By Janice Teo
Thirty years ago, if you had told Dena Gower she would one day be a well-regarded Aboriginal artist, activist and community hero in Australia, she would probably have taken a big swig of beer and laughed in your face.
A single mother by the time she was 18, she served three months in prison when she was in her early 20s and was in a relationship with an abusive man who would one day break her jaw.
By the time she was 24, Dena was popping pills and indulging in risky behaviour. She was heading straight down the track to addiction and alcoholism. She had only basic education; a university degree seemed so far out of the question it may as well have been in outer space.
Moving forward 30 years, let's just say Dena has boldly gone where she never thought she would. She did go to university and she graduated with a Bachelor of Applied Science and Management. She is also currently Deputy Chair of the Aboriginal Reference Group in the City of South Perth local council. In 2013 she was bestowed the Premier's Australia Day Active Citizenship Award and the City of South Perth's Citizen of the Year Award.
An accomplished artist, she was one of the featured talents in an exhibition held in March at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Western Australia. A joint project with Ngaama Ministries, which Dena co-founded with her husband Gary, the exhibition was organised by the church's missions pastor Jonathan Anthony, who saw it as a means of connecting with the larger community and shining a spotlight on indigenous culture.
The exhibition was a resounding success, with 21 of the 32 paintings sold. Dena had four paintings in the exhibition and sold two.
Soft-spoken and gentle, Dena is honest when she speaks about her journey from delinquent to community role model and respected artist. So what took her from sinkhole to rainbow's end? She has no doubt it was a decision she made when she was 4 and revisited at crucial times of her life. That decision was to follow Jesus Christ.
Dena grew up in the country town of Narrogin in Western Australia and attended church with her family. "I always loved going to church," she says. "I always felt there was a brightness and warmth in the room.
"Today I know that's the presence of God but as a child, all I knew was that I always felt extra safe and very happy there."
Her father died when Dena was 13, leaving her heartbroken. Seeking better education and job opportunities, she moved to Perth in her late teens and it was then that she began her downward spiral.
"Perth was so different from sleepy Narrogin," she says. "It was exciting and different and unfortunately I got involved in the wrong things and wrong relationships."
Those 'wrong things' ultimately led Dena to a three-month prison sentence. While in prison she attended some church services and rededicated her life to God but fell away again when she was released.
This on-again, off-again relationship with God created more turmoil than tranquillity in her life. In desperation, she went back to Narrogin and visited her ancestors' graves.
"Noongar people have a strong belief in ancestors and how they continue to guide you even when they're dead," Dena explains. "I had come back to the Lord but was not strong in my faith yet and I still had ties to this way of believing."
She stared at the family tombstones imploring them for help. She waited. She prayed to them. Nothing. Then finally, a voice. But not from the stones.
The voice came from somewhere deep inside her, so loud and clear she said she started shaking. "Dena," she heard. "They are dead. They are all dead. They can't help you. I am alive and I am the only one who can give you your life back."
Dena burst into tears. She recognised that voice at once. She had heard it from the time she was 4 years old in church. She knew God was speaking to her.
"That day I finally surrendered to God," she says. "I packed my bags and went home that very day and I've never been back. And instead of grieving this separation from the old ways, I felt liberated."
She sees her art as an extension of her faith. "I feel my art carries a message," she says.
"People who see my work tell me it really affects them; that it's very powerful. I think my art is a vehicle, a mechanism for God to touch people because I try to paint pictures of His creation and themes of love and of embracing one another."
Pastor Jonathan agrees. "Dena is such a strong advocate for her community," he says. "Her aim is to empower the next generation."
The name Ngaama Ministries comes from a Noongar word meaning waterhole and is taken from the Bible verse John 4:14. "Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life."
That is indeed what Dena strives to do with her paintings – impart life and blessing. She gives the example of a painting she named 'Sisters', which showed two women in a loving hug. A woman who saw the painting was moved to tears because she said it captured perfectly her relationship with her sister, who was ill at the time.
"That really just affirmed what I am trying to do with this ministry and my art," Dena says. "I want the healing power of God to be at the centre of it because that is what He did for me."•