Good Samaritan Sister and accomplished artist and art teacher Judith Souter took an unexpected trip to Palm Island recently, an experience she describes as mind-blowing and one which showed her yet again the power of art to reach across barriers and speak to people’s hearts.
Sister Judith, whose background in ministry is in education, teaching art and running an art studio in Camden, said that in her semi-retirement she was not expecting to find herself on Palm Island. However, a chance comment to one of her friends, Sister Lal Smith SGS, who ministers full-time on the island with Sister Robyn Brady SGS, led her there.
“Lal’s a mate of mine and she tells me about all that she’s doing up there and I said to her once, off the cuff, ‘I’d love to go up and help you with it’,” Judith told The Good Oil.
“But I had an accident and injured my back some years ago and I’m a bit of a wreck, so the idea of going up there was really a bit of a laugh. It didn’t seem like a real possibility.”
However, when Lal came to Sydney for a Good Samaritan Council meeting, she raised with the leadership team the idea of Judith taking a trip to Palm Island.
“And before you know it, I was going!”
Palm Island lies off Townsville and is endowed with rich natural beauty. It is an Aboriginal community which faces many social challenges, most of which can be attributed to its history as a place where the Queensland Government sent Aboriginal people who had been convicted of various, often minor, crimes.
This resulted in Aborigines from many different tribal, cultural and language groups all attempting to live together on the island. There is very little employment on the island, leading to problems including drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness and other social challenges.
Judith’s visit to Palm Island was timed to coincide with the absence of Robyn, who was taking leave for a month.
“When I got there, I went around with Lal and met the people,” Judith said. “Lal knew that I’m interested in art and art teaching, so when we called in to Ferdie’s Haven, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre, she asked them if they’d like me to do art lessons with them.
“The answer was yes, so that’s what I did, twice a week, for the time I was there.”
Judith said two men stand out in her memory as being particularly willing and able students.
“Neither of these fellows had ever had a brush or paints in their hands in their lives,” she said. “But they both really took to it, straight away.
“One of them, Thomas, just sat down and without any photo or picture to work from, and with no instruction from me, he painted the most beautiful seahorse. It was something he was familiar with, you see, from the waters around the island.
“When he finished his first painting, he said ‘I never thought I’d be able to do something like this’. His sense of accomplishment and self-worth was beautiful to watch.
“I’ve heard that since I’ve left, he’s now finished his fourth project.”
Ferdie’s is run by Indigenous people and Judith said many of the staff came down and joined in the painting as well. She also ran a card-making day which included morning tea and a sausage sizzle lunch.
“Those were special times, and I learnt a lot from spending those times with the people and listening to them and hearing about the history of the island and their lives. There are some beautiful characters there. It was a very special time.”
Judith said she is in awe of the work that Lal and Robyn do on Palm Island.
“It is just extraordinary. While I was there, Lal was completely and totally at the service of the people and their needs. I have a great sadness that I can’t do more to help these people myself.”
She does, however, have hopes of setting up art workshops, along the lines of those operated with great success by Loreto Sister, Susan Daley in the Aboriginal communities of Santa Teresa, Balgo and Daly River.
“That’s what I’d like to do, perhaps with Susan’s help, on Palm Island. We’ll see. Perhaps there’ll be an opportunity to do that if that is what the people want.”