Strength through determination

Zainab Kadhim interviews Joyce Williams

Overcoming the hardships of a broken family, a mentally unstable mother, and a childhood riddled with hospital visits, Joyce Williams was forced to be strong from a young age. Hers is a remarkable story of courage, bravery, and determination. Now, a mother to her own family, Joyce has found a passion in the arts, and recognises the importance of having an outlet of pure, creative expression.


What is your name?

Joyce Elizabeth Williams.

Where were you born, on what date and in what year?

I was born in Erskinville, New South Wales, 1934.

Describe the place you spent your childhood

I spent my childhood in many places; as a child, I never lived anywhere for more than two years. So my childhood was spent between relations and moving from one place to another.

Have all those places been in Sydney?

In NSW - Sydney mainly. In the Northern Beaches - all over. There aren’t many places, or little suburbs, I haven't been to.

Describe a sensory memory from your childhood (favourite meal, most memorable smell as a child).

My mum had left my dad [when I was young] and we moved to La Perouse. There was an Aboriginal camp there, and I was about three or three-and-a-half. All these lovely Aboriginal boys and girls were there, so I packed a little suitcase and went away with them. My mum eventually come looking for me and found us all up the tree; me, white, with blond, curly hair, and all these little Aboriginals having the time of our life in the tree. I think that's one of the very early memories I had. They were lovely kids. They were camping around the La Perouse area those days; the Aboriginals, they had camps.

How long were you there for?

I don't know, probably about six months to twelve months. My mum didn't stay very long anywhere.

So, you were three-and-a-half?

Three-and-a-half, going on four, I'd say.

It's really amazing that you still have this memory...

I have that memory because I think I'd loved the children so much. And my mum had run away from my father [and that] sort of business, so I, sort of, went away with them. Not knowing what [I was] doing [back] then; “it’s probably well mum got out of the situation, so I'll get out of the situation.’ I think that's - looking back as a child - the only reason I did it actually.

That must have been really hard, do you remember how you felt during that time?

I loved my father - I shouldn't have, but I did. Mum went back to him again eventually. He used to be an alcoholic. He’d come home every Friday night – pay night – and belt my mother. I used to try and stop him from doing it, but it didn’t help. She left him again after that, so we went back there till I was about five.

Do you still keep in contact with any of the Aboriginal kids that you used to hang out with?

No, I didn't. But I do have Aboriginal cousins on my father's side. When they came out as convicts, [their] sons started up in the brick works at Mascot, La Perouse area. They were fisherman, and one of them, my father, had married an Aboriginal lady before he married my mum. They had children together.
There was a reunion, some years back, but I wouldn’t know which ones were which. But he left the Aboriginal lady and married a white lady, so I think I always kept that in mind, too.

A reunion would have been nice.

There was a big reunion; it was all different colours *laughs*. We were the smallest little group, myself and my kids. Because, as I said, we sort of split away, my mum [and us], from that side of the family.

Where do you live now?

Living at Birrong.

Does it feel like home?

Well I've only just moved there, up in June. I was down in Sefton for 30 odd years before [the] housing commission transferred me to Birrong, because they were selling the house. [There are] a lot of housing commission homes now… I live up [in a] unit with my daughter, who is intellectually handicapped, and we share this nice, little, two-bedroom unit. It’s got a little backyard, and somewhere to put the bird and the dog, and [we] have a garden going at the moment. It’s very small, but it’s good.

What's it like living with your daughter?

Oh, she’s a lovely person. She’s not severely intellectually handicapped; she’s got what they call Williams Syndrome, which has nothing to do with the name. But they have certain features, and certain disabilities and mild autism and all that sort of business; [it] all comes into the syndrome. Other than that, she's panicky, and has certain ticks, so I can't leave her [alone] for too long because she gets scared and gets anxiety. But no, she’s very easy to live with.

What are some of her interests, or some of the things that you like to do together?

She goes everywhere with me at the moment, [and] I am trying to get her to go elsewhere. Legacy [is] going to come along next year and try [to] take her out [to] different places so that we have a little bit of [reassurance]. In case anything happens to me, she's got to have another outlet. So, they're going to try and work out somewhere where she can go out with other people, on trips, and things like that. So that’s in the process of happening now.

What dreams do you have for your future? What dreams did you have for you future when you were young?

Stability. To have a home, be stable, [and] have a family. I originally wanted to be a nurse, but I didn't have much education. I did have a chance to go far west when I was about 17, and do nursing there - I would have been a nurse's aide. But mum needed me home; she needed the money so I didn't go. Other than that, I always wanted to be an artist. That was put on hold for many years, and I hadn't done anything till about 1983 when I went and got my associate diploma in Arts. That was about when I could start doing it.

What is it about the Arts that appeals to you? Or do you remember when you first started getting into art?

Yes, I do. I suppose I spent 90 percent of my [child years] in and out of hospitals because I had a rare bowel condition; I had to go back into hospital every month or two. In hospital, I drew a lot; did a lot of drawing. That was up until I was about 14 [when] I had treatment for that. I think that's where it came from. I always wanted to draw and paint and do things like that.

It’s quite amazing sometimes when those difficult situations actually might give us time to practice our craft.

It is; it’s a release. It’s a wonderful thing, drawing. I mean, because no matter the scrutiny, or what you're doing, you're expressing something. [It’s] good to be able to do that in one way or another.

What does strength mean to you?

Determination; you have to be strong and determined to get anything out of life. You also have to be fair; fair in how you're doing things with people. [Especially when you’re] so determined that you don't listen to whatever people have got to say. But I think determination is strength, in a lot of ways, because you'll get things done one way or another.

What is the most difficult thing you've had to overcome?

Quite a lot of things, actually. I think my mother was very unstable and did unforgiving things throughout my life. [There are] lots of things there that I've had to overcome, but I've put them behind me. She went everywhere and everywhere she went she made friends, then enemies as soon as she had friends. I'm pretty sure she was bipolar but, at that stage, you weren't told anything about that. She was in the mental home a couple of times.
Over the years and [she did] strange things. When she was living in Villawood, she had a de facto husband. She eventually kicked him out of the house, the she sent my grandmother away. She had been my mainstay. One time she come up to my room and tried to [force me] to make her swallow all these tablets she had in her hand - she said [Grandmother would] be better off dead. I said “no” and I hit her hand and knocked the tablets out - that's my worst thing that I can remember. She said “get out of my house! Don't you dare hit your mother - you get out of my house!” So, I walked out with nothing - just a bag - and I didn't go back again. But she used to come to where I was working and get money, every day, for my brothers. I found out she'd sent my brothers away to other places, as well. So, I had to move out of the area.
She was a bit violent, too. She came back years later, [but by then] I had two children [of my own].

How did you turn that into a personal strength?

Working. I had people, very nice people, that supported me in my work place, and things like that. How I poured it into a personal strength - I think it’s because I had to be strong. When I was a child, I saw my mum being hit, hurt, and [other] things. I suppose I had strength from there on too, you know? Like, for instance, if you cried, you got a little kick in the shin. [I was] not allowed to cry, and things like that. So, yeah, I had to be strong.

What does freedom mean to you?

Freedom mean to me? My family, [I’d] say, is freedom. Freedom is to be able to say “I have a home, I have roots, and a family that's free to come here whenever I want.” Freedom is to be able to walk out your own gate and know, when you come back, your house is going to be there. I can't think of any other way of putting it.

Do you feel a sense a freedom through practicing your art?

Oh, yes! That's been my mainstay. Before art, I made soft toys, and things like that, and sold them to make a living. I had a little shop at one stage, and sold them at Paddy's Markets in town, and in the markets up at Flemington. I made all kinds of soft toys; I've got photos of [them], actually. I would take my girls - my two older girls would come with me. We'd go to the markets and we'd sell them. It was really good.

How long would it take you to create one soft toy?

Well, I made patterns up, but it would still take me about an hour. I had an industrial machine to make a toy; a machine up in the back shed. [It] had the Styrofoam, and [it] would just blow into toys and fill them up. From there on, it’s just the hand sewing [them]. I've made as many as two hundred bears [on a single order]. We didn't have a table, so we had a double bed - the old ones with the drawers underneath - took the mattress off, and used that as a cutting table to make the bears up.

Is it painting that you do?

I've done all kind of art - painting, drawing, sculpting, and a lot of photography, too. So, I've dabbled in all of that. But painting is my favourite; it's the one I like doing best.

Are there any different kind of art forms that you're interested in?

I like all contemporary work - I like abstract. [But] I did like going back and looking at the old masters as well because that's where it all comes from. I like a lot of the native Aboriginal works. And I particularly [like] Mexican [artists]. I think it's absolutely marvelous some of the stuff the Mexicans have done over the years. But, such are the arts - a very broad spectrum. It all covers a lot of things.

Are there any particular artists that inspire you?

Picasso, I suppose. Yeah, I think [he] was one of my favourites. Frederick McCubbin, [an] Australian one, too. But Picasso - I liked his story, and everything, too.

Edits by Naveen Krishnasamy

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