Monday, July 15, 2019

Nora's Onions

Nora Heysen: Still life with onions (1927) Private Collection, Melbourne

Today I went to see Hans and Nora Heysen: Two Generations of Australian Art at the NGV Federation Square.  Having read an excellent biography of Nora Heysen by Anne-Louise Willoughy, I was really keen to see more of Nora Heysen’s work in person. Willoughby’s biography refers to the impact of being the daughter of a famous artist (Hans Heysen) on Nora’s work and development as an artist in her own right.  As I worked my way around the exhibition of both their work, I was left in no doubt that Nora was very clearly an exceptional artist, regardless of who her father was.  The exhibition at times focuses on the common ground of the two artists with examples of their work on the same subject material.  In a particularly striking example, two paintings, side by side, tell a story.  Referring to Nora’s work ‘Still life with onions’ (1927) the exhibition notes state: “Anecdotally, this composition was a source of minor irritation to Nora. Having arranged the vegetables to paint herself, she went briefly away and returned to discover her father painting his own version” (which is displayed alongside it). As I looked at these two images – and I have to say I prefer Nora’s – I felt irritated on her behalf.  I can imagine sixteen year old Nora (yes, SIXTEEN) feeling annoyed at her father for barging in and taking over, helping himself to her still life set up, creating his own work almost as an unstated criticism – ‘watch and learn’.  Then I remembered something that had happened in my own life the day before.  When my teenage daughter had expressed an interest in doing a particular craft project, rather than let her do it her own way, I went ahead and started it off for her, outlining how it ‘should’ be done, even though she’d explained how she wanted to do it.  Here was my own ‘Hans’ moment.


I continued to make my way around the gallery, walking around it several times, all the while reflecting on how this particular parent/child dynamic may have impacted on Nora’s work.  Once she had left home, moved out of Hans’ orbit and spent time in London and Europe honing her style, it becomes very apparent what an accomplished and unique artist she became.  Her self portraits are the works that strike me the most – the gaze always direct and uncompromising.  She stares out of each portrait with a powerful sense of identity and conviction that I find both inspiring and very moving. She found herself, her own style, her own voice – not as the progeny of a famous parent but as her OWN PERSON.  She may have grown up in her father’s shadow, and been known for much of her life as the daughter of Hans Heysen, but her work transcends this.  Reflecting on her own experience of parenthood, Sylvia Plath expresses this reality in her poem ‘Morning Song’ when she writes:

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.
(from Collected Poems, published by Faber and Faber, 1965)
As I left the gallery, still mulling over what I’d seen and thought, I was left with a refocused sense of what parenting can be.  Rather than projecting ourselves into and onto our children and imbuing them with OUR hopes for their potential and future, can we perhaps let this go? Perhaps we could aim to step back and give them space to become themselves.  And let them paint their own onions.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Power of Listening - Part One

In my early twenties it seemed clear to me that my life was going to revolve around Music and Sound – and Listening is clearly central to this enterprise.  As a composer, a 9-5 kind of job had limited appeal and for the next ten or so years  I embarked upon a mix-and-match of different, generally compatible, part time jobs that would help sustain my own creative practice (and pay the bills).

After finishing my PhD I finally achieved what I thought was my goal – a full time job at a University, as a lecturer in Music and Sound.  I found a lot of satisfaction in this work, and although I found it difficult to compose as much as I would like, the collegial and creative environment felt like a safe place to land.  Several years later the decision to start a family and relocate to my home city meant walking away from this ‘safe place’ and embarking on a new, less clearly mapped out and altogether riskier journey.  I chose to be the primary carer for our two children while my partner re-trained as a teacher and established a new career path.  I juggled parenting with part time sessional work and my own creative practice – a mix that functioned up to a point.  

As children grew and life responsibilities increased, I felt increasing anxiety around the tenuous and insecure nature of sessional teaching work and the reality that composition is not a reliable way to pay the bills.  It became clear to me that for the sake of my own mental health and our mortgage, I needed to reconfigure my working life and find a new way of doing things.  I listened to my instincts and came up with a plan. Through necessity and inclination I undertook further studies and qualified as Creative Arts Therapist, focussing on the area of clinical Pastoral Care.  

So at this mid point of my life, I find myself in quite a different place and certainly not one I would have imagined five years ago.  My working and creative life is a new mix-and-match of working with people and working by myself but the one element that connects these diverse strands is the power of Listening.  When I work with patients and their families who are experiencing quite extreme challenges in a hospital environment, I listen.  When I am working with residents in an Aged Care facility, I listen to their life stories as we make art together.  When I teach, I listen to the music and the words and the things unspoken.  When I write music, I listen to the sounds and shapes and textures in my imagination and bring them into the audible world so that others can listen to them as well.  And as a parent, I am discovering that Listening is perhaps the most important thing I can do.  So now, along with my list of skills - composer, teacher, writer, parent, art therapist, pastoral care practitioner – I would add LISTENER as the skill that underpins pretty much everything I do.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Printing with Light

When I lived in Edinburgh, for a time I shared a house on Calton Hill, just a couple of doors down from 'Rock House' where David Octavius Hill and  Robert Adamson pioneered photographic techniques in the mid 19th century.  The British Photographer and Botanist, Anna Atkins, working at around the same time as Hill and Adamson, used the cyanotype process to illustrate an entire book - possibly the first book to use photographic illustrations.
I've always been fascinated with photography, particularly early photography and the cyanotype process.  After some browsing and researching, I recently found an excellent cyanotype kit that provides the light sensitive chemicals that you then combine and use to coat paper or fabric.  So I did some experimenting and came up with these.

(Feather and Jacaranda leaf, printed on cloth. 2018)

Such a beautiful and simple process, capturing images with light.  There is a magic working in this way and I can get a sense of how the early pioneers of photography would have felt, seeing images emerge for the first time.  

Friday, May 25, 2018

Some forgotten thoughts on motherhood

I wrote these words over seven years ago and rediscovered them today.  Such a strange experience - looking through a window in time to a younger me.  I only vaguely remember writing these pieces and I'm not sure why they didn't make it into this blogspace at the time. Maybe they were too close, too personal.  With the distance of time, I feel happy to share them now.


I look into my baby’s eyes and have a strong sense that she is not a blank slate.  From the time she could focus on my gaze I am convinced that she knows things.  What if we were born with a full slate, with memories and knowledge and understanding of things, with experience of a life lived before.  What if our inarticulate tongues and bodies had no way of telling this.  If as each week and month and year went by, new memories and experiences and knowing wrote over the old knowing so that  by the time we could speak our earliest consciousness had been replaced with a new version, a new life, the old one fading out of reach.  We can never know that this is not the case.  I can remember those knowing looks that my very young baby gave me – it was not a look of blankness and incomprehension. It was sometimes a look of searching and questioning, sometimes a look of calm containment and fullness.  Observing me with the eye of someone who knows as much as I and perhaps more.  I can’t help but think that within this gaze there is something like wisdom or understanding or knowing amusement at my ineptitude.  Is it just because the idea that such a look cannot come from a baby whose age is still counted in days and weeks?  That these ‘windows to the soul’ open into a blank-ness seems impossible.  Does consciousness begin or is it just a continuation?  Is there a ‘collective consciousness’? I no longer think that the idea of  re-incarnation beyond considering.  I am no longer sure that death is the end and birth is the beginning.


I remember when my friends started having babies. First one friend, then another, then three or four or five of my friends all became ‘mothers’ and I became aware of fundamental changes in my relationship with them and how my own position in the scheme of things seemed to have shifted.  Some of my friends would go ‘off line’ – they would talk of nothing but babies or they would disappear, not answer the phone or not return messages for weeks.  And when I met these women, sometimes with other friends who also had children, I began to feel peripheral, on the outer, like someone who has not been watching every episode of the latest TV must see.  I don’t quite ‘get’ things, references, in-jokes, shared laughs or looks.  I can no longer finish the sentences of the friend whose sentences I have finished and she mine for many years.  Something has opened up between us.  And then I start to perceive a certain smugness on their part.  The complicity or women who have ‘secret mothers’ knowledge’, the phrase “you’ll understand when you have children” made me seethe quietly.  How dare these smug women think that just  because they have children that they have somehow tapped in to some profound knowledge and wisdom that makes them know things that I cannot know, experience things that I cannot experience, understand things that I cannot understand.  And all of this while they outwardly give the impression of being people with incredibly narrow areas of interest, little to talk about and no fun to be with.  I have lost drinking companions, travel companions, shopping companions, artistic companions. These women are lost to me and I resent it and am annoyed by their children and their overly domestic preoccupations.  And I make a quiet oath to myself, that when I have children I will not be like this,  will not be smug and self righteous, I will not ignore my friends, I will not allow my life to contract to the extent that drinking and shopping and art cease to be a part of it.  And I swear to myself that I will never say to anyone, “you’ll understand when you have children”.  And then I have a baby, and then another one and although I don’t think I have actually said those words, I have often thought them.  And I don’t reply to phone calls or emails for months at a time and I don’t want to go out and I lose interest in art and shopping and drinking and am too exhausted and preoccupied to notice.  And I do look at friends who don’t have children and think that they are missing out on perhaps the most amazing thing possible to experience.  And although sometimes I envy them their independence and their autonomy and freedom, I often find myself feeling a little pleased with myself, a little bit fulfilled and perhaps superior and that my life experience may perhaps even be a little bit richer than someone who doesn’t have children and part of me feels a little bit guilty that I have betrayed my previous self and my vow to avoid smug-motherness but now I think I just misunderstood – what I saw as smugness was something quite different.


I have re-entered the land of measurable time.  I searched through drawers and unpacked belongings and found my two watches, both non-functioning – I think their batteries ran out in 2006.  I put “watch batteries” on my shopping list and, although it took me several weeks to complete the task, I did buy watch batteries for both watches.  I managed to replace the old batteries, prising open the battery casings on the back of the watches that were gummed up with years of dust and wrist grease.  Then I put a watch on – for the first time in several years.  And throughout the day I checked the time.  I saw what time it was when I left the house and how long it took me to walk to the shops or take big girl to crèche.  I could see how late I was running or how much time I had to spare.  A revelation.  I had always been a watch person.  I can remember in the past feeling rather anxious when my watch battery ran out and making it a priority to replace it.  The feeling of my left wrist being naked if there wasn’t a watch on it: feeling exposed and vulnerable and at sea and out of control.  But the arrival of babies put a stop to all of that.  Not because of some huge philosophical and spiritual shift in my life, although there was one.  Not because I decided that time was of little consequence when faced with the constant and unceasing demands of a baby, although this was also the case.  I stopped wearing watches because the hard metal edge of the watch band could scratch the softer than soft skin of my baby as I changed position while cradling them to feed or that the angular face of the watch might dig into the side of their sleeping face or wake them up.  And having something hard and metallic and mechanical on my body seemed increasingly strange and unnecessary and before long the various watches were relegated to the back of a drawer or the bottom of a trinket box and left there – for years.  And then I started to emerge from the fog that enwraps you when your life is taken over by babies and breastfeeding and sleepless nights and the idea began to take shape – I think I want to wear a watch.  I think I want to know what time it is, at any moment of the day, just by looking at my wrist.  How liberating.  How radical.  The watch still feels strange on my wrist, like being manacled or encased in something foreign.  It makes my wrist feel sweaty or pinched or just not free.  But I keep wearing it.  And I feel as though there might be something significant in this development – this need for a way to measure time, to orient myself in the day, to latch on to something definite and unequivocal.  It poses the possibility that I might need to be somewhere at a certain time, that stumbling through another chaotic day with no idea of my temporal coordinates is something I would quite like to change.  That perhaps by measuring and better accounting for my time I may even find some more of it, discover that there is 30 minutes somewhere that was overlooked in the chaos, hidden under a pile of unsorted washing or several weeks worth of local newspapers and junkmail.  Maybe there are little bits of time waiting to be mustered and corralled and consolidated into chunks of time that could actually be useful.  With an eye on my watch, who knows what might happen.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Being in the Moment ... or not

I had some time in town today and decided to go to the NGV International to see the Triennial before it ends.  I have't been to a gallery in ages and was so happy to be back in one of my favourite galleries and to spend some time navigating my way around a very eclectic mix of work.  Such a great way to recharge my creative batteries and have some time to be immersed in other people's creativity.  Within the first five minutes of being in the space I noticed that almost everyone had their mobile phones out and were constantly taking photos of the art works and installations.  After a while I started to find this kind of annoying, having to be aware of whether I was about to 'photo bomb' someone's shot, having to navigate my way around all these keen photographers when all I wanted to do was to look at the art.  I started to watch how these people interacted with the space and the art in it - how much time they spent looking at the art and how much time they spent taking photos of it.  It almost felt like the actual viewing and experiencing of the art was somehow secondary to the documenting of it, presumably to experience later at home.  It struck me as a very strange way of being with art.  I noticed my own impulse to get my camera out to capture an image of a particularly striking room of red flowers and then I made a decision to leave my phone in my bag, particularly as I witnessed yet another couple of gallery visitors take selfies and pictures of each other posing in different parts of the room.  My phone stayed in my bag and instead I focussed on my experience of each piece of art, spending time really looking at each piece, thinking about which pieces appealed, which pieces didn't, what surprised me, what irritated me, how the different pieces interacted with each other in the different spaces.  Some works made me smile, others evoked curiosity and wonder, and they all caused me to think about my response to them, my experience of them, at the time when I was looking at them, right there and then in the moment.  Yes, the experience is transitory and fleeting and no, I can't take the art home with me.  But that's fine.  Life is full of fleeting moments of wonder and curiosity; experiences may seem ephemeral and transitory but they impact on how we are in the world.  I wonder if we are losing our ability to experience things, right here, right now, because we are too busy trying to capture the moment.  I think I'd rather let the moment be free.