Paddy Bedford was born at Bedford Downs Station in the east Kimberley c.1922. He was given the name Paddy after the station manager, Paddy Quilty, a hard man, who was believed to be the instigator of the strychnine poisoning of Gidja Men at Bedford Downs in retaliation for killing a milking cow near Mount King several years earlier. Like many of his Gidja countrymen, Bedford worked for Quilty and others as a stockman for the majority of his life in return for rations of tea, flour and tobacco. These and other, often horrific, events are woven into the contemporary history of the Kimberley region and provided Paddy Bedford with a unique perspective informing an art practice that began in his late 70’s.
Though he had been involved with ceremonial painting all his life, it was by chance that a gallery dealer happened upon some of his boards in a rubbish tip in the mid 1990’s. From such humble beginnings Paddy began painting formally in 1997, with the formation of Jirrawun Aboriginal Arts. Initiated by Freddy Timms with help from artist Tony Oliver, the group which includes Timms, Peggy Patrick, Rammy Ramsay and others, has gained exponential notoriety and they have been ‘mythologised, almost like rock stars, by some of the country’s best writers’ (Bowdler 2005: 45). In tangible terms Jirrawun Arts has been able to provide the kind of individual support and promotion of its artists that art centers have difficulty emulating. Numerous shows were organised through the group, in which Bedford starred during his lifetime, including Blood on the Spinifex at the National Gallery of Victoria and True Stories at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
'I’m a millionaire' Bedford shouted when he received his first cheque as an artist. Over the following decade his painting style developed from simple expanses of flat ochre to masterful luminous textured surfaces. Painting in a recognizable east Kimberley style in which plains of ochre are disrupted only by sparsely planted shapes, Bedford masterfully combined important ancestral Dreamings with depictions of his environment and contemporary historical events.
His health and dexterity at various times dictated the medium in which he worked. Introduced to gouache and paper after 2000, he created intimate works that were equally successful as those depicted in ochres. In both mediums his paintings are imbued with authority and an absolutely distinctive individual language within the east Kimberley conventions. Characteristic of Paddy’s style are richly ochred surfaces with minimal arrangements of circular shapes, often centered upon a band, and delineated by white dots. Though important Dreamings such as the Emu, Turkey, and Cockatoo are present in many of his works, like the narratives of his family history they are not depicted in any figurative form. This is evidenced in the self-published book, Walk the Line, produced during 2004, in which Bedford depicted important sites and explored the culture of his people.
Paddy Bedford, an enigmatic octogenarian, stood out as a uniquely talented artist. He was amongst the few selected to contribute to the permanent installation at the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris and was honoured, during his lifetime, with the unprecedented recognition of a retrospective exhibition and a major catalogue by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney during 2007, which toured nationally.
His work, most probably without intention, became embroiled in the ‘history wars’ between various social commentators and journalists after Keith Windschuttle, in his book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History 2002, questioned the veracity of Aboriginal oral accounts of such tragedies as the Bedford Downs massacre. Three years later Paddy Bedford exhibited a series of paintings based on the Bedford Downs massacre at the National Gallery of Victoria. The Blood on the Spinifex exhibition revealed a surprising attitude to the killings. Its power lay in the 'modesty of the voice, the quiet economy of the storyline, the sober lack of sentimental or rhetorical elaboration' (Nelson cited in Bowdler 2005: 46). It is testament to this wonderful old stockman and artist, one of the great Kimberley characters, that the truth distilled within his canvasses has brought broad acceptance amongst a majority of Australians as to the credibility of Gidja oral accounts of their traumatic encounters with white settlers.