A delicate legacy


Dear Artist,

Since my father’s death, my mum and I have engaged in an activity I’ll call, “anecdotes you may not have heard before.” In it, we tell each other stories about my dad — mine usually involve things he taught and told me, while hers are about her husband, the Human Artist. Our activity always honours an unspoken understanding that keeps his heroic role in our family — and my creative universe — intact. My mother continues to mother me at her highest expression. I honour her with my dedication to my work and gratitude for her vital role.

Ned Kelly Holding up a Kangaroo, 2009 Gouache on textured paper 56 × 83 cm by Adam Cullen (1965-2012)

Ned Kelly Holding up a Kangaroo, 2009
gouache on textured paper
56 × 83 cm
by Adam Cullen (1965-2012)

Last week, I told my mum about some of my father’s advice, and she replied with delight that she hadn’t heard it before. I was remembering that when I was in my early thirties and making some difficult decisions about life’s creative storyline, my dad suggested that whenever possible, I should choose the constructive, rather than the destructive path. He wholeheartedly rejected the tired myth that an artist must construct a negative drama in order to be interesting or legendary. He motioned towards his own life, one that included an attraction to harmony over discord — one that kept our family close and his work at the ready, with his painting subjects focused on honouring what which he loved most — the environment and the designs and nobleness of nature and the beauty of small details.

Portrait of David Wenham (Archibald Prize, 2000) acrylic on canvas 182 x 153 cm by Adam Cullen

Portrait of David Wenham (Archibald Prize, 2000)
acrylic on canvas
182 x 153 cm
by Adam Cullen

In 2008, 42-year-old Australian painter Adam Cullen asked 19-year-old Erik Jensen to move into his spare room and write his biography, luring him with the promise that he had a deal with a publisher. Erik, then an ambitious young writer for the Sydney Morning Herald dove into what would become a four-year-long black hole of mind-games and myth-making by Cullen, who was alone and self-destructing with use of heroin and alcohol. As it turned out, there never was a deal, but when Cullen died in 2012 at age 46, Jensen assembled a portrait of the artist in ten chapters and published it as, Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen. In it, Jensen described a likeable man from an uneventful, suburban Sydney upbringing, but one who worked hard to cultivate a repellent personality through destructive habits, all in an effort to build what he believed was a suitable artistic persona. Cullen’s bad behavior eventually eclipsed his paintings — one of his last, self-inflicted devastations was his own trial for weapons possession. Cullen’s still-celebrated work, in museum collections and adorning a Melbourne hotel named for him, tapped into universal Australian themes including crime, masculinity and animal-human connections. Near his end, though, it risked devolving into pastiches of his own earlier sparks of a more honest Australian portrait.

Australian Saints, 1999 synthetic polymer paint, ink and enamel on board 107.8 x 208 cm By Adam Cullen

Australian Saints, 1999
synthetic polymer paint, ink and enamel on board
107.8 x 208 cm
By Adam Cullen



PS: “Endurance is more important than truth.” (Adam Cullen)

Esoterica: Melbourne sparkles with early summer breezes and jubilant patio sippers. Immersed in Cullen’s loose drips in a portrait of Ned Kelly’s emaciated horse, I acquiesce to Adam Cullen’s painterly commitment to his own form of method acting. At 35, he entered Australia’s most revered prize for portraiture — The Archibald — and won. In this victory of recognition, Cullen upended what was once reserved only for the conservative end of the Australian art establishment. Like the outlaw Ned Kelly, in his own makeshift armour, Cullen made his name and then orchestrated his own spectacular shootout.

Kelly's Horse acrylic on canvas by Adam Cullen

Kelly’s Horse
acrylic on canvas
by Adam Cullen

Thomas M. Wright’s 2018 film adaptation of Erik Jensen’s book, Acute Misfortune is here.

The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s

“It had to come to this.” (Ned Kelly)





  1. I adore the stories of Ned Kelly, especially as told through the paintings of Sydney Nolan. Cannot wait to hear about your travels and what you have seen.

  2. I love hearing about you and your mum telling each other stories. It reminded me why I write those same type of stories/memories, for my grandchildren and younger family members so that when I’m gone and they are no longer the younger ones they will learn some unknown family history. I have 2 blogs, one I call Solo travel and Random thoughts, just for this purpose. It must be the best for your mum and you to find a new story about the man you both loved so much. Thanks for sharing. …..now back to painting.

  3. Sara, it is heartwarming to learn of your creative relationship with your mother. I had just re-read How to Get to Ullapool and thought how beneficial your easy relationship with others has been, a tribute to your own personality.
    PS Hearing a clip of one of your music recordings would add a nice touch to an essay,

  4. Thank you Sara for your poignant and sage words. I too had an artist father and we connected in a soulful reflective way. He passed in 2012 and left a big hold in my life. But I feel his spirit in things he did that I have in my studio. And I still talk to him. My Mother and I would also reminisce about the past – I made a point of recording some of our chats as that was one big regret I have about Dad – I have no recording of his voice. Sadly my Mom passed earlier this year so our chats have ended but I am. very thankful for the recordings and time we spent talking together. We hold them in our hearts …forever.

  5. Jonathan Wiltshire on

    How blessed you are to have earned such parents, and they to a sensitive and grateful daughter.
    That Cullen’s Portrait was awarded the Archibald prize reminds me of a quote by Walter Scott:
    ‘“ A rusty nail placed near a faithful compass, will sway it from the truth, and wreck the argosy.”

  6. Sara, this weeks letter struck a few chords with me.
    The beautiful bravery of you and your mother sharing anecdotes of your wonderful father.
    One chord; My son lost his wife to breast cancer 2 years ago, there is still reluctance to have conversation in which she is mentioned. I am trusting that with a bit more time this will change.
    The other chord, is the seeming need/desire for negative drama in art.
    I have always believed it is easier to make people sad than it is to bring them joy.
    I’m making it my art mission to focus on rendering the things that bring me joy, and share them in the hope it will do the same for others.
    On this note; JOY to the World!

  7. Sorry, I guess I missed it. Why honor an eccentric self-destructive narcissistic person? His portrait of David Wenham looks elementary to me, nothing as compared to a DiVinci. Yes, socialists will glorify it as all feeling and emotions, but honestly the guy seems miserable and mean, nothing to glorify.

    • I’m glad to see your post, I was starting to think I was the only one who felt that way. Heroin and alcohol? The two most destructive drugs.

    • I agree. That’s art in Australia today. Yesterday they even abolished the Federal Govt Department of Arts…..now mixed in with about 5 other unrelated departments , and is now not even mentioned in the name of the Govt Dept anymore.. We are the only country that lacks a Department of Arts/culture.
      Only the top establishment-supported artists win the Archibald Prize….very rarely is it won on the merit of the work …if ever. Like other top Australian artists, Cullen is mentioned as being very over-the-top personality, vivacious, witty and so charming. These top artists are great entertainers, but not ones who are necessarily good artists. Yet even for these guys, the life of an artist in Australia is really tough, think of Brett Whitley, Syd Nolan (his wife suicided) .
      On the bottom line, good art is not at all valued or promoted in Australia.

      • Elizabeth Senger on

        That is a shame! Because in the area of textile art, Australia is high up on the list along with England. Quilters look to Australia for creative, inventive, and out of the box design. The color story of the quilts tend for the most part to reflect the country’s nature and weather. I guess we are in a different category of art. Some would even evict us from “art” period.

        • Hi Elizabeth. Yes, I truly love these colourful & very creative quilts, that can really reflect the culture and nature of a country. So glad that they are influencing other countries. And there are some great exhibitions of this artwork on in the country. Lovely.
          But visual artists…..I see such talent from such neglected Aussie Artists on the internet.All being ignored, except for our wonderful Indigenous Artists.
          In the past, I lived in England for many years…and the opportunities over there for exhibiting work seemed much greater. But here in Australia, there are no Government Grants for working artists to have exhibitions…even for top establishment artists….unless you are Indigenous. No chances for the visual artist….or dance/music/theater groups who have all had their grant pulled away from them over the last few years.

    • I agree with you, Donna. Nothing special at all in those paintings. Just as with much in the art world they look as though painted by a child. They become “fine” art merely because of the artist’s personality and public acts of debauchery.

    • Actually I think the portrait is pretty well done. A take on Van Gogh’s self-portrait? While I wouldn’t want it hanging on my wall, misery is a part of life we all face sometime (I presume) and is portrayed in minimal strokes here. Which doesn’t make me feel comfortable looking at it, though.

  8. Elizabeth Senger on

    How sensitive and real the first 2 paragraphs. The ugliness of the content in the rest of the essay is in high contrast.
    Question: Why does negativity in art get more publicity than its opposite?

  9. Another wonderful article Sara. What a beautiful relationship your mother and you share, in addition to that with your father. A very important lesson too, to focus on the constructive, not the destructive. Thank you for sharing your dear family and their warmth with us.

  10. Sharing stories is of huge importance within a family and community. I have finally managed to put together my memoirs complete with linoprint illustrations for each chapter. It is the Christmas present for my family this year.

  11. …..”focused on honouring what which he loved most — the environment and the designs and nobleness of nature and the beauty of small details.” This so resonates with me; my thinking exactly. Sara, really love the fact that you and your mother share: “Our activity always honours an unspoken understanding that keeps his heroic role in our family — and my creative universe — intact.” I love this. What a wonderful relationship you have with your mother and the one you had with your father. Thank you for sharing your letter. With appreciation, Suszanne

Leave A Reply

Featured Workshop

“THE MAGIC OF PAINTING FROM LIFE” with Sheree Jones at Casa Buena Art Retreat, Mexico
November 20, 2019 to November 27, 2019

Spanish Casita

Join Canadian artist Sheree Jones as she shares her passion for painting “from life” at this idyllic coastal retreat.

This workshop is designed for experienced beginner & intermediate oil (and acrylic) painters.
The small group size guarantees plenty of one on one instruction.
While you’re busy creating art, your friendly hosts at Casa Buena will be working hard, ensuring that your stay is a memorable one.
Outstanding food, accommodations, and field trips will satisfy your desire for both comfort and adventure. Non painting partners welcome.

For more information visit:
or contact Sheree:

https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/shawn-jackson-artwork-landscape-mountain-trees_big-wpcf_300x247.jpgMelanie Islet
acrylic on canvas
24 x 30 inches

Featured Artist

Shawn’s paintings evoke the feelings of the West Coast, its shores and islands, ponds and lakes.