Sabi Buehler – a surprise letter


The article below by Sabi Buehler originally appeared in the Chocolate Lilies choir’s newsletter in July 2020, as part of a getting to know each other exercise. The photos are courtesy of Suzy Jaeger.

In this time of tedious lockdown, any surprise is a welcomed diversion from my otherwise predictable and mundane routine.

A few weeks ago, a letter arrived from The Art Gallery of NSW explaining that they were trying to track down any information regarding portraits which were finalists in previous Archibald Prize exhibitions. As it happens, one of these portraits, entitled Young Migrant Woman, was a finalist in the 1969 exhibition and now hangs in pride of place on my studio wall. It is also on the cover of my recent book and it is through this connection that the archivist was able to find me. She was delighted to learn that the picture was in my possession and requested measurements and photos of the front, back and signature as well as some information about me and how I came to know the artist, Andrea Andre. I was also able to put her in touch with the artist’s daughter who could supply further information about her mother and another portrait, also an Archibald Prize finalist.

The portrait depicts me as a young woman with long black hair and a steady, confident gaze looking out into her future. It was painted shortly after my return to Australia after almost four years overseas – two working in Papua New Guinea and nearly two years hitchhiking through much of Europe, the Middle East and India following the hippy trail and living out of a backpack.

On my return, I trained as a primary school teacher and had a challenging first posting at Olympic Village Primary School which I now believe gave me some of the most rewarding experiences in my 12 years teaching in primary schools. From Melbourne University, I gained a Graduate Diploma in Interethnic studies which qualified me to teach ESL (English as Second Language) to adult migrants, refugees and overseas students at the Language Centre at La Trobe University. During my 15 years working at La Trobe, I completed a B.Ed and B.A(Hons) and taught students from all over the world – many of whom became good friends. However, after 15 years at the Language Centre and an inspiring trip to Cuba, I took early retirement and eked out a living taking sessional teaching and running workshops. I also took on a number of volunteering activities in our local area and further afield. These included tutoring, serving on committees, and helping out in a variety of ways.

For 23 years, I volunteered with the City of Melbourne at the Visitor Information Centre advising overseas, interstate and local visitors on what to see, do and learn about our city. For 11 years, I was also a Melbourne Greeter, showing visitors around the CBD but I ran out of days in the week when, together with a small dedicated steering committee, I established Nillumbilk U3A and served as its inaugural president for 3 years during the Black Saturday aftermath.

A particularly rewarding experience has been singing with the Chocolate Lilies since its very beginnings 25 years ago and I consider myself to be Grandma (perhaps Great-grandma) Chocolate Lily.

Most recently I published my second book, Slaying Dragons All On My Own which features the portrait on its cover and, although written as a novel, is essentially part of my own story. A Life in Two Suitcases, my first book, is a memoir/biography of my mother and was translated into German when a German publisher took it on and I had the novel experience of being a (very) minor celebrity whilst giving talks on my book in 2018 in Germany.

Looking back over the 50 years since the portrait was painted, I am grateful that I have enjoyed a full and rewarding life, the greatest rewards being the many friends I have gathered along the way and the varied experiences I have had through my work, my volunteering and my community. I wonder if the young woman looking out of the picture had any inkling as to the trajectory her life would take.

These days of Covid-19, I am unable to spend time with friends or engage in so many of the pleasurable activities that used to occupy my days, but the unexpected letter served as a bridge to recalling aspects of my past and reflecting on the intervening years from today’s perspective – an interesting exercise.