Before the Camera.
They have said it before while looking through the lens; Avedon and Karsch.
It’s in the light, to capture the heart of the subject.
Know the person and the truth. Reflect opinion, frame the soul.
Let the photograph speak both ways: for the subject and his artist.
‘I’m Ken. Come in.’ Unpretentious appearance, bare feet, shirtless, baggy shorts,
Aging, drawing deeply on a cigarette.
Surrounded by the past with artefacts arranged like a young man’s hair.
Telling Ken’s story. Cues and clues to landscapes eroded by time.
Wearing it all like well worn slippers.
What can I gather through this window? Let the light reveal
The tangerine and magenta glow of pre-dawn flows close behind.
Revealing detail in the deep blue shadow of the evening.
A God of some sort uncovered. Religion deeply imbedded with family and culture
Then ravaged by pompous bigotry. Spoilt like milk in the Sun.
His language says it all. Cursing the cursed. Scowling at the Bishops and Popes
Hypocrites, one and all. Less said; more meant.
‘I’m Gay, you know. It’s in my work’
As if preparing me for something or testing me.
The path for lack of deference clearly marked.
Can I see that far? Or want to? My camera is insensitive to that.
No setting for gender preference. Just ISO and white balance.
But his art isn’t! I’m yet to see.
Now I see. A gentle approach with affection I cannot understand but can perceive.
It’s in the subjects and the diligence of care for their humanness.
Remnants of the Old World. Youthful figures doing their dues
While the artist watches and places the lines where he cares.
Strength in single colour, black line, defined by the space they fill.
Understanding what the artist wants me to see. Then seeing more of him.
We move through distance and occasion
When teaching was the thing that guided and gilded.
‘A good life’ he shares, with some excess in waste and want.
Now gentler with his approach, watched by cancer’s gaze
Sharing between a lover’s heart and the practitioner’s part.
Gaining strength from friends who know and understand.
Procrastinate on superficial insight.
Leave behind the dimensions created from the assembly of thought and action.
The sculptures eye has more than one dimension.
He knows what stands behind the brilliance of the Moon.
Drawing heavily once more on another cigarette.
One photograph complete which tells the story
Of a moment that took a lifetime to prepare.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
If Jasmine Jan could sing (and there is no indication that she can’t) she would be a rising rock star. She has all the attributes that are required to aspire to such heights. She is young (ish), energetic, and enthusiastic about her craft. Her oriental ancestry adds to the mystery and exotic nature of her persona. She lives in a castle (some poetic licence taken here) surrounded (almost) by a moat in tropical Paradise among the flora and fauna of the NT. Even her name has the three syllabic rhyme and rhythm of a teenage chant that could well be heard chorused at Woodstock or Wembley Stadium.
We can be eternally grateful that Jasmine doesn’t sing for her supper. She paints and draws instead. But she does this with the finesse, deftness and dexterity of an Eric Clapton or Biance. And her work has the same public appeal as a Michael Buble ballad. Darwin’s music world may have its Jessica but the art world has its Jasmine.
I’ve packed my lunch and set the GPS for the drive to Jasmine’s sub-continent somewhere on the outskirts of Darwin. I know Jasmine’s work. Who doesn’t? If this is the first time you have heard of Jasmine Jan, I understand. You have probably been held captive in a prison in Iran for the past ten years. Welcome home.
I should state quite clearly at this point that I like Jasmine’s paintings. Unlike other artists I have visited over the past months, I don’t have to pre-empt my partiality to the artists work. I’m already committed. In some ways I am at an advantage because I can concentrate more on the artist although I’m still looking forward to the visual pleasure her work provides.
The GPS is indicating proximity to my destination, although I am discovering that highly sophisticated electronic devices are being surpassed by something a little more whimsical: a Wallaby greets me with a polite salute as I approach the driveway, a Frilled Neck Lizard directs me down the appropriate track, two horses are strategically placed to add artistic interest to the enveloping forest and the road ends abruptly at the edge of a billabong on which Egrets and Ibis poise for a photo opportunity. If I didn’t know better, I could suggest this was a set-up. Knowing Jasmine, I believe this just ‘happens’.
Jasmine and the dog greet me. The dog barks and I pat it hesitantly. I’m not yet convinced dogs have the intellect to know me as the friendly and harmless person I am. Jasmine and I manoeuvre through the cordialities required for the interview to begin. I have a list of questions I want to ask and I dig deep into my pockets in search of the scrap of paper on which they are written. But Jasmine has started talking already. Her garrulous and articulate nature resolves all issues around extracting information from what I have been led to believe is a shy and reserved person. I’m not convinced and Jasmine volunteers the information freely. I look for a pause to direct the conversation but decide to allow her a free reign. I’m sure we will get to cover everything before the morning is out. Any sign of reservedness is veiled with an apparent gregarious nature as she talks freely about her work and her background.
A mixture of science, drawing, the love of birds and conservation mingle with her expressions of art. As a scientific illustrator and zookeeper, Jasmine finds art a way of expressing her feelings for the wildlife she cares for and loves so much. There is accuracy and beauty in her work that is apparent but there is a strong motivation to ensure that correctness and composition blend aesthetically. She emphasises that her animals must reflect their very essence but still look good. The backdrop to her wildlife is equally truthful, if not in detail, certainly in colour.
I see Jasmine as a ‘commercial’ artist in the sense she produces a very likable product that has broad appeal. She agrees. She considers that facet of her work fortunate but not purposeful. Jasmine relates a story that confirmed with her, some time back, that her artistic integrity is firmly intact and cannot be jeopardised. In discussing the possibilities for a commission with a client, she was taken down a path that went against the grain just a bit. Content, colour and composition didn’t meet Jasmine’s criteria but for the sake of a sale, she agreed, until dragon flies where mentioned, at which point, the line in the sand was drawn. Jasmine completed the painting (without dragon flies) but reflected the anger with herself for having completed it against her own better judgement. She immediately returned home and painted the whole thing again; the way she would want it. Some weeks later the original client saw the second painting and bought it anyway. This is the point at which all artists would give rise to a resounding and supportive: ‘So, there!!’
Our conversation wanders through her history as a painter and illustrator until I ask her why she paints. There is a moment of silence and I lose eye contact for the first time in well over an hour. What I discover in the conversation that followed, is an aspect of Jasmine’s art that is far more than a superficial expression or even a deeper manifestation of her feeling for the organisms she paints. This is as much a part of her as her right arm. There is no separating Jasmine from what she does. She cannot comprehend the possibility of not painting. She reveals that painting may be the very reason why she continues to draw breath. I’m not familiar with that level of tenacity and I wonder if there has been a tenancy in the past that has brought Jasmine to this resolve.
Jasmine has ambition. Painting and an involvement in conservation is a significant part of her future. For those ambitions to be fulfilled she needs to ‘sell’ her product and, to a large extent, herself. As I have already indicated, selling herself is less of a task than she might imagine. Selling her work is even less so. Jasmine draws a crowd. Admittedly, it’s the supportive family which leads the pack. She has incredible respect for her followers and suggests that the support provided by her family is largely responsible for her popularity. I think her talent may play a prominent role but I’m also thinking I might hire the family for my next gig.
Jasmine works at her exposure. She admits that about seventy percent of her time is devoted to the commercial aspects of her work. She understands that being a fine artist isn’t necessarily enough. You can’t eat your own paintings. Exhibitions, galleries, publications and postcards are all part of the sell. This is not an ethical question to be responded to. Jasmine knows what she wants and is driven. I listen with intent. I can learn a lot here. We all could.
At the end of the discussion I wonder the ‘palace’, enjoying the paintings on the wall accompanied by a living commentary. I can’t help noticing how appealing the composition of each piece is. It is as though, along with the accuracy of representation, everything seems in the ‘right’ place. There is a dynamic about each image that enables me to linger and enjoy. A fleeting glance doesn’t seem possible. I also notice a sense of well-being coming over me. It’s the same sensation I get when I read a book with a nice ending or have just completed a good meal. No wonder Jasmine’s work has such public appeal. It makes you feel good.
I want to hold onto that feeling for a while. I take a last, long look at the egrets and cockatoos and head back home. The subjects for Jasmine’s palette watch me from the paperbarks lining the billabong at the edge of the forest. There’s enough inspiration to keep Jasmine busy for some time. Foundations for a gallery are in progress, inspired by the view and a competitive streak. There are many reasons for me to return. And I still have my list. The Wallaby sees me through the forest and I give a nod to the Frilled Neck to close the gate behind me. The GPS screams into action and I’m on my way, wondering if a shower of tourists will disturb the tranquillity too much.
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
As I head towards my next destination and continuing interviews with Lyn Temby I am reminded of the changes we experience in our lives and the effect those changes have on who we are,what we do, our self-perception and how others perceive us. I often wonder if I could identify a point in time and an event that led me to the place I am right now, feeling pretty damn good about life in general and heading for an exhibition of Lyn’s work in the Supreme Court Foyer in Darwin. Can I identify a single decision that took me on a collision course with destiny, as it were? Is life that structured? Do we have ‘9/11’ events in our lives that alters the very essence of who we are and what we do? Up to now I thought not. It’s not that simple. Like grass growing, life is subtle. It moves upon us and with us as slowly as the warming of a winter’s day. We change with the coming and going of the day like the sand beneath a shifting tide. We expect it but we don’t heed to it. We open one door and step through, knowing that what waits for us on the other side is as we expect. And if it’s not, we move on, knowing the next door will take us to where we are heading; wherever that is.
But, what if, one day you opened the door and there was nothing there. What if the world as you knew it or wanted it to be, was gone. What if the event you have just experienced created so much change that what followed was totally unrecognisable, not only in the physical sense but in the understanding and belief of your own self. The very essence of what you are has dissipated into the wind like smoke from a campfire. Before you lies something that is totally unrecognisable, beyond your control and your life as you want it to be is no longer within your grasp.
For most of us, such a change might seem unlikely. We are believers in our own invulnerability. We deem that we are in control and such an event is beyond us. That’s something that happens to someone else; front line news, script material for a drama, a plot for a novel, a story one might tell about some else.
Occasionally there are big events that shake us to the very core. For a moment we get lost in our way through life. You lose your job or someone in the family dies. Life changing? Most of us would say yes. Yet these things happen to people and they still have a ‘life’ after wards. Maybe the life is not quite what you expected but most of us would, standing on the outside, recognise it as such, none-the-less.
Is that new life different to what it might have been? Only if we knew what the ‘old’ life was going to be like. And we don’t. It’s only what we want it to have been. We want to stay in the job we like. We want to continue living with our loved ones. We want continued good health. We certainly don’t want some yobbo running up our rear end at speed and shaking our brain to bits. We take faith in believing that nothing will change; the Sun will rise tomorrow, I will be the same person I was yesterday and so will you. Our circumstances may alter but we are still the same person. Everything changes but nothing changes.
But, as they say, shit happens. As a result of Lyn’s ‘shit’ happening, her life changed considerably and along with that, so did she. Then we might say: ‘What now?’
Some of us might question our own input into such events. Blame and guilt seem to come hand in hand with catastrophic events. Peculiarly, if the event is beneficial, or seen in a favourable light, we often take credit for it or bless the Gods for its arrival. A small win on the horses is always seen as a good thing although it is arguably life changing. Re-uniting with a long lost sister, in my case, was certainly an event I cherish. I’m still waiting for the Lotto win. But just as I would need to buy a ticket before that can happen, events in our lives do require some input from each of us. My sister found my phone number on a web site but it was my actions (unintentional to that outcome) of putting my phone number there which enabled the event to occur. And it was my actions that created the web site in the first place.
On the other hand, if the event produces unpleasant results, we seek to find a perpetrator ouside our own persona in the hope we can place blame. Even in the simplest of actions we can hear someone say: ’I bought the winning ticket’ but ‘they sold me a dud ticket’. How peculiar is that?
So, how far back do we go before we identify the ‘beginning’; the first action that brings us to this point? And is there any value in doing that?
When Lyn talks of her accident, she often refers to her action of deciding to stop as the light turned amber. If the light had been green, would her life be different now, and how different? And what other actions preceded this point in time that might have changed things – or prevented the change that was about to occur. Or was that out of her control? And above all, what would Lyn’s life be like if she had decided to keep moving back then on the 19th of December 2000?
As I get closer to my destination, a voice on the radio comes to my consciousness. There is a strong Scottish accent telling me about some new ideas in Brain Theory; appropriate under the circumstances. There is evidence, he says, that the reason we have a brain in the first place is to enable us to move. How ironic, I think. It might seem that all our brain functions; thinking, feeling, cognition, is all part of a plan to keep us moving. That movement, or kinethetics, is the reason why we are and why we do what we do.
Now, I don’t know if this is the case but there might well be something in it. Watching Lyn’s development and transformation over the past months and listening to her tell her story many times may well put some credence to the idea that ‘we are because we move’, as the Scotsman says. She has certainly done that. The very idea that her therapy, the movement of mosaic creation, has brought her to this point, may be proof enough for any theory. It's certainly strong anecdotal evidence in my book. It seems that her brain needed a reason for its very existence. Battered and bruised as it was, it had lost its ability to recognise its own purpose for existing. As a result of this oblivion, Lyn fell into deep depression. And when this happens, the body doesn’t want to move. There is little or no motivation to do anything. Often sleep is the solution. The brain turns off and the body accompanies it. Kinethetics comes to a halt.
Lyn often expresses some of those thought that dominated her thinking while she rehabilitated. Getting out of bed had been a struggle. Movement was often clumsy and uncoordinated. She speaks of staring at the labels in the Supermarket as if her brain couldn't quite find a reason to move on. But in the process of her mosaics, came a reason for moving: she found it in cutting and grouting. Now that may seem a bit bizarre for most of us to get our head around. But for Lyn and her brain, there was value in this repetitive, painstaking, ritualistic, almost obsessive action. It was as though Lyn had found a pathway among those damaged neurones and synapses to find a reason to move. With that movement came a new learning. And along with the new learning, came an expression of what her new life could be and would be. She could communicate her very existence through her movement and the results of that movement; her mosaics. In addition to that, there was a reward. People communicated back. She could, once more, share her very existence with the world around her. Before her brain injury, people knew Lyn. She was a normal, predictable, human being. It's what we like in people. After the injury, she became unpredictable; not only for herself but for others. To some extent, Lyn became someone else and the battle between old and new began.
But as the therapy set in and she learnt to deal with new pathways and new skills, a ‘new’ Lyn emerged. Sure, it looks the same and still has some of the old characteristics, but there is some new stuff. People started to notice. They liked what they saw. Lyn started to like what she saw. Her unpredictable life was once again taking on a normalsy that she possessed once before and so much desired again. It’s what we all strive for: love for our self and love from others. There are also times when her brain hasn’t quite figured out the right pathway. She forgets a word or says something that doesn’t quite fit. There might also be moments when she falls back into that darker time when the brain loses its motivation to move her. I haven’t witnessed any of that but she reassures me it’s there. So does Johnno.
And speaking of John, her partner. He fell in love with the new Lyn, not the old one. He’s got a rather interesting package, where fragments of the old Lyn persist and a flood of new Lyn is continuously washing over him. Lucky bugger! He may well be part of the therapy and part of the outcome. Lyn mentions from time to time that her beloved Johnno didn’t know the ‘old’ Lyn. That doesn’t seem to be important to John. He’s OK with the current one.
There is no doubt that Lyn’s life was changed by that moment ten years ago as she watched the lights turn amber and she decided to stop. It was such a simple action; something that we all do every day. But in addition to that, someone else’s decision not to stop resulted in a conflict of actions. In our efforts to prevent such a conflict of actions we take precautions; traffic lights, laws, education, even the odd prayer if you are so inclined. In spite of our attempts to alleviate the foreseeable, such things do happen. We step in puddles, forget our wallet, miss the bus, get sick, lose our jobs, relatives and friends, get old and die. Just as one breathe follows another, we are not always ‘in control’ and if believe we are, the outcome isn’t always the one we desire or expect.
Stepping into Lyn’s limelight is easy. There is a soft glow that follows her. Sometimes it’s the bright incandescence of a TV spotlight, other times it’s the warm hue of the reflections from her mosaics. Tonight its brightened just a bit by some severe bling Lyn has chosen to wear at her exhibition opening. John is looking well scrubbed also. Her work looks different to the cramped spaces it occupied in her own home and the orderliness of the presentation provides a different perspective to the outdoor arrangement held at the recent Open Garden display.
As I watch her move from person to person I wonder who she might have been in the past. She greets old friends and new with her champagne presence and killer smile. Hendo is fully impressed. She reflects in her own work and each reflection is different. Her reflection blends with other reflections. It is as though the story is being completed and the final touches are being put in place.
Maybe the new Lyn is the old Lyn but with a few modifications. The change that has been bought about may not have been so subtle and it may have been a tough one (it hurt all the way, Lyn says) but maybe this was always going to be. If life’s prescription was already written for Lyn and she knew what the future would bring, she may have been in a hurry to get here. What we see before us and the person I have got to know over the past months is worth knowing. And I think Lyn would agree, right now.
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Alison lives in such a world.
As I approach Number 9, buried deep among the courts and circuits of suburban Rapid Creek, there is evidence of Alison’s art leaking from the opened front gates, which gape in a beckoning way, tempting me to enter. I’m hesitant. There is no sign of life. A cluster of chairs is haphazardly arranged in a loose group to my left as if the party has finished and everyone has departed. Out of the corner of my right eye I catch a glimpse of what appears to be a dog perched atop a table, ready to pounce. Its lifeless eyes follow me towards the house. A shark fin disappears behind a pile of boxes. There is a scratching noise behind me and I turn to see a glass eye from an overhanging crocodile peering down from a resting place. Is it guarding a clutch of eggs, I ask myself? I pass by an easel on my way to a distant light and find myself face to face with a disagreeable camp dog looking forlornly at nothing, as they do.
Art and its flotsam is everywhere. Jars of brushes bristle in the dim light, some overhanging tapestry dangles lifelessly in the stifling heat of the tropical afternoon, strange forms stand in clusters like school children in a playground, images and shapes fill every corner. There is barely space for me to move. I step lightly through a myriad of pathways and reach the stairway leading to the overhead verandah. There is still no sign of human inhabitants. A lizard scurries for safety. I wonder if there is room under the rocky refuge for the both of us in case that dog comes to life. Silence. The hand on my watch has stopped moving, I swear. I wait for the next tick.
‘Hello. You must be Tom’. I bring my composure to something resembling confident.
Alison, at 51 (as she reveals later), carries herself well. Her youthfulness has lingered in her manner and voice; her appearance defies chronological classification. I’d be flattering in my guess at her age. We sit, and quickly launch into some introductory conversation. I am pleasantly surprised at her interest in what I do. There is always comfort in talking about oneself. It’s a subject in which we are all expert. Before I get carried away I remind myself of my reason for being here.
Alison’s London accent adds a touch of allure to the conversation that follows. Her education in science adds another layer. But what intrigues me most is Alison’s milieu. As she discusses her art I am aware that she is searching for objects that can add to her conversation as I might search for words in a thesaurus. She points and prods as a painter might construct a canvas. Her hands caress fragments of her surroundings as if she were searching for shapes that would fit into the mosaic of our discourse. Much of these fragments are from other artists, splinters from someone else’s life. Other pieces are collections waiting for an opportunity to fall into a thought process and become a component of the creative practice. There are completed works as well as works in progress, although I find it hard to tell the difference. It’s not to say they look unfinished; just a possibility that they are able to be added to, as one would add to a diary or a library of interesting books.
Alison describes briefly how she might work: selecting objects at arm’s length to satisfy a concept’s fruition; a piece of string or some driftwood, even some wire or a shopping bag. Alison disposes of nothing and utilizes everything. Every component of her surroundings will have some artistic purpose somewhere in the future, if it hasn’t already. And no medium remains untouched. This is the teacher in her. There is evidence of pottery, glass, mosaic, sculpture, and, of course, painting. Alison chats freely and I listen intently. She has strong views on how art should be perceived and even stronger views on how it should be taught. Discipline is evident in her tuitionary style. Skill is her grounding. Expression is important but boundaries need to be set for that expression to be fulfilled. Proficiency is achievable through persistence. She describes how much she enjoys teaching young children; with their undisciplined style, as long as that mode fits within the parameters she sets. She waves a finger at an imaginary child, but smiles gently to soften her demeanor. Never the less, I pay attention for fear of a reprimand. An image of my grade 3 teacher surfaces. There is no room to argue with a shaking finger.
I start taking some pictures, aware of the time passing. There is a brief silence and she turns away momentarily. I sense some awkwardness but it passes. She reveals that this is not a space she opens to public scrutiny. She is a well known artist but people know her for her paintings. Only close friends are privy to her work place. I am made conscious of how private such a place can be. I have feelings associated with the thought of reading someone’s diary or going through their drawers. My sensitivities need to be in place; not easy for someone who is prone to snooping through people’s lives and splattering them over the internet. I remind myself: this is a privilege that needs to be respected.
Alison has a business side as well. She makes ‘a tidy sum’ on her greeting cards. Her scientific training comes to the fore as she describes the research that went into producing and distributing her range of cards. If you spent a week in Darwin you would be hard pressed not to come across her colourful creations on a greeting card rack somewhere along the tourist trail. I am also informed that each and every one of us will buy at least three cards a year, not all from Alison, although there is a strong move tochange that. Apparently someone else is buying my share. Besides, I only have two friends. One of them lives with me and the other might misconstrue my intentions if I sent him a card. Never-the-less, Alison is ensuring that I buy hers if I ever change my mind. And that won’t be my loss.
There is more conversation around the teaching and she shows me the ‘tool kit’ for her next workshop. I am reminded of my thought as I drove here. This is a world of art. Nothing escapes the creative process. In this seemingly haphazard array of boxes and bindings, there is art waiting to happen. There are many projects ‘on the go’ and the material of Alison’s world appears to creep from its temporary resting place to its rightful position in among the textile that makes up her life, guided by her gentle hand, careful and considered eye and inspired by her thoughts, feelings and experiences. There is nothing here that indicates a separate world of domesticity or commercialism. This is truly a world of art and it belongs to Alison Dowell.
Thanks Alison for sharing it with me.