Sydney Artist’s Body of Work to Support Dementia Research

14 Aug 2018

Sydney Artist’s Body of Work to Support Dementia Research


In 1964, 34 year old Sydney-based painter Naomi Lewis was a proud finalist of the Archibald Prize.  50 years later in 2013, and with a history of her distinctive free-form art hanging throughout many Australian buildings including the Qantas first class lounges, The Hyatt in Canberra and St Vincent’s Hospital, this talented artist was diagnosed with vascular dementia.

Last year, the artist - Naomi Lewis - passed away, leaving behind a rich body of work which will furnish an exhibition in her honour at the Ewart Gallery, Workshop Arts Centre in Willoughby, running from 11 to 28 April.  

Her daughter, Michelle McEwing who is a professional matchmaker for the Jewish community, says her mother would have wanted her final show to benefit a charity and as such they have teamed up with the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing at UNSW Sydney which will receive proceeds from the exhibition. 

“Mum’s great passions were her family, her community and painting,” says Michelle, reflecting on her mother’s life.

“Mum’s mother Golda (known as Goldie) was one of five sisters known as The Goldberg Girls and these women shaped Mum’s life in a most profound way.  The statement “Remember we are Goldberg Girls” anchored them to each other as strong, steadfast and resilient and assured each other that family always comes first,” says Michelle.

“Nothing was truer for Mum.  She was a Goldberg Girl to the very end.”

Naomi was born on July 10, 1930, the only child of Maurice and Golda Selig. Although she was an only child her friends Meryl, Lea and Shirley were like sisters and her first cousins Philip and Julian were her brothers.

She lived life in a close knit small community amongst people who had friendships spanning generations.  Her closest friends were the children of her parents’ closest friends and her early years were spent in a world full of love and security. Those early friendships lasted a lifetime and underpinned everything that shaped her life.

It was her cousin Phillip who introduced her to Harold, her husband of 61 years. Phillip and Harold were lads about town but when Harold met Naomi in 1952 that was it for him. He had met the girl he meant to marry, which they did at The Great Synagogue on May 20, 1954. In the early years of their marriage Naomi worked as an editor and secretary at Angus & Robertson Book Publishers while Harold completed his dental degree at Sydney University. Their first home in 1954 was on Mowbray Road, Lane Cove and in early 1960 they chose to move to their home of 40 years in Dover Heights, just one house away from Shirley, one of Naomi’s sisters.

Her career as a painter began when she was still a student at Sydney Girls High School. She would venture into the city to take art classes at the Dattilo Rubbo Studio. In her 30s she studied under John Ogburn and later with John Olsen, Michael Kmit, Ross Davis and Tony Tozer. She particularly loved the smell of oil paints and would often say painting transported her to a place far beyond anywhere she had ever travelled.

In addition to private sales, commissions and solo exhibitions in Melbourne and Sydney Naomi’s work appeared in many group exhibitions between 1964 and 2012, including those staged in Rockdale, Willoughby, Waverley, Woollahra, Drummoyne, Warringah, Lane Cove, Royal Art Society, Mosman, Ashfield, Camden and Berrima. She was a first prize winner in 1987 at Woollahra and at Waverley in 1988. It was her portrait of John Ogburn that was hung in the Archibald Prize in 1964.

Naomi’s community work centered around B’nai B’rith. She pioneered the very first breakfast program in the 1970s at Bondi Beach Public school.  She contacted major companies and asked them to donate food and other products for her breakfast program where every child was given a healthy, sustaining breakfast of eggs, sandwiches, fruit and either juice or milk.  She was down at the school most morning and built a team of volunteers who helped turn the program into more than just feeding hungry children. The children were taught how to shop and cook, how to make good food choices and if necessary how to fend for themselves in the kitchen.

Naomi also helped establish the B’nai B’rith Bargain Bazaar, a shop that is still flourishing today.  One day a week she would work in the store, sorting clothes and household goods and selling to customers.

Naomi loved entertaining.  The house was always full of people, laughter and masses of food.  She was famous for her Bouch De Noel or chocolate log as she called it because she didn’t want to sound pretentious. Whenever she asked someone what she could bring their answer was always “Bring your chocolate log please!” It was always the first cake to be finished and like the true Jewish Mama that made her happy.

Naomi was a true friend to many people. She was an amazing confidant, never breaking a confidence or gossiping. If you wanted a secret kept but needed to share it with someone, Naomi was your person. 

It was in the second half of 2013 that Naomi was first diagnosed with vascular dementia and following her husband’s passing in July 2015, she chose to move out of her home and into care.

The crippling disease robbed her of her joy of life; understandably hard for such a remarkable lady.

CHeBA’s Co-Director and head of the Memory Clinic at the Prince of Wales Hospital, Professor Henry Brodaty, says that vascular dementia is the second most common form of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease. 

“It can be caused by strokes which are often small, silent and multiple.”

“At CHeBA, we are leading a global research consortium which aims to improve understanding and ultimately lead to possible prevention of vascular dementia,” said Professor Brodaty. 

In her final months Naomi was fortunate enough to move to Group Homes Australia in Rose Bay – a beautiful home where she was under the care of an amazing team of wonderful, loving Homemakers.  The way in which the team welcomed Naomi home for her last few days was the most compassionate act of kindness for which Naomi’s family will be forever grateful.

Group Homes Australia, an innovative aged care alternative, was born out of looking at the fundamentals of what people want and need.

“We realise that when families are discussing options for care, almost everyone would prefer to stay at home.  While we cannot replace someone’s own home, our environment looks, feels and smells like a traditional family home, while providing 24-hour care and complete clinical support,”  says Co-CEO Jonathan Gavshon. 

“We are delighted to be the first to bring this specialised model of care to Australia.  It was an absolute privilege for us to care for Naomi and our Homemakers developed a meaningful and deep connection with her in the time she was with us.”

In full time care and with her painting days over, but about 30 paintings in her studio, Naomi and daughter Michelle planned a final art show to be held in 2018.

Sadly, Naomi died of a massive hemorrhage in July 2017. 

Committed to going ahead with the show in her mum’s memory, Michelle has now booked the gallery attached to the studios where Naomi painted twice a week for 20+ years. 

According to Michelle, Naomi loved with a huge heart and a loving nature that knew no limits. 

“Mum was my confidant, my mentor, my role model, my life coach, my best friend and my precious, darling Mum. She filled each role with the sort of passion that inspires me. I spoke to Mum almost every day of my life and in the past 20 years two or three times a day.  Every conversation ended with me telling her ‘I love you Mum’ and she would reply ‘And I love you darling, a big, big bit’”, says Michelle.

“She is the big, big bit that is now missing from my life.”

The exhibition will be open from 9.30am to 4.30pm Monday to Friday and 10am to 3pm on Saturday between 11 and 28 April, with sale proceeds going to the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA), UNSW Sydney to advance research into all dementias. 

Ewart Gallery, Workshop Arts Centre
33 Laurel Street, Willoughby, 02 9958 6540