Home' Aurora : Aurora November 2013 Contents When Virginia Petherbridge saw Kathie
Bowtell's portrait of her late son, Sam, for
the first time, she said, "I feel like I could
grab him out of the portrait and hug him!"
The portrait of Sam Petherbridge, infused
with young life, is one of many painted by
artist Kathie as part of the "stART talking"
project she initiated in conjunction with
Lifeline Newcastle and Hunter.
Kathie knows the impact of suicide first
hand, principally through the deaths of
her grandfather and stepbrother, and her
motivation is to provide a creative means
by which people are encouraged simply to
"start talking". "Maybe someone's worried
about someone they know. Maybe an
individual is troubled and doesn't know
how to begin an awkward conversation."
Virginia and Steve Petherbridge
are committed to spreading the
communication message, especially
among young people. When their son took
his life, days before his eighteenth birthday,
their lives changed in an instant. Six years
on, they continue to grieve, but they have
channelled their energy into addressing
the ignorance and stigma that still surround
Reflecting on the six years since Sam's
death, Virginia says, "We marked Sam's
21st birthday and most of his close friends
attended. In his speech, Steve asked them
all to communicate their feelings with one
another and never be afraid to reach out if
they felt down or in need of help."
Creating the opportunity for someone
to 'reach out' is the purpose of "stART
talking"; the portraits, beautiful as they are,
are byproducts. Sam's portrait, all light and
movement, will engage anyone who visits
the Petherbridge home, and despite the
ever-present sadness, Virginia and Steve
don't step back from sharing their story
and encouraging open communication --
and as Virginia says, "Hug your children
Kathie Bowtell is a real estate agent by
day and an artist by night. Sharing her gift
is her way of addressing the fact that an
estimated 180 Australians attempt suicide
BY TRACEY EDSTEIN
each day. The joy the portraits bring
families of those who have taken that step
is gratifying, but more significant to her are
the possibilities the portraits represent.
"stART talking" operates under the
auspices of Lifeline Newcastle and Hunter
and in 2014 there will be an exhibition
of the portraits Kathie's painted for the
families of people who have died by
suicide. She gives her time, talent and
materials freely, and she says each portrait
"makes my heart smile".
Virginia recalls that in the months following
Sam's death, one persistent thought
troubled her. "I had been brought up to
believe that if you took your own life, it
was a terrible sin and you would not go to
heaven. I was worried that Sam was not
with God." A chance encounter with her
former parish priest at St Luke's Wallsend
assuaged this anxiety. "Fr Robert Catt told
me that 'God was a loving God and he
would not turn away the sick or wounded'.
That gave me tremendous peace. I had a
husband and three beautiful daughters to
live for. We were all struggling."
Virginia Petherbridge is naturally
gregarious and now she dedicates
much of her time and energy to simple
conversations that make a real difference.
Before retiring from secondary teaching,
she would often gravitate to those
students who were suffering, modelling an
openness that disarms others and helps
them to "start talking".
Sam's Dad, Steve, clearly misses his only
son every day but when the portrait's
unveiled, he's delighted. "It's open and
free, just like he was. Straight to the
Phone Lifeline 13 11 14, or visit www.
lifelinehunter.org.au. If you are an artist
who would like to be involved in "stART
talking", please contact the editor.
Steve and Virginia Petherbridge with artist
Kathie Bowtell holding Sam's portrait.
Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle www.mn.catholic.org.au
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