In November 2016, I started walking from home across to the Botanic Gardens each day, with my watercolours in a backpack, to paint the jacarandas in flower. I would go down the McElhone Stairs, then up past Harry’s Cafe de Wheels, through the giant figs to the ornate entrance gates. One afternoon, halfway there, in Stephen Street, near the Woolloomooloo Community Garden, I noticed a good tree in full purple bloom against the light, so I quickly set up my stool and watercolour plates on the footpath to paint it.
I’d been working on this picture for half an hour when two police came running towards me – guns, Tasers and handcuffs jangling. I panicked, but they split, one to my left and one to my right. A heavy-set woman followed behind them, puffing. They ran into the basketball court to my right and shouted, “Jake, come over here!” A young man, bare-chested, shirt tucked into his jeans, sidled up to them. I packed up my gear and headed to the gardens where I knew I still had time to paint another favourite jacaranda, which flowered against a bank of dark foliage – I could look at it from the shadow of the holly oak tree.
It was getting late when I finished that watercolour, so I walked higher up, to the herb garden, to hold my damp paper in the last rays of afternoon sun to dry. A tall African man in a white shirt and baggy dark suit was standing there, next to a short tree (unlabelled) behind me, tearing leaves off, stuffing them in his pockets.