Yellow horses: a story of thwarted ambitions and coming full circle

August 29, 2017 at 8:25 am | Posted in art, creativity, Franz Marc, Living creatively, Writing | 1 Comment
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We wondered why the tulips were taking a long time to come up

Silver needles in my knees

I’ve been working on a book about an abstract artist and having some minor setbacks. First, a previous writing job kept spilling over into the time I wanted to be researching the new, much bigger project. (And this keeps happening. They come back wanting more and I do more because they pay me.) Although shorter and simpler than a PhD, the new project is like a PhD in that if I take even one day off it, it takes about two days to get back down to the deep level of engagement with the subject again that makes the connections come easily and the writing go quickly.

Second set-back: I hurt my knee and spent many hours of many weeks doing physiotherapy exercises and running up and down a swimming pool and lying down with acupuncture needles inserted into my knees for an hour. (Yes, both knees, even though I only injured one – I’m sure she knows what she’s doing.) I’ve also been walking around in a very attractive fluorescent orange knee support thingy. Which would not have looked good with high heels and skirts, even if I hadn’t been forbidden to continue dancing the Argentine tango till the knee is better.

The third setback was the institutional delays to my research. The reason behind this is that every time you turn around there’s been another ‘efficiency dividend’ or whatever the current Orwell-speak is for the latest round of unrelenting savage cuts to the arts, so that all arts institutions and libraries in Australia are operating with not nearly enough staff. (I reckon that Labor takes us for granted – they think that arts people will vote for them no matter what, so they don’t need to fund the arts – and the Coalition cuts the arts because arts people don’t vote for them, and must be punished.)

Childhood setbacks and the paradox of struggle

Under the neo-liberal economic system (or economic rationalism) both sides have been running the country on for the past thirty-plus years, the rich are getting richer, to put it mildly, and the rest of us struggle. However, struggle can be paradoxically good. I don’t want to sound Pollyanna-ish but I don’t mind echoing Nietzsche, in spite of risking a cliché: ‘That which does not kill us makes us stronger.’

Before elaborating on this truism, let me share some childhood setbacks concerning art. When I was about five I drew a pretty good outline of a horse and coloured him in yellow. And my aunt, where we were staying at the time, told me that I couldn’t do that because horses weren’t yellow. We had horses. I knew that. I also knew that the spirit of that horse was bright yellow and he wanted to be and needed to be that colour.

But I had to rub him out.

A teenage setback and more struggle

I was good at drawing ever since I could first hold a pencil and everyone assumed that I’d do something with that gift when I grew up, but when I finished school I couldn’t get in to East Sydney Tech, the only art school then, because although I’d passed Art with flying colours, I’d dropped Maths the minute I could, two years before. No one had warned me that one needed Maths in order to be accepted at the Art School. That was a setback.

That’s how I ended up (via a circuitous route) writing for a living, and not painting or drawing. I love words. But art was my first love. A very early memory is of crawling to the bookshelf and pulling out the two little volumes on the bottom shelf on British Art. I loved Gainsborough’s Blue Boy and Joshua Reynold’s Pinkie. I also loved the Gauguins and Van Goghs so the books must have been on British Art Galleries. I wanted to go to where those pictures were and it didn’t take me long to find out that they were where the Queen lived. I also knew that this was where Christopher Robin lived so I was determined to go there when I grew up. I knew I would feel at home there.

Whereas I’d always felt exiled in my actual home, an extraordinarily remote part of East Gippsland where my dad had a sheep farm. Later, working in a Sydney library when I was about twenty, I saw a cartoon in Punch that expressed my child-hood feelings: a little girl, barefoot, in a checked dress and her hair in plaits just like I used to have, is looking woefully up at her menacing parents. One of them says to her, ‘Yes, it’s true – you were actually born a beautiful Princess, but you were given to us to bring up in this bush hovel. And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.’

The joke doesn’t do justice to my parents, my mother, in particular, who was not only kind and loving, but took seriously the importance of art to me. The problem was, she spent long periods in hospital having a series of unsuccessful back operations, during which we children lived at the dairy farm a few miles away owned by my aunt and uncle, who (wonderful people though they were in many ways) had no truck with notions of yellow horses.

Vindicated by German Expressionism

Later, in the art classes I had in Years 11 and 12, I learnt about German Expressionism and Franz Marc’s yellow horses. We had a brilliant Art teacher called John Fitzpatrick who taught us all about Modernism and myriad other fascinating aspects of art history, and art practice too – and much about life as well. Even though I didn’t get in to East Sydney Tech, those art classes by a persuasive, energetic, creative teacher enriched my whole life. In every gallery since, here and in Europe, the UK and the US, I’ve spent countless hours staring at paintings, my spirit soaring and goose bumps of bliss warming my body, and mentally building on what I’d learnt in those wonderful classes.

After leaving school, when I was seventeen, I worked at a little art gallery called the Notanda Gallery in Rowe Street, Sydney. It was run by the artist Carl Plate (pronounced the German way, Plarter). It had originally been started by his sister, the abstract expressionist painter Margo Lewers. About whom I am now writing!

Full circle

So this project on the abstract artist has a ‘come-full-circle’ feeling about it and is rewarding and fun, if fun can be intense! And I reckon it can.  If my early ambitions to be a painter myself hadn’t been thwarted where would I be? I wouldn’t be a writer. And I love being a writer, and all those setbacks and experiences I wouldn’t have had without them, plus all the mistakes I made along the route to now have turned me into who I am now, so how can that not be good? And now I paint pictures with words, and I’m living in the world of art and there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.

Except perhaps dancing the tango and I’ll be back doing that soon. And maybe when those tulips in the blue pot above come up they will be stronger and brighter for having had to struggle a bit under a weighty feline setback.

1 Comment »

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  1. Love the cat – and the comment. Do post how the pot turns out when it blooms. Amber

    On Tue, Aug 29, 2017 at 9:25 AM, Pen Hanley’s Blog wrote:

    > penhanley posted: ” Silver needles in my knees I’ve been working on a book > about an abstract artist and having some minor setbacks. First, a previous > writing job kept spilling over into the time I wanted to be researching the > new, much bigger project. (And this keeps ” >

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