Art the last piece of life puzzle

Artist Roger Saunders with his wife Christine.
Artist Roger Saunders with his wife Christine. Scottie Simmonds

FROM the hands of a soldier who carried the destructive power of an M16 through two tours of the Vietnam War rose those of an artist whose skills and teachings have had a positive and spiritual influence on future generations.

But artist Roger "Bushfire" Saunders wasn't always so sure about himself and his place in the world.

Eleven years ago he was confronted with the discovery he was part Aboriginal, from the Ngarrindjeri nation of South Australia.

"When I found out, I sort of felt whole and that I'd come full circle and finally found my place," Mr Saunders said.

The youngest son of English immigrant Ruby and Australian man Alfred, Mr Saunders was born in 1945 in Mt Gambier, and was always led to believe he was white Australian.

As he grew up, he was often rebuffed by his father when the question of his heritage came up.

"I always knocked around with Aborigines and all the mates I had were dark," Mr Saunders said.

"The elders always took me in. They knew 40 years before I did that I was part Aboriginal."

His life was suddenly like a jigsaw puzzle coming together after the truth of his heritage came out.

His family had always had holidays at Goolwa, in the heart of the Ngarrindjeri nation, and it was a place that had often been special and soothing to him.

At the age of 17, Mr Saunders joined the army and served his country with pride for 20 years, including two tours of Vietnam with the Australian 3rd Battalion. He retired from the service a sergeant.

After having known each other for 35 years, he finally got around to marrying Christine in 1997.

They lived the wandering life of grey nomads, travelling often to remote areas of the outback, for which they shared a common love.

Of all things, it was a shark bite near the town of Cossack, on the coast of Western Australia, that was the true turning point in his life.

After being told he would not be allowed to swim for at least two weeks, his wife made the decision it was about time they try a few more tourist-like activities.

That was a decision that would lead Mr Saunders to delve into a new career.

On the tourist trail, the couple entered an Aboriginal co-op and, after a lifetime ignoring his Aboriginal friend's encouragements to try painting, Mr Saunders decided to give it a bash.

"What you want to paint for? You think you can paint like a blackfella?" one elder asked him accusingly.

But the general consensus from the rest of the elders was that he was "their kind of fella".

And so Mr Saunders found himself taking an indigenous art class each day for a week, in which he learnt about backgrounds and colour as well as many other indigenous painting techniques - and it cost him the princely sum of five bucks a painting.

"It set me on a different life path; it felt good," he said.

A few months after his first painting lesson, Mr Saunders was asked by sister-in-law Pat Hickman what he wanted for Christmas.

"I don't really need anything. How about getting my genealogy done?" he asked her.

That reply brought about a gift that was to change his life - the gift of knowing where he came from and who he was.

After a lot of research, Mrs Hickman was led to Veronica Brodie, of Ngarrindjeri and Kaurne descent, who unearthed that Roger Saunders was not only of Aboriginal descendants, but that they were also related.

And so, for the second time, Mr Saunders' life began.

Finding out he had Aboriginal blood running in his veins answered a lot of unanswered questions for him.

His paintings went from strength to strength, and he was to learn his artworks were like those of ancient healing, helping to sooth painful memories from the war.

Since those early days of what was in some ways the start of his new life, Mr Saunders has built a strong reputation as an indigenous artist and a good bloke.

Nine years ago, he and Christine moved to Bundaberg, where he has continued to grow as an artist and humanitarian. He has started a program for school children, Art From The Heart, in which schools from all over Australia line up to take part, and has recently been embraced by people as far away as England.

"(The program) has given them a new sense of self-worth and seems to have a great calming effect on people," Mr Saunders said.

His paintings have inspired the creation of a concerto by renowned pianist Glen Carter-Varney, can be seen emblazoned on wine labels, and are showcased in galleries around Australia.


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Topics:  art artist indigenous lifestyle painting

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