'Long John' Dewar is the resident artist at Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge. But having already lost the use of his right eye, Long John was faced with a daunting reality: the loss of vision in his left.
Robert 'Long John' Dewar is a painter. He paints what is close to him. "Fish, goanna, kangaroo, my spirit. That's how I paint - like that; turtle, all the birds, barramundi, snakes living in the billabong," he said.
“Sometimes I draw bush tucker: wild carrot, wild yam, plum tree, billy goat plums…sometimes I draw that.”
Long John is a Mayilli man, born near Katherine. He got his nick-name because of his height. “All the people call me that because they reckon I’m a tall man,” he said. “Robert is my real name. My mum called me that when I was born.”
Today Long John is the resident artist at Nitmiluk Visitor’s Centre at Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge. You will often find him at the Centre, sitting on the floor in a back corner, working slowly, carefully on a current piece. Other works surround him: some are for sale, some are still to be finished.
Long John Dewar is the resident artist at the visitor's centre at Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge in Australia's Northern Territory
Tourists wander by, some watch from a distance, some stop, transfixed by this artist at work, unsure whether they should interrupt and ask him about what he is painting. Those who do are rewarded by a sly chuckle and a glimpse into the life of a man who is very close to his country; a man who sees deeply despite the obvious: Long John has no vision in his right eye, the result of an accident when he was a boy.
“That’s because of a needle, a sewing needle,” he said. “I pulled it hard and poked my eye. It was a long time ago now, in the bush.”
Long John has worked his entire career dependent on the vision in his left eye. “I used to work mustering cattle, fencing, as a manager,” he said about his life before painting. “I used to work odd jobs, go to other stations, when I was young. We used to work at stock camps. It was all with one eye.”
Long John’s uncle introduced him to art and taught him to paint. Despite his vision loss, he has become a well-known Australian artist. One of his paintings, Bolung Story
, hangs in Parliament House in Darwin.
Long John with a recent painting at Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge
And, like with his earlier career, Long John’s ability to paint has been dependent on the vision in his left eye – an eye that is now clouding over with cataract
“It’s like smoke,” Long John said about his deteriorating vision. “I’m still painting, but up close. I can look close or I wear reading glasses and I can look to paint, but small things I can’t look. Sometimes I make it wrong. It’s a bit glary, my eye, sometimes I make it wrong.”
Long John was advised to attend an ‘intensive’ surgery day in Darwin facilitated and funded by The Fred Hollows Foundation.
The intensive surgery days are a collaborative approach to eye health involving several health agencies where groups of patients from regional and remote areas are brought to Darwin to receive surgery.
Long John is prepped for surgery in Darwin. Four intensive surgery days have been conducted over the past few months resulting in 48 Indigenous patients, including Long John, receiving sight-saving surgery.
Long John is no stranger to surgery, having had a heart operation several years ago. Having gone through that, he is fairly nonchalant about a simple operation to restore his sight.
“I’m not nervous, I’m a brave man. I don’t worry about anything, I’m just like that,” he said.
Four intensive surgery days have been conducted over the past few months with 48 Indigenous patients from Katherine and surrounding areas receiving sight-saving surgery. Long John is one of them.
The day after surgery, Long John sits under a tree outside an eye clinic in Darwin, waiting to return to Katherine. His patch was removed a few minutes before. He is laughing about his time the previous evening, a time when he had a bandage covering the eye that was operated on and, as usual, no vision in the other.
The day after surgery, Long John is back in Katherine, already able to see his paintings more clearly than he has in years.
“I couldn’t see. Someone told me: ‘You bump everywhere! Sit down, sit down!’,” he laughed.
“But I can see now! I can see the people, the town, the clouds. I can do a big one [painting] now. I’ll do a crocodile. Oh yeah, I’m excited.”