Mining a past self

Carpet page

self-reliance noun Reliance on one’s own powers and resources rather than on those of others

Creative blocks have a way of rendering the past worthless, negating every worthy thing I’ve ever done and leaving a dusty vacancy in my mind…there, where my bright ideas and little a-ha! moments used to live and proliferate in joyful, wild fecundity.

I wake up in the morning on my day off; a breeze is blowing, the air is light-flooded and the hours are pillowy as fresh clay, just waiting to be molded in my hands.  I clear some space at the desk, have (almost) all my art materials neatly grouped and within reach, and make a big pot of coffee to sustain me through a whole day of Making & Doing. I set out to make a little something, exercise a bit of creativity; I essay a few tentative marks with one material—no, that’s turned out wrong. I try another—Eek! Then another—Now that looks really crap! What a mess! What the hell is going on?!

I’m confused. Somewhere in my memory bank I seem to recall that I was okay with acrylic paints (Why else would I have 90 tubes of the stuff?) Or colored pencils. Or pen and ink. I was reasonably proficient. They used to respond to my touch. They used to perform tricks at my command. Fun ideas and confident forms used to rise unbidden and splendid, in abundance, under these very fingertips!

Didn’t they? I begin to mistrust my memories. Was I actually ever creative? Did I really make anything worthwhile? Did I really have good ideas of my own, at any time, or have I just imagined them all?

Habagat Garden: title page

Here’s where a ten-year-old Flickr photo account is invaluable.

Don’t go looking to be inspired by Others on the internet. This tactic almost never works when you have a creative block, because the block is caused by a faltering of self-confidence, and seeing the thousands upon thousands of wonderful things that others are making will only make you feel like dog shit. You’ll find yourself believing that it’s all been done before, and better. Worst possible outcome is that you may fall in love with something by someone else so much that you succumb to imitating it. Imitation is an important step in the learning process for artists, but you keep these copies to yourself, as exercises and lessons in technique, palettes, whatever. But you don’t post it on Instagram, hoping to boost your views and harvest a load of praise that was never meant for you, because when people “love” your copy, they are really loving the original artist’s work. Plus there is the strong likelihood that you will be found out, and the public shaming over one little image will damage your integrity so much that following up with 20 genuine works still might not be able to clear the wreckage.

Instead, turn to the one person you can copy, admire, strip-mine, and expand upon without fear of a public shaming or self-loathing: Yourself.

I MISS IT.I was doing precisely this, this morning. Stumped for ideas, paralysed with self-doubt, and feeling as though I had never made a mark or anything good in my life—so alien and disappointing were my attempts at making anything, last week—I browsed through my own Flickr albums of sketchbook pages, visual journals, embroidered work, soft sculptures, clay, hand-bound books, paper art, mail art, paintings, drawings.

Twenty years of photographs…a couple roomfuls of things created, ideas given form, stories documented. Hundreds of thousands of minutes, frozen in time and pinned to a surface or trapped in material.

Peril of The Orient (dimsim)

Just for fun, I’ve embedded half a dozen images, here. I think I will try to do this, at least once a week,  on my blog…just to air the images out a bit. They’ve been sitting, unlooked at, in my sleepy Flickr account, for several years. It’s nice to see them out and about (on my sleepy blog!) again. Every image recalls a time in my life, a story—however small—of who I was at the time, and what was engaging me. It’s good to be reminded that my life has not been a desert…that, although I never really took these ideas further or managed to make them my career or make a living out of them, I have spent a fair bit of my time doing something that brought me joy, making things that made me happy, and quite a few things that went on to make other people happy (as I browsed the images, I asked myself where it had gone to…a surprising number of finished paintings, books, and embroideries, have gone to friends or to delighted new owners who found them in my (also sleepy, dusty) Etsy shop.

the secret flowering of the Italian language

Some of these images may even go on to  inspire new work! Though I am notoriously hostile to the idea of repeating myself.

Even if they don’t serve as springboards for something else, though, they inspire just by showing me that, yes, I have had the ideas and drive to make things before. Yes, some of the things I have made have received such an enthusiastic response from others that I can hardly believe the stats.

And if I managed to do it once, I am reassured by these old images that I can do it, again.

Rapeseed: The nightmare with a gift in its hands, Part I


Jungle Book

Jungle Book

The last of the 10 handmade journals commissioned by my friend Riitta had this on its cover. It was a book and it had jungle plants, hence the name (I’m often stumped what to call each design).

The image is a mishmash of river and island memories…of which there are many, because I have been living in or near water since I decided, at 25, to spend the rest of my life with a salty sailor (who keeps the sea as a mistress).

I was inspired by the limestone islands of El Nido, the jungle surrounding the Essequibo, the tepuys of Venezuela, the birds of the Orinoco and the Rio Dulce, and the green mangrove water of Sadgroves Creek in Darwin, though I kept the design light and simple, no grand or profound truths in this little illustration!

The flowering inferno

the flowering inferno

Abandoned an onion on the chopping board, halfway through cooking lunch yesterday, to spend an hour sketching because I haven’t been doing much drawing lately, and I have missed it so much that, suddenly, it was the only thing I wanted to do.

For a subject, I picked this pair of Dragon Lady high heels (because I always knew I would draw them.) These shoes hang from the corner of a bookshelf at home…I didn’t buy them to wear (they’re so high that they’re ridiculous) but as decoration. I treat them the way you’d treat a painted pair of wooden clogs, or a bark skirt from Papua New Guinea, or an antique kimono…a kind of textiles and costumes branch of anthropology.

I love that these cheap, mass-produced contemporary shoes—made in China, ironically—are now merely playing to the sort of Hollywood stereotypes of Oriental exoticism and sensuality that the image of a cheongsam (or qipao) from Shanghai in the 1920s also evokes…and that they are being marketed on shopping sites for Western women who want to dress the part. It’s a funny “retail culture meets cultural appropriation” where Chinese manufacturers are peddling Chinese stereotypes to non-Chinese.

They’re fun and quick to draw, though…the cheap brocade, all that silky, glossy red, the 5 inch slope from toe to heel…

New Print: Three moons & a tropical sun

3 moons and a sunA new illustration in my Society6 shop. In it, three jellyfish ‘moons’ float around a tendrilled and petalled discus that glows like an underwater sun. Striated coral bommies fill the lower half of the frame.

The themes of sea, marine life, ships and the saturated colours of the tropics, feature a lot in my life and, therefore, in my illustrations.

The original is in acrylic (paint and ink) on canvas, and is destined to become the covering material of a hand-bound journal that was commissioned earlier this year.

Premium quality art prints on fine rag paper are available at Society6. I’ve also enabled the design for printing on selected items. Enjoy!


Good days

“There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life.”

—Annie Dillard, The Writing Life


I spent last payday’s wages on books…I went a little crazy, online.

I ordered back issues of the literary journal Granta, collected works by Graham Greene and a novel by William Faulkner. I snapped up some short story collections of Latin American writers, in Spanish. I took out two literary magazine subscriptions: Overland, and The Lifted Brow. I impulsively put Taschen’s massive full-colour art books of Egon Schiele and of Peter Beard, in my shopping cart, and paid for them with my eyes half-shut, and without looking at what the total came to. Then I ordered Dan Eldon’s The Journey Is The Destination, because he was influenced by Peter Beard.

Finally, and already made extremely uncomfortable by this binge of book-buying, I threw the last of my sensibility (and money) to the wind and bought the out-of-print, hard-to-find monograph produced in Germany of the works of Expressionist artist Jeanne Mammen. She was an amazing painter, and so little is known of her…apart from this one monograph of her work, there are no books, illustrated or otherwise, about her.

I know what you’re thinking: did I rob a bank…or am I printing the money at home? This sounds like the online shopping spree of a person with lots of disposable income, but I’m actually just a salesgirl in a shop, I work three days a week, and I send a third of my income to help an elderly parent.

The decision to enrich my life with books means that I give up other things. For the last four days I have lived on pots of coffee and boiled spaghetti with salt and garlic—which is the only thing that I have on my boat— because I can’t afford to go grocery shopping for a week or two.

Do I care? Not really. I love elaborate cooking, and among my friends I am known as a bit of a foodie. Just a bit. But I love books. I love them first. I love them more. If I were to be completely practical and honest about things, food is ultimately just fuel for the body to run on. (My foodie friends will have heart attacks when they read this blasphemy). I could have a whole Instagram account dedicated to what I eat, but can I tell the difference between a five dollar meat pie and a 70 dollar three-course dinner, in the…um…at the…end? LOL

Besides, we all eat too much, these days, so that a few days off food won’t hurt. I don’t mind eating salted chickpeas out of the can with a spoon as my one meal of the day, if it’s because I have just bought some fabulous books on art, or literature.

I found that I didn’t really want to eat, these past four days, anyway. I was lost between the pages of my books—some of which have started to arrive from the booksellers—and wasn’t hungry for anything but beautiful prose and inspiration.


Structured Disorder

A sneak peek… WIP for Disorder Gallery

WIP for Disorder Gallery

Work in progress for a group show at Disorder Gallery in Sydney, sometime later this year.

Another two or three planned, after this…not sure what my ‘theme’ is, other than that I have decided to avoid any representational work, for once. That said, this began as a painting of a sleeping cat… 😉