Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Tao of Carole Bann

It’s hot. The rain has dissipated for the moment and left behind the stifling humidity, heat and a swarm of mosquitoes that is all part of The Build-Up we almost didn’t get. I’m blaming it on Global Warming only because it seems topical. I’m also lost. I should not rely on old maps. This road didn’t exist last week. Whoops! There it is. Number 98. ‘BANN’, the sign says. How did I miss that? I can’t see the trees for the forest. The gate is open. No dogs? All is quiet and seemingly deserted. And new. I step from the car and wait. Still nothing. Should I call? I don’t want to disturb the …….


Carole’s voice surprises me. Firstly, it’s distinctly Midlands; Leicester to be precise. And after more than 30 years in Australia her inflection is still pronounced; as true as a builder’s plumb line, somewhere between Brummie and a BMW owner from Audley Edge. I could well be listening to an episode of The Bill. In addition to the brogue, her greeting rings like a bell bird in the bush or a single drop of rain falling onto a tin roof. I am immediately at ease. The heat has gone. The mozzies have taken refuge in the forest. The humidity has dropped. I search for inner angst and it’s vanished. How did she do that?

She reminds me of someone but I’m not sure who. She has the presence of possibly reminding everyone she meets of someone’s sister. I’d like to guess at Carole’s age but I won’t. Not only would it be indiscrete but downright impossible. I have a feeling that sometime during the afternoon I will calculate it from the chronology she reveals and I will be surprised, in much the same way one would be surprised at the age of a Wollemi Pine after counting the growth rings.

We sit under the pergola and chat. We leave the art alone and cover exploits not conceived, children, childhood, houses and family. The two Russells (husband and dog) have disappeared into the shed. There is an attitude perceived during this conversation that reveals an almost complacent approach to life and Carole’s journey through it. It is as though life just ‘is’ and Carole is simply part of it, moving along with it like a stick in a stream. There is a timeless approach to events. ‘When’ seems almost irrelevant. The fact that it ‘is’ seems enough. During our conversation she, not once, mentioned what might happen. As Pooh Bear would suggest, the most exciting thing that will happen all day is happening right now.

It’s time to discuss art. Carole doesn’t recall a time when she couldn’t draw or didn’t draw. She does admit there was a time when she believed everyone did what she did and was surprised to find that wasn’t the case. She is self-taught but it is more (or less) than that. Her development has been at her own discretion, discovery and determination, barely influenced by the actions and ideas of others. Some things work; others don’t. Carole admits to some improvement along the way but is not sure how it comes about. It is as though I have just asked a fish how it learnt to swim.

‘I went to Jasmine’s class once. I sat in the corner and sketched. She liked my work. We chatted.’ I can only wonder where that conversation might have led. What does an orchid say to a rose? ‘Like your work.’

‘I just know where the lines go’ she discloses, as if I can comprehend that. I can grasp the concept of breathing and even walking but a pencil and I have an understanding that doesn’t include the sort of acumen shown in Carole’s illustrations.
She opens a sketch book at a kookaburra that almost leaps from the page. I move closer, and with each millimetre, become aware that these minute lines, the shading, the shape and texture created by her hand, every mark has purpose and place. I recall seeing da Vinci’s sketches in the Queen’s Gallery many years ago and thinking the same thing. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not comparing Leonardo’s drawings with Carole’s. I wouldn’t dare. It’s the process that demonstrates a parallel. The pencil and the paper are there and it is Carole’s task to ‘be’ Carole: guide the graphite in its journey. As Pooh also says: ‘I eat honey because that’s what it is for’. Michelangelo was reputed to have suggested that his task was to find the figure that already exists in the marble. Maybe that is what Carole does. Why can’t we all see the kookaburra in the sketch pad?

Carole has an observant eye for detail (apparently to the chagrin of her husband, Russell).

‘I like drawing and painting trees. They are all different.’ She reflects. There is evidence of her observational prowess scattered throughout her studio. But the detail is not something you or I would notice. If I were to see naked women in a tree trunk or only 3 emu’s in a painting clearly marked ‘5 Emus’, others might deem me a little strange and possibly dangerous. For Carole, it all seems quite fitting.

‘Not everyone notices,’ I add, enjoying the image of a rather appealing and well endowed gum tree.

‘I don’t hear accents and I frighten the children when I sing,’ Carole admits, as if to diminish the skills she has. And once again I hear Pooh Bear admitting he can only be what he is. For any of us, that should be enough.

I’m curious to know if Carole experiences the inner space other artists talk about; that personal cosmos when the art is the thing and nothing else matters. She does, but seemingly for different reasons. Hers may well be a remnant of an escape mechanism learnt early in her life, as we do when, as a child, we hide under the blankets late at night and engross ourselves in a good book to shield us from the Boogie Man. We all have our own ‘Boogie Men’ and sometimes they can seem ever so distant yet none-the-less eminent in their influence. As with other artists, the idea of complete control in the process of art, as sub-conscious as it is, can keep us in the present, far out of harm’s way and hidden from view by the ‘blanket’ with which we cover our world. As a psychologist once said to me: ‘No harm in that’.

But none of this is really that important to Carole.

‘I don’t ask myself questions like that because I don’t have any answers.’ And it may well be that the answers are irrelevant or unnecessary. Honey tastes good even when you don’t know where it comes from.

Carole admits also that her business side is lacking somewhat. This may be an artefact of her capacity to stay in the present. We discuss some options for expansion such as a web site or blog but, although she shows interest, there is a distinct impression that drawing and painting is a lot more fun and the ‘other stuff’ is best left to someone else. To paraphrase the story of someone much more profound than I: ‘Russell builds, Tom takes pictures, Carole just is.’

As I leave this peaceful place, I can see the evening storms building in the South, pushing tempered air ahead of the deep bank of cumulo-nimbus. The trees bend against the breeze and a cloud of dust lifts from the verge outside Number 98. I hesitate for a moment to observe. All seems a little clearer. There are textures I haven’t notices before. Colours seem available with a little more clarity. Shapes fit with silhouettes. I feel like I need to draw….. something.

‘Anyone can draw,’ I hear Carole say. ‘I can teach you’.

Maybe one day, I suppose. Just at the moment I’m happy being ……

Thanks Carole.

David Silva

At last. Someone I can understand. Besides being a bloke, which does help somewhat in our empathy for what we are, David is a photographer. I must admit there is some nervousness and apprehension in my steps as I head towards his gallery in the old Chinatown building in Cavanagh Street. If I were honest with myself I would freely state that my uneasiness is all to do with being a bloke, a troublesome task at the best of times. Our instinct is to see all other blokes as potential threats to our ego, which, if measured in degree, would be only marginally smaller than the volume of the known universe. Burdened with this incredible handicap and about to meet someone who has the potential to know more than I do, is it any wonder I’m feeling the heat. Or maybe it’s just the weather. It is October, after all.

It takes a few seconds for my eyes to adjust as I enter the well worn building. Little has changed here since it received a shaking during the war, then a thumping during Cyclone Tracey. A coat of paint doesn’t hide the scars. Determination keeps the bricks together, I’m sure. There is an ancestral sense of the air and light belonging to a forgotten time, when the only protection from the harshness of the tropics was not to mention it in conversation.

As I walk towards the two figures at the far end of the space, I become distinctly aware of the images on the walls around me. There is something vaguely familiar and mysteriously alien about the expansive, panoramic images. I have the nebulous sensation that I should be walking through them to get a better view.

I stop before a broad seascape. I can’t quite work out what it is I’m seeing. It’s as though the world has been run over by a large truck and I’m looking at the road-kill spread across the wall; everything is in the right place but it shouldn’t be this flat. I allow my visual cortex time to adjust. It’s not often one can witness the field of view turned inside out.

David and his wife, Sue, greet me warmly. They have set up ‘office’ at the far end of the gallery. These days a photographer’s space fits more or less into a suitcase. I feel a loss with that but one must move with the times. The contrast between the old and the new has not escaped me and I wonder if David’s choice of venue for such high tech art is not as a consequence of lessons learnt in photographic composition.

David’s background as a photographer goes back a long way. He reminisces fondly on his father’s abilities as a keen and competent amateur photographer whose images he still treasures. There are many accurate recollections of learning the processes as a teenager, sweating away over the laundry sink or converted closet. David hands me a camera, a Kodak Brownie Starlight, the first he could call his own, and still in working order, I might add. We share some common ground here and David produces a string of old cameras, all in perfect condition, that bring the hairs on my arms to attention. These are items he obviously treasures but for what reason I am unsure. Sentiment, I assume. Sue, his wife, reveals later, that David doesn’t dispose of much. Maybe these relics are his snapshots of the past just like the images from his father’s well preserved negatives.

There is a sense, in listening to David talk of his career in photography that the camera and the image are of less importance than the need to earn a living. As a young man, trained as a teacher, and finding himself in the far reaches of the Top End, the option for earning a living in a career of choice that tasted worse than it looked, needed to be addressed. Using his already established skills as a processor and printer of photographs, he slowly transformed his passtime into something that has done him well for the past twenty five years.

He admits that, in the early days he was more of a processor and printer than a taker of pictures. Opportunity and timing allowed him the grace to move with the times as technology steamrolled its way into the twenty-first century. A good business gene, of dubious origin, has been dominant in many of the decisions he has made. As David talks of many of his ventures into the commerce of photography, I have a sense of a man willing to learn. This accessing of knowledge is as much of an acceptance of a challenge as it might be of necessity. And once acquired, this newfound expertise will be neatly filed away until the time for its recall will present itself. He talks of his experiences as a labourer on the building site of the old Beauforte Hotel in the ‘80s where every day was a learning experience and he was the eager student sponging up the skills and knowledge that he knew innately would ‘come in handy’ somewhere down the track. Maybe that trait is also revealed in his inability to dispose of an old camera. I wonder if he is tempted to take photographs with them. I certainly am.

But all this has been business. David enjoys his work, but it is work, after all. A client gives him a brief, he determines how the brief will be fulfilled, he carries out the shoot, then ends the process with the images and the invoice. Even in his description of the work flow he refers to the photographs as the ‘CD with the files’, hardly the sign of a person who has an attachment to the finished product. David enjoys his work and the challenge it brings, but it is work, and over the last 25 years he admits there has been little or no time to do otherwise.

So where is the ‘art’ I am looking for? David could be the plumber who has just fixed my leaking sink or the painter who has just given my living room two coats of Dulux Wash and Wear in Polar White. There are no signs of ‘the other place’ artists talk of, or the need for expression, or seeking answers to the unresolved, or even to find a better life or any life or the meaning of life. We even joke momentarily of his propensity to hang onto both his ears.

As in all of us, it seems, and David no less, there is the germ that lurks; the beginnings of the creative process that, I am beginning to realize, is waiting patiently for the nutrients that will enable it to multiply and take on a life of its own. Somewhere, that bug lay sulking beneath a pool of human endeavor that can devour us if we allow it: enterprise, commerce, business and a mortgage, raise the kids and invest for the future; the need to succeed in a world that allows us to meet and greet then ask the question: ‘and what do you do?’, then measuring the answer against the dimensions of accomplishment that we believe are productive and useful – for others.

But what of the need to satisfy ourselves? Is it OK to do something that feels good and makes others feel good just by the mere existence of a creative process? David has tested that. He had an idea. Initially it may have had a business aspect to it but that was not clear. As the process unfolded it provided food for the creative bug to grow. The embryo is nourished and the concepts develop. At the end is what I see before me: images of Darwin that I can only suggest you view for yourself. I’m scrambling through the Thesaurus to find appropriate adjectives. ‘Wow’ isn’t listed but it will do for the time being.

David describes, briefly and loosely, the scenario from scene to canvas and beyond. Every step is, to a lay person, a technical nightmare; sophisticated cameras and equipment, complex software, hours of manipulation of often hundreds of images to achieve his vision. I pretend to understand it all with a less than confident nod of the head. An analogy comes to mind: I drive my Corolla with confidence; David drives F1’s for McLaren.

Some might consider that all this technology detracts from the art. I think not. David has significant technical expertise and some impressive hardware at his disposal; that is unmistakable. But as I watch David move from image to image while talking to a prospective buyer I see the sparkle in his eye that I have seen before. This is not ‘work’. There is no ‘contract’ involved apart from the one David has with himself. There is a relationship quite unique that exists between David and these images. It’s about achievement, satisfaction in a task completed, praise from others, the development of an idea into something physical.

Then there is the other thing: the indescribable entity that brings us to do this intangible concept in a tangible way. It’s the soft grey line that blurs the reality of ‘this is mine’ and ‘this is me’. As a result of this body of work I am persuaded to believe David thinks differently of himself. It is yet another aspect of the ‘art of art’ that can go unnoticed by the viewer. Who of you would know what went before as you view these spectacular landscapes? Who of you would lay claim to knowing David from his images?

Then again, it may not be necessary. David’s images give immense pleasure to those who view them. There may even be an added bonus for those who purchase a canvas and hang it in their own space. I have had the additional pleasure of watching and listening to David talk about his work. There is a sense of pride and achievement that can only be understood when you see the glint in the photographer’s eye.

I hope David doesn’t take so long for his next artistic venture. I want to be around to enjoy it.

Thanks David