UNDER WRAPS: Sunraysia artist Colin Rowe shows former Mildura police Detective Denis Ryan a ‘sneak peak’ of the concept of his 2019 Archibald Prize entry featuring the 86-year-old as its subject. Colin has chosen to paint Mr Ryan after being inspired by his 40-plus year efforts to expose the crimes of prolific paedophile, and one-time head of the Mildura Catholic parish, Monsignor John Day. Photo: PAUL MENSCH
By VINNIE RODI
TO be chosen as the subject of an Archibald Prize entry is considered a great honour – after all, the prize does have a goal to perpetuate the memory of ‘great Australians.’
When it comes to great Australians currently calling our region home, you would be hard-pressed to look past former Mildura police Detective Denis Ryan (AM), whose 40-plus year battle to expose prolific paedophile, and one-time head of the Mildura Catholic parish, Monsignor John Day, has made national headlines in recent years.
Mr Ryan, 86, has been chosen as the subject of a forthcoming 2019 Archibald Prize entry, with the portrait to be painted by Sunraysia-based artist, and former teacher, Colin Rowe, 65.
Arriving in the region three months ago, Colin was inspired to meet Mr Ryan after reading his story in the Mildura Weekly earlier this year.
Mr Ryan’s battle to expose Day, and his unwavering commitment to seek justice for Day’s numerous victims, has been well documented, with Colin saying he had quickly become determined to capture the man himself in a work of art.
The decision to enter that piece in next year’s coveted Archibald Prize has proved a logical next step. The Archibald Prize is awarded annually to the best portrait of a man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics.
The open competition is judged by the trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW, with finalists displayed in an exhibition at the Gallery. The Archibald Prize was first awarded in 1921, and in establishing the prize, JF Archibald’s aim was to foster portraiture as well as support artists and perpetuate the memory of great Australians.
Over the years some of Australia’s most prominent artists have entered, with the subjects being equally celebrated in their respective fields.
“Denis is an Australian legend, no doubt about it,” Colin said this week. “On the same day that I read Denis’ story in the newspaper I had some friends round for dinner, and I said to them, ‘Have you read about this guy Denis Ryan?’ And of course all of my friends who had been living here knew about him.
“I immediately thought this story is fantastic, and what a top Aussie. I was also impressed by Denis’ photo in the paper and thought he had a great face, and that he would make a great portrait.”
Colin said it was by pure chance that he was able to meet Mr Ryan face-to-face.
“I was actually visiting the Mildura Art Group and admiring someone’s work when I starting talking to one of the artists about how I had read a story about Denis, and how I would love to paint a portrait of him,” he said. “Well this artist turns around and says that he knows Denis’ neighbour!
“Long story short my number was passed on to Denis, and he contacted me and agreed to meet. After talking with Denis the idea shifted to perhaps entering the artwork in the 2019 Archibald Prize, which of course is for Australian legends, and I can’t think of a better person to feature.
“In the Archibald you’ve had comedians and all sorts of people featured, and with Denis you have someone who is ‘ridgy didge’, who is helping out lots of people, not to mention the drama around his life, what he’s done and what’s happened to him.”
MR Ryan’s story is widely known not just in Sunraysia, but across the country, and has led to recognition at the national level. He was named a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for his “significant service to the community of Victoria through a range of roles, particularly in the area of child protection investigations, and to local government,” earlier this year, while also being named Mildura’s 2018 Citizen of the Year.
Colin’s portrait of Mr Ryan is in its early stages, with the artist not yet ready to share his ideas with the broader public. However, Colin did invite the Mildura Weekly to a meeting with Mr Ryan this week, where he captured photos of the 86-year-old in numerous poses to aid his work, ABOVE.
Mr Ryan said the offer to become the subject of Colin’s Archibald Prize entry had come as “a big surprise,” adding that he was “very humbled and honoured by it.”
Colin said he had “several ideas” for the portrait, and has already completed numerous preliminary sketches.
“In my first sitting with Denis I did heaps of sketches looking at his nose, eyes and mouth etc. and he has a really nice face in three-quarter turn,” he said. “All sorts of things come to mind.
“I’ll continue with some quick sketches for now, and while Denis has said that he doesn’t want to give the final ‘yay’ or ‘nay’, I’ll keep showing him what I’m doing and ensure he’s happy with the final product.”
Colin said he planned on using a technique with ink to produce the painting.
“The technique I’m using is really nice, and one where you can abstract an image quite a lot, and just the way the brain cognises means that as you step back it all comes into effect,” he said. “It’s a bit like abstract realism, and it’s a lot of fun to do as well.”
Submissions for the 2019 Archibald Prize are expected to open in February or March next year, giving Colin six or seven months to complete the portrait. In regards to the entry, Colin said he hoped people would “get behind a true Australian legend.”
“You never know what will happen, but one thing is certain, people will be barracking for Denis!” he said.
And while Mr Ryan’s story has been well documented in the ‘Weekly over the past few years, it’s worth re-telling.
It was in 1971 when Mr Ryan first learned of Day’s criminal actives, with then St Joseph’s College vice-principal John Howden contacting Mr Ryan with claims that Day had molested a young female student.
DAY had, in the past, committed his crimes with the knowledge and protection of senior members of Victoria Police as well as the Clerk of the Courts, the most senior officer of the court in Mildura at the time.
Mr Ryan’s investigations found that a dozen boys and girls had been molested by Day, and he soon had formal statements to justify the allegations. His attempts to bring Day to justice, however, was blocked by the highest levels of the Church, while also being betrayed by high-ranking police colleagues and government ministers.
Prior to beginning his investigation, Mr Ryan was told that he shouldn’t tell his immediate boss, Detective Sergeant Jim Barritt, that he was investigating Day. Barritt was Catholic, a mate of Day’s, and a member of a group of cops known as the ‘Catholic Mafia’ who were believed to protect priests accused of crimes.
Mr Ryan hoped that his evidence would be enough to convince his superiors, but he was wrong. Soon it was Mr Ryan who was attacked, with the former detective told he had breached the chain of command, then ordered to drop the case.
When he refused, senior police begrudgingly conducted an inept investigation, effectively rigging the result to get Day off.
In 1972 Mr Ryan was ordered back to Melbourne – a move senior police knew he could not make due to his son’s asthma – and he was effectively forced to resign.
Monsignor Day died in 1978 as arguably Australia’s most prolific paedophile, with his victims counting in the hundreds.
Mr Ryan spent decades trying to make the truth known, and it wasn’t until 2013, when his book ‘Unholy Trinity’ lifted the lid on Day’s horrific paedophile activities in Mildura during the 1960s and ‘70s, that the full extent of the conspiracy to cover these crimes up was revealed.
In 2014 Mr Ryan was asked to give evidence as part of the Australian Royal Commission into Child Abuse, and following the Royal Commission’s findings, Victoria Police, through current Police Commissioner Graham Ashton, officially apologised to Mr Ryan in 2016.
Earlier this year Mr Ryan and the Victorian Government reached a confidential compensation settlement for damages caused due to his unfair treatment by Victoria Police, and his subsequent forced and premature retirement from the Force.
Colin said that reading Unholy Trinity, and meeting the man behind the tale, had helped shape his ideas of how the portrait will look.
“It helps you get a measure of the man, and quite a bit of time and work goes into that side of things,” he said. “Anyone who can pick up a pencil can draw a portrait, but it’s actually when you’re sketching and talking to the subject that they mention things.
“It’s a conscious and unconscious procedure that gives you depth and relationship with the person at hand. Then when you do a sketch and step back, you want to say, ‘Yeah, I’ve captured Denis there’. This bloke is a folk hero, and I want to do him justice.”
ORIGINALLY from Hampshire in England, Colin arrived in Australia in the early 1970s, and at the time planned to stay for two years before a meeting with his future wife, Sue, six months into the trip changed his plans.
“I completed all my art training in Australia, and then got my teaching qualification and taught art for an extended period up to Year 12 level,” he said.
Colin boasts a strong connection to the Mallee, having taught in Murrayville for 15 years before stints in Werrimull and Wycheproof.
“I actually ended up just outside of Melbourne, and found that I missed the Mallee,” he said. “And so when I retired we decided to go back to the Mallee, and settled in Gol Gol about three months ago.”
Colin has previously exhibited in Mildura through the Mildura Palimpsest, and also boasts an online gallery (http://colinrowe.com.au).