‘Life isn’t about finding yourself, it’s about creating yourself’
By Ieva Tomsons
TOODYAY’S Dr Despina Weston (right) is a psychotherapist, counsellor, art therapist, clinical supervisor and accomplished artist.
Her parents were Greek Egyptians and Despina was born in the cosmopolitan port city of Alexandria in 1951.READ MORE
She grew up in a sophisticated multi-cultural environment speaking Greek, Arabic, French and in grade four began learning German.
“Our house was full of art, music and delicious, colourful food; there was a buzz of activity with people dropping in all the time,” she says.
Despina and her two younger sisters attended a Greek school and she felt secure in their extended-family environment even when Israeli air raids started on Alexandria in the aftermath of the 1956 Arab-Israeli Suez Crisis.
“I was five and can still feel the loud noise and our home shaking during those raids but I had my drawing book and pencils and retreated into my own bomb shelter – a wardrobe and mattresses.
If you start with a safe base, it’s how you will view the world.”
Privileged life ends
The family’s privileged life ended when they fled Egypt first to Piraeus in Greece then in 1962 sailed on an assisted migrant passage to WA on the SS Bretagne.
They arrived at Fremantle with two suitcases crammed with clothes, religious icons and a small chandelier which still sparkles in Despina’s lounge room.
Her father had been a cotton classer for a Swiss company in Egypt and they went from living in a spacious house to bunking down in one room at her auntie’s house in Graylands.
Despina was lucky to receive one-on-one instruction first at Graylands Primary School and later at Brentwood Primary School and learnt English quickly.
Six months after arriving in WA her father was working in three jobs and the family bought a house in Perth’s former enclave of Brentwood.
Despina remembers everyone dancing around the house to celebrate their new start.
“My father sat us kids down and said ‘Look ahead – not behind’.”
By the time Despina started high school in Applecross she was desperate to fit in and started calling herself ‘Sandy’ to distance herself from her Greek heritage.
“I was called a wog and other names but I had two Aussie girlfriends who protected me.”
Hormones kicked in early for Despina and at 15 she was preoccupied with a boy, writing love letters instead of studying.
Her grades fell and she failed her Junior Certificate (Year 10) high school exam.
An extended-family conference was called to discuss Despina’s future.
“I was sitting on the floor with my sketch pad and an old family friend said ‘send her to art school, they might be able to do something with her’.”
At 16 Despina found her ‘spiritual home’ at Perth TAFE’s art school where she blended in well with the multi-cultural students and before long reverted to using her original name with pride.
She “worked round the clock” and sat for her school Leaving Certificate (Year 12) exam and qualified to study graphic design at the newly built WA Institute of Technology (now Curtin University).
During her time at art school, Despina ran up a sizeable debt at Jackson’s Drawing Supplies.
“It was £200 and sent me scurrying to Mr Jackson Snr who gave me a job because he said he liked a girl with initiative.”
The job had its perks – access to damaged goods and art equipment as well as being able to experiment with new supplies.
At 17, Despina was also working as an under-painter preparing large canvases for a land and seascape artist.
Hotted up Torana
She also met her first husband who she married after a whirlwind trip across Australia in a hotted-up Holden Torana.
The couple bought a transportable house in 1973 and settled in Sawyers Valley where during the 1980s Despina threw herself into the Hills’ creative scene running workshops at her home studio and Mundaring Arts Centre.
“Early married life was fun but then came the children (five), responsibilities, loss of self and a desire for personal growth.”
While teaching at Eastern Hills and Hollywood High Schools, ‘naughty’ students were often sent to the art room.
Despina realised that they misbehaved because they were “hurting, sad or bored or they couldn’t keep up” and found that without pressure, the students engaged.
During a stint at York High School Despina began to experiment and started to teach art beyond the set curriculum.
After 15 years of marriage, she and her husband split amicably and Despina forged strong bonds with other Hills single mothers.
“Leading up to exhibitions, I often painted with a child on my hip and the others creating alongside me.
“I’d work late into the night and run studio art classes during the day.”
Despina continued to study for a post-graduate counselling diploma and gained a Masters in Art Therapy as well as training in family therapy and couples counselling.
After nursing her second husband until his death from melanoma in 2004 she obtained her doctorate in Contemporary Arts (Art Therapy: Grief and Loss).
Dyslexia, five kids, working, studying and navigating her personal losses have not stopped Despina achieving her goals and reaching out to others.
In late 2016, she travelled to the Greek island of Chios to run art therapy sessions for Syrian refugees arriving by boat from Turkey.
For Despina, the Chios refugee situation resonated deeply and the Toodyay community backed her to the hilt with donated supplies and funds.
“Art therapy can help to relax, enliven imagination, free up creativity and lead to better outcomes in difficult situations,” she wrote in the December 2016 Herald.
Despina shares her busy life with last month’s profile subject Polish refugee John Zawada who she first met in the late 1980s and finally settled with 26 years later.
“We drive each other nuts but I wouldn’t want to be with anyone else or anywhere else.
“Being an artist/therapist is a juggling act – one is freedom, the other responsibility.
“Creativity soothes me and calms my often unrealistically high expectations.
“In art, I don’t aim for perfection, I aim for freedom.”