VICKI-ANNE Williamson opens the garage door of her Charlestown home and points to a set of shelves crammed with the leftovers of everyday life.
"Ernie's packed up there," she says.
Resting with their faces hidden on the top shelf are three boards stacked on each other.
Each of those boards is adorned with a painting by a man known as Ernie Dickson.
One work is a still life depicting a bowl of roses and fruit, another is a historical scene of a bullock team, and the third is the portrait of a dog.
The artworks were rescued from the walls of a house in Swansea by Mrs Williamson and other members of the East Lake Macquarie Historical Society, before the building was demolished.
About 20 kilometres south of the Williamsons' home, Deidre Geary leads me on a similar art pilgrimage, as we venture into her backyard garage at Swansea Heads.
The memory of Ernie lives in here too.
Lying behind a tangle of prawning scoops on a shelf suspended from the ceiling is a pile of large wall panels, each of them featuring a landscape painted by Ernie Dickson.
Deidre Geary recalls years ago her husband, Bill, another member of the East Lake Macquarie Historical Society, had put the paintings up there after they had been saved from the same Swansea house as the artworks stored in the Williamsons' garage.
"They just wanted to keep it, save it for the [society's] museum, till they found out what they could do with it," Mrs Geary explains of the art.
However, she had forgotten about the works until a couple of years ago, when her son was cleaning out the garage and said, "Mum, there are some paintings up here".
One of the works has been brought down and is leaning against the garage wall. Deidre Geary turns around the large piece of plaster to reveal a tranquil lake scene. In the middle of the painting is a line of nail holes, indicating that this was once part of a wall in the house.
Mrs Geary wonders if the work depicts Lake Macquarie.
"It does look peaceful, it looks like the lake on a day when the wind's not blowing. The lake can look like that, just glass," she says, gazing at the picture.
In another local garage are yet more saved Dickson paintings.
"It's not actually a mystery," says Deidre Geary, of the pictures, as she places the lake scene against the wall once more. "I know where they came from, and I know why [the society members] kept them, but that's about all.
"I don't know anything about him."
So begins the search to find out more about this man who painted art on the walls of other people's places, and why he did it.
HE wasn't born Ernie. That was his nickname. His given name sounded more artistic: Emlyn. Sometimes, in the records, it was written as Emelyn. His full name was Emlyn Britton Dickson.
He was born in 1892. The surname came along when Emlyn's mother, Annie Britton, married a man by the name of Dickson when her son was about five.
Those details of Ernie Dickson's early life were fossicked out by Vicki-anne Williamson, who became fascinated by the artist while she was volunteering at the historical society.
"People would come in and say they've found this little painting in the back shed while they're cleaning out the garage at Mum's place or Dad's place," she recalls.
The more she researched Ernie Dickson, the more she thought, "This guy's amazing".
Young Emlyn's journey towards being an artist began when he left school. He was employed as an apprentice scenic artist in Sydney.
But Emlyn Britton Dickson would swap brushes for a rifle. After the outbreak of World War One, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in 1915 and initially served with the 19th Infantry Battalion at Gallipoli.
The following year, Private Dickson was sent to France, serving on the Western Front until the end of the war in 1918, returning home in 1919.
While he was a soldier, Dickson remained an artist.
Held in the archives of the Australian War Memorial is a sketchbook owned by E.B. Dickson. Flicking through the images living behind the sketchbook's mottled cover, the viewer is guided by Dickson through his years at war.
On the title page, in an ornate design that features an arrangement of flowers, Dickson has written "Egypt" and "France", with those two place names flanking the main word, "Anzac".
Some of the early pictures are like soldier postcards, radiating with the excitement of a young man heading overseas, experiencing new places and ancient cultures.
Then he marches us onto the battlefield, with simple but searing images capturing what he experienced in Gallipoli and on the Western Front.
There are soldiers fighting, tanks rumbling over churned earth, and depictions of ruined buildings. And ruined lives. He portrays the dead and their final resting places, a powerful elegy in paints for the dreadful waste that war produces.
A couple of the images are delicate and detailed, such as the sketch of a cathedral interior, while others are caricature-like, as Dickson records his time on leave.
Dickson also spent a good deal of time in hospitals. He was evacuated from Gallipoli suffering jaundice and enteric fever in late 1915. He was hospitalised a number of times while serving in France. His records show he was wounded twice, including being treated after a shell explosion. Those hospital stays also provide raw material for his illustrations.
Dickson's sketchbook is an extraordinary insight into one man's journey to hell and back during World War One. And perhaps it illustrates the ghosts that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
"To me, he was an artist who went to war," says Vicki-anne Williamson.
"He wanted to record his way of seeing the war in his drawings."
When he returned from the war, Ernie Dickson brought not just his sketches but apparently a problem with alcohol. Those who knew him say he developed a habit of drinking methylated spirits mixed with cordial.
Dickson had married a young Cessnock woman before heading off to war, and they had a daughter. But in the post-war years, he drifted away from family life into a more itinerant existence around Newcastle and Lake Macquarie.
"He was a loner," recalls 96-year-old Neville Ham. "A lovely man. Never swore. I never, ever heard him use bad language."
As a boy growing up in Swansea, Neville Ham and his school mate, Neville Sparks, would see this slight bloke around town, sometimes living in the ferry jetty shed by the channel.
"What he went through, he never said," says Mr Ham. "I sat on that jetty for hours talking to Ernie, sat there fishing, and I never heard him speak of the war."
"He had a face that looked like it had been in pain for years and years and years," says Mr Sparks, also aged 96, and, like Mr Ham, a proud Swansea resident. "But when kids were around him, he'd be happy and have a smile. And talk to us."
And the kids would hang around, watching him paint. For the ferry shed was also Dickson's makeshift studio, providing him with a platform to paint pictures on whatever materials he could find, depicting the bridge and the ever-changing scenes on the water, as little colliers and sailboats slid by.
"He never chased you away when you were watching him," says Mr Sparks. "I think painting, that was his outlet, [after] everything he suffered through the war."
What Ernie Dickson could conjure with paint seemed almost like a magic trick to young Neville Ham.
"It used to fascinate me," Mr Ham says. "Just a blob of paint put on a piece of board or cardboard, and the next minute, here's a beautiful array in a vase of flowers. Where the frigging hell did he get those colours from!?"
More than being an outlet, art provided Ernie Dickson with a living. One of his biggest projects was helping create the Spanish Baroque splendour of Newcastle's Civic Theatre when it was built in the late 1920s.
Dickson painted the ornate interior, including the domes in the ceiling.
When the Civic Theatre was being restored in the early 1990s, Ed Clode was the project architect. He remembers being deeply impressed by the art.
"When I looked at the ceiling, it had to be a highly specialised artist doing all that," Mr Clode says. "It was highly detailed."
Ed Clode recounts hearing stories that were passed down from the time of the Civic Theatre being built, where Dickson was not allowed off the scaffold while painting, in case he slipped away for a drink. Instead, food and materials were passed up to him.
"They couldn't afford to let him down; he couldn't go missing," Mr Clode says.
Similar stories were told of someone being employed to ensure Dickson stayed sober while working on the theatre. Neville Ham recalls Dickson telling him that wasn't the case.
"They never paid [the offsider] to keep him off the grog, they paid him to stop [Ernie] from falling off the scaffold," Mr Ham asserts. "That's what he was there for."
Ernie Dickson employed his artistic skills on smaller projects, sign writing and painting murals for a string of businesses around Lake Macquarie.
For instance, he painted the bread carts and trucks for McEwan's bakery near Belmont. But he didn't stop there. When the McEwans put a roof over his head, allowing him to stay in the bakehouse, Dickson returned the favour by decorating the interior of their house.
Val McEwan, who was a boy at the time, vividly remembers his family home being turned into an art gallery by Dickson.
"In our dining room/kitchen ... between the picture rail and ceiling, he painted a desert scene all around on the four walls," recalls Mr McEwan, now aged 91. "On one wall of our back bedroom ... he had a couple of scenes of New Zealand, and on another wall, he painted off a card of some place in Scotland, where my father had come from."
It was a trade Ernie Dickson practised particularly in Belmont and Swansea, where he spent a lot of time.
When someone provided him with accommodation or fed him, he would do them a painting. And sometimes that painting would take up an entire wall. He would show his appreciation for kindness being brought into his life by bringing colour and beauty into those people's lives.
Painting was Ernie Dickson's act of generosity, his gift, and it was his therapy.
"Painting was his let-out," says Neville Sparks. "From being at the war, I think it haunted him. And if he was doing something for somebody, making them happy, he was quite happy."
And that is how the Swansea home of the Cain and Wood families was gradually transformed into an artistic wonderland. In the 1930s, Ernie Dickson lived in the back shed, and, to pay his way, he painted the house's walls, from desert landscapes in a bedroom to lake scenes in the hallway.
He also demonstrated the sheer diversity of his artistic skills, creating a geometric design for tiles laid in a hearth, and then using that design to produce stained glass panels for doors.
In another house in Swansea, Neville Ham recalls, Ernie Dickson expressed his gratitude to the owners by painting a mural of an angel above the bed of their small child, so "it was like she was looking down on the bed. It was a masterpiece."
Vicki-anne Williamson vividly remembers the first time she entered the Woods' house, 70 years after Dickson had created his artworks in there.
'I was just blown away at the brightness of the colours," she says. "It was brilliant.
"And you could see he didn't want to just thank the people. There was more in his artwork than just 'thank you', because it's not quickly brushed. It's detailed. And that's more than a thank you.
"I think it's love. It has to be, because you just don't do that to people's houses to say 'thank you for a meal'. It's because he liked where he was. They looked after him, they cared for him. He cared for them."
When Ernie Dickson died in 1951, apparently there were few people at the funeral service. But he had already created his own memorials in homes and shops - and in an iconic theatre - around Lake Macquarie and Newcastle.
For those who knew Ernie, and had seen his paintings, he wasn't about to be forgotten.
So when the march of progress meant the Woods' house was to be demolished in 2008 to make way for a supermarket car park, East Lake Macquarie Historical Society members arranged with the owners to save Ernie's paintings. Working bees carefully cut out the murals, lifted off the paintings and the decorated glass panels and placed them in storage in members' garages.
They managed to rescue works painted on plaster and glass from another home in Belmont earmarked for demolition. Vicki-ann Williamson has three glass panels from that house, shimmering with Middle Eastern scenes. It is believed there are also Dickson works in Maitland Gaol. The full story behind those and how they came to be there, like so much of Ernie's life, remains a mystery.
And when the McEwans renovated their home in the 1980s, Val removed some of the panels painted by the family's one-time lodger.
"We cut them off the wall rather than throw them out," Val McEwan says.
After all, to lose all those artworks would have been to lose the memory of who Ernie really was. As Vicki-anne Williamson says, "You've got to look past the drinking and look at the art to see the man. And that tells you everything."
The rescuers of the works hope that one day, Ernie Dickson's paintings will be on public display. After all, they refer to him as "the people's artist".
"He needs to be acknowledged, not forgotten," Vicki-anne Williamson says.
But for now, while his paintings are largely out of sight, Ernie Dickson is not out of the minds of those who admire him.
Those admirers share their memories of Ernie the artist, who practised artistic alchemy, turning ugliness into beauty. Val McEwan recounts a story where Dickson walked into a shop in Belmont, and he threw a tin of paint on a wall. The proprietor phoned the police.
"By the time police came down there, there was nothing to complain about, because where he had thrown that paint on the wall, it had become a beautiful rose," Mr McEwan says.
That story somehow seems like a metaphor for what Ernie Dickson was trying to do with his life.
And, in the eyes of those who knew and cared for him, that was what he gave to their lives. Through his pictures, he gave himself.
"I think he was a gentle soul, and it comes out in his artwork," says Mrs Williamson.
"He was a gentleman," says Neville Ham.
So on Anzac Day, and every day, they remember Ernie Dickson as someone who did his bit during the war, and then did his best in making the world more beautiful.
"I think if he'd been alive today, he'd have been a millionaire, if he had wanted," muses Neville Sparks.
"But, personally, I think he painted to get something out of his mind. He wanted to be happy."
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