Museum of Brisbane

My Unicorn

Museum of Brisbane welcomed its first Artist-in-Residence for 2019, Dr Janet Lee. Janet is a local writer who uses a phenomenological approach to examine objects and explore their ability to evoke emotion. In her writing practice, Janet often responds to ‘things’ – objects, places, buildings, clothes, letters, documents, photographs and artworks.

During her residency, Janet created new written narratives that responded to the artworks and objects in our exhibition, Micro Histories. The result was a series of short fiction works that imagine characters and plots inspired by the exhibition.

My Unicorn by Dr Janet Lee

I am lying on my tummy under the kitchen table. I am colouring-in. Mummy is sitting in the comfy chair reading the paper. She has her legs stretched out and I can see her feet in their slippers. I could reach out and touch her slippers if I wanted too. She has soft slippers, with thick fluff on the bottom. She calls her slippers her house shoes.

She has thongs at the back door and she uses them when she goes out to the clothesline.


I can feel my ribs on the floor, and I can feel myself rise and fall as I breathe in and out. I am colouring-in a picture of a unicorn. The unicorn has big lines around the edges.

The pictures my parents give me to colour-in always have lines around the edges. Thick black lines. Lines to tell you where to keep the colour. Sometimes the colouring-in books will even tell you what colour to put in the picture.

I know not to go out of the lines, because if I do my parents will ask why. ‘Why didn’t you stay inside the lines, Shirley?’ they will say.

And I know they will be disappointed with me.

But I don’t like the lines. They are thick and ugly. They hold all the colour in, as though the colour is in jail, like that man on the Monopoly game. I want to let the colours out to run and dance.


I drew on the lino once, when I lay under the kitchen table. I wanted to let the colour out of the flowers that are painted on the floor, so I took my red crayon and danced the colour out all across the lino. The dancing flowers looked so pretty. I showed Mummy and I thought she would be pleased.

She wasn’t.

‘Why, Shirley?’ she said.

I tried to tell her about the flowers dancing, and all the colours coming out.

She smacked me and told me never to do it again. Then she said not to be so silly and she got down on her hands and knees and scrubbed off all the crayon. She said we shouldn’t tell Daddy, because he would be cross.

I didn’t tell him.

I didn’t think he would understand about letting the colour out either.


Then Mummy gave me a new book for colouring-in. She said I was only allowed to colour- in the pictures that were in the book, and nothing else.

The pictures all had big lines. I don’t like the lines.

Real things did not have lines around them, only the things drawn in colouring-in books do. I don’t like the lines around the picture of the doll, or the picture of the puppy or the picture of the house.

And I do not like the lines around my unicorn picture.

He has big black lines all around the outside of his body and on his face. Unicorns don’t look like that.

And the unicorn has lines on his horn. Big curved lines which make his horn look like a twist of barley sugar, and I have never seen a barley sugar horn on a real unicorn.

So, I am lying on the lino and colouring-in my unicorn and I am colouring right over the lines, and I am doing that on purpose.


Mummy won’t like my unicorn.

I know when I show her the unicorn picture she will say, ‘It looks lovely, Shirley dear.’ But she will only say that with her mouth, not her eyes.

Her eyes won’t like my unicorn.


She might put the unicorn colouring-in up on the wall for a while and then it will disappear. All the pictures where I colour-in over the lines, they all disappear. I used to think they went into a drawer for Mummy to keep them forever. But I saw my clown colouring-in burn up in the incinerator.

He was lying among the newspapers and when Daddy lit the fire, I saw my clown’s face. The colours melted.

I am not supposed to be near the incinerator unless Daddy is there too, and he was there, but he took two steps away and bent down to pick a pumpkin and so I stood on tip toes and looked into the 44 gallon drum. I wanted to see the orange flames.

But I saw my clown’s face instead, with all the pretty yellows and blues and purples. I saw the orange flames eat him up.

I didn’t eat that pumpkin when we had it for dinner. ‘But you like pumpkin, Shirley,’ Mummy said.

I told her I didn’t like the orange colour.


When I lie on the lino to colour-in, the paper goes bumpy because the lino underneath has little wobbles in it. It makes my unicorn look like he has fur. It gives his face lovely bubbles. I colour and colour until I finish my unicorn, then I tear him out of the book. He is beautiful, all pink and green and bubbly. I kiss him and then I bounce the paper up and down on the lino so he can run across the floor. I have coloured so hard that nearly all the lines are covered up, and I almost don’t remember they were ever there. I put so much colour on the paper that some of the paper has rubbed away with my crayons. The crayon has gone through onto the lino, so I take my finger and rub it across the bubbles, but only some of the colour will come off.

I look up from where I am lying, Mummy is still reading the paper and hasn’t seen me stop colouring.

I don’t want my unicorn to burn. It makes me sad just to think about it. Then I remember that there is a join in the lino here. I can lift the edge up, just a little. I know the join is there because that is why Mummy has the table here, so the neighbours won’t see the join in the lino.

I kiss my unicorn. I tell him goodbye.

I have a little tear in my eye, and so I draw a tear on him too. Then I kiss him again.

I fold him in half to keep him lovely. Then I lift the edge of the join in the lino, and slide in my unicorn.

Mummy’s slippers haven’t moved.

I turn the page in my colouring-in book and find an ugly picture of a clock. I will stay between the lines on this one, and later, when Mummy looks at it, she will say how pretty the picture is, how clever I am for staying in the lines.

And then she will put it up on the wall.


Writer’s note:

The collage of lino in Bruce Reynolds Cote de Mote, engaged visitors who spoke of the lino patterns in the various houses they had lived in, and what had been found under the lino when it was pulled up.

William Bustard’s beautiful cartoon designs detail the stained glass colours to be held within the lines, and one particular design featured marginalia.

I saw these two artworks and I imagined a young girl and her colouring-in book.


Left: Bruce Reynolds, Cote de Mote (1992). Linoleum on plywood. Image courtesy the artist.
Right: William Bustard, St Etherelda (c1932). Pencil and watercolour on paper. Image courtesy the artist.