Swimming Home: A Memoir

Judy Cotton

Swimming Home: A Memoir
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Swimming Home: A Memoir

Judy Cotton

I am sitting at my father’s desk, waiting to call Intensive Care … It is September, the wattle is flowering, and it smells like napalm.

In this stunning memoir, full of black humour and razor-sharp observations, visual artist Judy Cotton captures the intricacies of family relationships and the push-pull of home.

Her mother, Eve, was a brilliant but exacting woman, a gifted pianist whose perfectionism cut her career short. After marrying, she established a successful stud farm for sheep in the Blue Mountains while supporting her husband’s political career. Judy’s charismatic father, Bob, was a federal minister and ambassador to the United States, with traditional ideas about who Judy should become.

Sent to boarding school from the age of four, Judy yearned for her parents but found them increasingly controlling. Her desire for freedom eventually took her overseas, to Korea and Japan in the late 1960s, and later to New York, where she finally discovered belonging in the art scene. But the undertow of home was impossible to escape.

In dazzling prose and with an artist’s eye for landscape, Swimming Home is a powerful meditation on loss and longing, freedom and connection.


The succinct title of artist Judy Cotton’s wonderful memoir, Swimming Home, is watertight; it immediately conjures up images of tidal currents and the fearsome mystery of deep water, alongside hopeful shallow rifts. Art critic Sebastian Smee has described Cotton as ‘an enthusiastic observer of the natural world, both in the wilds of America and in her native Australia’. Cotton, he says, ‘has long been drawn to life in flux’. And this memoir is just that: a moving feast of observation and obligation, of wit and internal struggle, and of a portrait of a family told with great pathos.

With a deft hand, Cotton introduces us to her family, giving us a vignette of each member’s contribution to her own deeply creative life. These memories flow backwards and forwards throughout the years, beginning with her parents’ love story and moving on through stories about boarding schools, aunts who influenced Cotton’s radical behaviour, politics, life in America and the heartache of tragedies that stopped the family in its tracks. There is surprisingly little here about Cotton’s own art practice. For those who wish to delve into Cotton’s visual art, this is not the book for you. For those who want to hear more about how families work and how memories can sustain an artist, however, take this book with you. Read it and marvel at how each paragraph gives you a view of Cotton’s world. And there are lines to examine further too: ‘No matter,’ says Judy, ‘how far I go, [Australia] holds me convict and prisoner.‘

Swimming Home is a portrait of loss and longing, freedom, and connection, and Cotton’s artist’s perspective of the Australian landscape is reflected in the detailed eye she casts on her family. This is a powerful reminder of how childhood never really leaves us. Take this book with you because tramping through memories should be a shared game.

Chris Gordon is the community engagement and programming manager at Readings

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