‘Don’t you draw on my back’: storytelling on the border


Bethany Thornber No free parking 2019. Courtesy the artist. © Bethany Thornber

Storytelling is a universal human act. It is a form of communication that we use every day. Our stories can be simple or complex. Imaginative or dry. At some time and in some way, each of us has attempted the art of storytelling.

Bethany Thornber

Artist Bethany Thornber working in her outdoor studio

My name is Bethany Thornber; I’m a Wiradjuri artist and curator based on the border of NSW and Victoria. I learned to tell stories by listening to my pop, Larry.

Pop found contentment in simple things, like fishing and bread-and-butter pudding. He would pick us grandkids up from school in his ‘work vehicle’ – a council-owned road-roller – and we would go for a joy ride back to Nan’s and his place for afternoon tea. This consisted of upside-down pineapple cake and orange cordial with ants swimming in it. After a feed, the storytelling would begin. Wild and sensational stories – fairy tales.

Bethany Thornber Like rabbits do 2019. Courtesy the artist. © Bethany Thornber

Pop’s stories always started the same: ‘Once there was a little boy who lived on the river…’ This was the truthful portion of the story. From this point the story would grow curly, often ending with little Larry slaying great white sharks in the Murray or taming wild horses in the outback. We would all snicker at the ridiculousness of his stories, but, ultimately, we revelled in the whole act. The storytelling would then translate to drawing. All the kids would trudge to the lounge room where Pop would get out an ice-cream container filled with cheap textas. He would then lie on his stomach, pull up his shirt and without fail say, ‘now don’t you draw on my back’.

Bethany Thornber

Bethany Thornber Why’s one pink? 2019. Courtesy the artist. © Bethany Thornber

Thinking about the drawings I made on Pop’s back, I wonder if in some way they were the drafts of my paintings today. Those drawings from when I was six were not eloquent or refined, they were gutsy and naïve. They were uninhibited in their colour and shape. In many ways my hand hasn’t changed much since then; it’s just a new story.