stART talking: address the silence

When Virginia Petherbridge saw Kathie Bowtell’s portrait of her late son, Sam, for the first time, she said, “I feel like I could grab him out of the portrait and hug him!”

stART talking: address the silence

The portrait of Sam Petherbridge, infused with young life, is one of many painted by artist Kathie as part of the “stART talking” project she initiated in conjunction with Lifeline Newcastle and Hunter.


Kathie knows the impact of suicide first hand, principally through the deaths of her grandfather and stepbrother, and her motivation is to provide a creative means by which people are encouraged simply to “start talking”. “Maybe someone’s worried about someone they know. Maybe an individual is troubled and doesn’t know how to begin an awkward conversation.”


Virginia and Steve Petherbridge are committed to spreading the communication message, especially among young people. When their son took his life, days before his eighteenth birthday, their lives changed in an instant. Six years on, they continue to grieve, but they have channelled their energy into addressing the ignorance and stigma that still surround suicide. 


Reflecting on the six years since Sam’s death, Virginia says, “We marked Sam’s 21st birthday and most of his close friends attended. In his speech, Steve asked them all to communicate their feelings with one another and never be afraid to reach out if they felt down or in need of help.”


Creating the opportunity for someone to ‘reach out’ is the purpose of “stART talking”; the portraits, beautiful as they are, are byproducts. Sam’s portrait, all light and movement, will engage anyone who visits the Petherbridge home, and despite the ever-present sadness, Virginia and Steve don’t step back from sharing their story and encouraging open communication – and as Virginia says, “Hug your children every day.”  


Kathie Bowtell is a real estate agent by day and an artist by night. Sharing her gift is her way of addressing the fact that an estimated 180 Australians attempt suicide each day. The joy the portraits bring families of those who have taken that step is gratifying, but more significant to her are the possibilities the portraits represent.


“stART talking” operates under the auspices of Lifeline Newcastle and Hunter and in 2014 there will be an exhibition of the portraits Kathie’s painted for the families of people who have died by suicide. She gives her time, talent and materials freely, and she says each portrait “makes my heart smile”.


Virginia recalls that in the months following Sam’s death, one persistent thought troubled her. “I had been brought up to believe that if you took your own life, it was a terrible sin and you would not go to heaven. I was worried that Sam was not with God.” A chance encounter with her former parish priest at St Luke’s Wallsend assuaged this anxiety. “Fr Robert Catt told me that ‘God was a loving God and he would not turn away the sick or wounded’. That gave me tremendous peace. I had a husband and three beautiful daughters to live for. We were all struggling.”


Virginia Petherbridge is naturally gregarious and now she dedicates much of her time and energy to simple conversations that make a real difference. Before retiring from secondary teaching, she would often gravitate to those students who were suffering, modelling an openness that disarms others and helps them to “start talking”.


Sam’s Dad, Steve, clearly misses his only son every day but when the portrait’s unveiled, he’s delighted. “It’s open and free, just like he was. Straight to the poolroom!”


Phone Lifeline 13 11 14, or visit If you are an artist who would like to be involved in “stART talking”, please contact the editor.


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