Painted in remarkable accuracy, the essence of WA’s north – proud peoples, outback life, Indigenous ways and breathtaking beauty – is being captured on canvas by two Broome artists.
In a town brimming with talented artists, Betty Rupe and Craig Rochford have rare, true insight into the fabric of this unique niche of the world.
The artists bring out the stealth of the stock rider, the lined face of the pearl diver, Indigenous ways and the dust of the cattle muster amid the north’s luscious landscape.
It is part of Betty and Craig, ingrained in their self-consciousness and at their core.
Craig was born in Broome, schooled with just five non-Indigenous students and 350 Aboriginal kids.
He knows them, speaks their town-talk fluently and knows and respects their ways. Craig became a pearl diver, working with the last of the legendary Japanese hard-hat divers.
With his knowledge and passion for his “backyard”, the Kimberley, Craig became a committed sculptor before turning to brushes and oils and finally opting to make art his primary objective, supported by casual and part-time jobs like fruit-picking, melon farming and commercial recycling.
Craig met Perth-born Betty after she rode into town and opened a riding school. Betty, an experienced stock rider and riding teacher, turned to art – something she’d never contemplated despite having an artist mother (Perth’s Diane Newton, 74, who still paints).
A few years short of 50, the couple juggle jobs between to support their three kids, 7, 12 and 14, and themselves.
Caught-up in Broome’s property price explosion when their rented home was sold, they were forced into a smaller home in town.
“I came to Broome at 25, did some paintings and gave them away. Because of the interest here, I started selling then exhibiting, entering art prizes, displaying at Broome markets and selling prints,” she said.
“When I came to Broome, it was with my horse-riding business. I had 12 horses taking about six tourists to the beach to walk, trot and canter the horses.
“I sold the business when I started painting – which was because I discovered the Kimberley.
“I paint for myself, I don’t really like to do commissions but I have done some. It’s not about what will sell. We don’t paint to sell but to express what we want to paint and put on canvas.”
Craig says they are aware that what they have inside themselves and that all their local knowledge, experience and feel for the Kimberley should be recorded because younger artists may not be able to relate it in the same insiders’ way.
“Work is now secondary to us. It supports the kids and us but the work we do is just a means to an end,” he says.
“About 50 per cent of what we sell pays for materials.”
Betty says: “I like subjects that make me go ‘wow’. I have a strong connection with horses from my time on stock routes out of Wagga Wagga, droving where I had contact with animals.
“I love it all, everything. I love smell of cow poo.”
Riding horses since she was five, Betty was a child drover of cattle around stock routes. She became a registered track rider, a level-one riding coach and Broome racecourse clerk-of-course.
Working in the cattle yards, she regularly headed out in the bush.
“It’s a life that I loved. I never thought of being creative or painting. A friend with an art degree showed me how to prepare and use oil paints.”
Betty has painted bucking horses and rodeos – popular subjects for art buyers – but says: “I don’t favor that hard side with art. I’m more the soft side, the sense of the romantic.”
Craig’s topics include popular tourist topics: Boabs, camels and stairway-to-the-moon.
“We paint what we feel and sometimes do commissions. There’s never enough time to keep up with everything.
“We’d be happy to have more exposure – just to be well-known and appreciated,” he said.
Their finished works range from $200 for prints to $5,500 for large-scale originals.
Betty says: “A lot of people don’t know they are good artists but up here they are taken-in by the landscape and the environment. It makes you see things.”
The couple’s home is a tight fit for the three boys and themselves plus reference material including books, prints and photos.
Craig says: “We have a good respect for each other, for the other’s personal space.”
Betty says: “Yes, we’re organized. I work on the left side the lounge room. Craig works on the right.”