My New Studio

I’m part-way through the big move and it’s glorious. Twice the space, two walls for my own artwork and plenty of room for inspiration images too. A full set of windows, with a door that opens to a first floor balcony. In the evenings the sun sets to the right and casts golden light onto my glass art desk.

Carpet protects the floor boards and keeps me happy as I’m always barefoot here. I’ve claimed this red wool coat for art as I wanted something warm but with a little more romance than my practical camping gear. When I need to step into another world I set myself up on the floor with my brushes and a cushion and a cup of herbal tea. It’s essential to create divisions between admin and art, even between craft and art.

I do most of my study for public health here now, and I’m continuing to explore the monsters that sometimes wait for me here, and the nature of safety in a creative space. It’s complex and fruitful. Several times recently I’ve had bad experiences and run to the studio as a refuge. It’s never been that reliable for me but it’s emerging as a place my heart is at ease. There’s still monsters some days but I’m learning to check in before I get too naked and vulnerable. Some days are for craft, sorting, cleaning, the joy of using my hands. The monsters will devour me whole if I try anything else. Some days I can strip off and find that wild place, the other world, where the poetry lives. I’m learning to pick the difference, and that’s making me stronger.

Studio as a sacred space

Glorious studio days recently. Even by artist standards, I have a pretty intense relationship with my studio. Moving into this space, it took me a long time to let go of my previous space and fall in love.

I will be moving to a bigger, brighter, better space in the same building in July and I’m so excited about it. It will also mean I can integrate my office and studio spaces together and have everything under one roof. This should stream line all my processes considerably, mean I don’t need a lot of duplicate stationary anymore, and make it easier to move between admin and art on the same day.

In preparation I’m sorting, tidying, and planning. I have a pinterest board of studios for inspiration. I’m keen to create something both functional and aesthetic. One thing I’ll make sure to do is set my oil palette up on the right hand side of my easel, so I’m not constantly crossing over myself for new paint.

As part of this preparation, I’ve overhauled my watercolour and oil painting set ups. A friend suggested standing for my large watercolour paintings and I’m already noticing the difference; more confident gestures, better blending, and finally making progress on an image I’ve made 5 versions of that I wasn’t happy with so far.

This drawer beneath my glass desk keeps my palettes and paint protected from dust while I’m not there. The large white palette on the left was an op shop find, a flat porcelain plate which is is wonderful for watercolours and much cheaper than specialty art palettes. Watercolour handles so much better on porcelain than metal or plastic, it’s much easier to mix colours and shades accurately.

My oil paint set up is also much better now. This little glass top table was a steal from the local garden supply store. I lifted out the glass and backed it with a few sheets of neutral grey pallet paper for easier colour mixing. It cleans off while wet with a baby wipe, or once dry, with a wall scraping razor.

I had partly completed this artwork in a class last year about painting in the style of the Old Masters. It’s a copy of a painting ‘Arachne’ by Diego Velazquez. This week it was time to finish it.

She still needs a few more glazes but I’m very happy with her.

It was fantastic to get back into oils, I’m looking forward to my next one.

I have a number of irons in the fire at the moment for my next projects and so far there’s promising feedback on a couple of them. I’m excited about starting the new financial year with a better working space to meet whatever comes. 🙂

Ink Painting: Flight

I have greatly enjoyed creating in a range of other mediums lately; white ink over black, watercolours, even posca pens. But there’s something deeply satisfying about coming home to my teal ink paintings. They are my oldest and most familiar medium, started back in the days when I could only afford one colour of ink, a fountain pen, and a single size 6 brush.

When I sit down with my ink, I don’t know what I’m going to create before I start. I create the opportunity and something emerges. It’s an incredibly precious process for me, a kind of therapy. I love that spark, the uncertainty, the sense of not being in control and planning it out but rather, letting go and allowing space for what comes. It’s reflective and magical and sometimes extremely painful, depending on how safe I feel and how well I can process what comes. Sometimes nightmare images take me more than 6 months before I can look at them. More rarely, I connect with the work right away. Often they tell me than one story and I learn more about them over time or find different stories in them. I usually work at night, often by moonlight or candlelight, in a space full of poetry, a kind of altered state. Sometimes I can see parts of the artwork in the white paper as I begin, not a true hallucination, but yet real enough to trace the path.

‘Flight’ builds on a theme about wings that was present in my work back was I was 16 and used to dream of myself walking alone in school with vast useless black wings trailing behind me. Too freak to fit in, but not freak enough to fly.

They remerged at points throughout my life, such as when I gave birth.

I’ve been exploring my giftedness lately, what it means to not be neurotypical but function differently in ways there’s almost no research on for adult populations. It’s taken me a long time to own it and acknowledge how much it impacts my life. Unlike other differences such as my chronic illness, speaking about being gifted brings with it a taint of bragging and a memory of making others feel threatened and rejecting me. It’s vastly misunderstood and surprisingly vulnerable.

There’s little to guide someone struggling the way I do. Speaking to a gifted specialist recently I asked about the adult population, where can I learn from others who struggle? Ah, she said, there isn’t one. Gifted adults who succeed don’t come to see psychologists. Gifted adults who struggle usually assume their struggles prove they were not gifted after all. We know almost nothing about the needs and best supports of the gifted struggling adult.

We know what puts gifted kids at higher risk, such as not having friends or peers, not being academically challenged and getting used to the feeling of being a student who must learn, bullying, perfectionism, performance anxiety, feeling valued only for their grades and skills… We know they are often emotionally intense, vulnerable to existential crises very young, sensitive, and asynchronous in development. But we don’t know much about how to reverse harm or support adults to thrive. I’m trying to figure out that pathway.

Wings, useless, broken, or bound emerge as a metaphor for thwarted desire and unrealised capacity.

I’m glad of my strange, wild art. It was important to me to protect it from college and other artists and the homogenisation that happens in exposure to others. It’s not the only way to make art, even for me, not the best or holiest. At is made in many ways and meets many different needs, it’s a form of mindfulness and intense observation, a emotional catharsis, a complex development of artisanal skill, a way to play, and more besides. All are real. I was speaking with a lovely artist recently who is going through something tough. I mentioned that I explore terrible pain at times in my art and suggested they could do the same. They gave me such a brief hunted look, a flash of anxiety and an absolutely closed door that I understood immediately: art is their happy place, where the joyful and whimsical live. It would be a kind of sacrilege to take their darkness into it. For me, I adore darkness and love in art, all the notes of the song and colours to paint with. Lightest to darkest pitch. It’s what feels authentic to me and it heals something in me that otherwise merely bleeds.

Podcast: Keeping Mum

I’m excited to share this project in which I played a small role.

This beautiful podcast sensitively explores the largely untold story of the experience of children of LGBTIQ parents. It’s a lovely interview of the now adult child of a lesbian mother who navigated raising her family in a conservative community. The marriage equality plebiscite in Australia last year often aired concerns about the effect on children of being raised by queer parents. While there’s excellent research that shows these families are just as safe and nurturing, it’s also helpful to hear personal experiences and accounts.

Produced by Suzanne Reece who conceived the idea, conducted the interviews, edited, and created the sound scape.

I provided a voice over for Suzanne’s poem, some of the background chatter, and the illustration.

First aired on Radio Adelaide, you can find ‘Keeping Mum’ here. Please feel welcome to share it.

Autumn

It’s late Autumn, cold and grey. The last sunshine is stunning, delicious and golden as warmed honey. Last night I snuggled down into my bed like a happy burrito. I’m creating daily at the moment, a flurry of painting, writing, sewing. Today I baked delicious chocolate chunk peanut butter cookies. I’m still buzzing from making it through my uni trimester despite so many setbacks. A wonderful win to soak up.

My beautiful mural is progressing, albeit unconventionally given the frequent rain. I’m lucky Rose is still a romantic and doesn’t mind ink on the bedsheets or unexpected murals in progress on the oven.

I recently found the notes I took at the beside of a sick friend following an awful psychosis. Back then we discussed an illustrated booklet to help people better understand how to support someone so vulnerable. We spoke about it again today given I’ve recently completed my first short ink illustrated booklet, and I think I’m ready to consider the next booklet project.

It’s evening. Poppy and I are at the park. She is a red smudge in her raincoat, dashing about the green in the fading light, blowing raspberries at me from the top of the playground. The sky turns from baby blue and peach to soft greys and yellow. Birds flit everywhere, looping from tree to tree and weaving a song all around us. The last dogs go home. Poppy falls and runs wailing to cry in my arms. When she quiets the birds have stopped and we can hear the wind sweeping in through the trees. Night gradually deepens and the trees wave slowly like underwater grasses. We find helmet and boots and belongings and cycle back home.

Art as Liberation

Charismatic and flamboyant local artist Fruzsi Kenez is running a series of illustration classes, so I’ve signed up. A couple of years ago I carefully broke down all my business expenses at the end of financial year and discovered that art lessons are one of my favourite things to invest in. Private art lessons rather than college art lessons are balm for my heart. I don’t need to prove anything or agree with anyone. I can come and connect and take what suits me and wrestle with it, love it, hate, reject it, refashion it. At no point do I need to parrot it to pass assignments or mimic it to graduate. Those running the classes tend to be highly engaged and engaging, they don’t have a captive audience they can denigrate or reject. Considering that my art was largely loathed by tutors in uni, this is refreshing.

These art classes are about illustrations in journals. Creating fast, loose, fresh illustrations of items and people around us in ways that bypass careful planning and tap into fearlessness and the joy of markmaking. It’s the artist’s version of automatic writing and just as playful and intriguing.

I used to art journal ideas in ink with the hope of one day having a studio where I could translate them into ‘real art’ – paint. I had the opportunity to show the journals to a couple of established artists visiting the shelter I’d stayed at one day. They were kind and encouraging and told me the ink paintings were themselves ‘real art’. It started a train of thought I’m still exploring today.

Recategorising my journal work as real art – and later cutting images out of the journals to display – was refreshing, a change of perspective that liberated me from restrictive ideas of what ‘real art’ is (large, painted, formal). It helped me treat my passion for ink and paper as a genuine avenue of exploration and has largely created my current arts practice. However there was also a downside, which is that my arts journalling practice froze up. If any artwork I made might now be ‘real art’ that I wanted to exhibit one day, it had to be made using quality materials and with that end in mind. Tension exploded into my arts practice. The combination of pressure to make each work ‘real’ and poverty meaning resources were so limited killed my arts journals. I couldn’t play or practice or pretend. Worse, I became bound up in a need for each artwork to be entirely individual and refused to allow myself to replicate my own works – feeling that this was somehow vaguely theft and plagiarism. How could I sell an original and then devalue it by painting something similar? Not that I could sell those originals, because the first years of artworks were made with inferior products that are non archival and I wouldn’t ethically sell.

There’s not much play in that space, not much riffing off themes or techniques, or even really learning. Art becomes a stab in the dark, sometimes coalescing into something amazing and sometimes falling far short. It carries my heart and rides those winds with so much vulnerability. There’s no second take, no confidence, no mastery. It’s like painting in the dark.

I love painting in the dark. It’s raw, wild, unpredictable, unsafe. It touches things I would never have consciously brought to light and tells stories I don’t know the end of. It is linked to my survival, my psychosis, my deepest self. I tell secrets, break rules, speak unspeakable things.

It is also painful. Sometimes sanctuary and sometimes hell. I have learned that some days craft is better, more what I need. I use my hands in something creative but without the vast emotional risk. I mend clothes, embroider, colour in. My arts practice has this vast gulf between the pleasure of using my hands and the taking of huge emotional risks. Journaling might be a third space for me – personal, playful, creative, mindful, safe. There’s more shades to explore than just palest and darkest.

Parenting with Trauma

Having our whole family sick together is an exercise in the logistics of rationing and portioning a tiny amount of energy to extract the maximum benefit. If I take her for an hour late tonight, then you do the morning, I’ll get you a nap at noon then you take her to the park for two hours so I can work on my assignment… The shifting priorities of dishes, doctors, meals, laundry, and mental health. It’s considerably more exhausting than being sick without kids, largely because of the difficulty of getting enough sleep to properly recover.

Monday Poppy and I went into the city. Rose had important appointments and Poppy was full of restless toddler energy. We had an argument on the bus about her not biting me which concluded with her screaming while strapped into her pram and me not making eye contact with a bus load of strangers. She got her own back by refusing to fall asleep for her afternoon nap. Usually she’ll snuggle down in her ‘cave’ made by covering the pram with a cloth, and knock off. That day she leaned as far forwards as her pram seatbelt would let her to fight sleep. 4 times she gently drifted off anyway as I paced around Rundle Mall rocking and circling the buskers. Each time she’d slip sideways as sleep relaxed her, clonking her head on the frame of the pram and waking up with a howl. Gently tipping the pram up evoked rage rather than sleep, and the fifth time she started to fall asleep I stopped and tried to gently settle her back which cued 20 minutes of hysteria.

I thought she might fall asleep in the art gallery but unfortunately that was the end of the whole idea. She talked to the other patrons, wanted to know all about the art, and once we found the kid’s studio space spent a happy hour cutting a sheet of paper into very tiny pieces.

The studio was set up to invite self portraits, with mirrors and oil pastels. This was mine:

I was glad of the space, it’s the most at home I’ve felt in the gallery.

I’ve realized that PTSD has interrupted our usually very calm parenting approach. Kids this age can be intense, they have huge feelings, test boundaries, and have way more energy than seems sensible. Poppy is fearless, explorative, passionate, creative, and stubborn. Generally Rose and I navigate these traits patiently and with appreciation of their positive aspects. But when she hurts us deliberately we’ve both struggled and the conflict has been charged and difficult to resolve. We’ve been worried about what it means and stressed by our own responses. I in particular lose patience and get angry, but Poppy isn’t easily intimidated which leaves me in a bind where I either behave in more frightening ways until she’s cowed and takes me seriously, or I find another way of approaching this. It speaks to the heart of parenting approaches to obedience and discipline. Do children follow instructions because they are frightened of us, or of the consequences? Or because they are connected to us and trust us? Is it appropriate to scare your child? If so, when and how much? Are boundaries about anger or love? Is breaking the rules or pushing the boundaries about immaturity, defiance, conflicting needs, forgetfulness (it’s easy to over estimate the memory capacity of a small child), or something else?

I’ve been starting to do a bit more reading on parenting her age group and it occurred to me that Rose and I are generally excellent at not taking difficult behavior personally, setting boundaries with warmth, and redirecting troubling behaviors. So when Poppy was getting into constant trouble for climbing furniture in the house, she now has a climbing frame outside for her to monkey around on. But when she hurts us there’s no such framing. We see no positive aspect to such behavior, no legitimate need looking for expression. We talk instead about her being mean, we privately discuss her sensitivity to our stress, her restlessness, her trying to get our attention. We’re troubled by a normal child behavior and framing it as lack of empathy. It’s triggering, evoking memories of being hurt by others and we both move into threat responses. Rose tends to freeze and withdraw, I get angry.

It occurred to me recently we’re misframing the behavior due to our histories. Most children this age want to roughhouse. Wrestling and tumbling and play fighting is a normal developmental behavior. Engaged with care it’s a place for learning about how to hold back and not hurt each other, how to apologise and caretake when accidents happen, and it satisfies the touch hunger and intense energy of very young children. Learning how to wind down into calmness following rough play is a key part of regulating such excitable and energetic kids.

Last night when Poppy started to get rough with Rose who was crashed out on the couch with a migraine, I didn’t get charged. I chose to see her inappropriate behavior as a need for rough housing and set a boundary with patience rather than frustration. I told her Mamma was sick and could only have gentle play around her. When Poppy kept being rough I removed her to the bedroom not as punishment but as an appropriate location for rough play. I gently with her permission threw her onto the bed, threw a big stuffed lion at her and told her this was where the fierce and grouchy creatures play. She was thrilled. She ran growling at me to the edge of the bed, waited for me to put my hand in the centre of her chest, then braced herself for me to gently push her back, screaming with laughter.

Later that night with Rose asleep and me exhausted on the couch with Poppy, she started to rough play again and I forbade her from getting on the couch with me. For the first time she was easily redirected into quiet play and spend a calm hour making complicated meals with her toy food instead.

There’s no problem with her empathy, Poppy is an incredibly affectionate and loving child. She’s not unusually aggressive or showing signs of attachment damage or deprivation. In mislabeling her normal needs as something that disturbed us, we introduced a charge into our relationship that she gravitated towards. Kids do this without knowing why, they can sense it and it’s irresistible. It’s why they do mad things like grin at an adult who’s already at the end of their rope and angry with them. They are still getting a sense of their own power in the world and what they can and can’t do. Navigating our own trauma as parents is about recognizing blind spots like this, paying attention to threat responses needlessly activated, and prioritizing basic needs like sleep, connection, and companionship so we function as best we can. For me at the moment on bad days I’m dealing with chronic irritability and low grade suicidality. Sleep deprivation and feeling isolated turn my world black. Over and over in a thousand little ways we choose safety together, celebrate freedom and autonomy, look for loving ways to speak about the unspeakable things, and link into the world around us. Without our wider networks of friends, family, therapists, without kids rooms in art galleries, and foodbank, and doctors who see trauma survivors rather than welfare bludgers, we couldn’t do this. But together there is so much strength, sufficient grace. Enough to let us all grow.

Community Mural in Development

At my birthday party last weekend, my friends started this mural with me. I’ve wanted to paint murals for a long time, and trying to think of something fun to host it seemed like a good idea. I bought a panel of marine ply, undercoated with Rustoleum, and we used house paint brushes and bulk size artist acrylics in a limited palette (blue, red, yellow, brown, and white). I mixed the colours people chose and gave a bit of instruction on using brushes but that was it. The design – children playing in a tumble of autumn leaves – I drew on freehand with a sharpie.

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Those who wanted to join in chose whichever part they liked and painted. It was cool to see people experimenting with textures and brush stroke styles. The limited colour range keeps it all cohesive despite many different hands, and the limited palette means all the colours relate well to each other. The only thing I’ve noticed so far is a tendency for not a lot of variation in value (darks and lights) which doesn’t matter so much in such a cheerful piece.

I was hoping to create something fun and heartfelt to display in our backyard. It will cheer up and add colour to the play area for Poppy, and remind me of my friends and family who’ve added to it. I know it’s often stressful to make art when you haven’t done it in a long time, so I wanted to make it feel safe and meditative. Creativity loves a bit of challenge, but too much is inhibiting and creates frustration. I also reassured folks that I will be going over the design when it’s finished and outlining everything so there was no need to worry about imperfect edges or the odd smudge. They really do add to the texture.

I have been doing some research in the local hardware store and I think for future murals I will consider buying exterior paint for the added UV protection to help it last. I’ve been making more artwork on board rather than canvas lately, which I prefer for indoor or outdoor larger scale artworks, so this was a fun way to explore that.

I’m looking forward to finishing this and fixing it in place. Probably another 2-3 arty afternoons will have it done, weather permitting.

My birthday was harrowing this year, I spent half of it crying and was horribly suicidal. I’m glad it’s behind me and I’m going to put some real thought into understanding how I can deal with it differently for next year. So far none of my approaches have been great.

But my favourite part of this was those small moments when I could see someone else disappearing into the art, the steady even brushing of paint, blending into paint. Those moments are a kind of meditation and they are precious. May we all have many more of them.

Many creative projects

I made it into my studio for a few precious hours today. I bought this lovely drying rack for hanging wet artworks, and worked more on my illustrated poem project. You can see some of the pages drying on the new rack here:

I have been often ill lately with high pain levels and have not had as much art time as I’d hoped. The top priorities I’m keeping up with: my time with family, my studies, work gigs of various kinds.

I was very pleased to collaborate recently with the Greens SA and paint creatures of the Great Australian Bight during a listening post. Illustrating campaigns that are close to my heart is a special joy.

I was also honoured to be part of a panel at Uni SA about alternative responses to psychosis. I spoke from my Psychosis without Destruction perspective. I gave a brief illustrated presentation using journal entries from my first two episodes, and the body painting I did during my second episode which resolved it.

I am keeping up with my public health studies and learning French. I’ve just handed in an assignment exploring the social determinants of health and proposing an intervention intended to reduce cardiovascular illness for people with severe mental illness.

I was planning an exhibition for my birthday but I’m going to push it back a month or so and see how my health goes. I’m happy with my priorities right now. Family, study, and work are all going well and art and other projects fit in where and as I can. 💜

Illustrated poem

I recently attended a book making workshop by wonderful local illustrator Sally Heinrich. Since then I’ve been working on illustrating one of my poems.

This is exactly what I’ve been wanting to do for years with my illustrated presentations, to convert them from PowerPoint slides and spoken words to beautifully books. I’ve been learning a lot about illustrations for print over the past 6 months and loving it. The synthesis between word and image just clicks for me. I’m very glad that art has been liberated from the requirement of narrative traditions, but I’m also glad to be finding my own passion for story.

The workshop and project has helped clear a mental block that’s come along with a great deal of sickness this year for me. I love good creative training and workshops, the best are safe creative spaces to fill in knowledge gaps that bringing some unattainable desire within reach. I adore being able to learn art for the love of learning without having to fit my work to a schedule of assessments or the limiting ideas of ‘real art’ of a supervisor. After some inspiration at Writer’s Week too, I’m extremely happy to be writing and painting between work and study. Public health has started up again and if anything I’m enjoying it even more than last trimester. It is such an excellent fit with my values and passion. I’m working towards an exhibition for my birthday this year again. I’ll keep you posted.

Painting: Silver birch tree spirit

Poppy and I spent the day together at one of our favourite parks recently. It’s a chance for me to not multitask and to be focused and present in a way I don’t often find myself doing. It was hot and dry and I found it took several hours before I adjusted to that and felt comfortable. The same for not working or cleaning or doing something on my phone, there’s always a restless period where it’s not comfortable or easy, until something adjusts and stills. Poppy and I bounce off each other and have fun in between little person big feelings. There’s often a time when we start to click together like fish swimming along side each other in a school. An attunement occurs that’s wordless and smoother. We don’t get in each other’s way so much, it’s more fluid and trusting. I love it.

We played on the playground and swings and explored the creek. Then Poppy made some art.

She was slept afterwards so we walked around until she fell asleep in the pram. Then I made some art in the shade of a huge gum tree, while she slept peacefully in the cool breeze beside me.

I wasn’t expecting to paint anything significant. I’ve just set up my travel kit with new watercolours and worked out a formula for teal, my favourite colour of ink. I was entirely focused on connecting with Poppy, not looking to fit anything else into the day.

Yet somehow, this beautiful heartbroken women emerged. It’s about the fifth time I’ve tried to paint her. She emerged without planning, starting from her open, distraught mouth and spreading into snow and trees. Painting intuitively like this is a sacred part of my arts practice.

Her hair began to resemble the tree branches and tangle around the babies and her arms. At the end I suddenly realised she was a tree spirit, which has never been part of any painting I’ve made of her. But it fits perfectly.

Colour matching watercolours with my inks

It’s been a glorious studio day after a week of illness. Endo/adeno misery turned into gastro and UTI horror, along with the rest of my family. Darling Rose was so unwell she wound up in hospital again, which was very helpful and mercifully brief. Poppy was hit the first and lightest with a bad sleepless night of vomiting and then bouncing back. I’m starting to feel better but it’s been a tough month. Vertigo and gout have also stolen a lot of time from me and I’ve found myself falling into deep depression at times and feeling isolated.

Today I was well enough to go into my studio and play. Among other things, I’ve now set up my travel watercolour kit with my favourite colours (mainly Sennelier with a Qor and a couple of Winsor and Newton).

Done a lot of colour mixing. This is completely different for watercolour than with oil paint and I’m having to learn all new combinations and techniques.

I adore my blue black ink, but it’s an unusual ink and one of its qualities is that it doesn’t keep when diluted. So for my ink paintings with gradients I must try to mix small amounts and accept the waste if I don’t use them all. I hate this so I have been practicing a two brush Chinese ink painting technique that blends ink on the brush in one hand with water on the brush in the other directly onto the paper. It works very well for some techniques but I find it difficult for others.

So I have been hoping to blend a similar colour with my watercolor paints, that keep forever between uses. Today I achieved that with a mix of Quinacridone Red and Phthalocyanine Turquoise. I tested it by making two tiny artworks. This one is in inks, with outlines using a dip pen with black ink:

This is in watercolour using only a brush:

They are extremely close in colour! I’m very pleased with this result. There’s a quality to the ink I still prefer, a clarity and depth I don’t find in watercolour but that may well be simply that I’m less experienced with them, and possibly because my current mix has several pigments in it.

Either way, I’m very pleased and the black dog feels eased and soothed. We’ve celebrated everyone starting to recover with a fresh change of bedding and a delicious light meal. I’m going to borrow some new books from the library and take it gently this week while I’m recovering.

Kano ink painting: Blackbirds

I recently attended a workshop about Kano, a Japanese art form involving painting over gold or metal leaf. Inspired by the work of Kawanabe Kyōsai, I painted this scene in ink.

The image is of a knotty tree with small leaves and black birds, and high mountains in the background. They are painted in black and teal ink over gold leaf.

One of the difficult but beautiful things about Kano is how impossible it is to replicate through prints. Photos give you only a sense of the glow of the real work. I can embellish prints where I’ve gilded on top of my painting, but not where it’s used as the substrate and worked onto.

Which brings me to one of my big plans this year: making originals available for sale. In some cases my original artworks were created using substandard products as I was very poor at the time. These I intend to remake so I can offer them confident in their longevity and archival quality. Currently I’m learning more about creating and illustrating books, and working through a collection of orders for embellished prints. I have an eye to create several exhibitions this year and things are off to an excellent start.

My art infiltrates the world

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Art sales from my Etsy Shop or in person continue to tick along, and happy customers leaving positive reviews is always a delight. I especially love it when I’m sent a photo or description of the art in its new home, that’s something special.

I was sad to have to withdraw from my FEAST exhibition this year when Rose got sick, but I think it will be all the better for it next year. I’m excited to be presenting a popup exhibition for Vanguard in Melbourne tomorrow called Smooth Seas never made Skilled Sailors, reflections on mental health, adversity, and resilience. Some works were first exhibited in She Dreams 6 years ago, which was a sampling of art documenting key experiences in the previous 10 years of my life, such as homelessness, mental health struggles and identity. About a third of the works have never been exhibited before, and I’m so pleased they have a home now.

Capture

Selling art is like I’m leaving little traces of my soul in other people’s lives, all around the world. My buyers and collectors are an unusual cohort of oddballs and doctors and patrons and poets. Sometimes they seem to have nothing in common except for resonating with my art. My work is in hopeful government offices and artfully decorated living rooms and bedrooms steeped in deeply private pain. And the art itself is like sea glass, tiny coloured windows into the world. People look not just into it but through it, at something they care about. It snags in the net of their story, brings something to light that’s meaningful and difficult to put into words, whether joyful or painful or so often a little of both.

It’s like sending messages in bottles out on the tide. The world is precious and beautiful and full of darkness. We are each of us alone, and yet not so alone or different as we fear. There are many worlds and wholeness cannot be found by walking only in any one of them.

I curate exhibitions carefully and their location with equal care. It’s simply not okay to exhibit works on such personal topics carelessly. My collections are chosen like a work of music, with a range of light and dark. They have variation in tone and voice. I understand entirely that some of the most painful are both the most resonant and those that sell the least often. That’s okay with me, when I first paint these, I often can’t look at them myself for many months. I understand why there’s some art you love, but couldn’t put on your wall. But when they are grouped in collections, they all link up to each other in a kind of web or net. The lightest and the darkest become linked, like lights and shadows. They fit together to create wholeness in a way no single image – or single story – could ever hope to do. Complexity and contradictions are rich in meaning. So even if most people take home the most hopeful and uplifting (which isn’t always the case), I am quite content because I know that linked in memory are the other works in the collection. The lights and shadows fit together even if only one is visible at a time. The dark and the light of the moon.

Last week I stepped up to a podium in Sydney, looked at the timer and realised my talk needed to be shortened by 1/3rd on the fly, and I didn’t rush. After 8 years of speaking I’ve finally come to understand that more important than what I say is how people in the room feel. If they feel safe and connected, my message speaks louder in the subtext than all the abstract explaining in the world about dignity and compassion. I illustrated that talk and there was such a buzz about the art afterwards and online I was inspired to learn more about the world of illustration and art that engages and communicates alongside text. It’s been a joy and I’ve found much that I am inspired by. I’m looking forward to learning more.

It’s been a long, strange, wonderful and tiring week. We have arrived in the hotel now and it’s calm and peaceful. Tonight we walked the streets in the rain and watched the lights in the river. My family are bundled into clean soft sheets in a comfortable bed and I’m typing on an old oak desk, thinking about tomorrow. Life is very beautiful. I’m hoping to create a sense of safety and meaning tomorrow, to give buzzwords like resilience back their grounding in sorrow and adversity and love. Art will be part of that, hopefully speaking when words are not enough, a silent presence when there’s too much noise to hear.

Adventures with Poppy

One day a week, I remind myself that I can be tuned into my anxiety about the future, or I can be tuned into Poppy, but not both at the same time. It sometimes takes several hours of deliberately not being focused elsewhere for me to actually feel myself settle and connect. She changes from being one responsibility among many I am juggling, to a relationship I’m sensitive to, we speak in a shared language, track each other, are sensitive to minor changes in mood and state. She is a joy to be with.

Today we went into town and listened to a busker play beautiful music. Then we spent some time in the museum, looking at the butterflies and examining shells under a microscope.

Once Poppy had run off her morning energy, we wandered more sedately through the One Mountain, One River, One Sage: Treasures from the Shandong Library exhibition. The beautiful old handmade books were delightful. ❤ We wandered through the Royal South Australian Society of Arts exhibition on the way home, and Poppy carefully re-stacked the pram so the bags were in her seat and she could ride home tucked into the basket beneath. There’s so much joy here.

Why we need to value failure

I sometimes sit on panels or committees with very aspriational and ambitious intentions to help make some aspect of the world a better place. In spaces like that there can be a culture of success worship. We have all usually been chosen because of our perceived capacity to bring something of value to the table. People often showcase their ‘shiniest’ selves and hide mistakes, failures, struggles, and losses. This can have a number of difficult outcomes.

Firstly it often makes those in that space feel slightly disconnected and lonely. Aware of our own struggles and imperfections, or wrestling with the costs we are paying (however willingly) to engage, it is easy to be taken in by the masks of success, sanity, competence, and imperviousness around us.

Non-violent psychopaths – people who are often charming, glib, manipulative, and very harmful to anyone they have power over, thrive in environments such as these. They excel at looking amazing often because they are unrestrained by anxiety, morality, concern for others. There is no inner conflict, so like apex predators they are eminently comfortable and able to tailor the environment to suit their appetites at whatever cost to others. Stealing credit, undermining others, and presenting a brilliant facade to those in power over them are all skills well suited to success cultures.

Another challenge is that when we seek to improve circumstances for other people in some way, there’s a disconnect between the kinds of people chosen for the group who will come up with the solutions, and the kinds of people stuck in the problem. They are rarely the same people, even if they share some similar characteristics.

For example, I was at a conference a little while ago discussing disability. A couple of speakers with lived experience were sharing their stories and they were amazing experiences, heart felt, exceptional, incredible. Intended to eradicate the brutal impact of low expectations for people with disability, and I think they did an amazing job of this. In their company I was not even slightly ‘shiny’. My goals were smaller, my gaps wider, my struggles longer and more humiliating and complex.

I felt both uncomfortably raw and fiercely glad to be there, because these amazing success stories are so far from what many people live with. I held a space for failure, for struggle and loss. That is by no means my whole story! But it was an important one to share in that space. This is part of the reality we need to face and explore and understand. Success cultures make us afraid to invite it in or acknowledge it, when the truth is there are many failures on the path to wisdom. The capacity to struggle is directly linked to the capacity to learn.

Not all cultures admire success, some are quite the reverse. Any blogger can tell you that in some spaces agony and exposure gathers the adoring crowd, who drift once the blood clots and the wounds heal. In these spaces, sharing success is a stressful declaration of courage. Earning money from our skills risks censor and shaming, moving from the gift economy to a market economy may cost friendships and reputations. Our own frustration, ambivalence, and inexperience can mean we navigate such transitions with bitter fury rather than grace.

There’s nothing wrong with success, nor with the recognition of skill, experience, and capacity on which we base our understandings of rank. When I want to learn something I seek out those who are skilled. I look for and deeply value quality in every area of my life. When I am fortunate to have a skilled and passionate dentist I know I am so lucky. I put up with a level of unpleasant disdain to learn excellence in the preservation of oil paintings.

But expertise is always build upon learning, and learning means mistakes and reflection. My favourite quote about it is

An expert is (someone) who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field. -Niels Bohr

So, here’s to having the courage to include the dissident voice, share the hidden story, and hold a space for the uncomfortable. Failure can be utterly terrifying, but also incredibly valuable.

My vulnerability and wellbeing talk

I’m halfway through illustrating my vulnerability and wellbeing presentation for a Sydney conference for online activists.

I decided to go with black ink and watercolor for this series. It’s starting to look beautiful.

I’ll be sharing about the challenges and opportunities that come from being vulnerable in public, and about understanding and navigating online abuse.

It’s been a little while since I’ve given a ‘peer work’ based talk and I’m excited to be in that space again. When I was starting out, it was hard to find resources about exposure stress or dealing with abuse that spilled over from online into your personal life. There was a lot of general advice that often didn’t fit me or my circumstances very well. It’s been great to gather a broader and more nuanced collection of strategies for people to explore.

It’s also been really interesting to spend time reflecting on my work and experiences, on writing this blog and the impact it’s had on my life. I’ve challenged myself to take a fresh look at why I share what I share and if anything has changed the picture. Poppy is part of that. I hope I’m leaving a legacy by which she could understand me better and understand how deeply she is loved and how much she is wanted. I sit on the intersections of many stereotypes and minorities who’s stories are often not told, or told for us from outsider perspectives. This has been a place for my voice, an opportunity to meet me as I really am. Not a recovery guru or an infallible expert, but someone who has learnt to be mindful, reflective, and deft about vulnerability and community. Both more different and strange to others, and much more similar and human than the stories about people like me would suggest. Just like the rest of the world.

I don’t believe in normal, I’ve never yet met anyone normal. Everyone in some way doesn’t fit the average. It might be about things that are very small and almost never come up in our lives or it might be the constant daily cause of threat to our existence.

I also understand the usefulness and limitations of labels, the way ‘validated diversity’ becomes a game of box ticking and pigeon holing, creating new hierarchies of recognition and invisibility, of the mainstream and the marginalised.

It’s given me space to explore – and forced me to find words for the way I don’t believe in one size fits all ‘good life,’ or success, and I don’t believe in standardised recovery. Off the shelf ‘treatment’ for emotional suffering needs to recognise that relationship is the context in which the wounds are both inflicted and healed.

This seems such a contradiction for someone who is currently loving studying population based health and disease in epidemiology. The mantra of individuality and diversity can liberate but they can also paralyse – if you can’t take an off the shelf treatment, how do you figure out what works? How do we tailor our own hope and healing?

Exploring self regulation in a world that starts by assuming people in pain are broken and should be fixed by submitting themselves to an external expert is a challenge indeed. And the alternative extreme – placing the burden on individuals to navigate the traumas and challenges of entire social power structures, the brutal inequity and rankisms of our world as if they are personal failings. There is no one path and no right answer for us all. But there is between us, the creation of relationship and connection in which we all are held. There is between us the opportunity to explore what freedom looks like in connection with responsibility, to listen for the things that resonate and reflect on the tiny experiments we all make of each day. What hurt? What helped? Where are we more alone and suffering, and what brings us closer together?

We are complex creatures with minds designed to do exactly this – to predict, to adjust, to explore, to listen and learn as we seek the best pathways. There are times and places others know better than us or can see past a block we can’t get through. But there’s no world in which our lives are better for surrendering them to someone else entirely and forever. We trade off the needs of the one and the many, we blunt this or hide that to be part of the group. But our attunement to ourselves remains the closest listening and best hope for what we seek, and our relationships with others are still the best medicine for the wounds of life.

Handmade Book: Little House of Colours Bestiary

I am thrilled to share this special project. It’s a tiny handmade accordion book, bound in silk with cotton and bead embroidery. The pages are a folded long giclee art print of my watercolour original. They are hand gilded with 24k gold leaf.

I’ve been working on it as time permits for months; the text, illustrations, and physical book are all my own. It’s the first handmade book I’ve completed since Mourning the Unborn. I’m still experimenting with different ways of working with cloth book covers, I love to bind them in silk or velvet but it is much trickier to accomplish. I’m very pleased with how well this has come together.

The Breakthrough

Endo has been kicking my butt this week and kept me home when I’d planned fun outings with family. However it’s not all bad because the major breakthrough I had about my work has been stable for a week now and isn’t fading. This time last week I sobbed myself to sleep with regret for all the choices I’d made about my career. The next day I read a chapter in a book (I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was, by Barbara Sher) about people wounded in childhood and stuck. They freeze whenever they approach mastery of a skill. Their work life falls far short of their capacity and is fuelled by very old stories about worth. Early injuries leave deep wounds in confidence and self esteem. They become paralyzed by a need for validation, for someone else to see them as worthy and rescue them. So they are miserable at the prospect of succeeding based on their own skills and hard work. They crave caretaking that didn’t happen and are trapped trying to right an old wrong. There’s other aspects that don’t fit me at all – these people are often narcissistic and lack empathy for others, exploiting those around them, for example. That’s very far from me. My weakness is pathological self hate rather than pathological self love. But the hard work not paying off, the freezing up at points in projects where mastery approaches, and the undefinable but overwhelming misery of trying to ‘make it’ when actually I so want to be ‘discovered’ in some way that would make me feel worthy and cared about… That resonated so powerfully and has unbound me.

Recognising the source of these blocks and starting to unpack those feelings has undone their power. So I’m journaling about how trapped, unloved, and exploited I felt in school, and watching my capabilities come back online. I’m crying for how alone, how freakish and despairing and suicidal I felt then. And feeling the present day traps creak open. Letting go of the vague but powerful dream of being ‘saved’ from intolerable circumstances, and finding my strength returning to do my own work and care-take my own life. Not as a sad second prize because no one else thinks I’m worthy, but because it’s my joy and responsibility and no one else could do it better.

Since then I have been into my studio 4 times! That’s more often than I made it in, in the last whole month. I have picked back up old projects I’d been stuck on and finished them. The blocks are gone. I am full of creative energy and every day I find myself itching to do something with my hands, working out how to fit my day around the primal need to create.

Not only is the creative block gone, but the blocks keeping me stuck in my business are also easing with this new insight. My inbox is organised. I’m keeping up with my studies. I’m writing and preparing my upcoming talks for Sydney and Melbourne. I’m taking time off for days with Poppy. I feel so liberated. Every morning I wake expecting it to have gone away, expecting to find myself full of the familiar exhausting neurotic blocks. It’s like living with a tooth abscess for years and waking up to find the tooth gone and the gum healing. There’s so much joy.

Instead of narcissism overlaying insecurity, I went the opposite direction. Raw vulnerability and destructive, compulsive self sacrifice. So where Barbara’s ‘ragers against the ordinary’ recover through altruism, it’s Rose who realised I will recover through connection to self. The past 6 months have powerfully brought home to me that when love is only ever sacrifice and loss, it erodes something essential. The relationships lose dignity. It corrupts instead of heals. There is something harmful about normalising relationships where one person has no needs, where their needs are never a priority.

This is self denial as habit. It is for me, partly the wounds of spiritual abuse, the child taught in graphic detail she had personally tortured and slain her god. It is the bullied and alienated child in unsafe places. It is feeling unloved and abandoned when I care for myself and wanting others to do it for me – a difficult ask when even I don’t know what I need. How can anyone be attuned to someone so disconnected from themselves?

So, in small ways, we tip things on their head. Rose makes me choose what I want for dinner. I mourn the dream of being loved and cared for by others without having to be connected to myself, but also find deep pleasure in reconnecting. I can finally name the story that’s been killing me, the trap I’ve had my hand stuck in for years. Not just me but those around me who also felt the unfairness of my story and hoped that one day I would ‘make it’ in some kind of karma or restitution. So much power comes with naming it, the dream I cannot ever have where someone saves the child. I know what I’ve been dying for. Now I can let it go and live.

In love with my studio

I think I’ve had a major breakthrough. There’s been so much soul searching, reading, reflection, and self discovery this year for me. Things are making sense. I went to my studio again today and it was glorious. Where there has been a sense of profound inner conflict and vulnerability, a kind of hysteria beneath everything like the high pitched keening of a structure under unbearable stress, there is now a lightness. I sang in the car all the way there, volume up high and tears in my eyes. Every time I drive over that bridge I remember 3 years ago when I woke up and the sky was so beautiful, so beyond breathtakingly stunning that I was driving and sobbing with wonder at the same time. I often cast an eye up, to see how it looks. My jaded, faded, greyed out eyes see only sky, no magic, no myth. Sometimes more sparkling and opal like, a hint of that true reality. Sometimes so flat and grey I know I’m broken inside.

Today I sang at the top of my lungs and tears ran down my face with relief. In my studio I embroidered and wove beads on my loom. I felt alive. Not a puppet with strings cut or a train on broken tracks or behind a glass wall but here and so content.

There was good food for dinner and enough money for a couple of luxuries (Nutella, maple syrup for pancakes) and wonderful company for board games. I’m showered and the kitchen is clean and Poppy is asleep next to me, warm and safe.

Life is so good.

I adore my studies. Epidemiology is wonderful. I’m finding it a little difficult to keep up with enough work as well to keep my studio rent paid, but I’m hoping to fix that with a few face painting gigs. I’m just happy. I adore my family and spending time with friends. I was giving serious thought to bringing my studio home and setting it up in my little shed, and I’m so glad I didn’t lose it before things came clear. It’s a good space, it’s perfectly dry and safe and sheltered, unlike my shed. I’ll figure it out. In fact, now that I’m friends with it I’m going to have that opening I wanted and invite everyone around to visit! It’s very special and lovely. I’ll share the details as soon as I’ve set a date. And for now, sleep.

Oil Paint Nymph

Last night I had a meltdown and sobbed myself to sleep in the grip of terrible self loathing and failure. Today I felt fragile and raw but there was a breath of space between me and the pain. I read, reflected, and wrote and found a little peace. I am finally recognising that a deep attachment wound cannot be healed through work or any sort of career success. More than that, it makes those things much more difficult to engage at all. It feels like deep failure about my work life, but the pain has been mislabeled. There is no work that could ease it. It is not through work that I will find a sense of belonging, value, or my place in the world. This is a strangely liberating realisation.

Then I did admin, reorganised the study, and worked on tax. Afterwards I gave myself the afternoon off and went to the studio.

It was beautiful, the sun was bright but the breeze was cool. I set up a 5 colour limited palette and a photocopy of this lovely Waterhouse painting and created this simple study in a couple of hours. I’m gaining more confidence in colour mixing. Then I wrapped myself up in a blanket and sat in the sun on the balcony, writing in my journal and feeling the wind on my face.

I came home to a webinar on supporting patients with somatic disorders, which felt to me like a well rounded day. Curiously the reflecting I’m doing about attachment pain is making the studio a more pleasant place to inhabit and easier to get to. Less blocks and baricades and frozen hysteria. I can see and somewhat predict the traps and monsters of exile and loneliness. I’m happy to have spent time there today and made something beautiful, pushed to develop my skills further. Oil paint is a delightful medium to work in, I look forward to mastering it more.

Passion and Balance

One day each week, Poppy and I have an adventure. Last week we went to the museum and looked at dinosaurs and opals. I thought I might be mildly hallucinating at one point but it turns out one of the taxidermy animals is animatronic and occasionally flicks it’s tail. A little sign about that would be nice!

Then one of us chased pigeons, played in a very small but nonetheless very wet mud puddle, and fell asleep. The other one of us packed up lunch and went to look at all the interesting things in the art gallery in relative peace.

It’s been a very recent development that I enjoy the art gallery. I’m absolutely wild about artists studios but have often found gallery spaces alienating. It’s been weird and a little embarrassing. It’s assumed they are my home territory when actually I used to have a lot of meltdowns after visiting galleries and didn’t usually go there if I had the choice.

But I’ve been doing lots of work unpicking mental blocks and old injuries, and Rose has taken me to some exhibitions where I’ve felt less overwhelmed by my stuff and more about to enjoy them at times. They are not home territory by any stretch (even my own studio isn’t that yet) but they are also no longer hostile territory. I wish sometimes it was a bit easier to be me.

Nonetheless, adventure time each week with Poppy is an absolute joy and doing us both a world of good.

This is one of the last little things I made in my flame work glass workshop, a tiny bee. Unfortunately because he wasn’t annealed in a kiln, his little wings broke as he cooled down. I’m currently immersed in research about kilns and torch types and where to buy oxygen tanks from. I postponed a planned exhibition of small sculptures when Rose became really sick, but I’d love to be able to put it together for next year.

This bead worked perfectly: I was practicing a technique that traps air bubbles under the glass. My teacher said I was the most gifted student with glass she’d had in 20 years of workshops. It just clicked. I adored it and I’m so keen to set up a flame work space in my studio.

I’m also hugely enjoying my studies. Epidemiology suits me and I’m loving falling down rabbit holes of information and getting a handle on the big topics. Today I was digging into health prevention, surveillance, and theories of health promotion. It’s fascinating to see how frameworks that fit one scenario so well (such as smallpox) have been such unwieldy tools in other contexts (such as diabetes), and how poor evaluation can make health promotion interventions look successful (eg education leading to increased health literacy) when they actually backfire and fail on the important scales (eg increased stigma, greater reluctance to engage in prevention or treatment). I’m just enjoying it so much.

My other project at the moment is a couple of talks interstate. I’ll be traveling to Sydney and Melbourne next month to give presentations at big events. This always involves a fair bit of preparation, both for the talk, planning the event with the folks coordinating it, and planning the trip. I’ll be doing a road trip and bringing the family with me to Melbourne, which is very exciting. I’m really looking forward to meeting the people behind the emails too.

I’m still practicing Kaizen and being mindful of Barbara Sher’s types of scanner, hoping that I’ll learn what schedule suits me best and how to set up my projects so they and I both thrive. I’ve several more wonderful projects waiting impatiently in the wings, but right now I’m finding downtime is important and immersion time helps, trying to change hats all day long is exhausting. Hopefully in time I’ll learn more how to balance everything I love so much.

It was a wonderful week and I’m excited about the week ahead too. We continue to muddle through; work, study, friends, home, family. Learning, helping, creating. Good things are emerging. ❤️

My torchworked glass

I’ve spent a fantastic couple of days learning how to make torchworked glass beads with Karen, who owns Adelaide Beads. I have been waiting for so many years to learn hot glass techniques and I booked this class months ago. It was glorious! I adored it and I took to it so fast. Apparently I impressed as a natural. This was the very clever set up Karen used:

And these are some of my first ever beads. I learned so much and I am so excited to set up my own studio space and explore more. My passion is more sculpture than beads (although beads are perfect for building some of the skills needed) and I am keen to try larger creations. The cost of a glass kiln is prohibitive, however!

It was intense and tremendous fun, requiring focus and a steady hand. At one point today I accidentally failed to warm a piece of glass correctly and it shattered, flicking a tiny bit of melted glass into my shoe, where it burned a hole through my sock. Oops.

Molten glass is magic. Making the mixed colour beads or dragging a tool through layers of colour to make a marbled effect was so beautiful. The calm state of focused effort is such a balm to my busy mind. I can see the little sculptures I want to make, clearly in my mind’s eye and I’m itching to learn more. There’s not a lot available locally by way of teaching for what I want to know, so I’m back to trawling YouTube and forums on glasswork. But this was the most amazing start, and I’m on my way now. I’m hoping to create more tiny dioramas and scenes like my Broken City sculpture. Watch this space. 🙂

Ink Painting: We fall into the stars

A3 size. Ink on Arches paper.

A little while ago, Rose took Poppy and I camping, back to Rapid Bay. The place we used to go when dating. The place I went alone to mourn Tamlorn the Mother’s Day after the miscarriage. The place I fell off the planet into the void when running from the ‘real world’, but sent alone under the stars, in exile.

Together we watched the stars, a million million of them, brighter than I’ve ever seen. Satellite and stars falling and the milky way a mist across the sky. In the bay, dolphins swam with their young. Poppy asleep on my lap, my eyes wet with tears. I didn’t know if there would more nights like this for us. Somehow here we are, holding hands under the stars.

It is the work of our lives to find some way to stay alive, to still feel alive.

In Rose’s arms there, I felt so alive, it was like breathing stars that fluttered in my chest. We sat up in chairs opposite each other, held hands and looked up. It felt like the world tilted and we were looking down, into an ocean of lights. We held onto our chairs and each other and kept looking, hearts cracked open in wonder. All that starlight poured in. Love grows stronger under moonlight, feeds on poems.

We sit at the edge of the world and hold hands. Our child sleeps. The wind is warm and soft. We look up. We fall into stars. Love binds us to the world and each other. We do not fall.