Sunday, 3 January 2021

A year in review, part six: Creativity

At the beginning of May a friend of mine who lives in Poland commented on a post I put up on Facebook on 13 May. My post went:

When my father started writing about his life – his memoir would run to about 170 A4 pages – it was with his own father that the narrative opens. A man who would talk about "fate". And dad would sadly remonstrate with Joao Luis, in his text, as though to be liable to blame fate for the deficiencies in your life was, somehow, a sign of moral weakness.

I still remember a day when, aged about 17 – I was in the final year of secondary school – I phoned dad from the kitchen in our house by the harbour and asked him if I could drop French. On the timetable, French clashed with art, and I was good at drawing. In fact, I would draw obsessively and my best friend at school was also interested in art.

Dad said "No." But not in an aggressive way. It was by remaining calm that he launched his strongest barbs. When I told my art teacher, the man said, "You're crazy." But the die was cast and I would go to university and study languages, receiving a 2-2 for my final year thesis. Then to work in various offices doing a range of things that I hated.

Now, at a time when I am almost retired, people keep telling me to draw but I am filled with sadness at the idea. So many years of lost time. So many failures. So much suffering. My fate ...

My incessant writing (you can’t say “scribbling” anymore because it’s all done on a keyboard, so perhaps we should say “my incessant tapping” or “pecking” – like a chicken!) in the form of reviews of books, movies, and TV shows was augmented by the commencement of a collection of sonnets (‘The Words to Say’) that I started assembling from pieces written over the previous decade and, now, added to with new items so that by the middle of November the collection had reached a total of over 50 individual sonnets, and by the end of December there were 90. This was in addition to another collection – ‘Beaconsfield’, on the subject of the house move – I started in June, which had over 10 individual items. 

More sequences would follow, including one titled ‘Salve’ that by the end of December had 60 pieces in it and that was a miscellany collecting a range of sonnets on different subjects written in the years since 2007, when I’d started writing this kind of thing. The tree, once the weather warmed, would throw out a cacophony of blossoms. All this pecking prompted me to consider how, as a child, I would spend hours alone in my room drawing with a pencil on paper. I was good at it and it’s what gave me satisfaction. By taking this means of expression away from me my father had condemned me to drudgery and, in the end, I ended up sick in hospital. Basia wasn’t the only person to tell me to start drawing again, and while all these people could encourage me to do so, I was inhibited both by a residue of bad blood and by a lack of a suitable environment to work in. 

At least by writing I was doing something that had happened as a result of a change of direction that dad had sponsored by making me graduate. I was still his captive, though he’d died almost a decade earlier. For her part, my daughter by this time was earning a living making drawings that were sold on the website of Getty Images, a global corporation. They had even written an article featuring Adelaide, and published it online for customers to read if they wanted. She was continuing a tradition. My mother had worked as a commercial artist before her husband got her to change course – she opened up a gift shop with her mother-in-law, in Brighton, and it reopened in different quarters after the family relocated in Sydney in the year I was born – and her aunt had made photographs throughout her life after having been introduced to the mysteries of the art by an American Army photographer in the aftermath of WWII.


On 24 May I did a drawing (see photo below) in company with friends who’d come for lunch (with whom I’d board in December and January). We’d started out with a game where we followed the mark-making of one of our number, and then had to put a name to a face. But then my other friend put some objects on the table and suggested we draw what we saw. The first objects were a pair of shells, the castoffs from a meal made on a previous occasion – abalone from the Fish Market – , a pink rock I had saved from the balcony off the library when I found them while tidying that room the previous November (see last year’s post), and a jug I had bought at the shop set up at the end of an exhibition of Islamic art held 12 years earlier at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. It is not by any means a brilliant drawing but it should be kept firmly in mind that it took no more than three minutes to make. I had made approximately one drawing since 2012. 

The old skills never went away but they are a rusty and ask to be used. This was evident to me because of two other drawings made that day, one of which featured two biscuit packets – a Jatz box and the wrapping used to package Tim Tams. 

The latter was poorly executed but, in the event, I enjoyed myself. 

At about the same time I started reading Proust again – I had begun with the first book in the series in 2014 – and felt stirring inside me a kind of mania developing for his century-old work of art. The two things were linked inasmuch as my father had discouraged me from pursuing art in a way that had not been true in Proust’s case with regard to literature. While he had always been able to write I returned to drawing very late in life. On page 210 of ‘In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower’ I came across this:
… I regretted the fact that I had turned down the diplomatic career and tied myself to a life without travel, so as not to absent myself from a girl whom I would not now be seeing again, whom I had already more or less forgotten. We design our life for the sake of an individual who, by the time we are able to welcome her into it, had turned into a total stranger, and never comes to share that life with us; and so we live on imprisoned in an arrangement made for someone else.
(I also tried diplomacy, but unlike in the case of Proust’s narrator, I was turned down at the first interview; they immediately and accurately discerned my unsuitability for such a career.) 

When I rang dad to ask for advice about what path to choose, I used the phone in the upstairs kitchen at home. It was after school and, as usual, I’d come home promptly but, different on this day, was the fact that I had to make a decision. I was faced with a problem that had arisen as a result of the timetable clash at school. Scheduling art and French to take place in different classrooms at the same time on the same day would, for most students, not pose a problem as in either case this form of study would be a mere diversion relative to the main task of learning something practical such as economics (which I did not take) or mathematics (which I did). Possibly only I was forced to choose between the two, though I loved both. I was good at languages because I have perfect pitch, and was able, when young, to mimic any phrase I heard in class (or anywhere else, for that matter; I also did impersonations). 

Along with sailing, drawing was a passion. When he answered the phone – I had gone through his secretary to get to him in his Waterloo office – and I put the question to him (could I give up French) dad said “No” firmly but quietly; he hardly ever raised his voice in the normal course of events and growing up I saw him lose his temper rarely. But my fate was sealed. I got 137 out of 150 for French in the Higher School Certificate – the exam that in New South Wales allows you to matriculate to a tertiary education institution – and immediately enrolled in an arts degree at Sydney University. After graduating I would be employed in a series of roles I was manifestly unsuited for until I landed in a PR role and started to learn to write.

In 2020, the problem remains, if the prison’s exit is to be used: what to make and how? The matter of which medium to use is a question, first of all, to answer. Should I continue to use A4 office paper and a plain HB pencil or branch out and paint with colours – a question of the same nature as that which confronted me when I thought about watching television. (I had during this year decided on a whim to watch commercial TV and to subscribe to two over-the-top services, instead of just watching the ABC News channel.) If I used colour, would I plump for water colours? Gouache? Watercolour pencils, perhaps? Or crayons or pastels? If you look at colour then you might want to consider using oil paint or acrylic – at this point, things get messy and complicated and you don’t want to let a barrier get in the way of realising your dream. But even if you fix on a suitable way to make images, there’s the matter of what to render. 

I have, still, on a shelf in my library, some old sketch books dating from the 1980s that contain drawings I made after finishing secondary school but many of the paintings I did in those days have been lost – for my fine arts course at uni I took a practical unit of study, that involved making artworks; this was at the Tin Sheds on City Road – a fact I regret deeply but for which I can find no remedy other than to make more, but what to draw? 

How to cope with the feelings of dismay – anger, even – that arise as a result of putting pencil to paper? How do you quantify loss? How to describe it? What does loss look like to you? Is it different from what it looks like to me? Or to any other person you might pass walking down the street? How could my personal sense of loss be made to appear universal? And what to do with all the negative emotions? How to describe adequately – so that a third person might understand – the damage my father did? Any my mother …? My mother had gone to art school and had worked as a graphic designer before marriage and had never had time to pursue her art practice.

Is there any point in trying to communicate such a deep sense of regret to anyone apart from those – friends and, especially, family – who knew my father, and who know me? Even communicating them to such people is risky because you might, in time, and given enough iterations of the same refrain, be viewed as a crank. And then, merely making the attempt is perilous, as in the story of Pandora.

Even picking up a pencil threatens to retraumatise when the scar sits close to the surface. What was mine was stolen from me and to get it back I have to relive, every time, a (profound, dreadful) pain caused by the theft of time. It appears when I talk with my daughter about her ideas for artwork she makes for commercial purposes: if I can advise her regarding the ideas she has for drawings, why couldn’t my mother and father have done the same thing, when I was young, for me? And a person who’d overseen those events – rooted in the past but prominent, also, in the present in the form of feelings and memories – sat in front of me on 25 April 2016 as I recorded a conversation with mum for posterity. I hadn’t judged her when she was alive but I would be judged for putting her in a nursing home, where she died later that year. 

A burden would be mine not once but twice though my great-aunt Trish, who reminded me, when I called her in relation to Aunty Christine’s funeral (which was recorded for viewing online by family), how mum, also, had been prevented – by the demands of marriage and children – from practicing her art. Dad built a workroom for mum (next to the kitchen upstairs at 158 Hopetoun Avenue, on the slab he had put up over the carport) but she didn’t use it much. It was full – as had been the old kitchen near the front of the house – but the contents of her workroom were disorderly and showed signs of preoccupation with other things. Things such as supporting a family and raising children. As I do now, mum needed to have time free so that she could be at leisure to do art. 

The luxury of having nothing else to do is very Woolfian. From 1992 when mum and dad were travelling, following his retirement, dad would manage the finances and work on his memoir while mum would look after other practical aspects of the household: cooking, cleaning, and shopping and miscellaneous errands. 

I bought two notebooks in June, one early in the month from Woolworths through their online interface, and three from Dymocks in the CBD. The first is a very large one – A4 in dimension and with 120 pages – and the other three are in a plastic pack and are A5 (13cm wide by 21cm high). Earlier in the year I’d bought at Officeworks in Glebe some blocks of paper: two Derwent watercolour pads (one A4 and one A3) and two Spirax sketch pads (one A4 and one A3).


I communicated with Trish again, this time by email, at the end of May, when I was in the process of going through great-aunt Madge Johansen’s photos. In a folder I made sit 586 images she made during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. To arrive at this number, I separated a selection of the best from the totality of files in folders the studio had made – and given to me on a USB – earlier in the year. I’d asked them to digitise a box of slides I’d inherited from my uncle. 

This sounds complex but in the event it was a kind of revelation, so some detail is warranted. Around the same time an aunt of mine died and, furthermore, it was getting near the time when, four years earlier, mum passed away. In my mind the two events were linked. The death of my aunt mingled with the feelings I got from looking at Madge’s images, many of which feature boats, including the cruise ships Aurelia and Wanganella. The following photo was taken by her husband Elmer in front of the Aurelia. Other photos show Elmer skippering his tug, fishing in a stream, or standing on a rock with his catch. A boat is a fitting symbol of this period in my life, as it reminds me of how, when my uncle was in a nursing home and living with dementia, he would think he was on a ship. When I visited he spoke to me of his obsession, and he wandered around the secure quarters of the institution looking for an exit. 

Dad also, when he was in a nursing home and living with dementia, searched for a way to escape. I offer recourse, in this way, to memory as, like the ones shown here, many of Madge’s images are washed out, the colours, because of the quality of the film stock used, changing over time in the emulsion. They have become dreamy; advertising executives know that if you remove most of the colours from your imagery you will produce a different effect in the viewer’s mind, than if the colours in the shots are highly saturated and diverse. The image below is like this and shows Madge on the Wanganella, onboard which she travelled to Sydney in the 60s. 

On the same trip the couple made their way to Canberra and here the photos have a range of subjects. In 1972 she took a photo of Elmer inside a New Zealand redwood grove, the trees planted from seeds brought from California. He stands near the centre of the frame, but just to the left of dead centre, looking toward Madge, who is standing there with her camera, composing her shot. Around him the trees form a kind of natural cathedral as glimmers of light play on the ground. In the background the sky is just visible, through the branches and the leaves, as patches of white or silver.

It’s important to note how critical for my reaction was the number of photographs Madge kept. The sheer breadth of subjects she chose, and the uniform quality across the range, combined to give me an indication of the size of the talent and skill that lay behind it. 

I don’t know how many negatives Madge made as only the slides survive, but I guess there must’ve been thousands ignored because not up to scratch. Many slides show landscapes or hillsides. Madge liked to compose elaborate images having the kind of glamour usually found in professional photographs but always something is happening away from the main focus of attention. It might be the sky, clouds, a tree, a patch of scrub, or a beam of sunlight shining on water. Striking things drew her eyes and engaged her and she had a particular interest in dams and waterfalls. Trish says she loved islands – she met Elmer on a Pacific island. She used humour in some photos – especially those with people in them – and cars and buildings also furnished her with material. 

Related to their strength, what is most striking in her images is their organisational clarity. You can see this especially when she turns her gaze toward water or the sky. In all parts of the image something important is happening; there are no “dead” zones.

To illustrate her perfectionism, there are two shots showing Auckland Harbour that were taken from a building, in one of which a balustrade is visible at the bottom of the frame. In the very next image the white diagonal of the balustrade is gone – eliminated by lifting the point of focus just a touch upward – measurably improving the image. You can see how intent Madge was on the composition also because in some photos the horizon is not exactly level, the edges of the frame not quite at 90 degrees to it. The reason for this fault is because Madge was so intent on capturing what she had imagined as she stood there in front of a city, a building, or a valley, that she lost control of one variable – the horizon – in the process of making the image. 

Some are marred due to damage sustained as a result of the passage of time, and other images are from slides that smoke from Elmer’s pipe tobacco has stained. As the excellence of Madge’s production demands some form of homage, I took the folder full of images to be assessed as to the possibility of restoration but spider mould and nicotine have penetrated the emulsion and nothing can be done about the discoloured skies and unfortunate yellow tinge in many of them. It might be possible to digitally enhance some images by increasing the saturation, but this would be expensive if done professionally. 

What is refreshing about the compositions is their immediacy, as well as their perfection. For example, in a shot taken in a Danish street in the 1960s (see image below), Madge was able to use lines she saw – the snaking kerb, the roofs of traditional houses, the diagonals of a modern building’s roof, the branches of a tree, the detail on a car’s chassis, the markings on street signs that had been installed to control traffic – creating a whole of stunning complexity and beauty. Light and shadow mix, and the moment is privileged – in the shoulder of a pedestrian clad in his coat and a plastic bag scudding across the carriageway borne on the wind – while old and new mingle and hedge. Harmony lies in the play of diagonals, horizontals and verticals – as well as the focal point and foreground and background – and despite the large number of featured variables. 

The photographer was very much in the moment at that instant in time, on that particular sunny day, in that specific town in Denmark. But the fact that Madge never telegraphed the existence of her hobby or its products – Trish told me in an email that she never knew her aunt was inclined to make photographs and, presumably, ignorance was also why my mother never alerted me to the fact – meant that the box of slides that eventually found their way to my library was, like the plastic bag in the photo above (drifting lazily on currents of air), entirely dependent upon chance. 

In another way it was fated. Not only do Madge and I have almost the same birthday (one day apart, though clearly in different years and, in case you’re wondering, we’re both Leos) but we share ancestors, and therefore genes. I was always going to discover her secret though digitising the boxful of slides I inherited was the catalyst – delayed, as it turns out – for the reaction that would take place once I started going through the slides and typing placenames and dates into folder and file names. 


Toward the end of November I began to revise my ideas around making art. With the new house I’d have more room to work with and, in addition to my desk for writing I would have room to paint or draw (or both). Now, my ideas turned to a composite model, and I imagined making linocuts featuring my poetry. I saw in my minds eye a large capital letter – in this case “H” – and the first line of one of the early poems (written in December 2007): “How many years have passed in your absence …” with the first word taking up the first line, the next three words taking up the second line, and the letters getting smaller until, at last, they achieve a uniform size and the rest of the poem could be incorporated into the print’s design. Black ink on white paper, with the figure of a flower or a portrait at the bottom and lines radiating out from the text to the border, also black, around the whole thing. 

I thought about the size of linoleum I’d need to fit a whole sonnet in the design; perhaps something about 20cm square would do, or else (revising my estimate), perhaps about 40cm square. Or else, I went on to imagine, I could use a rectangular piece of lino. 

I thought about other possibilities, such as incorporating elements drawn from social media into the designs. Perhaps a print could have a flower set alongside part of a tweet – you wouldn’t fit a whole tweet into an area 20cm square – or else (I thought) I could use the Instagram logo alongside an element drawn from Chinese culture, such as a celebratory object, something that is brought out or bought at a specific time of the year in order to register the importance of a date.

I thought about lots of things as I was preparing for the move, on the days it was carried out, and on the days following, days on which I was just tidying up the house with its countless boxes (this is an exaggeration, but for sure I had no idea, on 11 December, how many boxes the removalists had brought inside from the trucks).

And I kept on thinking, it became a mental tick, like a recurring nightmare or a thought associated with a traumatic event, one which inspires ideas of its own but, instead of fear, what I felt on such occasions was hope – I was filled with something like a feeling of joy as I contemplated my future surrounded by the tools needed to make art. I would have a special room on the top floor of the house set aside for this purpose, a room of my own. 

The benefit of linocuts being that they don’t make much mess in the performance. I could use a desk that would fit in the studio/study at the top of the house, and have a printing facility at the same table or else on a different table nearby. 

Still, a rug would be needed to protect the floorboard from spills and drips, I mused conscientiously, as, typically for me, I tried to anticipate every eventuality. This is something about me that causes me inconvenience as sometimes I am afraid of starting something new out of fear that I won’t be able to control the process, that things will get away from me, grow a life of their own, become unruly and upset my equilibrium. At least with writing all I need is a desk, some software, and an internet connection. I can sit in my room contentedly for hours, putting down in MS-Word strings of abstract characters.

Making meaning, making the world, making myself living in it. Or thinking between paragraphs about a linocut I could make. For example a portrait of the NSW premier talking on the nightly news, or else a cricket player interviewed in front of a drop showing sponsors’ names and logos. The thick penumbra of messages that surrounds us all the time acting like a second brain, a mediated addition to the memories and experiences we each of us individually possesses, and that drive our behaviour – or is it just that we react to external stimuli, for example an ad for a new product sold at popular fast-food restaurants, or else a car that a woman drives while taking pleasure in her husband’s discomfort while they negotiate a country road in their white metal cocoon. 

Such thoughts passed through my mind as I wrote about a trip to Wollongong at the end of the year, just three days before Christmas, a trip marked by extremes of dark and light, me there being passed by other drivers in their cars going at full speed between the broken white lines painted onto the black or grey surface of the motorway, surrounded by foliage growing on tree branches that come right up to the edge of the carriageway. Like arms. 

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