voice but will anything change? We love to criticize the USA whose gun laws are clearly a huge part of the problem, but the underlying issue of systemic racism is far reaching, way beyond the USA.

Our own serious problem with systemic racism is both embarrassing and a national disgrace, aboriginal deaths in custody the big issue. As with American Blacks and people of colour, aboriginal incarceration rate is hugely disproportionate as are the deaths in custody. It’s 30 years since the Royal Commission into aboriginal deaths in custody yet even more aborigines die in custody in spite of all the recommendations that were brought down. The Black Lives Matter movement (thank you George Floyd) is pushing this forward but I wish I were more positive about outcomes and changes in both (all) countries.
So, I haven’t solved the mystery of how my work ended up in a Melbourne op shop. It’s had me wracking my brains though a couple of possibilities have come to mind late at night but my unwillingness to embarrass anybody by asking is, I have discovered, not the only reason I now choose to put this little saga to bed. I have discovered that it’s the chase that’s interested me far more than finding an answer; a speculative journey which has taken me off on unexpected tangents and through which I have met an unusual person, utterly different from me in many ways but with whom I share a sense of curiosity, a willingness to engage with a complete stranger, and someone with an eye for quirky art and more! And I do love quirky.

Thank you Jon and thank you my drawing with deckchairs, pool and foliage. It’s been a fun ride.

3 thoughts on “The Curious Life of an Artwork: a circuitous tale

  1. Hey Bon,

    What a riveting story. I love it! Being one who enjoys the investigation of occurrences or situations, especially at College with students, I would do the same. The thrill of the chase on occasions!

    I might add though, when I pass by your paintings/drawings you have generously gifted to our family I cherish them – could never part with them.

    Hope you and the doc are both well and living the dream.

    Best always, Rosie xxoo

    Like

  2. Hi Bonney I just loved this piece of writing and the investigative journalism around finding your mystery donator. Very clever. Not sure about the the whole Nexus movement it all scares me too. I hope your hip continues to recover well. Much love Bee and Ian xxxx PS the postcard painting you gave us is on the wall. 😘

    Like

  3. Oh Bonney What a wonderful tale … certainly could become a very intersting tale but as it is – certainly worth publishing as a short story . I LOVED it.. My life is in a whirl at the moment – this week I am so looking forward to nothing to do except catch up with my buddies. You’re on my list … I promise a catch-up SOOOONNNN

    xxx Laine >

    Like

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