Chance meeting gave artist his big break

ALICIA BRIDGES

Artist Gary Johnston has a “million-dollar view” and the job of his dreams thanks to a chance meeting with former Kununurra residents Noel and Aileen Hackett.

Specialising in realistic depictions of native birds, the Victorian oil painter has been frequenting the Kimberley for more than a decade through a working partnership with the local Zebra Rock Gallery.

Johnston is currently the artist- in-residence at the picturesque gallery, which specialises in carving sculptures from striped, East Kimberley rock.

He uses the smooth, sanded surface of the zebra-striped stone as a canvas for intricate depictions of native Kimberley birds.

The concept arose before the turn of the millennium, when Johnston and his late wife Elwyn went to visit a friend at Bacchus Marsh, which has since become his home.

“While we were there we ran into Noel Hackett who was staying with a friend of ours,” he said. “He had some of his gear here and of course, with me being the frustrated artist, my wife actually said ‘wouldn’t that rock look lovely with a painting on it’.”

Mr Hackett gave Johnston some samples of rock to paint for a rock show he was attending in Toowoomba.

The artist embraced the opportunity to work with the unique medium, painting kangaroos, koalas, kookaburras and blue wrens for the display.

“About six weeks later (Mr Hackett) rang up and he said ‘we better get started, a wholesaler bought them and reckons he would like 20,000 for the Sydney Olympics’,” Johnston said.

“We just fell off the end of the phone.

We thought, ‘there is no way we could produce that but we are onto something here’.”

Johnston refused the major offer but continued to work with the Hacketts to produce more work to sell at art markets in the Eastern States.

The partnership between Johnston and the gallery continued after it changed hands when Bruce and Diane Livett became the new owners in 2008.

A personal tragedy prevented the artist from returning in 2011, but he has since purchased a motor home to travel between Bacchus Marsh and Kununurra.

“I lost my wife to a stroke last year, so that threw a spanner in the works,” he said.

“I didn’t know what to do but I thought ‘I enjoy painting so I’ve got to keep going’ and Diane said to come up here. I thought ‘what a good idea’.”

Although Johnston has experience painting landscapes, native flora and mammals, in the Kimberley he paints birds.

He said he loved the colour and diversity of Australian bird life.

“We had a caravan business and in 1981 we took our kids out of school for the second term and did a lap of the country,” he said.

“My interest flared up then.” He said finches and wrens were his favourite birds to paint.