Saturday, 2 August 2008

Joy for Jim as helicopter kid turns up 50 years on

Fantastic story below about Aboriginal Artist Helicopter Tjungurrayi and the man that rescued him as a sick boy.

With so much media attention in the last few years about the many unfortunate incidents involving Aboriginal people and their interaction with the white man in the past, this story shows that many good deeds were done by many good people.

It's great to hear these stories and I tip my hat to Victoria for a great piece that reveals an intriguing story of how one of our leading artists became known as Helicopter!

Joy for Jim as helicopter kid turns up 50 years on

Victoria Laurie

MORE than half a century after plucking a sick Aboriginal boy from the vast desert interior of Western Australia, helicopter pilot Jim Ferguson has learned that the boy survived to become a respected artist who still paints today.

The discovery came when the 79-year-old retiree read an article about the Canning stock route in The Weekend Australian last month, which recounted the story of artist "Helicopter" Tjungurrayi's childhood rescue and transfer to Balgo, where today he paints colourful canvasses worth tens of thousands of dollars.

For Mr Ferguson, a 50-year-old mystery was solved. Until then, a few old photographs and a newspaper report from the time were all that remained of his 1957 encounter. "I assumed the boy had died. I'm absolutely thrilled that after all these years, he's still alive and I played a small part in that."

Last week, he was put in telephone contact with Balgo community's Warlayirti art centre and was told that Helicopter wanted to talk to him. "Thank you very much for taking me to Balgo," the robust 61-year-old artist said. "(I'm) happy now."

Now confined to a wheelchair in his home at Willaura, Victoria, Mr Ferguson was a 28-year-old conducting aerial surveys east of Well 40, along the Canning stock route, when he saw a young woman. "I wondered where she was from. We hadn't seen any blacks at all, although the size of trees indicated water not far below the surface."

On the next trip to Well 40, the woman appeared again. Shortly afterwards, the bushes around the camp began to rustle. "Suddenly about half a dozen men appeared from behind these bushes dragging their spears in the sand. Matman (the team surveyor) grabbed the .303 and I pulled out my revolver, but all was OK. They stuck their spears in the ground." Mr Ferguson then posed the group for a photograph.

The woman then brought forward a pitifully thin boy, about 10 years old, with swollen joints. Mr Ferguson thought he might have had rickets, although it is still not known what was wrong with him. He felt the child might die without medical attention. "I gestured that they could come back with us to Balgo, and walked away."

The pair clambered into the helicopter. He then flew them 290km to Balgo mission. Mr Ferguson last saw them sitting in a Land Rover, the woman clad in a floral dress, and the boy naked. "I never knew what happened to the boy and his mother. I thought they were dead."

Helicopter, whose nickname stuck, told his rescuer he had not been afraid of getting into the helicopter, especially when he looked down. "I saw a little truck on the ground, but I thought it was a porcupine (echidna)."

He said the woman was Kupunyina, his aunt, who lived until 1986. Several of the men in the photographs are still alive. One, his artist half-brother Brandy Tjungurrayi, was with him at the art centre this week.

Unwittingly, Mr Ferguson had captured in his photographs a group of extended family members who would go on to become stars of Australian art. In the centre was Freddie West, the first Papunya Tula dot painting artist. Next to him stood a young Brandy. On the left was the late artist Wimmitji and his brother Micky Candle.

Today, an exhibition featuring the work of Helicopter will end in Melbourne's Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi. When Helicopter next visits Melbourne, a frail Jim Ferguson will attempt a trip into the city. "It might be the last thing I do, but I've decided I'd like to meet him."


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