Guus Brunnekreef values family, culture, community and tradition above all else and these values are woven through every aspect of her life. Her most recent emergence as an award-winning artist has been both “unexpected and humbling” says Guus.
However, her latest series of Indigenous portraits so fully reflect her connection to culture and tradition, one could say this is the culmination of her life journey.
Guus was one of 14 children, raised in a rural region of the Netherlands. “Being creative was a necessity- if you wanted a toy you made it, if you wanted a dress you made it. Growing vegetables, preserving, crocheting, knitting were all essential skills,” says Guus.
These early years also gave Guus a true appreciation of our responsibility to every living creature and the earth. “My father used to say there is something wrong when the farm animals don’t have names anymore. I learnt as a child the importance of crop rotation and not depleting the soils. These were the concerns of the farming communities in Holland so many years ago. It’s not about quantity but quality. This always resonated with me,” says Guus.
Guus describes these early years as “full of happiness. It was like boarding school at home. With 4 children to a room it was all about us, never about me. We were and still are all so close,” says Guus. So the decision to immigrate to Australia with two young children wasn’t an easy one.
After a few false starts Guus and husband Robert moved into the then empty café space at the Old Butter Factory Bellingen in 1992 and created the now iconic Butter Factory Cafe. “The Cafe was a 7 day per week business, which we ran for 17 years. This was a marvellous time. We had the most brilliant staff who worked with us for years. We became part of this rich community and working at the café allowed us to rejoice with those celebrating and provide a shoulder for those in need,” says Guus.
It was during this time Guus also realised the distinct differences between her new found home and life in the Netherlands. “Death and grieving were dealt with so differently in Australia. Overall death was so clinical here. Birth and death happened at home in Holland. I would often hear my clients at the Old Butter Factory lament about not having the opportunity to spend the final moments with their loved one. To have missed out on that last cuddle,” says Guus. “It is a privilege to be at a birth, just as it is a privilege to be at a death.”
Guus began working with Miindala, formerly the Bellingen and Dorrigo Bereavement Group, now our local branch of the National Association for Loss and Grief [NALAG], established by Leah Munroe. Miindala is the Gumbaynggirr word for “doing things well”, reflecting the group’s philosophy for how things can be done at end of life.
The group comprises 14 volunteers under the co-ordination of Anna Chetan Bloemhard. All have received training in loss and grief and ‘how to listen’. “We provide an ear for the grieving,” says Guus. The group has also revived a booklet ‘Do Your Own Funerals’, by Leah Munroe for those wanting to personalise their own or loved one’s parting and have purchased a cooling plate and cuddle cot with funds raised, which enable families to be with their deceased loved one in their own home for longer. “There is no right or wrong way to grieve – it just is. But we believe having more control over the process assists the grieving process,” says Guus.
This rich life, so full of love, human connection and experience is now reflected in Guus’ portraiture work. Her chosen medium is water colours combined with drawing. “I am drawn to faces and hands, this is where the true story and culture are reflected. To capture the ‘soul’ of my subject is the challenge,” says Guus. Having won three ‘people’s choice’ awards in the past 12 months means the viewers are also connecting with Guus’ subjects. “To think that my work resonates with people is very fulfilling,” says Guus. And resonate they do.
“Insight” together with other similar artworks are currently showing in the Indigenous & Australian Art Exhibition at the Bellingen Framing Gallery, 44 Hyde Street Bellingen until the 8th December.