Thursday, January 27, 2011

Eulogy

Margaret Amelia Flora b.4.5.25. d.19.1.11




When Mum was a little girl whenever someone asked how old she would be next birthday she’d reply “Four in a May”. A precocious child she’d perform for visitors, her particular party piece being the Haka “Kamate Kamate” complete with eye rolling and tongue poking out at the end. She loved playing the family pianola and on this she learned to play be ear. Although she later received proper piano lessons she frustrated her teacher by vamping and playing her own music despite getting a rap over the knuckles with a ruler.

In 1927 Granny and Granddad left for an overseas trip so at the age of two Mum went to live with Granny Jemima Hales opposite Wimbledon School. She continued to live there along with Aunty Elsie and Auntie Eva until she was 12 years old. Mum really disliked primary school as she was constantly teased about the colour of her hair. She always wanted to have lovely long hair that reached all the way down to her waist like her three sisters but Auntie Eva told her “No you can’t grow it long. It’s bad enough that it’s red”. When Mum asked why her hair was that colour she was told that as a baby she was found under a cabbage leaf and it had been raining all night so her hair had gone rusty.

There were many fun times spent in that household of women. The local Maori ladies would visit with Granny Jemima and they would speak in Maori so the children couldn’t understand who they were gossiping about. Mum spoke of the bullock teams going past the house and being pulled inside so she didn’t hear some of the language the drivers used towards their oxen. Then there was the day that the Napier Earthquake struck in 1931. Mum, in a panic, ran outside and around the house with the tank water sloshing out from on top of its stand and chimney bricks falling all around yet with not one hitting her. Soon as she reached the front lawn she passed out.

When she was twelve Mum was sent to Iona College in Havelock North. She thrived there as the class clown and was popular with the girls as she would play requests on the piano. She was also relied on for earthquake alerts. If she felt one was coming she would tell her friends who would put anything breakable away and sure enough that night there would be a quake. Mum spent three happy years at Iona before leaving because the headmistress had told her if she returned the following year she would be made a prefect. Mum didn’t fancy that idea at all.

Travelling to Wanganui Mum began training as a Karitane nurse looking after premature and special needs infants. Mum always really loved babies- it was just when they began talking and walking that she went off the idea. At the Karitane hospital she made several life long friends and had quite an exciting social life. It sounds perverse but wartime was one of the happiest periods of Mum’s life. She loved the music of that era, the dancing, the movies plus the men in uniform.

It was on a blind date that she met Dad. They were both on the rebound from broken relationships, Dad from an engagement with “Daphne” who, much to his disgust, had run off with an American serviceman. After dating for only two weeks Dad asked Mum to marry him. She told him “Don’t be so stupid” and then asked for time to think. Five minutes later Dad asked “Well? You’ve had long enough to think about it”

They became engaged much to Granddad’s horror. Both Granny and Granddad thought Mum was too young to get married and insisted that she wait until she was twenty one. That was the only time Mum’s wishes had been thwarted and she wasn’t happy at all. So after finishing her Karitane training she worked for a Quaker family with twins in Wanganui and later, on returning to the Wimbledon area, for Isabel Willis which Granddad had arranged so that Mum wasn’t manpowered into Watties in Hastings. Her social life was mainly music with the Reverand Kaa driving her to local dances where she played the piano. One of the greatest compliments she remembered from then was when someone told her “hey you play the Maori way!”

On January 18th 1947 Mum and Dad married at St Michael’s Church in Porangahau. They first set up home in Napier buying two neighbouring houses in Campbell Street (one of which they rented out) while Dad trained locally as a mechanic. However an accident put an end to this when Dad cut the tendon in his finger so they later moved with Carolyn who had been born in 1950 to Wimbledon where they bought the local general store. The building was pretty run down and Mum spoke of seeing rats running along the hallway. However living next to a shop had its advantages as at night she would sneak out, run her hand along the backs of the cakes of fruit and nut chocolate, picking out the lumpiest one to take back to bed with her. There were also unexpected moments of hilarity as when one day Sarah Lennox walked into the store and said in a loud voice “Bill have you got black balls?” At this Mum quickly disappeared behind the counter.

Later, the family with new addition Richard, moved to Windsor Hill in Waipawa. Mum was very proud of this house as it had once belonged to the Mayor. As usual she spent much of her time developing a large garden. She went to woodwork classes, worked for free for a year for local florist Nancy Jones and later looked after a little boy called Paul Jolly whose parents owned the local pharmacy. Plus it was at Waipawa that they adopted me.

One of the best things I remember about Mum was how she initially dealt with Richard and I regarding our adoption. Nothing was ever hidden, we were always told we were adopted along with the usual old clich├ęs such as “you’re special because we chose you” and that we grew in her heart not under it. She would become defensive when family members told her that Rich and I brought bad blood into the family because it wasn’t known where we came from. Any questions we asked were always answered and when it came time for us to find our birth families Mum and Dad were supportive.

I always think Mum missed her true calling which was to go on the stage. She loved being the centre of attention, performing and being in the middle of any sort of drama. She once tried to join the Waipawa Musical Society but was thwarted in this by Auntie Elsie and Uncle George who told her that theatre was a hot bed of wife swapping.

Instead Mum had to make do with entertaining the family. She could be incredibly funny and/or incredibly embarrassing. I remember one summer we were staying at Porangahau when early in the morning she began running up and down the hallway in just her underwear. Before long Granny, Granddad, Aunty Elsie and Aunty Eva were all watching in disbelief as she whooped her way out the front door and began doing a dance out on the gravel driveway, kicking up her fluffy yellow slippers in a demented highland fling. Quick as a flash Granddad rushed and shut and locked the front door and then went through to the kitchen and locked the back one as well. We killed ourselves laughing as Mum tore round outside while Granny said “Oh I say- whatever is she?” Finally Mum disappeared but we later found her hiding in the washhouse clutching an old piece of sacking around herself.

When we lived at Waiohiki she came in one evening and said some children were getting up to mischief in our back paddock. She grabbed a sheet and put it over her head before sneaking out under the walnut tree while wailing like a ghost. The kids swore, grabbed each other in terror and ran all the way home.

When she was in her forties Mum decided to learn to drive. This was not one of her better ideas and could have led to divorce. I remember Dad trying to teach her a handbrake start near Te Awa Ave but she panicked and burst into tears so he had to get out and wave the traffic round the car. After she passed her test she bought a little bomb she named The Womble and would drive up and down Battery Road to go and work in the kitchen at Princess Alexandra Hospital. Later she bought a small van which she would drive in a convoluted detour around the back streets of Taradale trying to reach the shopping centre without actually meeting any traffic. One day we were travelling down a quiet road when she looked left and saw a man chopping down a tree. “Oh look that man’s chopping down that beautiful tree!” she yelled. I saw the man’s eyes widen in horror as Mum drove up on the footpath towards him before swinging back down over the gutter right across the road, up onto the footpath on the opposite side just avoiding hitting a power pole before she got the van back onto the correct side of the road all in one continuous manoeuvre. By the time she got the van under control we were at the intersection both in hysterics laughing. Fortunately she didn’t continue driving for long after that.

When I think of Mum I remember a person passionate about gardening and music, an immaculate housekeeper, someone interested in alternative healing and with a deep interest in spiritualism. For many years she wrote to the medium George Chapman in England and gradually collected a small library on New Age subjects. She loved telling stories about her childhood and spent much of her time writing letters or on the phone.

However I don’t want to rewrite history. Mum was a very complex woman with many problems that impacted on us over the years. Always dissatisfied with life she believed that happiness was just round the corner if we just moved house or Dad got a new job or she bought a new car. She needed to live with constant drama in her life. There was always some trauma or feud going on with Mum. I often think that to live in such a state of fear, constant paranoia and anger must have been extremely tiring and it did lead her into many dark and unpleasant situations. As Richard once said to me “In her own mind Mum had a very unhappy life”.

Mum you were funny, talented, generous, kind, infuriating, controlling, manipulative, stubborn and often very hurtful. But it was never a dull moment living with you and I know I wouldn’t be the person I am today without your influence in my life. I truly hope that you will find some measure of peace and healing in this next stage of your existence. We will miss you.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Gandalf

I once read about two brothers who wrote and illustrated fantasy books. They'd make costumes and then "persuade" friends and family members to dress up and pose for photographs which then became references for their paintings. I've drawn quite a few different people who I sort of envisaged as interesting character types but never one who really looked as if they stepped right out of a fantasy novel.

The model for our first portrait class of 2011 had not cut his hair for 25 years. He arrived in bare feet with a wealth of interesting tales about his life. He is known to young children as "Gandalf" and he really seemed to have the whole wizard vibe down pat. This last sketch of the day took 15 minutes and was in graphite on white paper, perhaps a little less as I stopped before adding too many unnecessary details to complicate the drawing.

I took plenty of photos from different vantage points so if I ever need to write and illustrate my own wizard story I have a ready made muse to work from. Till then this particular image of a Kiwi Gandalf is stuck up on the fridge.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

What Makes An "Arteest"?


Everyone can draw- not everyone is an artist. The same way that everyone can write but not everyone is a writer. I think the difference (aside from actual talent) is having a great measure of determination and persistence. Hard work in other words. It is interesting to watch people who have recently taken up art as a hobby (or perhaps as an intended profession) wax enthusiastically about making money from selling their paintings. It seems so easy. You paint something, stick it in a gallery or shop, it sells, you become famous and wealthy. After a while you watch the enthusiasm drain away as their work hangs there unwanted like a limp piece of lettuce on a greasy plate after a BBQ.

There is no quick easy way to become an artist let alone a financially successful one. I believe it's important to have a good grasp of the basics- in particular drawing. You need to be able to draw properly in order to construct a viable painting. Picasso was an amazing draughtsman. Perhaps you look at one of his abstract nudes and wonder how the hell that could be since she has one eye in her forehead and the other one in her chest but you need to know the rules before you can begin to break them. You need to practice your craft in order to make art.

Art is more than merely copying. Photo realistic paintings can appear dead because the painter has just copied what they see with photographic distortions and all. Yet these paintings often sell because the public find them safe to relate to. However unless a painting has something to say there is no point in even hanging it up unless you just want to show off your technical proficiency.

Art is not about the destination. It's about the journey. If you look back at work you did a few years ago to what you're doing today there should be a definite progression or else you're doing something wrong. Not necessarily that what you're doing today is "better" than what you did then but that you have made a journey, that you have discovered something about yourself that you have put down on canvas or paper.

We're too caught up in making something perfect that often we aren't aware that it's the actual making part that is the most important aspect of being an artist. Too often you see people painting what they think people will want to buy as they equate selling a painting with success. But believe me I have seen some really bad paintings sell. I wouldn't call them art any more than I would call that painter an artist. Can that person draw? No. Can they think up new and original concepts and ideas? No. They take a photo of a landscape, copy it (sometimes badly, sometimes not) onto canvas and then preen when it's sold because they think they're a success. The truth is they're no more an artist than my cat is.

There is no quick or easy way to get to where you're going. You have to draw or create every day. You have to read, to experiment, to talk to other artistic types. You have to watch people, learn to look at light sources, examine the centre of a flower, sniff new sketch blocks with all the appreciation of an art supplies addict. Most importantly of all you must learn that it's OK to be imperfect, it's alright to make a fool of yourself because to try something new is more important than seeking the approval of others. Being an artist is not about selling art. It's about creating art. About living your life as a work of art with a sense of adventure and a good sense of humour in tow.