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#aWaterStory: The Artist in Residence Project Begins

…but more importantly, I became another person to them when I used their language. I stepped through the veil to be closer to them.

For the first time in a while, I didn’t feel like I was on my own striving to make something happen. I’d become pretty down – probably lacking energy and faith, which periodically happens.

A group of teachers had met with me to be informed about the Artist in Residence and multi media/lingual project I will be spearheading at the school next week. We ran the meeting in Spanish which was fun because a number fo the teachers had never heard me speak their language (we usually ran our classes in English as that’s the langauge we’re working on). They were impressed with my level, which was nice, but more importantly, I became another person to them when I used their language. I stepped through the veil to be closer to them.

I found myself watching as the idea I had proposed was being taken on. I was looking for the first time at companions and co-makers. What made it easier was tht I was presenting a story and a project of investigation about themselves – a great flood that had covered most of the city and ruined part of it in 1961.

I watched as the group began to discuss their recollections and knowledge, one whatsapped her mother to see what she knew and was feeding us with information. We discovered that an elderly nun of the college was here at the time and the school itself was flooded with a metre of water. The history teacher was getting enthused at the prospect of oral history collecting and the cultural value of the exercise.

I insisted too that the project is about the process – I will be documenting as much as I can, so that teachers can reflect on how it goes, where learning happened, where it didn’t, how they teach, how langauge is dealt with, how learners are supported, or not. As an artist I’ll be reflecting on how we communicate, how we connect with community, the content itself adn our responses in video and in my own visual work.

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Identity Series Part I: The Artist.

I received a book in the mail yesterday from SeaSalt Learning. I took it down to my local cafe to soak up with a good croissant and coffee. Everyone knows me in there and I have been known to offer to help out when it’s busy.

I live in a shifting landscape, multi-faceted and with multiple-localities. The book I received is part of on-going learning and research about myself, my work, my place in the world and my contribution to it. Over this year I’ve been trying to assess what it is that I do and who it is that I am so I can move forward with more sense of clarity about what I have to offer and what my role(s) are.

Until now, I have had multiple work-faces. My identities lie in a large, unresolved tangle.  So, to help me sort it out, and possibly forge a new hybrid species to fit the age, I am starting a conversation over a series of posts – in no particular order – about my current areas of work/engagement  – very much about thinking out loud. I encourage any feedback! It might even help you reflect on your own work/life.

No.1 The Artist

The artist requires that I make art, show it in galleries, network and maintain meaningful relationships with that community. I am isolated in that respect. I haven’t the time to slip off to gallery openings or to work at that relationship face to face. I also wonder about the world of art – sales, value, and the conversations of what my work will look like with those curtains. I began to feel a while back that galleries were out of date, for me at least.

It’s About the Kaupapa

For me it’s about the kaupapa – to use a much loved word from my home world – the motivation. I don’t want to play the gallery game of building my reputation on the ephemeral platform of art sales, what wealthy person has my work in their collection and celebrity.

One of the reasons I continue to paint, is the connection to handcraft. To create something unique and to feel the physicality of it in my hands, and to remember the making of it in my muscles is meaningful to me. It is literally grounding me in the present. It’s not floating out there in the binary universe, it’s physically in front of me in time and in space and holds a special part of me, and for me personally, that’s good.

Binary Spaces or a Physical Space?

I tell the stories of my art making and my art, engaging with the world, via Facebook, email and Instagram to get beyond my walls.  Social media has helped me communicate my stories. It’s a wonderfully democratic environment where anyone can put their work out there. It’s liberating. And it’s helped me connect to a community of artists.

However, I have come to the conclusion that we also need physical spaces to tell stories too. Spaces to be still in the present, away from distraction, to contemplate, to be transported somewhere. “Gallery” spaces can be anywhere we choose them to be – our own homes, marae or meeting spaces, schools, the street.

The Gatekeepers

That said, for a long time, my yard stick for measuring whether my work is good or not has been judged by whether it’s accepted for a prize, or for a show in a public or dealer gallery. Official galleries are the gatekeepers of what’s hot and what’s not. I complain about the gatekeepers, of fashion and politics – usually because it’s working against me: wrong aesthetic, wrong concept,  wrong genetics, wrong gender, wrong age, wrong passport, wrong tribe! 

Rejection goes with making art. You’ve got to get used to rejection or worse, being ignored.

I could happily stick to showing my work on Saatchi Art, Instagram or Facebook and get encouraging likes from my friends, but the truth is, we all need to feel the recognition of our peers. Whether I like it or not, the gallery/museum is the curator, the filter where those peers acknowledge I might just have a talent for what I do. They tell the public what story is worth being told and heard. Even if the process has all been about co-curatorship, as it is today, they at the end are the validators. If the work is in a gallery, it must be good. Its a tough push-me-pull you I can’t wrangle my way out of.

One can argue that the Social Age subverts formal hierarchy, but humanity will always want those gatekeepers. It makes us feel secure. Just when we think we’ve gotten rid of one we replace it with a new one.

In reaction to this, as an artist, I need to know and be true to my own kaupapa, or what motivates me. I need to continue to make my own authentic, consistent and considered work. I need to contribute to our history and the global narrative meaningfully and with humility. If that means no recognition by authority, no financial success, well, I’ll be joining the masses!

“The Social Leadership Handbook” by Julian Stodd at SeaSalt Learning

Hinterland

My mother was born with the Pacific stretching out around her in all directions. She lived her childhood looking out over the sea from a bungalow on a hill. When the north wind blew, it rattled the windows and howled down the nook between the house and the hill. The sea would constantly change colour as the clouds raced over it and the wind whipped it.

When she got married she left the coast and went to live in a little house as far inland and far away from her home as she had ever been. The drive was long, the roads windy. Letters and infrequent toll calls were all that kept her in touch with home. This was where I was born. I remember this when I feel isolated here on a peninsular of a continent far, far away. My mother had travelled as far away as I had.

Perhaps because it’s where I was born and my first memories are there, I’ve always been drawn to the centre of the North Island. I’ve explored so much of it, on foot, by river and car. I feel such excitement to be able to pass through it whenever I return home as if it were a pilgrimage necessary for my soul. I’ve spilt my blood there, shed tears. I’ve laughed and felt pure joy. I’ve seen the most glorious sights of my life and beheld the silence that causes the sensation that you’ve physically disappeared and joined it. In the hinterland, the spirits have passed over my head and lifted me in their wake and gently dropped me down with the heavy sadness of people’s passing.

Quick anecdote: My Great-Great Grandfather passed by there in the 1880’s trying to find a village in order to discuss a school. He was a rather large man apparently and no spring chicken, so one can’t quite imagine how he managed through such rugged country on a horse. He never found that village, getting himself quite lost and unable to cross a river, so had to turn around and go back to the coast.

In Spain , the first time I entered Extremadura, in the Spanish hinterland, I felt almost at home. It was the first time that a Spanish landscape spoke to me as if I had come from it. This vast expanse of isolated, stony, barren cattle country, is hot in summer, freezing in winter and its name means what it is: extremely hard . It can simultaneously uplift and oppress.

“Annihilation is an existential fear: the common – and sharply overdrawn –fear that some part of you dies when you stop making art. And it’s true. Non-artists may not understand that, but artists themselves (especially artists who are stuck) understand it too well.” *

As I said, the hinterland can lift you up or oppress. I’m stuck. I’m blocked, distracted. I can’t make work. I can’t find a thread. The more that happens, the more I read, the more knowledge I have, the more I live, the more life lives ME, the more I feel weighed down in the immensity of everything. I’m lost in vast a hinterland, lost in the chaos and calculation of life. It’s too hard and too much and leaves me en blanco (in white). It’s a white that roars in my head and stops me making art.

So here I am, lost. With a hinterland that calls and challenges me to go on into the bareness, get scrapped by the rocks and feel the hardness. It is a long solitary passing under an unending sky, thinking all those thoughts, countering all that weight. And while I’m in there, when I can, in the very brief spells of seeing sense in that thunderous whiteness, I try and make art, any art, anything, just to keep me going.

Though sometimes , I prefer to turn back on the inland and face the other way. I forget “art” and enjoy how my two year old daughter jumps on the bed. My life isn’t about “art”. No, art is about my life, which needs to be lived as interestingly as I can, and not alone.

Clara is re-enacting for me with expressions, toddler talk and gestures, how she waited for the waves to come in to her feet before she jumped over them at the beach on the weekend. It was the world’s greatest, most joyful discovery – we had driven to the coast to see the sea.

*Art and Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) or artmaking. David Bayles and Ted Orland

Post Note: I have since discovered that “Extremamdura” actually comes from the land at the extreme end of the river Duero, but I like my ill-founded translation anyway.

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