Natasha Robinson reports on Dion Bealeys latest successes:

WHEN retired teacher Joie Boulter devoted her life to looking after a disabled Aboriginal boy, she had no idea that a few years later she would be sitting in a swanky Top End gallery with Darwin’s arts fraternity, sipping champagne and toasting the boy’s artwork.

But, then, no one could have predicted the flourishing artistic partnership between Boulter and 17-year-old Dion Beasley.

Dion, who has muscular dystrophy and is profoundly deaf, had barely been to school when Boulter took him under her wing. Reared in the remote Northern Territory community of Canteen Creek, 275km southeast of Tennant Creek in the vast stretches of central Australia, Dion was a malnourished child whose family was struggling with the effects of alcohol abuse.

Boulter met him at Tennant Creek High School when she was still teaching. Dion had never been taught sign language. Unable to communicate, he lived in a silent, isolated world, his development severely delayed.

Boulter was due to take long service leave and retire the following year. With time on her hands, she saw an opportunity to use her skills as a special needs teacher to help Dion. But she had no idea that, between them, they would start what has become a cult NT brand: the Cheeky Dog label of clothing and bags. Or that this week Dion’s work would be featured in an exhibition for the first time.

“Dion was a bit of a lonely soul,” Boulter says. “He had a bit of a sad background and I think at that stage he was a very lonely little boy. Initially he wouldn’t do anything, but then he began to draw, and the dogs have quickly become an obsession.”

Dion, who is in the care of his grandfather and lives at Mulga Camp, on the edge of Tennant Creek, is fascinated by camp dogs, mutts that live among outback communities and are regarded as part of the family. He draws them in a variety of moods and situations and all of his drawings emanate from what he has observed while driving around Tennant Creek or sitting on his grandfather’s lawn watching events unfold at Mulga Camp.

Boulter has spent many hours accompanying Dion to Tennant Creek dog shows, and has bought reference books on dog varieties that the pair pore over and learn by heart. She has learned the sign language Auslan and is teaching it to Dion. Practically all they ever talk about is dogs.

“I think the dogs have probably just captured his imagination,” Boulter says. “I am sure he has a sixth sense about them.”

Dion has learned all about rarefied breeds, but all he draws are the mangy camp dogs. “Really, his passion is just mongrels,” Boulter says.

The Cheeky Dog clothing label — whose cult status has been likened to the early days of the Mambo label — has sold several thousand T-shirts and Boulter is flat-out sewing other items, such as Cheeky Dog bags and babies’ cot covers.

With demand increasing, Boulter says she would like to delegate responsibility for managing the label.

She also hopes that as the business grows, the profits can go towards the costs of Dion’s care, giving him some security into the future. Alongside the development of Cheeky Dog, Dion’s career has taken another turn with the first exhibition of his works on paper in Darwin this week.

Tennant Creek-based Julalikari Arts Centre, an indigenous women’s arts and craft centre, was given a $1000 grant by arts body Artback NT: Arts Development and Touring, enabling local indigenous artists to print Dion’s pictures on to paper.

Julalikari’s manager, Alan Murn, says the prints display the keenness of Dion’s observations of life in an Aboriginal community.

“Although there is a cartoonish aspect to his works, they do use animals as a reflection of the human condition,” Murn says. “He’s a observer and a commentator on life at Mulga Camp. There are a lot of dogs and that reflects an attitude which is fairly open and fairly free. Their activities are enormously entertaining to him.

“The works that were put on to T-shirts and bags were usually picked out of a narrative he had done. We wanted to highlight his narratives and the greater depth of his works.”

Murn says the exhibition has also provided an opportunity to display the depth of Dion’s talent as an artist.

“The works on print are more than very, very good drawings of dogs,” Murn said. “Dion’s line work is very confident and very skilful. His use of the space that he works within is very clever, and his perspectives and perceptions are highly developed for someone without any training.”

Dion’s exhibition is part of the Open House project, an initiative supported by Arts Access Darwin, which is presenting a series of events and workshops to promote participation in the arts by people with disabilities. The project also includes music and dance workshops and a mosaic workshop being held throughout September.

Arts Access project manager Penny Campton says Dion’s first exhibition of works on paper is a significant step in his development as an artist.

“It allows Dion to tell a lot more story. (Cheeky Dog) is not just a logo brand any more,” she says.

“We’re actually producing his works as beautiful stories, works of art that are stories. It allows a lot more of Dion’s humour and deep sense of observation to come through.”

The Dion Beasley exhibition finishes today at the Darwin Entertainment Centre.