Sydney life: Adventures while painting jacarandas

In November 2016, I started walking from home across to the Botanic Gardens each day, with my watercolours in a backpack, to paint the jacarandas in flower. I would go down the McElhone Stairs, then up past Harry’s Cafe de Wheels, through the giant figs to the ornate entrance gates. One afternoon, halfway there, in Stephen Street, near the Woolloomooloo Community Garden, I noticed a good tree in full purple bloom against the light, so I quickly set up my stool and watercolour plates on the footpath to paint it.

Jacaranda, Summer Hill 2015Credit:Tom Carment

I’d been working on this picture for half an hour when two police came running towards me – guns, Tasers and handcuffs jangling. I panicked, but they split, one to my left and one to my right. A heavy-set woman followed behind them, puffing. They ran into the basketball court to my right and shouted, "Jake, come over here!" A young man, bare-chested, shirt tucked into his jeans, sidled up to them. I packed up my gear and headed to the gardens where I knew I still had time to paint another favourite jacaranda, which flowered against a bank of dark foliage – I could look at it from the shadow of the holly oak tree.

It was getting late when I finished that watercolour, so I walked higher up, to the herb garden, to hold my damp paper in the last rays of afternoon sun to dry. A tall African man in a white shirt and baggy dark suit was standing there, next to a short tree (unlabelled) behind me, tearing leaves off, stuffing them in his pockets.

I cleared my throat, and asked: "What do you call that tree?"

He looked up,  "Khat. I’m just taking a few leaves to chew."

"Are you from Somalia?"

"Yes."

I put the dry watercolour in my bag and left, walking towards the gate. The Somali man moved away too, in a westerly direction. I looked back before I turned into the Palm Grove and saw that he’d looped back to the khat tree.

Some of the best flowering jacarandas are past Sydenham, along the train line, in Marrickville and beyond. I searched for places where I could sit and paint them with a bit of privacy, without impeding the passers-by. In Summer Hill, I found a low wall where I could lay out my gear, in front of a nursing home, with a huge purple tree opposite. Most pedestrians left me alone, but a friendly lady with a small dog stopped to chat: "Painting, are you? It’s a great hobby. So relaxing … What are you painting?"

Jacaranda, Leichhardt 2014Credit:Tom Carment

I pointed across the road with my brush.

She squinted at my canvas, watched me for a while and then asked, ‘Where is the church?’

Not "a church" but "the church".

I was tempted to reply, "Everywhere."

But I just told her, sorry, I wasn’t from Summer Hill and didn’t know of a church nearby.

It was council clean-up time and my view of the tree was between two stacks of unwanted white goods and broken MDF furniture. A tattooed muscular man, who’d been going through the piles, came up to me, gripping an electric fan on a stand.

"Trouble is, mate," he said to me, "you don’t know if the f—ing thing works."

He ran into the foyer of a block of flats looking for a powerpoint, then came out again, shaking his head and swearing.

"Why don’t you ask those tradies working further up the road," I suggested, pointing to some trucks in the distance. "They’ve probably got an extension cord."

"Yeah," he said, and ran off.

I imagined him saying to them, "The guy painting jacarandas sent me."

Extract from Womerah Lane: Lives and Landscapes by Tom Carment  from Giramondo Publishing. Tom Carment's jacarandas are included in his exhibition Away from the Frontline, which is at the King St Gallery on William until November 23.

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