Indigenous artist Barry Johnny fights back after stroke to start painting again

In the remote Aboriginal community of Doomadgee in North West Queensland, it would be hard to find an artist as respected as Barry Johnny.

Just three years ago, Mr. Johnny was enjoying a successful career with hundreds of his vibrant landscape and animal paintings exhibited and sold nationwide.

But everything changed overnight

At 54, Mr Johnny suffered a stroke and was airlifted to Townsville for life-saving treatment.

He woke up in hospital with severe memory loss and speech difficulties.

Dazed and confused, this was the beginning of Mr. Johnny’s long road to recovery.

“When I got home I didn’t paint because I couldn’t remember a lot of the animal names I had painted – goanna, crocodile, barramundi – and I couldn’t remember people’s names “, did he declare.

The Nicholson River at Doomadgee. Mr Johnny is inspired by the beauty of the natural environment for his landscape works.(Provided: Jahlee Sambo Doomadgee State School)

Make life more enjoyable

After returning to Doomadgee, Mr. Johnny sought solace in the craft he loved.

With the help of NDIS support provider My Pathway, he began to progress gradually.

“When I was in Townsville, in the hospital, I wanted to paint. I didn’t know a lot of things, I had forgotten,” Mr Johnny said.

“I don’t know how I ended up like this. I get angry sometimes. I was a free man.

“But [when I started painting again] it helped my memory, reminding me how to draw birds and snakes.”

A painting of a snake
A snake painted after the stroke in a simpler style than Barry’s pre-stroke work.(Provided: Lee Brown)

Although he found solace in his art, the grief-stricken and defeated Mr. Johnny became detached and reclusive from the world around him.

“He didn’t mingle with his community. He just stayed home. It was his safe place,” said Lee Brown, a disability support worker.

He is the program coordinator for My Pathway who runs the services from his Doomadgee installation. A team of workers help Mr. Johnny, and others like him, get back on their feet.

The First Nations artist had speech therapy sessions through telehealth sessions with North West Community Rehab, assisted by students from James Cook University in Mount Isa.

And everyone agrees that it is his art that makes him speak.

“Each session Barry brings a different painting for them to talk about. These sessions really make a difference. Barry loves talking about all of his paintings,” Brown said.

A man in orange is depicted holding an artwork he is working on, he uses a bright orange color.
Inside the safe space created for Barry at My Pathway in Doomadgee, he comes here to paint every day. (Provided: Lee Brown)

“He has about 40 on the go in his room at the moment. It’s a great way to get him thinking about all his artwork and it encourages him to use his words.

“Talking about the color combinations that go together and all the shapes and techniques he uses is helping to repair the connections in his brain damaged by the stroke,” Brown said.

Art changes life

Mr. Brown helped convert a hangar at the My Pathway facility into an art space for Mr. Johnny who wakes up every morning with a special place to go.

Through his art, Mr. Johnny develops relationships with other people in the facility.

A man photographed holding a set of paintings in the bush, using orange, yellow and blue colors.
A timeline of Barry’s progress, he is holding a recent painting while on the wall behind is artwork from before the stroke.(Provided: Lee Brown)

“I drink coffee and chat with everyone. I’m so happy to be with everyone. I have a lot of respect for them and they have a lot of respect for me,” Mr Johnny said.

“He likes to have a thread with all the guys who weld and do carpentry in our Pathway shed,” Brown said.

“The welders are making vases right now, so they asked Barry and another participant, Beau, to paint them.”

Mr. Johnny’s artwork tells the story of his journey, Mr. Brown said.

“We have already taken people to his house who have already visited and heard about his works, and he displayed all his works under the mango tree, told them about them and sold pieces there.

The road ahead

Dusk in the Outback
The Nicholson River in Doomadgee, where Barry lives and works.(Provided: Doomadgee Roadhouse)

Three years after his stroke, Mr Johnny is preparing for an art exhibition in Cape York which he will be presenting in later this year.

He helps Mr. Johnny get his car back in working order in preparation for returning his license.

“I’ll see the doctor soon to see if I can get my license back. It would be nice to get that independence back. I’m hopeful,” Mr Johnny said.

“I’ll get in my car and my dog ​​will be in the front, and my kitten will be in the back, and we’ll go wherever we want,” he said.

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