Poppy is starting to recover. Rose is out at the markets getting us some fresh food, and Poppy and I are resting in the backyard, hoping the morning sun will do us both good.
I still feel horribly ill but the bleakness of a long night with a sick child is behind me for now and the world looks more cheerful and full of possibilities. The pepper tree is humming with bees, our tiny orchard of potted trees are bedraggled after a week of neglect, but still alive. The kitchen is full of dirty dishes I’m ignoring but the used tissues have all been cleaned away from the floors by the couch and bed. Not all the washing was hung out while wet, but we’ll live. The cats have food, I’ve had a hot drink, and no one has thrown up on me in many hours.
I recently discovered the generous online world of Mark Carder, who is the artist behind Draw Mix Paint and Geneva Fine Art supplies. He uses oil paint in wet on wet technique, and his videos are informative, unpretentious, and very accessible. His restricted palette and colour mixing technique is the least intimidating I’ve seen for starting out with colour theory. It was a lovely escape to occupy my mind.
My other recent discovery, which kept me occupied during hospital last weekend with Poppy, is Udemy. Recommended by someone in an Australian freelance support group I’m very glad to have found, Udemy again has highly accessible information and training as videos, this time for a small price. So I’ve been learning more about InDesign and book layout whiling away the small hours in ER.
It’s something I learned from years being sick. I need to do things that keep my mind busy, keep my hope for a loved project alive. Even if I’m barely learning or retaining things, having this whole different internal life helps me to not panic or despair when my day to day world is miserable. Yesterday Poppy and I even did a bit of watercolour brush lettering practice together during a better moment.
I’m booked for a fun workshop next week, zine making with a queer youth group, so I’ve been gathering my collection of zines and handmade books as inspiration. It’s quite wonderful to see them all together. I finally finished one of my own tiny zines (a zine is a handmade magazine, usually black and white, simply printed or photocopied and sold for a couple of dollars. It’s like a short, punk book, DIY, and anyone can do it) and got it to reproduce and fold correctly. It’s about chronic illness and identity. I’m thinking about taking the components of it and remaking it as a handmade book, similar in feel to Mourning the Unborn. Books are becoming more and more a part of my art world. I find them an interesting intersection of my passions, many art books are stunning in form but lacking in content, while cheap mass produced text based books are often entirely the reverse. Handmade books can be a place of harmony in both.
Currently one of my projects has taken me far more into digital than physical media and my heart is breaking being away from my studio for so long. I’m looking into a laptop and internet connection for my studio, so that at least if I’m stuck looking at a screen all day, I can paint in my break. I made it there for a few hours this week between other work and Poppy being ill and the difference in my mental health is tangible. I painted something horrifically dark and unexpected but that’s what I love about my art, not being in charge of it, letting it say what I need it to.
So I’m learning about colour mixing and scale and so many skills necessary for technical competence in oil painting and at the same time there’s questions in the back of my mind: is this what I want? Is this the skill I most want to develop? Is this what I want my art to look like? Does the process speak to me? Is it meaningful, meditative, or tedious?
Do I want to keep developing digital skills? Does it open doors I care about or take time from things I love?
The same kinds of questions about my work: Is this what I want? How do I make it less stressful? Where is the stress coming from? What do I find easiest? What’s reducing my overwhelm? Where are the opportunities? What skills do I need to be developing? What kind of working life do I want to model for my girls? How do I make that happen?
And in all cases I know there’s something else I want to pursue. Not instead of, but perhaps alongside or beneath these other skills.
Why do I want these other skills? Well, I want to earn money without being in so much pain. I want my girls to grow up thinking of work as something that contributes to their mental health, not tears it apart. And the art skills are partly curiosity and wanting to make something better and partly insecurity and wanting to be accepted. The art world has not been a very kind place for those feelings and I suspect no amount of skill on my part would entirely change that.
We only get so much time on this planet and there’s only so many skills you can chase. What I’m truly interested in isn’t a technique, it’s about where the art comes from. The muse, the altered state, the sublime, the creativity and individuality and unconscious mind and how we engage with it. It’s the ‘brownies’ (think ‘fae’) that narrate the novel the writer scribes. There are many different kinds of skills and the ones I’ve developed are perhaps less obvious in some ways, but still the heart of my work. Creatives range across many scales in how they work – Amanda Palmer’s “blender” of how transformed the output is from its inspiration, works that are carefully planned in every detail and those that are intuitive, art where the key is the final result and art where the process is more important… There’s such a huge range.
My art was changed by a single conversation many years ago. I was in an art program for women who had been homeless, and one of the visiting tutors looked at my little note book of ink paintings. I told her they were nothing special, just ideas and sketches so I could later paint them. She told me they were artworks in themselves and didn’t need to be rendered in paint to make them ‘legitimate’. (What is art? What is real art? How profoundly these questions shape us)
One of my favourite artists is Michael Leunig. He is highly skilled in the art of social and political commentary. He expresses his ideas in writing, poetry, ink drawings, and paint. His primary career (as far as I can tell) has been as a political cartoonist with newspapers. His drawings are deceptively simple and yet capture such vulnerability, absurdity, and brutality. They are highly skilled works in an entirely different way. I adore them.
If I shift my technique more towards realism or some other form, what, if anything, will be lost about the way I work now? How can I tell without trying it?
Into this soup is also the image of Stephen King’s desk; “It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around“. Something in that resonates, that’s hard to put my finger on. Something about authenticity and why we make art.
I paint and write because it helps keep me alive. I stop an artwork when I’ve captured enough of the feeling or thought that I can let it go. I loathe most of my own art at least some of the time. I have a collection of art merely because I’ve honed my skills at sitting with that loathing and not destroying the work. For all the randomness about what gets created, when, and how, it’s highly specific about which needs its meeting any I’m doing it.
One of my art tutors at college loathed the trope of the mad artist. As someone who is mad, multiple, queer, disabled, I’ve loved it. It’s my many coloured cloak, my rainbow cape, my book of a thousand faces, my acceptable disguise. It’s a role I can play and a way of fitting in to the world that excuses me a multitude of vulnerabilities and ideosyncracities. It’s a convenient lie.
There’s also a truth to it, somewhere in the muddy foundations. That my madness, my pain, and my art are bound up together in ways I still don’t really understand. That psychosis speaks with the voice of my soul when I’ve forgotten to listen. That the sublime also houses trembling terror. That the world of the interior, the felt sense, imagination, dreams, are just as real, powerful, binding, giving of health and life and death and darkness as our domestic world, consensus reality. That indeed even that binary is too gauche, that there are many millions of worlds, that we are rarely in consensus about our reality.
I once watched artists at work and saw split lives, split studios, split identities. The artist and teacher. The commercial artist and the tiny sacred flame of the art that really ment something to them. Pro Hart walking along the wall in some long forgotten documentary, painting trees on multiple canvases- three here, then three here, then four on the next one. His gallery in Broken Hill is bustling with art styles and subjects I would never recognise as his, passions I never heard of because all the world wanted was that red dirt and blue sky and the stands of scrub trees.
What do we pay artists for? The original? The image? The idea? How do artists live? Leunig by honing to a fine art his ability to draw something every week without fail that’s topical, pithy, insightful, and evokes emotion. Traditionally cartoonists used cheap materials and didn’t even bother to keep the originals. Now with collectors those works have become more valuable and precious. Pro Hart sold his ‘originals’ (my family owned several at one point, an odd payment for an old debt. We used to get paid in strange things at times, cartoons of eggs, once a whole box of fresh, prime cherries) with minor adjustments on the popular theme. What does original mean when the artist is walking along a row of paintings, adding trees with a dash of the brush?
We each try to find a living in an industry that ignores us living and fetishises us dead. An organisation recently purchased some of my artwork. I worried to a friend that I was an Albatross, brought in when hopes were fading, a long bet, and that while I thought I was doing good I merely killed whatever I touched. (such darkness lurking beneath the veneer of success) She laughed to me that I was instead an asset and frankly worth more to some dead than alive and perhaps should make all my chai lattes myself from now on in case of poisoning. I nearly fell off my chair laughing.
So I make art and sell prints and embellished prints and hide my originals safely away for the day I might have customers who value them. I barely let one work brush against the imagery of another, rarely paint series or sets, and get anxious when people tell me my art evokes someone else’s. My madness around ethics is woven through everything, my prints are an ‘honest’ way of reworking a theme or making an artwork more affordable. I wake up the morning after creation and am as surprised as anyone else to find what’s been left on my canvas. I keep the works like treasured relics, I also hate them and can’t bear to look at many of them much of the time. They are pieces of me, talismans from other worlds, my secret keepers and safe places. Glimpses into my mind. Messages from other selves. Things that keep me alive.
Depressingly Romantic and cleche and fitted neatly to an acceptable story about art that has shielded me but also strangles me and hides the reality of my own work and needs from me.
I make most of my money consulting, or painting children’s faces and arms. Being kind, welcoming their creativity, entering their imagination, exploring the power of masks and costumes. It fits so poorly with people’s ideas and the cultural narratives that I actually keep my face painting entirely separate from all the rest of my work : art, training, writing, and community development. I once tried to combine them and lost 2/3 of my customers over half a year. Even in my recent business development classes I was encouraged to cull the face painting as the redundant work that didn’t fit. We could sell the rest as a kind of package that made sense, but a face painter is not an artist, or at least, certainly not my kind of artist, they are a ‘children’s entertainer’. And those who hire face painters are not comfortable with people who work in mental health, share troubled inner worlds, or make art on dark topics. So I’ve just redone my face paint website to be simpler, more beautiful, answer all the common questions, and link to everything needed. This website is next but with the huge blog, it’s a much bigger task. And separate the two stay. You would think being multiple would make me more comfortable with this, but actually it makes me more uneasy. It’s been the work of my life to bring home keepsakes from other worlds and selves, to keep them safe, collect them, rearrange them, learn to bear to look at them, and try to understand what it all means. Who are we? What is this world?
Art as self reflection, investigation, meaning making, myth making, storytelling, catharsis, therapy, navigation system. Art as the way into other worlds, the way back from them, and the talisman to remind us it really happened. Art as transformation, changing who I am, how I see myself, how I live in this world.
This perhaps, is what’s beneath the myth of the artist as mad genius, troubled soul, person-who-still-feels. The artist as a philosopher who tests their beliefs in their life, and shows us the work in progress, the inner world, the little man behind the curtain. Art as vulnerability and the personal in public, coded and locked and hidden to greater or lesser extents depending on their ability to communicate and ambivalence about being seen. It is confessional poetry, and intimate sharing in blogs, it is painting the woman you love over as over again, it is mutilated self portraits. It is breaking the taboos about what we do not say, do not look at, and do not share. It is driven by altruism, ego, vanity, loneliness, love, pride, despair, hope. It is an investigation of what it is to be human. And to me, it sits perfectly comfortably alongside painting kids.
This is not the only kind of artist, nor is it superior to any other. But if we see types of artists as a range of archetypal roles, falling in and out of cultural favour, this is one. And in the same way, we are all, all of them, in some way; the craftsman, the artisan, the hobbyist, the maker, the storyteller, the witness… Most of us need to create in some way, have an artist of some kind within us. The mad artist, full of passion and prone to self destruction is real, in a way. And what’s interesting is that few of them make it as artists. I’ve met very interesting mad people who make incredibly interesting art, but unless someone validates it as real and keeps originals and opens galleries, few of them will be remembered as artists or known in the art world. Few of my favourite artists were respected or revered at college.
I wonder if we would know of the abuses of war if those artworks were made by someone other than Goya, someone with perhaps less technical skill, no name as an artist? Would we still care about them? All those split lives the artists were living, at least one had to be validated or have income for their artwork to count as real. Goya’s horror of war is validated by his career painting portraits of the rich. He was a real artist. The works we love him for most did not sell or were not publicly shared in his lifetime.
I found a different way to split my own work – I layer it instead. I don’t paint anything for the punters. I don’t have my commercial work and my personal work. I have my personal work, printed, embellished, framed or packaged, and sold to those it speaks to. It passes through my hands many times, physically and digitally, literally processed across half my system before it touches another person. Layers, each protecting the work of the other. The madman who splatters ink at midnight leaves a gift for the artisan who carefully applies gold leaf without a breathe of air to disturb it. Self destructiveness is honed instead into a pattern of embellishment, a willingness to see value even in what we don’t understand. Polished by much handling, what were scrawlings in the backs of journals attain life of a kind, are validated by own treatment of them. (art is whatever someone who calls themselves an artist claims as art)
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the splits. They are the diversification of a healthy small business in a difficult industry. They are a way to bring what your heart needs into the world without starving. They are a way to keep the market that thinks if it pays you, it owns you out of your inner sanctum, your mind, your creating space. We all need a way to not be driven mad by the pressures, to hold onto whatever is authentic and find a market for it. To define for ourselves what means, or original, or art. To get out of our own way without being crushed by the values and expectations of others.
I am growing something. Dreaming a new dream of work, what it looks like, feels like, its role in my life. Naming and untangling from the brutal sense of debt and worthlessness half a lifetime in receipt of welfare has left me with. Where to from here? I’ve spent the week sick, dreaming of my studio, afraid that I’d pushed myself too hard and lost my health, lost my chance at work. Work was a harsh master for many of my ancestors. I want something better for my children. I will dream of something better for us.