Kate Birrell and Painting the Tiges

I first saw Kate Birrell‘s paintings on The Footy Almanac‘s website. Her painting was of Luke Hodge, in one of his classic postures: his right arm raised for balance, the other guiding the ball perfectly on to his left boot. Birrell has not only contributed to the Footy Almanac anthologies but is also an active contributor of short essays to the website founded by John Harms. Birrell’s paintings overs not only the elite sporting world of AFL, but also the local footy she attends around Melbourne. Her work are gentle reproductions of the everyday pleasures, the short moments and fond memories of suburban and urban life.

Kate’s paintings indicate her support for Richmond Football Club. Her documenting of Richmond fan culture and their games was one more reason why I enjoyed her work. Richmond is a mythical and legendary club. It’s greatness largely belongs in the past: in the days of the VFL. For thirty odd years (1980s-2010s)  it was a club that was mismanaged into near-bankruptcy, and now, with a stable management, a good coach, captain and president, the club is making steady rather than spectacular progress. The club’s fans are generalised as being ‘passionate’ and for belting out the club’s theme song with great gusto after a win. In moments such as this, the Club is envied by rival fans. At other moments, such as a third straight elimination final defeat, it is the object of ridicule and scorn.  But, in Kate’s works (and her responses below), I sensed a much more balanced perspective on the pleasures and pains of being a Richmond fan: it’s about ritual, family and the variety of feelings, sensations and emotions of being at the game and watching it with others – whether they be strangers or friends.

In my first communication with Kate, it emerged that she had changed teams from Carlton to Richmond: Carlton being arguably Richmond’s greatest rival. (I too had switched from Essendon, also a hated rival of Richmond’s). Changing teams as a supporter is something of a taboo: by one set of fans one is considered a traitor, by the other set, one is considered not a ‘true or real fan’ because one hasn’t followed the team since childhood. And thus, the reason Kate switch and how it happened was the starting point for this essay. I wanted to know about her experience as a footy fan – and a Richmond fan in particular.


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Tom at Caulfield oil on canvas 76cmW x 61cm

What marked your shift from Carlton to Richmond?

Carlton was my team from the late 70’s. As a child it appealed for its color and the design of its sharp CFC logo. Navy blue appealed to my sense of who I was at that time. Carlton was a path that led me from childhood and on to adulthood, from Bruce Doull to Stephen Silvagni, Princess Park to the MCG and from VFL to AFL. It seemed stately, regal and of course, successful.

During the 90’s as study, kids and then family life took over; and as the increasing pervasiveness of the AFL game infiltrated general life, some years of detached interest followed for me. There just seemed to be too much footy and not enough spare time in which to consume or enjoy it.

Somewhere in this midst of general life though, footy suddenly reappeared in the form of local junior football, and as if out of nowhere, I found myself almost suddenly subsumed by the game on the domestic front. I have four boys who all have played or are still playing. I couldn’t sit back and be ambivalent. I had to become involved.

My transition from Carlton to Richmond as a supporter is partly geographical; living on the other side of the Yarra throughout my younger years and then onto and across the river to Richmond and then South East suburbs where I’ve now settled.

I can’t really say I chose Richmond, rather, Richmond perhaps, chose me. The games our family go to are always Richmond games, out of a family of seven we had two tiger fans, it made sense to join my own Tiger army and and strengthen its power. We now have a monopoly at home – and that is more than good.

Richmond has such a down to earth feel to its ‘supportership’, and it’s roots still seem firmly planted in the origin of the game. Its working class heritage, its location within the park and upon the ground where the first ever games were held –  long protracted games that apparently took place over several weekends amongst shrubby and rugged surrounds of the local landscape. Something of the history of the game fuels my own imagination; the loneliness, perhaps, of new immigrants coming together in the Australian landscape to play and watch this strange game.

Richmond has a character that keeps the game real and honest, there is nothing pretentious about the club or its supporters. I would classify myself as an active fan. I am a paid up member and attend a few games a year as time permits. I am an avid radio listener, especially when Gerard Whateley commentates. Footy music!

Do you regard yourself as a loyal, die-hard fan?

I’m not a die-hard supporter at every game. However, I am impressed by those that are, those in the cheer squad week in week out, those with little kids in tow, the banner makers, and the flag wavers that keep the passion alive despite years of crushing defeats. They keep the game alive. To create my footy inspired art, I feel I need to be back a bit. I suspect that if I was a die-hard fan my energy would be sapped leaving little room for artistic expression.

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Buddy’s Bump on Edwards (2015)

 What is your favourite memory of Richmond?

My favorite most recent Richmond memory is of their win against the Swans in that crazy game that saw their ninth consecutive win for the 2014 season and which took them into the finals. I know plenty of people who watched that game as I did in a Melbourne pub, will remember that day with clarity and regardless of how many beverages that may have been consumed by its patrons, will be remembered well by all.

Pubs literally heaved with a football energy that was gripping at so many levels. Conversations with people you have never met before, my own child hiding under a table because the noise was deafening and a collegiality that I suppose makes (struggling) footy fandom worthwhile in the long run. There was an outpouring of pent up emotion that erupted that day, a chance, a glimmer of hope that united all within.

I had to record it in my own way, in my art and it generated some sketches, as well as a larger painting in the weeks that followed. I don’t paint things like this because I think they will sell. I paint them because I feel there is a strong narrative and a visual story that has to be told, one that goes beyond that which words can express.

What do you enjoy most about going to the game?

My first response to that is that I enjoy spending time with my family at the football. It’s a communal event that brings people together, regardless of whether it is local suburban footy or the bigger AFL kind. I love the atmosphere, the color and the breadth of people that either participate or support the game. I also love the theatrics of the game, the physicalness of it and the ballet like quality that sees adult men running and flying into the air in their pursuit of both opponent and ball.

Footy is certainly not all about love though. We talk of our love for the game, which is true, but as we all know football carries within it, at times, plenty that is unlovable. To me though, this is an interesting aspect for people, for community and adds to my impetus when I paint. Football’s imperfections create texture, dialogue and thought.

At so many different angles, there are so many views other than that which we see nightly on out TV screens and newspapers; from the slick corporate and professional elements to the everyday local club, scrounging for funds, volunteers and increasingly in some rural areas, even players.

With so much that happens beyond the ovals, the scoreboards and ladders of game day, the game is unique in the way it entwines sport, drama and religion into one big football being. The game itself is truly fascinating in the way it has evolved from its very early days post colonial settlement, to where it stands now, an intrinsic part of everyday life in this part of the world.

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Nice Kick Jack (2013)

*Thank you to Kate Birrell for answering questions and providing images. Her website is here: Kate Birrell. And, The Footy Alamanac is here.

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