When he was a kid playing footy in Western Australia, Jermaine Miller-Lewis reckons he was ”all long legs’’.
“All the oldies used to call me big emu legs,’’ Miller-Lewis chuckles.
Soon enough they dubbed him “yellowbidi’’, his mob’s word for emu.
Yellowbidi loved nothing better than fishing and hunting with his aunties and uncles around home in Armadale, about half an hour south of Perth.
He had six brothers and four sisters, “so growing up was a lot of fun, because you’re always going to be fighting or arguing with one or the other’’.
Life changed at about age 12, when his parents split and his father moved away. “I was the oldest of the younger ones, so I was a bit of the man about the house.’’
As a young teen he began to worry about life, an angst which he would express through anger and frustration.
“I was that kid that really didn’t want to listen and I was really running amok at school,’’ he said. “And in my footy I was very undisciplined and my body language was terrible. I’d being smacking other kids and just wanting to go out there to hurt people, so footy was my only release.’’
He needed a circuit breaker and it came at age 14 when he picked up a paint brush, learned to relax and “began to grow to become the person I am today’’.
“IT’S LIKE SOMEONE WHO LIKES TO GO DOWN TO THE BEACH AND LISTEN TO THE WAVES . . . THATS’ EXACTLY THE FEELING I GET FROM (DOT) PAINTING.’’
– JERMAINE MILLER-LEWIS
“I’ve got beautiful memories of my mother and father doing artwork,’’ Miller-Lewis said. “Mum is a Noongar, so she’d do more of the ocean paintings with the blues and greens with the turtles and fish. My father’s side is Yamatji, from up near Geraldton, but inland, semi-desert. So that’s real earthy colours and that where I started off, doing the dot paintings with browns and the real dark earthy colours.’’
His competitive nature prompted Miller-Lewis to think he could do a better job than his elders, which included his grandmother, the renowned painter Valery Miller.
His first canvas was a dot painting that he would chip away of an evening, painstakingly dabbing one dot at a time, “making sure that they didn’t kiss’’. It took him five months to finish.
“Being able to say, that’s my painting, I done that, and being proud of it, that was a big moment in my life,’’ he said.
Miller-Lewis said he doing dot paintings helped him to “zone out’.
“For me it’s very soothing. It’s like someone who likes to go down to the beach and listen to the waves, or go out to the bush and listen to the wind – thats’ exactly the feeling I get from (dot) painting.’’
He also found another outlet through joining an Indigenous dance group, Wadumbah.
“When I was 8 or 9 whenever the TV would come on and I’d jump up and dance. I’ve never been shy about jumping up and dancing in front of people,’’ he said.
But to take his place with Wadumbah (as he is, pictured below) it was not simply a matter of gut instinct – he went through extensive trials and training before the group’s founder, James Webb, allowed him to perform. “We had to have all of our moves right, our timing, our rhythm and know when the digeridoo signalled changes.
Eventually it became a full-time gig, dancing two or three times a week at festivals, schools and corporate events. ”I miss doing it. When I hear that digeridoo go I still get tingles and want to get up and dance,’’ he said.
All the while, his football career continued to bubble along in the background. In his early teens he was a promising ruckman/forward who “kicked a few bags’’ of goals, but ”I’m probably the same height now that I was back then’’.
He was selected in the South Fremantle development program, involved in AIS and state teams and captained the national Indigenous junior team, the Flying Boomerangs, which took him to places like Fiji, South Africa New Zealand, Switzerland and Italy.
After staring life as a Fremantle supporter, Miller-Lewis followed one of his brothers to supporting Hawthorn after he “discovered the likes of Bateman, Franklin, Williams, Hodge and Mitchell’’.
So it was joyous day when the Hawks took a gamble and selected him with pick 36 in the 2015 Rookie Draft (a gamble, because he couldn’t get on to the park during 2014 because of shin stress fractures and an ankle injury).
When Miller-Lewis headed to the boarding gate to fly to Melbourne he had a backpack and two rolled-up canvases – his favourite paintings – under each arm. “Those paintings mean that much to me, they’re part of me, how I express myself,’’ he said.
Since arriving at Waverley he has thrown himself into his football and painting with equal gusto.
On the field he felt he was “very rusty’’ last season and the Hawks have trialled him as a rebounding half back with VFL-affiliate Box Hill this season.
Funnily enough, though, Miller-Lewis found that his family and friends back in WA were more interested in asking how his art was going, rather than ask for updates on his AFL progress.
Each of his paintings has a story to tell. “I don’t just paint to paint. Every story has to have a meaning. They all have stories.’’
The inspiration might come from “a light bulb moment where I picture something’’ or from his dreams. “I have dreams where I see my nanna painting … that’s her coming back to me spiritually and connecting.
“I’ll have patches where nothing comes to me for four months and then I stop thinking about it and – snap! – I might do four or five in the next four months.’’
His artwork has come into sharp focus at Hawthorn this week. Not only did Miller-Lewis contribute to the Hawks’ Indigenous jumper design, but on Monday the club unveiled a 200x150cm canvas he painted to hang outside the players’ lounge at Waverley.
Miller-Lewis started designing the piece last December and only finished it four days before its unveiling. It features the Hawk insignia surrounded by eight connected meeting places, representing the seven states and the people who have come from overseas.
Around the edges of the canvas are the handprints of Hawthorn’s five current Indigenous players, as well as those of coach Alastair Clarkson and senior players Luke Hodge and Jarryd Roughead.
Miller-Lewis is delighted regardless of what his football contribution ends up being at Hawthorn, the club will forever have a part of him and his and his heritage on its wall.
”I’m not Aboriginal on Monday, Tuesday and maybe on a Thursday, I’m Aboriginal every day I wake up, every moment,’’ he said.
“And being part of something bigger than myself, my culture, has been a strong driving force.’’
He hopes that in the years to come the Hawthorn painting will be “something for my little one to be proud of’’.
His “little one’’ is 16-month old daughter, Aryana.
She is blissfully oblivious of AFL football right now – what she really enjoys is unrolling one of her dad’s big canvases on the floor and dancing on it.
One of Jermaine Miller-Lewis’s paintings has been included in the AFL Players’ Association’s best-practice guidelines for supporting Indigenous footballers. Watch him talk about it HERE