Saturday, February 21, 2009

this life and all my lives, now and ever

In the lowest kitchen drawer where resides all those nasty things
like balls of string and small tools film reels glue sticks four million highlighter pens a roll of orange ribbon broken pencils staplers with no staples referees whistles ...
you know, that drawer. That nasty drawer, which will bite you if you put your hand into it.

I found this

Amongst these nasty things: a little journal full of drawings. I have no idea why it was there, but I had not seen it for quite some time, and  there were no dates.

I wondered if it was from when I went to Paris one time 
when there was a huge El Greco Exhibition.

Or when I visited the Prado. Who knows? 
I suspect, however, this little Infanta rarely strays from her wall in Madrid.
 Judging from the final page, it was long long ago, though when I read the words, I could have written it not very long ago at all...

even though I have now worn my face
for much longer than I had then.

here I draw an epilogue to this dream that really happened
and now this moment and every moment is the culmination of all 
dreams the wondrousness and
tragedies of this life and all my lives
now and ever.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

in which the fish speaks of sharks

I will confess to having told a lie, of sorts,
though it is more of a partial untruth, depending from what angle you look at it.

It concerns sharks.
I am, in fact afraid of sharks, despite having made claims otherwise.
To be more specific: I am not afraid of MY sharks,
but I have certain fears about sharks
with whom I am not acquainted.

Perhaps I should start a few years back, when I first met a shark whose intent was questionable, or even further back in time, to when I was little and brought up on tales of the massive shark populations in Middle Harbour. Tales told by a certain nun, who, before marrying Jesus was a doctor’s daughter in Beauty Point, and who, on the edges of the water in Sugarloaf Bay, witnessed sharks gliding about, their fins slicing through those dark harbour waters. So many, she said, I could have walked on their backs.
That were a long time ago, mind, as I said, before she was married to Jesus and was in fact quite young, though why I was the recipient of such a nun’s tale I do not know.

A few years back I competed in the Balmoral Swim, with a rather posh swim club, right opposite the heads at either side of the entrance to Sydney Harbour. The distance was 6km around a course a little closer to the central channel of middle harbour than I really would have liked. All I could think on was the vast stream of sharks travelling the shark highway, down that channel, under the spit bridge, backwards and forwards like peak hour traffic: I am sure I won the race from the sustained release of adrenaline. Since then, and thinking on it now, I have rarely swum in the harbour, and decided that this year I would overcome my fear by registering in the Sydney Harbour Swim. I’ve never done it, and, as a longtime competitor, it’s kind of unusual that I haven’t. I would like, in light of recent nice associations I have of looking at the Opera House through sheets of rain, to fall into some kind of reverie, perhaps as I pass beneath it, and look at it from water level. This is something I would like, yes.
Swimming and daydreams and memories, all at once.

Barely a week passed after making this decision to compete before the headlines were screaming: SHARK MENACE SHARK ATTACK and every stock photo of every gaping Great White that had ever snarled at a lump of meat dangling from a fisherman’s trawler was splashed upon every media page and screen. The toothier the better.
Ordinarily, I would ignore this, but there was talk of a bullshark biting off a diver’s hand in Woolloomooloo Bay, which did in fact happen to be true. This I did not like, as it is just on the race course. And bullsharks are the stuff of nightmares. They are the ones who slink around in the murk and bite people’s kayaks. The unpredictable snipers of the shark world.

(As I type this I am watching in amazement ,as the Girl cub has paired up with her brother for board training: she and he are racing as a pair across the lake where they train. Last moments of light illuminate the water.
He is terrible, she is great. I wonder if she has chosen him as her partner? I suspect not. A large flock of brown ducks scatter as they plough through, approaching the shallows, he falls in and she slaps his rump. This afternoon the boy informed me that since the lakewater was fresh, 
how very novel, that he drank it directly out of the lake if he got thirsty. I have informed him that this is very possibly unwise, and have supplied him with a drink bottle).

But this matter of sharks, as I was saying, is getting out of hand. At every opportunity there is diatribe of every kind.
The very next day a surfer was attacked at Bondi, the first such occurrence for about 70 years. You can imagine the reportage, can you not? All manner of stories emerge, concerning the increasing number of sharks. Particularly in the harbour.

I have had a significant encounter with a shark, one of the Bronze Whalers that live by the North headland. I’m still not sure what prompted me, that very early morning, alone and so very far out to sea, to look behind me.

And see, gliding in my wake, in my blindspot, almost motionless with its gaze locked upon me, between the beach, and myself
Was a large shark.

It is neither common nor enjoyable to see a shark at eye level, gazing at you with intent. Even if it is lit from beneath by light reflected from the sand, even with the flickering light so pretty upon its skin, to find oneself being stalked by such a thing is not a thing I would care to repeat.

It took three strokes before my body began to go into shock, starting at my fingertips, like fire I felt the burning sensation and I realised that would pass out and float limply to the bottom, whereupon I would be eaten and none would ever know, my children left motherless.

At that point I completely dissociated from time and place.
It wasn’t a decision, I just found myself in the
200 m freestyle, open championships. which was roughly how far I was from land, pretty much. I heard the starter call on your marks, and I was off…
Knowing instinctively not to look to my right, since I was heading past the shark, and that if I looked at it any more, my heart would stop.

I think I broke an Olympic record that morning. I swam remarkably fast. When I reached land my legs gave way and I had to sit down. I did not close my eyes for the next three months that I did not see the indelibly stamped image of the bronze whaler silently gliding at my heels. Its fins lit, its cold eye. The billowing canopy of the surface of the sea, suspended on the tip of its dorsal fin.

In matters concerning the avoidance of sharks, there are a list of things which are generally inadvisable. These include swimming at dawn or dusk, swimming among schools of baitfish, swimming alone, and perhaps swimming while menstruating. All of which, in a haze of distraction and daydream, I was doing.

I like to think, though, that an incident earlier in the year had a certain bearing upon this moment, the reason why I turned and saw this shark, rather than having it bite me unseen. It was early September, and I ran to the headland, as I do every day, in the dawn darkness. I saw a fisherman struggling to land something large, running backwards and forwards along the rock shelf, rod bent and shaking into the water.

Would you like me to help you with that? I asked,

 all smiles, disguising my intent, wading knee deep into the sea, peering into the dark crevice of the rock shelf.
We saw it both at once flashing and twisting out into the dawn light, a thrashing baby Whaler shark, all rows of teeth and pale gold eyes, writhing and snapping furiously. I held it to the sand, and ordered him to fetch his pliers so I could release the hook.
I felt the little body beneath my palms twisting, enraged. To my surprise the fisherman leaned down and obediently snapped the hook in half as I held its rubbery little head. Its teeth were immaculately terrifying, its underbelly the colour I imagine heaven might be: milky violet.

I grasped the small sandy-coloured demon behind the fins, and propelled it into the water

I’m letting it go

and no sooner had I released it than it turned tail and came snapping straight after me, and I had to hot foot it up the sand: I swear it tried to follow.
Eventually it took off, quiet as a shadow.

I like to imagine, that having swum into the shark’s lair at feeding time, like one huge fish among the thousand others, smelling like food, and laying myself on the Whaler family table that morning,
That I was let off, that some impulse of recognition led that shark to let me be. When it looked me in the eyes, it let me go.
because I had released the baby of the family.

In a few weeks I will take to the dark waters of Sydney Harbour. I will not be able to see into the depths, though I am sure if there are creatures there, they will be able to see me. I am going to swim, and dream, and think of sheets of rain, and remember moments when the nature of light itself seemed to change, and as I pass through the water, I will celebrate all those things. Such small and delicate things, which, fragile as they might be, mean the world to me.

Please note that in a moment of uncharacteristic loquaciousness, Miss Shoufay, 
the queen of Infinite Indigo
has made a confession in response to some of the comments on an earlier post....

Monday, February 9, 2009

water, fire, and the fish in the rip again

smoke haze, 7th february 2009

There are two rips now.
One curls around and roars along the edge in a fast moving runnel, then joins the other and head back out to sea. Its as if a section of the water has turned sideways, and all the swimmers, herded northward into a section bounded by flags more north than is usual, all look as if they are marching in the water, side on, heading north. Just to stay still.

Today was forecast to be another scorching day, so
I am feeling fortunate: the heat is kept at bay by the nor’east wind, which is brisk at first, driving the heat westward and away from here. By evening this same wind will be shrieking through my house, moaning at the windows, trying to make me melancholy: sometimes it succeeds. It makes me wish for a particular kind of company which I cannot have, not now. Not today.

The air is strangely clear, despite the fires burning there is no smoke haze or smell, like yesterday. I wish everybody near and far could come here to escape the heat, sit with their feet in the water and not be hot. By 8 am there are people everywhere, despite the fact that this beach is not particularly easy to find, nor well served by public transport.

Down in Victoria,
walls of flame devour everything in their path, yet here am I safe, wading into water which, together with the pattern on the waters from the wind, and the strangely icy temperature, makes me think of winter. I puzzle on this cold current, which I have encountered before in midsummer, a sweeping frond of frigid arctic water circling, the banks beneath my feet are runnelled and full of sudden pools. I am glad to reach the deep, despite the cold. I circle and swim, and look at the fish.

A cloud of garfish passes almost at the very surface, their underbellies pale violet against the green. As I have spoken to them quite recently I don’t attempt any further communication: garfish are uncommonly unfriendly, and despite what they say, rather fixated upon their own business. They pass like a swarm of small silver pencils. Mostly young ones, I note, and decide that they will be even more irritating than the last lot I spoke to. I swim on, feeling occasional tendrils of warm water drift around my feet.

I think about the sea, and the rip. Last year the sea tried to steal a pair of children with this same sneaky tactic. Almost deserted, the beach was lit with the low clear light and clear shadows of early Spring, and I swam, diving to the bottom and catching hold of the sand, feeling my body pivot like a compass needle with the strength of the current. Later as I stood on the stone steps, looking back at the calm, swelling surface of the treacherous current with which I had just battled, two little girls came running down the grassy hill, shrieking and laughing with unbound excitement,
followed by their older sister, walking decorously with her parents.

The laughing pair passed: twins!
Pale skin and light brown bobbed hair, I catch the sound of them speaking. Irish children! I smile at their white necks, I watch them run onto the sand and along the shore, breaking into an impromptu can-can kicking sprays of water into the sunlight, cackling and squealing. They wade knee deep, and I from my place on the stairs, realise that they are about to step into the arms of the sea and be borne away to the deepest part of the ocean, for they have chosen the calm stretch, where the hidden current lies waiting.

No, I tell the sea. Don’t steal those little childen,
But the sea is silent and deteremined and I am forced into a run, the Irish father watching me approach, puzzled. Don’t swim there, I tell him, panting.
It’s the undercurrent…

And he smiles, says thank you, and calls his bright twins to play in the rockpool instead.

How could you? I ask the sea.
Little children, from far away?

I think of this as I head back in the cold current, as fires burn and birds drop from another sky, as people lose their houses, as people lose their lives, and here is me, swimming the cold current in a two-pronged rip.

But let’s just imagine, for a moment, that right on the edge of the safe place, on the invisible line leading out from the flags, where the sand drops away into a deep hole and the sea waits to catch the unwary, somebody stumbles.
Imagine that, as you head back through the rip, as is your habit, you happen to raise your head and for some reason follow the gaze of a startled boy and see the pale limbs of a very old man slipping into that green hole, and you dive as fishquick as you can, travelling the runnels and the pools. In the green light he is tumbling into a hole and the sea is already wrapped around his limbs.

You see the underwater thrashings of pale legs and arms, a frightened face. You slip your arms around him and haul him out of the hole, his white and drooping flesh so soft beneath your fingers, your grasp sinks into his very flesh. You drape his limp arm about your shoulders and marvel at the soft and speckled body bedecked with pale barnacle-like moles and protruberances, and he just cant get to his feet so you have to haul him and you know that when you need to you will suck every ounce of strength right out of the ocean if you have to, that you will not let him go. You’ve done it before. You know your lungs, your arms, will never ever let you down.

And then you are holding him up on a whorl of sand, and he is saying, in wet breathy whispers, quietly,
I just can’t stand up,
and his legs are collapsing but you don’t let go. You are happy, because you were thinking, on this hot day with all these people here, that perhaps his heart was about to stop, but now you feel that he will be alright.. And you begin to bring him in, but then, imagine, that all the lifeguards finally get out there and you hand over this pale and soft man, so grateful, so limp.
I just couldn’t get to my feet he says
They carry him out, and once again you leave the water. As you always do, and walk up the wet sand and up the hill to home.

But just today, you wish that you could dive down to the deep and swim in an arc, slice up and out through the water, fly through time and space, and from the sheer force of your will, seize someone from the flames, just one at least, and fly away with them in your wet arms, wrapped in your wet hair. Imagine that.
You would dive through fire. You know your arms and breath would never let you down.

My domain is water and I swim in the rip,
Which sometimes can be a useful thing,

today I wish it were more.
I wish I could  swell to the size of the ocean, and seize things, people, trees and wrap them all in the huge curtains of my cold wet hair, hold them in my dripping arms and fly away, that might be enough.

Yes, today I wish it were more.
I wish I could do more.

108 people  died in the firestorm of February 8th, 2009.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

fish in the nest

Long long ago, Ampersand Duck tagged me for a meme  in which I had to write seven things about my art Practice and I have been very slow in doing it.

I mostly use oils, because I always have and I prefer the longer drying time. I desperately need a new palette, which is a laminate off-cut from the kitchen factory on the next corner. I don't want to waste any paint though, so I'll continue with this one. In the heat the paint is drying much too quickly. 

I use all different kinds of brushes, but cheap ones leave hairs all over the canvas. I usually underpaint with a colout, and I use a tile grouter for this. In the blue paintings I have not used an undercolour because I need the white underneath to make the light show through.

Sometims I use watercolour brushes at present, even though I tell my students never to use watercolour brushes with anything other than watercolours or ink.

I am known for putting glazes over the top and letting them run, I love the way pigment is suspended, and the layers evolve. I used to make all my own glazes and media, including Damar Varnish and beeswax paste but I don't any more. I also always used surgeons gloves, but if I did in this heat I would faint. Truly.

I have an ongoing obsession with resurrecting fragments from renaissance and Baroque paintings: usually drapery, and bits of the sky. Last year in the heat I played Allegri's Miserere endlessly, till midnight, and started a series which recently seemed to reappear underwater.
I used to make brooches with miniature oil paintings of Renaissance women, which took hours, so I know many of Titian's women quite intimately. Also many hands, and dresses.

I have pictures of special and beloved things around me.

The largest piece I am working on is 2000x1600 and the smallest is 30x30. The big one above is completely dementing me, the canvas keeps getting loose, and it has also absorbed a long distracting conversation which seems to have completely derailed the picture. I am going to have to rest it and go on with something else.

I often put words in my pictures. I love the aesthetic of writing. I write in layers so you can only half interpret the meaning.

the writing is usually fragments of poetry, since I believe painting and poetry are sort of the same thing.
The above is Dylan Thomas. 

There are piles of books around me, some albatross bones, and all sorts of objects.  I swear it wasn't me drank that gin, but the bottle is nice.

I also draw a lot. Mostly in charcoal, often with indigo pigment and pastel.

and pencil, for when I need to work out something, like this upside-down-lady.

and here is Miss Cranky, guardian goddess of the Tap Of Doom, watching over proceedings.
I think that must be seven things now. I'm off to the sea before I do anything today: it promises to be as hot as ever.