Swimming Home: A Memoir by Judy Cotton

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

Cover image for Swimming Home: A Memoir

Swimming Home: A Memoir

Judy Cotton

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