A new exhibition by Indigenous artist Gordon Syron and his wife Elaine Pelot Syron has paid tribute to the life of Wiradjuri Elder Mum Shirl.
Jennifer Scherer

13 Jul 2019 - 3:24 PM  UPDATED 13 Jul 2019 - 3:24 PM

Serving a life sentence for murder at Long Bay prison, Biripi and Worimi man Gordon Syron turned to painting as a form of meditation.

He had killed his Uncle’s adopted son in a family land rights dispute and would sit in a cell for a decade. But it was behind the walls of the prison that Mr Syron met Mum Shirl, the 'Black Saint of Redfern'.

“It’s always important when you are in prison, especially when you are doing life - you are living in the never never, you never know when you’re going to get out,” Mr Syron told NITV News.

“Mum Shirl came along and she was a big Aboriginal lady who didn’t cop any crap. She knew how to stand up for her rights.”

The Black Saint of Redfern

Colleen Shirley Perry Smith had been visiting inmates for a long time, beginning with her brother Laurie.

When he was released, the Wiradjuri woman continued to visit Aboriginal prisoners, concerned about their welfare and determined to retain their connection to the outside world. 

It was through the prisons that she earned her nickname ‘Mum Shirl’, which arose from being quizzed about her relationship with the prisoners she would call on. When asked, Mum Shirl would always reply: ‘I’m his Mum.’

Providing a beacon of support to those behind bars, Mr Syron says prison was a “nasty place in those days.”

“There was a prison officer out there and they used to call him Squizzy Taylor ... he was a gangster as well, but he had the Queens uniform on,” Mr Syron said.

“Well Mr Taylor used to tread politely around Mum Shirl.

“When you’ve got people like that coming to visit you, they watch their p’s and q’s a little bit better, treat you a bit better, life’s a bit better to you."

A selfless advocate for Aboriginal justice, Mum Shirl led a life dedicated to community and family.

Raising over 60 children, Mum Shirl’s niece Ann Weldon remembers the powerful presence of her Aunty.

“When you knew you had her on your side, you could never fall,” Weldon told NITV News.

“She encouraged people to believe in themselves …  [and] has always been our tower of strength.”

Peace in painting

Developing his talent with the brush at Longbay, Mr Syron learnt to paint by watching his fellow inmates.

“I started to paint, and I got tips off forgers and all sorts of characters - and when I say forgers I mean people who were good at copying,”Mr Syron said with a laugh.

“I think art is important to society because look at me - I was a lifer in Long Bay prison and there’s all sorts of buggers in there to live with - art gave me a lot of peace within myself.”

Recalling violent beatings and blistering racism, Mr Syron delved into his prison experience for inspiration.

“Prison officers get stressed too … Squizzy Taylor had an outlet with his baton but I had an outlet with my paintbrush,” Mr Syron said.

“If someone gives you a bad time, the system gives you a bad time … art gave me a whole new perspective on life, another road to go down.”

In his darkest days, it was Mum Shirl who would provide Mr Syron with hope.

"For all the things that Mum Shirl stood for and fought against to try and help Aboriginal people ... I think Mum Shirl would be quite happy and glad that I’m still fighting the fight and I’m still here for Aboriginal people trying to make a difference," Mr Syron told NITV News. 

"Mum Shirl - she had a bigger battle than me." 

Immortalised in art

Mr Syron’s new exhibition Mum Shirl: Black Saint of Redfern at the Coo-ee Gallery in Sydney’s inner-city suburb of Paddington reflects on Mum Shirl’s influence in his life and her unforgettable legacy.

Despite having passed in 1998, the collection demonstrates Mum Shirl’s dedication to community, where she was also a guiding force behind the founding of the Aboriginal Legal Service, Aboriginal Medical Service and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

Alongside the paintings, the exhibition features historical photographs of Mum Shirl by Mr Syron’s wife Elaine Pelot Syron.

“Mum Shirl meant a lot to thousands and thousands and thousands of people all over Australia,” Pelot Syron told NITV News.

“She should be a hero that nobody ever forgets because her spirit will live on forever if people would give comment and say all the things she did for people.”

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