Peter passed peacefully on the 18th of June 2017. This is the eulogy I wrote for his funeral:
Peter was born in 1930, in a copper mining camp in Tasmania, in one of only 6 wooden houses on a platform built into the side of a mountain. The nearest town was Rosebery. There were no roads leading from the camp into town, so when Margaret went into labour with Peter, her husband Arthur had to run a good long way into town to fetch the doctor, along a dirt track beside a steep ravine. It was pouring rain and he had to use a lantern to light his way in the dark. Peter Evans had a two year old brother named David, and four year old sister called Anne. Margaret umpired hockey games in her spare time, blowing her whistle and running back and forth in a sea of mud covered in handfuls of snow, while Peter watched from his pram, and Anne and David chased each other over the seats.
When Peter was two years old, the Evans family moved back to Melbourne from whence they’d come, eventually settling near Kew Junction, a busy Melbourne intersection. Peter had an adventurous spirit, even at this age, and was renowned for wandering off. One day, when he was three years old, the entire family set out in search of him, calling his name. They found one of his shoes in the middle of the busy intersection, and they went into every shop along the street, asking “Have you seen a little red-haired boy?” Eventually they found him in the barber’s shop, sucking on a lollypop and getting his hair cut.
In 1935, when Peter was five years old, he almost lost his mother to post-pregnancy septacemia, which had a 99% mortality rate at the time. For 6 months, while Margaret was in hospital fighting for her life and Arthur was working long hours to pay the hospital bills, the children were cared for by Margaret’s mother Lucy, who came from Tasmania to look after Peter, Anne, David and baby Bill.
The family moved quite a few times before they eventually settled in Burwood, having lived in 9 houses over 9 years. Peter enjoyed the four-mile bike ride from Burwood to Box Hill for school each day, especially the very steep hill he careened madly down, narrowly avoiding being hit by oncoming traffic. Later, he joined the boy scouts and discovered the joys of bush walking and camping, and when he became patrol leader, Peter changed name the name of his group from “Woodpeckers” to a more suitably Australian “Eagles”.
In 1940, when Peter was 10 years old, his little sister Helen was born. Helen grew up watching her adored older brothers cleverly pulling electrical devices apart and putting them back together again, and making bikes and gadgets like crystal radios, with a wire antenna touching a crystal to catch a signal. “He was a very kind brother to me,” says Helen. “He and dad, when I was 4 and a half, made me a pram for my dolls, out of plywood. I also remember him showing me quicksilver, or mercury. My older brothers loved experimenting with chemistry, which all went fine until one day there was an explosion… After that, Dad built them a purpose-made lab in the back yard so they could dabble without blowing the house up.”
Peter’s parents had met while studying metallurgy at university. They both had an interest in science and a passion for higher education, which they encouraged in their children, but when it came Peter’s turn for high school Peter dug his heels in and said “I don’t want to go to high school like Anne and David. I don’t want to follow after them like peas out of a pod. I want to go to Tech!”
Helen tells me her parents initially supported Peters decision but everyone at Box Hill Tech said “He’s too bright to be here! He should be at high school.” So they sent him to high school but he refused to do any work and in the end they gave up and sent him back to Box Hill Tech. From here, he went onto Melbourne Tech, where he studied electrical engineering. Peter excelled in technical drawing and was ducks of the school in mathematics, a top scholar who quietly pulled his teachers aside to offer corrections when they made mistakes in their calculations.
When Peter was 15, just after the war in 1945, his youngest brother Owen was born. Two years later Peter’s father took over as assistant superintendent of Port Kembla Copper Works and his younger siblings moved to NSW with their parents. Peter, Anne and David stayed in Melbourne to continue their studies. Tech was chugging along just fine, but then Peter discovered the piano teacher who lived across the road, and her piano…. Enchanted, he decided he’d like to become a composer and study music, so he moved in with his parents in NSW and went to Wolongong Highschool so that he could go to university after all. Peter’s sister Helen points out that for a 19-year old to do this at that time in history took a lot of courage, but in spite of that, he was placed sixth in the state for physics.
After graduating, Peter enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts at Sydney University, and did a double major in maths and music. He switched from piano to recorder, which was all the rage at the time, and began playing in small groups alongside violinists and pianists. In 1951 the University of Sydney awarded him the Frank Albert Prize for his musical prowess, and after completing his degree, Peter did a post graduate in teaching. Peter’s first job was a year spent as a library assistant in the NSW state library, including 6 months as the librarian at Gladesville Mental Hospital. In his spare time, he worked on musical compositions and a thesis on the physics of acoustics, with a special interest in the electronics of speaker systems. He also enjoyed bushwalking and rock climbing – without safety gear of course- in the Royal National Park in Sydney.
From 1956 to 1967, Peter worked as a maths and science teacher in various schools throughout NSW, with a brief 3-year stint at the Bureau of Meteorology in the early 60’s. In 1966, Peter’s beloved older sister Anne moved to Alice Springs to work as a school doctor, and Peter decided to follow her. The Beatles had been going strong for most of the 60’s and there were various student riots. Things were in turmoil and Peter just wanted a quiet life. While teaching in the Riverina and Deniliquin Peter had discovered he enjoyed working with Aboriginal students and admired the fine artistic skills that shone clearly though in the drawings they did for science projects. He also liked the wide horizons and the space of the Riverine with the bush all around, so he was naturally attracted to inland Australia and Aboriginal people were part of that magic.
Peter initially got work teaching at Alice Springs high school in 1967, but only lasted two terms. Peter absolutely adored children and was a brilliant teacher when children wanted to learn, but the school students weren’t particularly interested in maths and Peter wasn’t inclined to discipline them. Disheartened, Peter resigned and pursued a growing interest in the native plants of central Australia, first working as a nurseryman at the local council for a few months, then as an assistant Park Ranger out at the Rock, where he climbed the Rock and fell in love. “I’ve found my spiritual home!” he declared in letters to family.
In 1969, Peter began working with his brother-in-law Victor as a chainman with the Surveyors department, and recommenced the science degree he had begun before coming to Alice Springs, studying by correspondence. In his spare time, Peter collected and propagated seeds. The following year, Peter went back to NSW to finish his science degree on campus, focusing his attention on botany. “Efforts have been directed to starting a commercial nursery” he wrote in job application to National Parks in central Australia. “Some hundreds of Fuchsia’s are now established at my present address, and early results with several casuarina species are promising.”
Peter completed his science degree in 1971 with a new name, having changed it part way through from Evans to Fannin, because there were far too many Peter Evans in the world, and his mail (and pay) kept getting mixed up with someone else’s. Unfortunately, the only work available for a graduate botanist in Central Australia was school teaching, and this time it was Aboriginal children at Papunya. ‘I was given the post primaries, a secondary class.’ Peter told me years later. “I was reasonably good at Luritja by that stage and by using their language, and writing in their language, we got along quite well.Peter shared a house with Geoff Bardon who was instrumental in getting the Papunya Tula art movement going, and quickly became enthused with Geoff Bardon’s art project. When Geoff’s health broke down a few months after Peter arrived, Peter took over and by the end of 1972, became the first manager of Papunya Tula Artist. Anthropologist Dick Kimber feels that the artists responded to Peter’s interest in plants by giving greater attention to their totemic ‘bush tucker’ plant-foods…” Dots were a conventional means of depicting plants in the Aborigines’ ground paintings.
Peter got the artists painting on canvas instead of board, coordinated the first overseas exhibition of Aboriginal art, and was instrumental in helping resolve conflicts between the central desert mob and the more southerly groups regarding the depiction of sacred items in paintings. In the argument about whether to reveal or conceal, Peter insisted that the artists be allowed to resolve the issue amongst themselves, rather than having the government funded Aboriginal Arts Board dictate what they should paint.
As Vivien Johnson points out in Papunya Painting, out of the desert, being the man with the Papunya Tula cheque book put a lot of pressure on Peter’s friendship with the painters. “Judging by the volume of correspondence in the AAB files, Fannin spent nights in Papunya hunched over his typewriter, punching out a steady stream of beseeching letters to the AAB for more funds to bail out the struggling enterprise.” In one of my favourite letters from this time, Peter wrote:
“Australian Aboriginal cultures differ from one another quite a lot. They have in common, however, a low regard for material possessions. Folk villians stole not gold or luxuries, but sacred objects. Heroes sometimes destroyed villians, but they are more often remembered for creating people, complete with ideal personalities, and for devising ritual. In central Australia, formulating of the marriage rules, and the ideal marriages that became possible as a result, are remembered with particular affection…
“The potential value of the Papunya Tula Art movement is twofold. It can help the world at large to gain insight into a non-materialistic society at work. As humanity simply will not survive unless the present dominant materialistic culture is modified, it is hard to over-estimate the value of such models. From an Aboriginal point of view, proper respect for their treasures as represented in this art could help the new culture that they must devise to be better than the despair and dependence which is being forced upon them.”
Peter left Papunya three and a half years later in mid-1975, in a state of nervous exhaustion, after doing a job that is now considered hard work for four people. In a letter to his niece a few months later, he asked her to thank her then boyfriend. “I hope Kvet, you occasionally get around to telling Russel he’s wonderful. If Russel hadn’t gone out and collected theses painting when I was in no fit state to collect anything, I’d have nothing to show for a perfectly good nervous breakdown. Altogether there are fifty or so of them. They’re certainly one of the best Papunya collections extant. I hope they’ll always be there to brighten up the lives of all people and to point out the respect due to Aboriginal culture.”
After recovering his health, Peter began working as a labourer and field assistant at Uluru Kata- Tjuta in 1976, and established their first informal herbarium. and in1978 he started what were to become internationally famous plant walks, inspiring a love and fascination for plants in visitors of every age, who came from all over the world to see the Rock. “I’ve invented a tiptoe through the daisies,” he wrote, in one of his letters to family. “I take the customers out for an hour each day and try to tell them a bit about what you can eat and what you’d better not eat, and how marvelous the Desert Oak and straggly old Mulga are, and why ants are wonderful, and how hot the dirt gets even ten feet down, and a great deal else.”
Peter loved going on treks into the most isolated places of inland Australia. Sometimes he went with friends and family, like the 1977 expedition he made into the Western Australian outback with his sister Anne and his husband Victor, as Anne described this journey in a letter to her mother. “Darkness fell,” wrote Anne, “and Pete went scouting with his torch and out of the darkness I heard “bloody hell!” which I have never heard Pete say before and I waited for him to emerge from the dark, not quite sure which kind of “bloody hell” it was. He came bringing a branch with gum nuts the size of a teacup: absolutely incredible! We certainly were in Western Australia and couldn’t help wondering what the flowers would have looked like! They were on the most non-descript of the mallees, as if to make up for its ordinariness. So it was christened “Bloody Hell!”. There was no other way to describe it.”
This shared expedition was one Peter remembered fondly for many years, but most of Peter’s expeditions into the inland were solo affairs. “Anyone is a distraction when I’m talking to my desert, so I like to go alone,” Peter explained in one of the many letters he wrote on his typewriter beside the campfire at night. His mother adored these campfire letters that Peter sent her, and she showed them to her friend, editor of Women’s Weekly. There was some talk of having them published for a while, but Peter wasn’t keen on editing out his more technical botanical observations, and decided against it.
During his 39 years at the Rock, Peter lived for most of this time on the Aboriginal community of Mutitjulu. When I was a child, Peter would come to Alice at the beginning of the school holidays to collect my mother Shell, my brother Kim and myself in his EJ Holden, Flowerpower, and take us back to his home. Getting bogged and unbogged was our favourite part of every trip to and from the Rock. Peter was convinced Flowerpower did it on purpose to keep us entertained, and I grew up thinking everyone spoke to, and about, their cars as though they were alive.
“I believe there is a spirit in everything,” Peter explained. “And with my good Irish ancestry I call these spirits leprechauns, and the destiny that shapes our end, as far as I can see, seems to delight in tweaking the nose of people who it’s shaping… “Shakespeare says it best: “There is a Divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.” I think all of us experience embarrassment losing something around the house and for the third or fourth time searching, there the bloody thing is, in full view. According to me and the leprechaun theory, you’ve got some intelligence that laughs like mad when this happens. Heaven only knows what the actual reality is.”
As his biographer, Peter gave me access to his diaries. Inside the covers I found a strange mix of complex maths equations alongside technical drawings for various contraptions he was designing, musical inscriptions and a strange fairy tale about bears eating porridge and a cat in a box that wasn’t alive or dead. “I can’t understand a word he’s saying!” I complained to my daughter at the breakfast table one morning. She took the diary off me and after a moment of quiet reading, she handed it back. “It all makes sense to me,” she shrugged. “We learned about the Goldilock’s Puzzle and Schrodinger’s Cat in philosophy class.”
As children, my brother and I delighted in Peter’s telescope, binoculars, microscope and magnifying glasses but our favourite toy was Peter’s yellow ultralight glider, Flap. We would fight over the driver’s seat, pretending we were pilots, pulling levers and pressing buttons. Peter applied his creative engineering skills to the task of modifying every gadget he owned, and Flap was no exception. Reading through his glider stories in his letters to friends, I’m sometimes amazed he made it into ripe old age! “Test flying the modified plane will, of course, be done with a lot of care,” he wrote to family. “First a lot of time no higher than I’m prepared to fall, and then a lot over 1000 feet with a good parachute at the ready.” His friends and family weren’t convinced. “Peter you had better perfect your anti-gravity machine before you commit Flap to the air,” wrote his friend Hal Wise. “There are so many ultralight planes falling out of the sky these days that a man has to carry an umbrella for protection.”
Peter’s living arrangements were very humble and he was entirely comfortable roughing it. When my grandparents planned a visit to the Rock while Peter was away flying, he left a letter for them along with a key to his caravan. “There’s still a big hole in the caravan floor and the mice and black-biting-ants are quite vigorous. By all means trap and spray a few if you like. I’ve nothing in theory against it; I just don’t myself. I’d have to write a book to tell you how to light the temperamental old refrigerator. So don’t try. Caravan and tent cooler work OK, but tent is still uninhabitable from 10am to 9pm.” In 1989 Peter got lavish and upgraded to a demountable, affectionately dubbing it ‘the donga’, with one of the major bonuses being that his emu friend, who had a fondness for weetbix and banana skins, couldn’t climb the steps.
In 1998, Peter finally managed to place his collection of aboriginal art in an ethical public collection with a good reputation. I spoke with Peter’s sister Helen a few nights ago and she recounted a conversation she’d recently had with her brother Owen about how truly remarkable their brother was. The reality is, Peter could have sold his collection to overseas buyers for 5 million. Instead, he sold the collection to the Australian National Gallery for 1 million, because he was determined to keep the collection together, and in Australia, for all Australians to enjoy. To cap it off, Peter gave a very large percentage of that 1 million back to the artists and their families, setting a precedent regarding royalties being given to Aboriginal artists. I was commenting to family recently that Peter truly had found his place, people and purpose at Mutitjulu, because he didn’t change anything about his life after he became a millionaire. “That’s not true,” one family member commented. “He started having two bananas a day instead of one!”
In 2006, Peter was named as a national finalist for Australian of the Year, with the National Australia Day Council describing Peter as a “botanist, conservationist, astronomer, art lover, teacher and, most of all, a contributor to the community… instrumental in encouraging Indigenous Australians to express their culture through painting, leading to the world renowned, watershed Papunya art movement.”
In 2011, Peter was included in the “Who’s Who in Australia” and a few years later, in August 2013, the director of National Parks sent Peter a letter acknowledging his work as a ranger and volunteer in providing natural history expertise, assisting in the replanting of native species and weed removal programs, as well as the development and maintenance of the parks herbarium. “Your support for the Mutitjulu Primary School and the parks Junior Ranger program has been invaluable, and your plant walks for visitors at the Cultural Centre during the winter months on a Thursdays and Sunday are widely appreciated – not just by the visitors! Your contribution and commitment to the joint management of the park has been exemplary, teaching Anangu, park staff and thousands of visitors about the natural history of the park. As Director of National Parks, I would like to express my sincere appreciation for your dedicated contribution to the park.”
In 2015, Peter had to leave his beloved park and move to Old Timers at Alice Springs for health reasons. It was a difficult couple of years for Peter, but that didn’t stop him leaving a trail of kindness in his wake. Peter gave generous donations to the Royal Flying Doctor service, Purple House, Olive Pink Botanic Garden, and countless more. Most importantly, Peter decided to leave his fortune to Papunya Tula Artists, bringing the money full circle, back around to where it started, bringing it home. Peter was always generous, even before his windfall million, as he liked to call it. supported all of his family, especially our careers and our creative dreams, and he was always there for us when we really needed him, with his family emergency fund.
We had a tricky time scheduling this funeral so that as many of Peter’s family as possible could be present with him on this sad day, but there were loved ones who couldn’t make it, many of whom sent flowers, like Peter’s cousin Jane Pittman and the Pittman family, Peter’s friend Derek Roff and the Roff family, Peter’s niece Kveta and the Dean’s family, Peter sister Helen, her son Nevin who is Peter’s godson, and her daughter Emily, who is in England doing amazing research work with a WHO Fellowship. When she heard the news about Peter’s death, she wrote to us saying “I’m so sorry that such a strong, ethical, kind, clever, dedicated and loving member of our family has been lost to us. But I’m so grateful to have known him and so utterly inspired by Peter himself and his self-determined approach to life and death. It feels like it’s now up to the rest of us to continue to carry the mantle forwards in terms of making the world a better place. Kind of scary! We are now front line. Tomorrow I will submit a paper that will hopefully make a significant difference to a newly described pre-natal and early onset genetic muscle disorder. I will see if I can get this paper dedicated to Peter.”
The date chosen for today’s funeral has also meant that Peter’s Papunya Tula family couldn’t be present, as much as they dearly wanted to be. In my mind and heart, I’m imagining a bridge of light stretching between here and Darwin, where our Papunya Tula mob are gathered for the opening of a very special art exhibition that celebrates the magic and beauty that Peter fell in love with all those many years ago. I feel as though Peter’s spirit is in both places today. I’d like to read you a message from the Directors, shareholders, artists and staff of Papunya Tula Artists:
Please accept from all of us here at Papunya Tula Artists our sincere condolences and heartfelt best wishes today as we farewell our dear friend Mr. Peter Fannin.
Today we are in Darwin for the opening of an exhibition that in so many ways reminds us of Peter himself. It seems a beautiful and somewhat fateful coincidence that these two dates have aligned, but at the same time it’s left us with a sense of loss and distance between the two occasions. Please know that today we will be celebrating Peter’s spirit here in the Top End along with you all there in Alice Springs.
It’s commonly known that Peter’s involvement with Papunya Tula Artists goes directly back to the very beginnings of the Company and the Western Desert art movement itself. Through his work as the Art Coordinator in the early 1970’s, Peter was fundamental to the development of the Company and the creation of artworks produced at the time, many of which are now internationally acclaimed.
Peter was passionate about Western Desert art and this passion was matched only by his respect for the Aboriginal people themselves who he held in the highest regard.
Long after he finished working for the Company Peter maintained his interest in the goings on of Papunya Tula Artists. He would regularly visit the gallery to catch up on recent events and took great pride and fulfillment in the continued success of the Company. In particular the generational shift that had occurred since his time with the early artists, and knowing that their sons and daughters were now practicing artists themselves gave Peter a great amount of pleasure.
Peter was very concerned with the living standards in remote communities and matters relating to the social social welfare of Aboriginal people. These were issues very close to Peter’s heart. He took great interest in projects that Papunya Tula Artists had established, none more so than the remote dialysis unit which Peter supported wholeheartedly – both financially and in kind. This also applied to the Kintore Swimming Pool to which Peter made donations to through the Company to assist its staffing and maintenance.
Papunya Tula Artists would like to acknowledge the tremendous support offered by Peter over the decades and sincerely thank him for all he’s done. No one in the Company’s history has been so generous.
He will forever be remembered by us as a humble and honourable man of the absolute highest integrity.”
To finish with I’d like to leave you with some words from some of Peter’s oldest and dearest friends, the Rogers family in NSW, who have known Peter, who they call “Red Fred”, for 51 years
Although Peter came from the coast here, he belonged to the centre
His heart, his soul, his spirit, his mind
Peter was tied to the dust in the centre
He was tied to the heat of the earth and the cold of the rocks,
the birds that soared and the emu that pecked him and pinched his tucker
the laughter and the sadness, the tears
His greatest hope was to see Lake Eyre when it flooded
He wanted to drive down when it flooded
He wanted to see the water spill into that salt pan
He wanted to see it go lapping across the dry parts
And get reflected in the sun and the wind
He wanted to see the wind touch that water across what was dry saltpan
Peter wasn’t earth-bound, he was so far above us. Peter soared, and in soaring peter belonged so much to the people he loved. Peter was the freest spirit.
Now you’re free, Red Fred to go wherever you want, Fly free Red Fred
love from all our family, the Rogers.