STart Talking / by Eryn Withawhy

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It was a sunny afternoon, i’m not sure of the date. Craig bounded ahead of me through the bush. We leapt and laughed as we played like children in the scrub near his house; a couple of carefree 19 year olds covered in mud and yelling excitedly when we found patches of glistening moss in the damp creek beds.ISSUE_9_STart TALKThere are still days when I wonder if I could have done more. I worry that I didn’t say the right thing. I wish with all I have that I could go back in time knowing what I know now. Those days are becoming less frequent, but they still linger. Memories take me by surprise or I hear a Matchbox Twenty song on the radio and I’m right back in the grief of losing Craig to suicide. I have no patent on grief. Suicide is the biggest killer of Australian males aged between 15 and 44. There are thousands of stories not dissimilar to mine and millions of people touched daily by depression and mental illness. Kathie Bowtell wants to talk about it. She wants me to talk about it. She wants you, your friends, your family, your neighbour and your workplace to talk about it. She wants everyone to talk about it and she’s created an arts programme to get the ball rolling - stART talking . Kathie is one of the most inspiring, selfless and amazing people I have had the privilege to meet.

Interview from ERYN WITHAWHY

Kathie, let me congratulate and thank you for everything you’ve done. The work you are doing is astounding. For those who haven’t heard of it, what is stART talking? stART talking is a community project which aims to initiate safe discussion around suicide. We aim to remove the stigma attached to anyone seeking help, and support the families left behind post-suicide. If we cannot discuss suicide we cannot make an impact on reducing the numbers of people; men, women and children, that we lose to suicide every day. Families in the Newcastle Hunter region who have lost a loved one to suicide were invited to take place in an arts programme where an artist would create a portrait of their loved one to give to them after an exhibition in May 2014. The exhibition seeks to put a face to the statistic so we can see that suicide respects no one and can take everyday normal people completely by surprise. It gives the families an opportunity to speak of their experience in an effort to educate others about the warning signs (or lack of) and encourage others that there is help and support available so no one else feels like there is no other option. We encourage people to become involved in the project so we can make a difference together. We will also be attempting to raise funds to donate to Lifeline so that they can train as many people as possible to become phone counsellors to ensure every call to Lifeline gets answered. It’s a huge commitment. What are your motivations for taking on such a large project? It has been a huge commitment from me and my family in both time and money but that is nothing compared to the cost of losing a loved one to suicide. I have lost a grandparent and a brother to suicide. I won’t sit back and let suicide rob me or anyone again, not without a fight. It’s not a popular battle but is incredibly important to me. It must be very rewarding, seeing the smiles on faces after you’ve heard so much about a family’s loss. I love the cover photo on your page. Sam’s parents look so pleased with your work. What was that moment like? Think for a minute about someone you have lost, not just to suicide… Imagine how you would feel if you could have them back just for a second or a minute. One of the biggest rewards of this project is to share that moment with the families when they get to see their portrait for the very first time. There is almost always tears, tears of love and I often hear ‘It’s just like he/she is here’. When Sam’s parents saw his portrait for the first time his mum Virginia said ‘You have captured him so well I feel like I could just reach into the canvas and hug him’. I tear up just writing that. Imagine helping a mum or dad who’s child has died feeling even for just a fleeting moment like they could hug their child again. That feeling is greater and more precious than any prize or any amount of money anyone could ever offer me for a painting. You are very skilled. How long have you been painting portraits? Thank you, I always see my faults and how much better I would like to be at portrait painting. I guess a lot of artists feel the same. I’ve drawn since I was a young child. You know when you first start drawing and you draw your family as stick figures or scribbled blurs? Well I couldn’t draw my family because they didn’t really exist. My dad died when I was 3 and due to family circumstances my 3 brothers and I were separated. There are no family photos of me and my dad or me with my brothers, none in existence, so as a result as I got older I would imagine what they would look like and I created them. I guess that’s how I became obsessed with capturing and drawing people. I then developed a reputation for posthumous portraits and ‘bringing people back to life’ so to speak in paintings. What can our readers do to contribute to this project? I would LOVE to have more people involved. Other artists willing to donate their time to attempt a portrait would be wonderful. Donations of art supplies or anything we could raffle. Goods and services or funds for Lifeline to help support grieving families and friends left behind after a suicide would be awesome. Anything over $2 is tax deductible. If people could like and share our Facebook and Twitter pages (facebook.com/lifelinenewcastlestarttalking, @stARTtalking) would really help us spread the word and reach more people. Put Lifeline’s number into your phone - 13 11 14. It’s free from all mobiles and if you or a friend ever needs it you know exactly who to call and what to do. Finally, hug the people you love and never be afraid of asking ‘Are u ok?’ Never be afraid of saying ‘No, I need your help to get through this’. Suicide thrives on dividing us, isolating us and it thrives on silence. It’s like the bully of the mental health universe and I’m sick of bullies. I won’t be a bystander, I care about people and we aren’t always strong enough to fight for ourselves. I want us to join together and kick the shit out of suicide. When one of us is down then we can join forces and smack that bully down. Don’t isolate anyone who feels down, don’t be afraid to ask the questions and make sure you know exactly who to call when you need to. So my question to you is, are you brave enough to stART talking?

At the time of publishing, there is as yet no location or date set for the exhibition of works. If you or an arts organisation you are involved with are able to offer organisational assistance, please contact Kathie through the stART talking Facebook page