Have you ever slept out under the stars in a swag? It’s life changing. To lie there and gaze up at the universe, spotting shooting stars and marvelling at the way the Earth spins on its axis to reveal new galaxies and constellations, casting its vast shadow on our satellite, the moon... it’s pretty mind blowing.
Under a full moon at the Bathurst Regional Gallery last year, I shared some stories about this experience when I opened ‘Romance of the Swag’, an exhibition of works by my dear friend Linda Jackson.
Linda and Jenny Kee are iconic Australian designers and the subjects of the documentary ‘Step Into Paradise’ in which I feature as a key commentator. It was Linda who first introduced me to the wonders of the swag after a trip to the Red Centre and the desert community of Utopia where she'd made batik silks with women including Emily Kame Kngwarreye, one of this country's most celebrated indigenous artists.
She was completely besotted with swag life. Back in the early 80s her ‘Bush Couture’ studio in Sydney’s Kings Cross was a hive of creativity. There was a gold frame around a little stage where we used to perform experimental shows with Jo Kennedy, who’d recently starred in the film Starstruck, and David Argue, who played Snowy in Gallipoli.
We’d all dress up in Linda’s hand-printed bush outfits with Akubras and RM Williams boots and saunter into frame to set up camp with our canvas swags that Linda had printed with gold and bronze gum leaves. We even had billies to boil on a fake fire. Linda was a gum tree swaying in the breeze. The invited audience must’ve thought we’d all taken acid.
Later we’d haul these bespoke swags out into the bush and do it all for real with a real fire. Linda hand-printed our sheets and doona covers with flourescent rainbow inks for extra colour therapy while we slept. We even had her divine taffeta printed ball gowns under our pillows, ready to rise and shine for dawn fashion shoots in the golden light of the Bungle Bungles or amongst the Sturt's Desert Peas near the opal town of Mintabie.
I’d always spent school holidays with my alternative parents who lived in a tiny town called Ilford on the Castlereagh Highway and had that love of the bush in my blood. So in 1988 when a very special property came up for sale nearby, Linda, and our friends Fran and Lydia bought it. Here under the escarpment of the Great Divide, we refined the art of swag life.
Linda would venture off for long periods, setting herself up in places like Alice Springs, Broome, Port Douglas or Oenpelli in Arnhem Land. out there she’d connect with indigenous communities through their art centres. She worked with Cookie Japaljarri Stewart who helped her paint one of the works in the exhibition; the story of Napurulla (Linda), going to the Warlukulangu Art Centre at Yuendemu from her home in Bronte through the waratahs of the Blue Mountains, and sitting down, sharing, creating - this is what Linda does.
When I was working as an arts reporter for CNN’s The Art Show, and ABC’s Review and Arts Today, I’d always find her somewhere in the landscape, and interview her about her latest creative project. Sometimes she was sleeping in a single swag, other times in what they call ‘a ‘married man swag’ - either inside or outside the house. She always had her swag ready to head off on the next adventure and explore inspirational new frontiers.
I remember doing a story at the Uluru Cultural Centre back in the mid 90s, and Linda and I swagged out in the campground there, snug as bugs all through the freezing cold night. When we awoke, we had icicles hanging from the inside of the canvas but we were always invigorated by the energy of the outback.
After that particular stint, the crew and I headed up the red sandy road of the Tanami Track to do a story at the Balgo Arts Centre. I had my latest, greatest, gold-printed gumleaf swag on the roof of the Landcruiser, plumped up with feather pillows and doonas, but when we got there, the swag wasn’t there. Some lucky bugger is still probably sleeping snug in it today.
I actually found my latest swag on the side of the highway too, brand new and unused. I spent a whole week in it out at Lightning Ridge recently and then up at Blue Knob too. It’s not like the old printed ones. It a modern version with a frame and a mosquito net that you can zip up and still see the stars through at night without getting bitten. Linda’s ones had organza flaps to throw over your face.
Today, everyone wants a swag - the Big Daddy Deluxe is ripper. Back then, they were really hard to find, especially in the Big Smoke. But the polluted city is not where we want to be anymore. Sure we'll go there for gigs but we’re happiest in the fresh air, surrounded by nature. It's where humans naturally thrive; grounded in the organic rhythms of life and overlooked by rocks of ages, feeling that ancient, sacred connection.
Linda needs this in her life. She respects and honours it in her work, especially her scrolls, printed on fabric that she hand-dyes and buries in the mud and takes with her wherever she goes. As she says, they can “be rolled up and are easy to travel with for the wandering artist.”
Linda is a very special Australian nomad. Even now at the fabulous age of 70 something, she’s on the move between her archives in Bendigo, Mudgee and Port Douglas, and anywhere else the wind may takes her and her wonderfully wild grey hair.
A dear friend of over four decades, she continues to inspire me with her irrepressible urge to connect with people through her art.
Looking around the Gallery I was reminded of so many incredible experiences that I would not have had without Linda leading the way. Her unique perspective, from the swag, was writ large in ‘Romance of the Swag’. And I can’t wait to get back out there on country with her and our swags once more.