Artist Damian Bisogni spent a weekend sitting on country with the subject of his Archibald Prize portrait, Goreng Goreng man Chris Sarra, before he fully understood the direction the painting needed to take, writes Digby Hildreth.

Damian had struggled through four earlier versions of the large-scale piece, none of them satisfactory, all now painted over. The finished work, seven months in the making, is at the framers being prepared for entry into the wellregarded award.

Chris Sarra is an educationalist and founder and chairman of the Stronger Smarter Institute – an organisation that champions the improvement of Aboriginal educational outcomes throughout Australia, encouraging students to have a positive sense of their cultural identity and their potential as community leaders.

The first Aboriginal principal of Cherbourg State School, Chris Sarra has held directorgeneral positions within the Queensland civil service and been both Queenslander of the Year and Queensland’s Australian of the Year.

Damian is a Victoria-born painter who lived and painted in Bangalow for nearly 20 years. His three sons went through the Bangalow Community Children’s Centre, then Bangalow Public School, and also played soccer for Bangalow Bluedogs. Damian coached all three of them at the club, for 20 years altogether. His work is represented in the town at Pack Gallery, and he has shown at Caitlin Reilly’s Gallery 3 in Byron Bay.

Both Damian and Chris’s fathers are Italian, but the connection between them is not ethnic, or even artistic, but educational: “It was through teaching that I met Chris, and it changed my life,” Damian says, “which is quite ironic because my father told me there was no money in being an artist and advised me to become a teacher. As a 20-year-old, I couldn’t think of anything worse.”

Damian took a Fine Art degree at Victoria College of Art and spent the 90s having “a great time hanging out with artists”, staging exhibitions in Melbourne and at Ray Hughes Gallery in Sydney and later running cafes in Melbourne and the Northern Rivers.

Eventually he did follow his dad’s advice, completing a Bachelor of Education at Southern Cross University and joining Ballina High School.

As the school’s head of Aboriginal programmes, he was sent for training with the Stronger Smarter Institute; it was a watershed moment for him.

He proceeded to train his colleagues in the Stronger Smarter approach, as well as the new arrivals following the school’s merger with Southern Cross – more than 100 people.

After 17 years with the school, he took three years of leave and went to work for the Stronger Smarter Institute, travelling all round Australia, visiting schools and training teachers in communities big and small, many of them in Western NSW – Parkes, Forbes, Wagga, Tamworth, Orange. “It’s huge out there,” he says, “and in Ballina.”

The Stronger Smarter programme is based on respect, understanding and openness, he says: “The Aboriginal way of doing things goes back millennia and is still within them. When you go back and practise these things, immense changes can occur – in individual’s performance levels and self-esteem, and school morale.

“It was such a powerful experience and the whole way I approached people shifted,” he says.

Pack Gallery owner Paula Bannon says Damian’s work is unconsciously autobiographical, “figurative, aesthetically pleasing, with a tribal quality to it, and usually a bit of a political element, a social commentary underlying it”. It is popular with gallery visitors and often proves a conversation starter.

Damian is reluctant to define his painting style; all of his works start off abstract then achieve a degree of figuration. He is also not influenced by any other painter, which is a rare thing in the art world, she says.

His method of painting is usually organic, starting with “putting spare paint on a board and evolving from there”, but the Chris Sarra piece needed a different approach – including the requirement for a live sitting.

“I’d been trying to paint him for years, but we were both busy and could never find a time to meet. Then one day he invited me up to his property near Bundaberg,” Damian says.

The two men talked all weekend: “Chris spoke about his habit of returning to country whenever he felt the need to ground himself, to talk to his ‘old people’, ancestors who he says direct him.”

They spent hours sitting in nature, at one point in the mouth of a cave: “You could feel something there,” Damian says. “I didn’t draw there at all, just sat in silence, for about an hour.”

Damian says he “physically saw” the old people within Chris, at which point he understood the direction he needed to take with the portrait.

“I could see him filled with figures. I could see it,” says Damian. “I’ve never experienced something like that before; never been with people who are so deeply spiritual.”

These old people – elders past – are represented in the painting, as lines of figures within the large circular head.

The figures also represent “all of those people whose lives Chris has changed through the Stronger Smarter programme – and the ripple effect of that teaching”, Damian says, and something of Sarra’s own wisdom, and a monk-like serenity, can be seen in the portrait, as well as his forward thinking and far-reaching vision.

It is a powerful, moving and meaningful work, as well as beautiful to look at. The size, earthy colour and “primitive” figures also represent an aesthetic vibrancy and cultural authority that has existed for tens of thousands of years.

Damian says he feels confident about entering the Archibald, but he is also philosophical: “I’d be happy just to get in the Salon des Refuses,” he says. “But if it comes back to me, I’ll offer it to Chris to keep.”

Photos by Vanessa Reed