Getting up close to veterans

Getting up close to veterans
Rhonda Dredge

Jack Blankley was with the Australian troops in Korea and in 2004 he was marching in a parade at the Shrine of Remembrance.

An artist noticed his striking whiskers and they got talking. She offered to paint his portrait.

The portrait now hangs in the corner behind the stairs at the Victorian Artists Society in East Melbourne.

Jack became one of 40 soldiers Meg Davoren-Honey painted to commemorate the 90th birthday of the Gallipoli landing.

Most of her subjects, including some painted from photographs of World War One veterans, have now passed on.

“I had to paint fast,” she said. “I wanted to record these forgotten heroes. It’s a tribute to these men for their bravery and sacrifice.”

The “heroes” did not always want to talk about their experiences, such as World War Two veteran Robert Waters who sat for an hour at The Hero Club in Toorak.

This did not stop Meg. She made sketches and took photographs, and his portrait sits a couple up from Jack’s.

“I’m interested in their stories. That’s why I paint them,” Meg said. “They’ve seen so much and come out the other side.”

She hit gold with Corporal Jack Mayle who had written a book on his escape from Rabaul. She went up to Tallangatta and he put on his medals for the portrait, while she listened to his tales.

There are currently no Australian troops in combat zones, since the return from Afghanistan last year.

So, the annual ANZAC exhibition at the VAS has finally become an historical record of a period, in stark contrast to the battle scenes depicted in catalogues of exhibitions from the war years.

The exhibition does not present an anti-war message, but the portraits do question the glorification.

Meg tries to capture the souls of these survivors through their eyes. “They go away happy young men and never know how they’ll get back. They’ve learned to live with themselves,” she said.

The medals sit a little uneasily in the works because they’re mounted on stiff strips of metal. “Sometimes they extend past the soldier’s shoulders.”

Meg has travelled to Humpty Doo south of Darwin to the Vietnam vets’ clubhouse and volunteered at Gallipoli in 36-hour shifts to get closer to the issue.

“I never forget a face that I’ve painted,” she said.

ANZAC Exhibition, Victorian Artists Society, until the end of May •


Caption: Meg and her portraits.

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