Our Common Ground

When I started painting ten years ago my subject matter arose from childhood memories, feelings and moods. Painting seemed to be another mode in my search for connection. This personal access route felt authentic and the felt sense of recognising core themes was soothing and healing.

The process of bringing these works to completion was often slow and involved many changes. My feelings would change along the way… and as the painting resolved, parts of me resolved as well. As the images got richer and more balanced— on board and canvas— so did I.

On one of my visits back to my mother in my childhood home I photographed the image above of a gnarly branch on a very old apple tree in bloom. I had borrowed my brother’s SLR camera and had bought a black and white film. It was late March and I walked across familiar tracks and little roads with this camera. I took photos of the gentle and ordinary landscapes and landmarks that I had grown up with. I clicked away, a whole roll of images of little sandstone walls, windows, bridges, fields, apple trees, rows of poplars and other ordinary sights.

The images when developed were rather disappointing. They were not black and white but grey with little contrast.

Years later, in my workshop, I ‘treated’ them with some ink and acrylic paint. That made a mess. I tried to clean it up by rubbing it off again with a scourer. To my delight, underneath the grey surface there was colour. I loved the red that shone fiercely from underneath. It seemed to be just right in expressing my relationship to the things I had photographed on that very early and hazy spring day.

I took a photo of this new image and chose a detail to enlarge. That’s how the image on the right side was created.

I am using it in the invitation for my second exhibition in Germany. This exhibition came about because my sister is associated with the Centre where it will be held.

The opening is on Easter, together with my sister’s 60th birthday party. Our family will be there, as well as her friends—old and new connections, to celebrate our common ground — ‘our wild and precious lives’ (a line from Mary Oliver) and our shared history.

Letting go, letting flow

It was a hot summer here on the North Coast of NSW. Day after day the sun shone bright. I spent a large part of each day sitting on the couch under the fan, windows wide open— to catch every breeze. It was most tolerable.

It ended up being a perfect summer to stay indoors and complete a collection of short memoir pieces that I had started many years ago. Every morning I sat with my laptop, engrossed for hours… until I’d suddenly notice that my body was stiff and that I felt spent. That was then enough for the day.

Last night I read in ‘Upstream’ by Mary Oliver, ‘The labour of writing poems, of working with thought and emotion in the encasement (or is it wings?) of language is strange to nature, for we are first of all creatures of motion.’

Not that I am a poet or write all that much but the little I do, feels just like, ‘the encasement of language’…. and the wings. It seems to me the most restrictive and the most soaring thing to be engaged in.

I was going well for weeks, looking forward to my place on the couch… until I hit the road block of resistance and the boulder of reluctance. I got around them by sensing their size and shape. I saw that a part of me did not want to finish this writing project. The memoir writing desire had been with me for so long—for more than twenty years. At times it had been my light beam, my comfy blanket, imagined assurance of better things to come and had given me some reassurance of permanence… even a sense of existence. I had written copious notes, collected words, photos, bits of research held in various folders and boxes labelled ‘memoir’. In all things memoir I was a hoarder and very attached to my bits and pieces. Who was I going to be without my ‘stuff’. Sensing that attachment, it dissolved and the track was clear again.

My impulse and intentions for writing these stories has changed over the years. At first, my short stories were a way to assuage homesickness—to remember what had passed and to maintain connections to the place I came from. When I continued them many years later, I wrote to understand causes and conditions for painful emotions and a troubled inner life. I believed that if I could write about the past I’d understand it and maybe, just maybe, it would transform into precious matter. Like in the fairly tale, Rumpelstiltskin, where the maiden was asked to spin straw into gold—something as common as straw into something precious—the ancient desire for alchemy.

Well, some alchemy has taken place because the writing process itself is different now. It is not a means to an end but rather an activity that I am discovering in myself. Words arise, they flow this way and that, making all sorts of connections. They like exploring new combinations and little byways. They seem like a heart making new arteries. In this process my material is being shaped and re-shaped all the time. Sometimes too much and the mess gets to me. Sometimes I would like it if the words and ideas behaved like soldiers that I could command to the finish line.

I am not quite there yet. Patience. Soon though. I have emptied most of my folders into the recycle bin. Ready to be with the living in this present day—until the old urge to remember and tell my story tugs at me again.

Blue Harvest

blue-harvest1

My ‘blue period’ has come to an end. It culminated in Blue Harvest, an exhibition in mixed media — a collection of large and small paintings and some 3d work.

The exhibition and party was a very satisfying event, one shared with many friends. It was  a highlight of my year. Although in the weeks leading up to it I sometimes felt like a bundle of raw nerves. Stage fright arose about the exposure and appraisal of my work. In my daily meditation I was thinking endlessly and obsessively how these pieces, that were largely stored away, would work together. In what order did they belong? Would they flow and create a whole?

When everything was hung, arranged and re-arranged a sense of peace and spaciousness pervaded the exhibition space. The pieces exuded depth and lightness. It seemed to me as if there was an ebb and flow between the images— between vast and impersonal, narrative and personal. One was birthing the other.

In my artist statement I wrote:

A couple of years ago I decided to immerse myself in one colour at a time and see what would happen. It was the briefest flicker of an idea and for a short moment a shimmering vision.

First was to be red, than blue, then yellow—the three primary colours. I’d start with water and dye and take it from there. During the process red turned into pink and flowed into a warm pink tide which resulted in the ‘Lunar Tide’ show in early 2015.

Blue in contrast was cool and stayed in the background, a very different companion. Stern Father time, perhaps. I felt hemmed in by the colour and these self imposed limitations. I read somewhere that, ‘when it comes to creative work, limitations mean freedom’ and so I persisted.

My workshop became a bower where I surrounded myself with blue things and in that space a slow and temperate love affair began.

Blue became a metaphor for ‘duende’ (a Spanish word loosely meaning ‘having soul’) about which the Spanish poet Garcia Lorca said, ‘sadness and duende needs space to breathe, melancholy hates haste and floats in silence’.

In this gradual and slow moving process, my relationship to blue and what it evoked in me, changed. Now blue reminds me of the deep sea, where barely anything moves, where time is of little consequence.

In staying with such a restricted palette and letting this peculiar and subjective process unfold, I have harvested some patience, sadness and loss, sombre joy, vast space and ocean deep, a measure of freedom and some blue works to share….and a deeper appreciation of friends and their support.

Link to Blue Harvest page

Intimacy

Intimacy
We were so fortunate to go on a ten day trip to the Northern Territory in August. We flew to Darwin and then toured by car to National parks, lagoons, waterfalls, through flat country dotted with termite castles and through a landscape of canyons which glowed red and orange in the early morning sun. It is expansive savannah country up there. Everything that grows has to be hardy to withstand long periods of dry and then deluges of rain and humidity—and heat all year round.

We saw rock art underneath stone ledges that was thousands of years old. I visited a cultural centre in Kakadu and read about the indigenous way of life in that area. We also had an indigenous guide on one tour, who told us of the traditional uses of some of the plants, trees and ways of the local people. What struck me was how intimate they were, and had been, with the land—and everything in it. They survived and flourished for at least 30,000 years. What seemed to me a harsh place on first sight was full of riches—food, lore and connection.

I am reading ‘Dying, a memoir’ by Cory Taylor. She writes with great clarity and intimacy about her dying. The memoir is her testament to her life and her loved ones. Every word is poignant and the writing is very graceful. She says, ‘You do reflect on your past when you’re dying. You look for patterns and turning points and wonder if any of it is significant.’

This is slender book with nothing extraneous in it, no unnecessary ballast. It has an indigo blue cover. The same dark blue hue that I’ve focused on for a year or more. The colour that became a vehicle for me to be more intimate with feelings of melancholy, sadness, grief and loss. I am now more at ease with these darker emotions, even treasure their softness and respite from the ever greedy lust for life, movement and colour. Blue also reminds me of resting and slowing— bywords for being intimate—it can’t be done in a hurry.

I don’t really know what reflections would arise in my time of dying. Cory writes about her slow decline, ’And so it goes the endless list of pleasures I can no longer enjoy. Pointless to miss them of course, as that won’t bring them back, but so much sweetness is bound to leave a terrible void when it’s gone. I’m only grateful I tasted so much of it when I had the chance. I have had a blessed life in that way, full of countless delights. When you’re dying, even your unhappiest memories can induce a sort of fondness, as if delight is not confined to the good times, but is woven through your days like a skein of gold thread.’

I have the last sentence weaving in and out of my mind and it shimmers as does Cory’s writing.

‘….as if delight is not confined to the good times, but is woven through your days like a skein of gold thread’.

Winter Messenger

Winter Messenger

The birch tree is almost bare now. With the help of the wind I’ve swept up the golden leaves from the grey pavers.

I am sitting on the couch writing these words and looking out onto another winter messenger— the large azalea bush in the garden. It is flowering and the sight of it fills me with wonder and tenderness.

Hymn to the azalea bush

White azalea petals
floating in blue
what a vast world
we are in

The other night
a fine golden band hung in the sky
the rest of the moon
was softly lit above

Birth and death
so near breathing as one
intertwined
hush my child

I am here
I am here for you
and white azalea flowers
are a message for me

The white azalea flowers remind me of another time, 27 years ago, when my second child was born. I was a single mother with lots of uncertainties lying ahead. A white azalea bush flowered in the front yard of the rented house we lived in. The flowers lifted my spirit time and time again. They seemed such messengers of goodness, sweetness and beauty. I picked some and placed them next to my baby’s sleeping face. They so perfectly mirrored each other. They both came from vast space—vast life and lit up my fragile existence. They began ordering my life, making space and bringing light so that we could grow. They became the symbol, the link to an overwhelming love and commitment to another.

Life wants goodness and love, and every year the white azalea flowers are my winter messengers to remember.

Sombre Joy

Marita Blue 1

‘Melancholy is a twilight state; suffering melts into it and becomes a sombre joy. Melancholy is the pleasure of being sad’. Victor Hugo from ‘Toilers of the Sea’

What a month it has been. My partner had another health emergency— a frightening experience in the middle of the night. He is recovering and in need of calm, slow and quiet. We both need calm and slow. Maybe we could all do with more of that.

It is rather uncanny how my process with the colour blue, with its emergent themes and reflections, have prepared the ground for what is required now.

The main theme that ever so slowly emerged was melancholy and I’d like to sing its praises some more—in a low key melody. According to the ancients melancholy was associated with twilight and autumn and the planet Saturn. That distant planet who was also seen as the Lord of Time.

I’ve always resonated with autumn even as a child and young adult.  It felt like a threshold into something mysterious— with its slanting light, mists, the changing and dying leaves and the sun getting weak.

It is autumn now, here in the southern hemisphere. To enhance and heighten autumn here in the subtropics I added a few more deciduous trees to the resident liquid amber that the original owner had planted. It is a tall and glorious tree now. Each year it marks the cooler season with its yellow leaves. They drift gently and continuously to the ground, or sometimes fall in a flurry, depending on the wind. For the rest of the cooler season they cover the ground ankle deep.

At the other end of the garden grows a persimmon tree that I planted. It is struggling and never bears any fruit. But every autumn its leaves turn into orange flames. They are glowing right now. Another deciduous tree I planted, way too close to the house, is the ‘greedy’ tropical birch that sucks the moisture out of the ground and is already lifting the pavers. It is a folly really, but every year I wait for the leaves to turn golden. All this colour, this extravagance that nature brings forth before its wintery sleep. Autumn, falling leaves, bare limbs, they give me permission to feel sad and melancholy… about so many things. Just that bitter sweet feeling that soothes the tired heart and allows it to rest—in spaciousness. It is quite different to worry or feeling troubled.

My little persimmon tree reminds me of Japan, where ‘A Field to Melancholy’ by Jacky Bowring, tells me they have an expression called ‘mono no aware’ or the ‘the tears of things’ also translated as ‘an empathy toward things’. It is a term for the awareness of impermanence, the transience of things and a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness). It is related to another Japanese sensibility called Wabi Sabi, a sensibility that also amplifies the significance of time passing. It celebrates the beauty of the weathered, withered, the imperfect and well-worn. Both transmit serenity in the face of impermanence.

The Buddhist teacher Dzigar Kongtrül in his book ‘It’s up to you’ writes about melancholy, ’Some people feel a strong attraction to this unfamiliar feeling of melancholy—and others, a strong urge to run away. In either case, the important thing is to appreciate our underlying sadness. It is a hint of a deeper intelligence that is normally obscured by the distractions of daily life. In solitude, this natural faculty of our mind comes out of an almost dormant state.’

The other night I lit a fire and burned fallen twigs and branches in the back yard and stayed out with the twilight…and watched the darkening sky turning from deep blue to black. I felt a sombre joy with the darkening, the coming of winter, the shorter and more solitary days.

I called out to my partner to come and join me by the fire. He walked ever so slowly, poked the fire, both of us aware and appreciative that we have another autumn together.

Collecting Dew

Collecting DewI am still engaged with blue. It has taken me awhile to submerge and surrender to what is there in that space. At times I felt like above image— an earnest person trawling shallow water for ideas, for gold coins, for interesting debris that she could use. Or wandering with her empty vessel in tow —open for collection—for dew —for mana from heaven. Of course she was trailing a golden vessel because she wanted bright and likeable ideas.

Nothing bright showed up in my mind. Anything blue that I touched seemed sombre and dark, uncomfortably so…until I found a book in the local bookshop. I had gone there to buy ‘Daring Greatly’ by Brene Brown but came home with ‘A Field Guide To Melancholy’ by Jacky Bowring. When I noticed it on the book shelf it immediately leapt into my hand. I wanted to put it back. Who wants to be seen with a book on melancholy? Almost as bad as a book on sexual dysfunction, but it wouldn’t leave me alone. So I bought it and carried it home in a brown paper bag and with a sense of quiet excitement.

She talks about ‘the delicious elusiveness of melancholy’. Reading the ‘Field Guide’ reminded me that I didn’t need to move away from uncomfortable feelings. I have stopped looking for better emotions, thoughts or a better place to be in. I am more settled into the present as it is, often with a tinge of sadness but now wrapped in a soft, midnight blue blanket.

I want to go slow with plenty of pauses and time for reflection, even though going slow is against my conditioned energy. I often find myself working fast and in a hurried pace as if someone was standing behind me keeping time. To get the most jobs done in the shortest amount of time was the competition my sister and I had going when we helped our parents on the farm. We emulated our mother who hardly ever rested but hurried on. ‘So much to do’, was her mantra. Whereas our father was slow in his movements, took his time and rested often. There was a division of roles in my household—girls had to work speedily and boys could take their time. Men were responsible for some important jobs and the women for everything else.

Working so speedily I miss out on the pleasant sensations of calm and spaciousness that slowness, attention and absorption exude and foster. I’ve also been finding this advice from Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Master, who encourages us to walk slow: ’Instead of galloping about’ he says, ‘we walk slowly, like a cow or an elephant. If you walk slowly, without any idea of gain then you are already a good Zen student’— or a good student of life and art, I might add.

Now these blue colours remind me of the deep sea, vast space where barely anything moves, where time is of little consequence. Blue evokes calm, slow, immersive, quiet and timeless. I’ve promised myself to hang out in this blue space until my skin stains indigo.

Rocinante

RocinanteA while back I decided in my art making to immerse myself in one colour at a time and see what would happen. First was to be red, than blue, then yellow—the three primary colours. It was the briefest flicker of an idea and for a short moment a shimmering vision. It was enough to get me started though.

I had never forgotten the Anish Kapoor sculptures at the Queensland Art Gallery made from pure pigment and colour. They were absorbing, astonishing and transcendent. Something similar happened seeing a room dedicated to the Blue Monochromes by Yves Klein in the Ludwig Museum in Cologne many years ago.

Of course, I would explore in a free-wheeling style with more modest means and scale. So in my colour exploration, red turned into pink, and it eventually led to a very engaging and resonant process and some surprising creations called Lunar Tide.

After pink came blue. Like a satin bowerbird I was drawn to the colour and began collecting and acquiring blue things: plastic bottles, beads, buttons, material, ribbons, fishing line, glass…as long as it was blue and easy enough to carry into my den. It looks kind of pretty in there but art making is slow and treacle like. The colour of water and sky that could be infinite was turning up in tight patterns. What could/should be a fountain was just a trickle.

Is it the colour, I wonder or is it that inner awkwardness in the face of something new and unknown? A mixture of awkward, inner critic and high expectation?

How to be with this pupae stage— the ungainly teenager phase? It hadn’t really been okay to be so awkward, so insecure when I was younger… or even now. I notice the discomfort in others when I try to explain what I am feeling about my process. Usually I end up being given advice on what to do, advice I don’t want.

A few weeks ago when the above image coalesced and the face of the ‘tired horse’ came through in the white random lines I felt akin with it. That very ordinary horse was an apt metaphor for how I felt.

It reminded me of the old horse in the famous novel ‘Don Quixote’. ‘Rocinante is not only Don Quixote’s horse, but also his double: like him, he is awkward, past his prime, and engaged in a task beyond his capacities’ (Wikipedia).

Is this awkwardness that I am experiencing related to feeling vulnerable, I wonder? In ‘Daring Greatly’, author Brené Brown (p 34) defines ‘vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure….to put our art, our writing our photography, our ideas out into the world with no assurance of acceptance or appreciation—that is also vulnerability’.

It seems that the willingness to be vulnerable is necessary to feel connected and wholehearted in just about everything in life. I might just be ready to let that in and let my little tired horse lead the way.

Available Light

Available Light

After the clatter of home-coming subsided, restlessness set in— itchy feet syndrome— where can I go next syndrome? Travelling to other places can relieve that condition temporarily, but another trip isn’t on the cards.  Restlessness was followed by the sadness of missing family and the deep familiarity of place. It’s a bodily longing all of it’s own. It’s home is in the bones.

I have a lot of time on my hands since I don’t have a ‘proper’ job or a career to take up my time and energy. There are lots of empty spaces in my diary and in the daily routines. This came about by good fortune, inclination and choice. On my return it was too much of a good thing. Instead of a charged ‘nothing’  it felt like a hole. The hardest trip to make seemed to be the one ‘back home’.

I had started a new art project before I left. But this work in progress has lost traction. Was it a simplistic idea?  A whim not worth pursuing? What for and to what end? Doubt easily takes hold and it floods my inner world and makes it mute and soggy. I didn’t give in completely but went to my workshop anyway. Needing to go some place… and besides it is my den. It is a space that holds suspense. As if we have a contract with each other— I’ll show up on a fairly regular basis and the space welcomes me and takes care of some form of creativity happening within.

This morning I read the following passage by the writer Dani Shapiro in her book, ‘Still Writing, The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life.’

‘I’ve learned to be wary of those times when I think I know what I am doing—I’ve discovered that my best work comes from the uncomfortable but fruitful feeling of not having a clue…….
Let go of every should and shouldn’t running through your mind when you start. Be willing to stand at the base of a new mountain, and with humility and grace, bow to it. Allow yourself to understand that it’s bigger than you, or anything you can possibly imagine. You’re not sure of the path. You’re not even sure where the next step will take you. When you begin, whisper to yourself: I don’t know.’ 

Yes, it is so uncomfortable not to know—so frustrating, anxiety producing but also adventurous and fruitful. In my retiring life there are more perils, adventures and misadventures than I could ever have imagined…and that is only travelling 20 metres away from home—to my workshop.

The image above is from my little travel journal. It was a response to a modern ballet by Lucinda Childs with the title ‘Available Light’.

Wishing for us all to receive the Available Light—to a creative, warm and heartfelt 2016.