Brushing up on birds

By Joe Misuraca  Photos Yanni

When Mount Martha local, David Freedman, 76, retired from being a rural general surgeon at age 72 to battle cancer, he stopped using surgical instruments and took up paintbrushes.

But, it wasn’t the first time he’d picked up a paintbrush. It had always been his lifetime hobby, and had now become his primary passion as a retiree.

While working in Swan Hill, he would paint in his spare time to cope with the stresses of his job, and found it to be “a great release” and to have given him a “sense of freedom”.

“I had this outlet of painting and, whenever possible, I would head out into the Mallee, and paint the Mallee roads and the river, the Murray River, which I loved,” he said.

He has done most of his painting plein-air, a French term meaning ‘painting out in the open’. His first book about painting was based on this practice, and involved tips on using oil, pastel and watercolours.

Victoria’s lockdowns dashed his plans to write a book specifically about painting with watercolours. So, instead, David painted within seven months between 260 to 270 birds. He began this endeavour in June 2020.

David lives on a two acre property in Mt Martha and he was inspired to do this when he noticed a variety of birds had flocked to his two-acre property from mainland Victoria due to the 2019-2020 bushfire season.

“I saw all these birds that I hadn’t seen before in the trees,” he said. The Eastern Rosellas had eggs and baby chicks, and this fascinated him.

“I hadn’t painted a bird before, but I fell in love with the birds, and I knew how to paint, and it was a process where I got better as I went along.”

After completing all these paintings, he had a lightbulb moment and thought about putting them in a book. The problem was that he didn’t know much about birds, and he “didn’t want it to be like an encyclopaedia or a field bird book”.

During a phone conversation with his stepsister, David discovered his stepbrother, Richard Steele, who hadn’t seen in 60 years, knew a lot about birds and enjoyed writing. This was an opportunity for them to reconnect.

David selected 240 of his paintings to include in this new book, and Richard drew upon his knowledge of birds to write in what Robin Hill, the writer of the foreword, described as “informative and engaging” prose.

David contacted Hill, an Australian expat who lives in the USA and is considered America’s finest ornithological painter and naturalist. Hill was impressed by David’s work.

“I wanted this to be as much an art book as a book celebrating the beauty of our birds, and the diversity of our birds,” David said. “It’s a book illustrated by an Aussie, text by an Aussie, designed by an Aussie, and printed in Australia by an Aussie, and I’m very proud of it.”

Another of the books David has written was about his father, Harold Freedman who was a craftsman, and at one point, Victoria’s state artist.

Besides the artistic talent flowing through David’s bloodline, he professes to not be a “professional illustrator”, but claims he’s “an amateur”.

He likens painting to surgery. “Surgery and art are basically similar in the stepwise nature of it; the discipline and concentration required, and knowing the principles,” he said.

As a surgeon, he performed 30,000 operations.

“I’ve pursued the painting with the same energy that I put into being a surgeon,” he said. “I think that because you’re old, you shouldn’t give up challenging yourself: that’s my philosophy. Keep going until you can’t do it anymore.”

He wanted to produce work “in a painterly way” which according to him means “you don’t paint everything. You leave some things out, and you exaggerate or emphasise others”.

He said the reason why he published this book was to remind everyone to be proud of our birds because they’re a “wonderful resource”. He’s also concerned about the birds’ habitats being impacted by climate change and destroyed by the “urban spread”.

“We need to look after them and celebrate [them],” he said. “We celebrate our cricketers and our tennis players, but our birds are here forever, hopefully.”

‘Australia’s Birds’ is available to purchase from the website.

Peninsula Essence – August 2021