Today, I am happy, because I feel I am finally beginning to make friends with my new studio.
I have a new studio, in Port Adelaide. She is pretty, and old, and grand, with wonderful light.
I did not want to leave my old studio. He was grungy, forgiving, underground. I felt safe there, outside the ‘real world’. I didn’t have to measure up or earn my place. It was sitting by the campfire on the outskirts of town, running from Bradbury’s war. Simply turning up was enough. I adored the art on the walls and the holes in the floor and the green things growing in the light sink. It was full of romance. My favourite place became the communal art table, close to my spot. If I was lonely or stuck, I could sidle over to it in a pretend nonchalant way and test to see if the other artists seemed welcoming. They always were. Then I could sit and chat and let my mind forget what my hands were doing and stop getting in the way and somehow stumble into the art that was trying to come but all blocked and tangled. I hardly knew most of their names, no one came to my opening, but it was a start of community, belonging, acceptance, home.
I lost that, unexpectedly, at this start of this year with an email explaining the artist’s collective was closing. A storm drenched me inside, and I tumbled end over end in panic, feeling homeless, disembodied, hysterical. I reopened every option and explored them – shed in my backyard, move house and claim a spare room, converted cubby house, caravan, shipping container, mini van, room at a friend’s, back to back residencies, give up on art, shrink to a travel kit and storage facility… Trying to find somewhere else that felt like home, somewhere else my heart would open and let out art and nothing fit.
Even among the artists, I am odd, emotional, strange. The few I spoke to looked at me with kind bewilderment, trying to understand but not understanding while I hunched over too much embarrassing feeling, tears betraying my unwanted vulnerability. The other artists were disrupted, they made arrangements. No one threw themselves from rooftops or into the sea. I flew about the place at midnight like an angry ghost, stung with rejection and gathering my things.
I chose the space in Pt Adelaide, near the water and far from the city. It is full of beautiful studios but few artists present, and no shared table. I am on the second floor, up sweeping staircases and facing a wall of western windows and a balcony that houses my old comfy thinking chair. It is without a doubt beautiful. There is no art scrawled on the walls or graffiti to read in the toilets. It feels like work and real world in a way that terrifies me. It feels like the office of a Professional, perhaps an illustrator, pursuing their craft, one who arrives on time and leaves on time and never paints naked or gripped by psychosis. Wildness and madness retreat further to the edges and dim memories of my life. My heart beats in fear.
The first day after moving I try to come here and I find myself busy with sudden errands and needs for coffee down the street and realise after several hours I’m afraid.
I persist, each week, even if only for an hour, trying to draw the memory of the artists confusion at my distress out of my mind where it is slowly poisoning me, trickling under my thoughts and turning into sticky self loathing. So what if I am overly emotional, intense, strange, freakish? So what if I am the only one who feels this way, reacts like this, needs what I need? I am still okay.
I come to the studio and fuss over arranging things better and feel a little anguish lift.
I come another day and work on artworks I’d already started and some of the block eases.
I come at night and paint alone in the dark and feel a little magic stir and a little rage wash out. I see myself in the black window glass and I think of the terror of homelessness and the strange loneliness that has been gripping me at nights where I find myself scrolling endlessly through Facebook looking for a sense of connection in the crowd, scrolling on without finding it.
I bring extra things with me each time, repair my sewing machine, stash chocolate and sanitary pads in a drawer. Photos of my family, a kettle for tea. Inch by inch it feels more my space. My soul sniffs at the rafters, approves of the empty tower room, the cupboard in the stairs, the cool cellar.
Sometimes I dream of arches of tree branches dripping black fabric for walls and my face paints and music and with the stage set and the props vibrating with otherness, I can feel how I would come here like a supplicant and surrender the outside world. But I am afraid to draw so much attention to myself, to invest so much, to invite inquiry. So the stage stays in my mind and I come here and try to make friends with it, be less intimidated by it, to not need the trappings of poverty to release me from the fear of failing.
Drains used to have a pull on me, any shelter someone homeless might envy would catch my eye and call my name and I would yearn, the way I would yearn for knives, once, or food after a long day. It took years for the yearning to untangle itself in my journals, that I had come to crave a kind of failure that would free me from the possibility of success forever. I felt that at times, living in my caravan. A kind of retirement of hope and pressure. Sometimes I could simply feel alive, and that was sufficient.
I see a psychologist who tells me I’m choosing to be stressed and with practice and the right tools can learn to be calm in any situation. I can’t find the right words to tell her how heartsick that makes me feel, that calm and unmoved by the world are not why I have come to see her. I don’t return.
It’s taken me a long time to tell this story. I was not willing to be public during – I who was public during miscarriage. I’m still smarting with the sting of it, after so many years at art college and not finding my home, my people, a sense of safety or belonging except those rare mornings allowed down in the sculpture studio, I thought I was making progress.
It is entirely possible to be an artist with a minimum of self investment, creativity, or risk. It is possible to paint with no more open heart than a plumber choosing where the pipes are to be laid. There’s nothing magic about paint or charcoal that gives life meaning or bestows gifts upon us. It’s in the personal and symbolic that the magic happens. Deep underground in the soul. You can have that and be a plumber, or paint without a touch of it.
I still feel lost. I don’t have a Call drawing me on, a sense of my heart. I don’t want to create for the sake of it, without heart. I’ve been in the daylight too long and forgotten the sound of my wings unfurling. So I’m turning my face to the side, closing one eye, tuning in. Looking for things that make me feel alive, that move me enough to preserve as memories, saved from the wash of the day to day, the grey rain of the mundane world.
Last weekend we had a campfire, drank gin and ate baked bananas with friends. The weekend before we visited galleries and libraries and I didn’t compare my work to theirs and feel bruised. We stood in the feathers at WOMAD together and I thought “we will never see a sight like this again in our lives” and it etched itself in memory, swirling blue and purple like warm snow or tiny flying birds. Rose and I dreamed of our wedding some day, still went on date days, started to really, really look at each other again, touch fingers softly. Poppy’s hair smells of woodsmoke, of fire from the plum tree we cut down the year before she was born. I am asked in a counseling session what I am willing to do for my girls who are struggling, where the boundaries are, how far I will go. In another I am asked what I will do if they die. I turn the questions over and over in my mind like a river stone or a strange fish, and I don’t know exactly except that I’m not willing to die with anyone, to walk into death alongside anyone. I value my life. I value my art, but more than that the thing the art cloaks that can be under paint or under dishes – creativity, imagination, being present, connecting.
I take days off, to smell Poppy’s hair and sweep the floors and study the history of pigments in paint. I come to my studio with plans and drop them all at the door and do something else instead. I sit in it and blog on my phone, listening to the traffic and learning the smell of the building, of the water nearby and the road and the rain in the clouds. I look for friends to visit and finding none free, stand in the garden tearing out weeds as the roses tear my arms and run tiny smears of blood down my skin.
I am alive. I don’t know what’s next, what I need, where I’m going. But I’m here, and my life is beautiful, and I’m drinking it in. I’m reading books and borrowing ideas from other artists, Growing Gills was wonderful, I’ve just started The Artist’s Way and found the descriptions of god as an artist, and art as a spiritual act, move something in me that has been frozen for a long time, hiding deep in my heart while death and loss ravage the world. Tears are a good sign. I find myself longing for a life lived more creatively. Which isn’t just about my studio but my home days, my family, my 3ams too.
The book talks of affirmations, which I loathe, gently enough that I realise the mantra I’ve been repeating that’s made the new learning possible (“I can make it with any career or skill I choose to pursue”) is an affirmation, one that’s been easing my overwhelming fear and inferiority and allowing me to learn quickly and with joy, to follow what delights me without my inner critic setting fires. I think about the book I want to publish and I remember the books my Mother once wanted to publish and I realise that her stillborn children impact me too, her broken dreams are part of my world. There’s still few people who’s opinions I care about more, where my heart is so unguarded and yet our dreams are each so tangled by grief and fear.
I know some things, some small guides. I know I cannot live for anyone else, cannot save them, or recover for them, or make them want to live. I know that the heart of caring for another is keeping one eye fixed on my own soul so it doesn’t starve, that starving carers become the cage of the wounded who are neither free to die, nor to heal and be free themselves. I know that loving hurting people takes sacrifice, but that sacrifice in itself does nothing, and sacrificing the wrong things simply kills the children, salts the earth. That remaining alive yourself is the gift you grant those who love you, refusing to grant them or the things eating them the power to destroy you, and yourself walking the hard road of life you are wishing for them. If we suffer endlessly for each other, we force hedonism on those who would find hope, or equal bondage and despair to all. Only in being alive can we inspire life.
I have lost my way, but I have hope. I have been lost many times before. I will make new homes, I will listen and learn and something will emerge. I will feed my soul.