Australian high school lasts six years, from Years 7 to 12 (you’re aged roughly around 12 to 18). Late in Year 7, we moved house so I moved high school. All the friendships and groups and cliques had already been formed, and I was more-or-less ‘placed’ in a social group by the Year Adviser who introduced me to my classes that day.
The kids were nice, and welcoming enough (although I did get called Sandra D because I was little, blonde and very innocent), and I made friends. Not close friends, but I was not alone.
Then on the bus I met a girl named Del. She lived on the same long, country road as me, so we would see each other on the bus to and from school every day. We became friends, and used to ride our horses together in the afternoons after school, and on weekends.
Del was intense, passionate and highly intelligent. We spent our nights reading all three Brontes, mixed up with a good dose of Anne of Green Gables and a teen-typical dollop of Tolkien. Del could draw beautifully, so we would sketch together, Del teaching me how to cross-hatch to create dimensions in the horse or faerie I was attempting (always badly) to bring to life in pencil. We would ride our horses for hour upon hour in the Australian bush, singing at the tops of our lungs, splashing and dancing in bushland creeks, creating ever-higher makeshift ‘jumps’ from logs and 44-gallon drums over which to leap our horses.
People at school teased Del like they never teased me. I had other friends, I was “mainstream.” Del was alone a lot of the time. The teasing hurt her, but she never gave up who she was or what she believed. I chose to conform. Del chose her own path, and in the country high school where we grew up, that hurt her. I tried to stick up for my friend, yelling at the people who teased her, but I only made matters worse. I blustered. I blundered. I missed the bigger point. Several of them, in fact. I was 14.
When I was in Year 9 or 10, I discovered a new group of friends. They were kind, funny, intelligent, and they accepted me for me. I didn’t need to conform. High school became at last an exercise in “finding myself” rather than “hiding myself.” (Those friends, incidentally, are still my friends. Some of us went to Paris together last year.) Around the same time, our family moved again. I didn’t have to change schools, but I no longer caught the bus with Del.
So happy was I in finding this acceptance with my new friends that I missed how I was isolating Del even further. My friends accepted her, too, but she was in a different year to us, and had different classes, so there could never be the same level of connection. I will never forget the day she approached me to tell me she was moving to a Steiner school in a month or so, and that she would spend her lunches with people from her own year until then. That was that. That night, at a sleepover at one of my new friends’ place, I cried the entire night while the other girls slept.
I barely saw Del again. I went to university and studied literature. I heard she went to university and studied fine art. I had news of a tragedy that had befallen her family so I went to visit, but it was painfully awkward. I bumbled again, and embarrassed myself. My social skills were inadequate to offer anything worth giving.
Fast forward several years. I’m in an art gallery in Sydney, and there’s an exhibition on. It is my old friend, and her work is beautiful. Challenging, confronting, but still so authentically and passionately Del.
I give my card to the gallery owner and ask if he would give it to Del. If she wanted to contact me, she could.
She never did. More time passed. Another friend, also a successful artist, told me that gallery owner would never have bothered to give her my card, but he could put me in contact through the owner of her new gallery. While I pondered whether I wanted to try, confidence waning, Del hit the news.
In 2008, Del won the Archibald Prize, the most important portraiture prize in Australia, for a self-portrait with her two children. I was beyond happy for her, and the painting, which of course I went to see, was glorious.
I felt I couldn’t try to contact Del now, it would be like I was trying to hitch my wagon to her star. I did, however, sneak in at the back of a lecture she gave at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, creeping out again at the end before I was seen. As if I would have been recognised.
I’ve never tried to contact Del since. But I am so proud of my childhood friend as I follow her career.
Then this morning I opened my Google Reader and found this wonderful video of Del made by Dumbo Feather. It brought back all the memories I have shared, and I guess now is as good a time as any to make them public. I must tell you I had a tiny twinge of nerves as I sat down to write this, thinking “What if Del saw it, how embarrassing.” But I can be fairly sure Del is not reading this blog.
So now you’ve seen inside me, a little. I hope you enjoy seeing the inner-workings of this wonderful artist, too.