Decoding the fear one flag at a time

'Liberty' [DETAIL] by Marie-Louise Jones

The paintings of maritime flags adorning the gallery walls at Murky Waters Studio are a cheery-looking bunch. But something more sinister lurks beneath their sunny yellows and bright sky blues.

Cross Signals is Navy veteran Marie-Louise Jones’ second solo exhibition. Her first, Entangled shown at Umbrella Studio contemporary art in 2019, helped her unpack the feeling of ‘knots in her stomach’ left by her time serving. Now, Marie-Louise delves a little explicitly – albeit in code – into her memory bank.

Every painting tells a story

“Every image is a specific story about my time when I was on my second deployment,” says Marie-Louise.

“I had a posting to the HMAS Sydney for two years. In the first nine months, I’d gone to the First Gulf [War]. This is mainly about those nine months.”

When Marie-Louise boarded the Sydney, she learned the female PT she was replacing had experienced a breakdown just six weeks into the job. The crew members told Marie-Louise they were taking bets that they could break her even faster.

Upon surviving to the six-week mark, the Quarter Master visited Marie-Louise in her mess room. He told her since they couldn’t break her, they would do all they could to make her cry. And they did.

Painting in Code

Marie-Louise has deployed the International Code of Signals to paint the pieces in her latest exhibition. Each flag has a stand-alone meaning, as well as corresponding to a letter in the alphabet, allowing less common messages to be spelled out.

Marie-Louise says Liberty is the most positive piece in the exhibit.

“When you’re on a ship, and you come alongside (ie: into harbour), instead of saying, ‘OK, you’ve got time off now’ they’ll always go ‘Liberty, Liberty, Liberty’,” Marie-Louise says.

“That means you now stand down from your work, and you can go off and hit the bars and whatever. But it also means and – I love this one – because to me it means that I no longer have to worry about being hit from behind or pushed from behind or shoved into a bulkhead or attacked verbally or physically or emotionally.”

Facing the trauma

It’s been 30 years since Marie-Louise experienced her abuse aboard HMAS Sydney. She says the shame and embarrassment of talking about her experience has made it hard to bring it into the light.

“It’s that whole thing of talking to a female who is talking about PTSD. The stigma is that PTSD usually comes usually with men in the Army, and here I was, Navy and female,” says Marie-Louise.

“I’ve had people say ‘How could you have PTSD? You’re a girl.’

When Marie-Louise confronted her trauma during Entangled, she became physically ill.

“And so I started going therapy at Mates4Mates,” she says.

“I’ve had a really good psych there, he’s really helped me a lot. I literally I walked in and said to him ‘I have to start talking about it now or else this is going to haunt me for ever’. And I want to be 100 per cent truthful, because I’ve never been 100 per cent truthful.

“Even now, I’m still hiding, because I’m not putting the stories with the work. My daughter says, to put the stories beside them because it makes them richer, but I don’t know if I can do that.

“She says ‘Do the stories, Mum, you need to do the stories. You need to stop shielding them’.”

Painting clasps gave Marie-Louise Jones a break from the intense emotions brought up by painting flags.

Feeling alone together

Marie-Louise has found some catharsis through painting her story.

“I’m not the greatest artist but I think it’s the storytelling that touches people,” she says.

“A lot of females are now coming out with PTSD and there’s been a lot more suicides by women veterans.

“I want my work to say ‘It’s okay to be scared. And it’s okay to be sad.’ It’s about seeing a sameness and recognising that we are not alone.”

See Crossed Signals at Murky Waters Studio, 9am-12pm on 11 December 2022

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