Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The gift of Jill

I've just got home from one of those ceremonies that gives thanks for a person's life after they've died. Not a funeral, she was cremated last week, not a memorial, but a real giving of thanks that that person was in our lives. She wasn't in my life much, but even the small amount I've experienced, and the peripheral encounters along my way with her friends and especially her artwork, will resonate with me for the rest of my life.

The biggest point of personal resonance is that she was my age, give or take a few months. 46 is not a good innings. She died of cancer, a horrible way to go, but apparently she never complained. It wasn't her style: everyone agreed today that she lived every bit of what she had well, which is a good thing to be able to say.

Jill Wolf made a conscious choice to follow the heart at every fork in the road. I knew her briefly at art school, where I was starting as she was finishing in the Graphic Investigations Workshop (headed by Petr Herel). My main point of connection is with the work she made and left in the GIW archive that is held by the ANU Library Special Collections unit. At least once a year I take my students to see artists' books from the archive, pulling out works that I think will interest them or that fit the themes I've wanted to address, and without fail, Jill's work is on my list.

Here is my latest batch of students, looking at that session's selection of GIW books. In the foreground on the right is Jill's Excerpts from the Book of Memory. It is large and unbound, in actuality a pile of drawings on tissue paper housed in a (found?) cover of rope-edged canvas to resemble a loose codex. The fact that it isn't bound doesn't make it less of a book, and in GIW many books were deliberately unbound (as are most of Petr Herel's own artist's books). The first page always fools the reader; it looks like nothing in particular -- just a faded photocopy-transfer image -- until they actually pick it up to turn the sheet, and the text, hand-written in white pencil on the white tissue, suddenly appears... and then disappears again when the sheet is turned over and laid down, so you really have to hold it to engage with it.

All the marks in the book, image and text, do this movement of focusing in and out, appearing and disappearing, performing a dance of trace and erasure as the tissue layers are moved. There is grey pencil, white pencil, gesso, image transfers, and various other media. The effect is subtle and moving, both physically and emotionally. Unfortunately I don't have any page photos, only the cover:


She travelled to Bosnia in the 1990s right in the midst of their troubles, and this piece, made in her graduation year, (along with a number of paintings, drawings and smaller books) reflects her feelings and observations about what she saw, heard and learned there. She had a very distinct aesthetic (quite Cy Twombly-inspired) and a personal iconography that she used in her formal artworks, her less formal pieces (usually presents for people) and in her daily interactions with the world, all of which blur together to make an artistic lived life.


This square cross (sent to me in the mail last year as packaging for a print) was included in much of her work, and I'll never be able to see one again without thinking of her. Lately she'd been focusing on hearts (especially knitted). Today at the service, many of these symbols, in the form of drawings, knitted works, ceramics and scraps of letters and cards, were arranged on a table. In her hospice room, when I visited her late last year with some other classmates, she had a beautifully-arranged gallery of artwork and objects, positioned deliberately to bring her pleasure wherever she turned her eyes from her bed.

Jillie was fun-loving, food-loving, music-loving, speed-loving (there were many chuckles in the room today as friends recalled her love of doing hand-brake skids on country dirt roads, and how she drove her electric wheelchair so fast around Lake Burley Griffin that her friends started wearing jogging shoes or bringing their bikes for their 'walks') and only ever worked a job long enough to make enough money to travel. She traveled a lot. She studied many things, including creative writing. At art school she changed her surname from Smith to Wolf (inspired by our feisty Technical Officer whom we were only allowed to call Wolf), and I was thinking today that it was her way of making a marriage-like commitment to art and life.

Her brother and sister and friends spoke today about what a fantastic person she was, at the same time managing to let us know lovingly that she wasn't perfect, because really, who is? But it was her mother's speech that really went to my heart. Of course she spoke about their love for Jill, how funny and clever and loving Jill herself was, but she also talked about the choices Jill had made, how impetuous and rash they could be, how worrying it was for her parents that she never seemed to settle down and that some of the situations she put herself in were dangerous (like Bosnia) -- but that her enthusiasm for life and her wonderful, articulate feedback (in the form of letters, postcards, phone-calls etc) about the places she'd been and the things that she'd seen made all the worry worthwhile. And that whenever Jill needed to move home, as she did a few times, she was an absolute pleasure to have around because she was just so engaged with everything, so grateful to be alive.When she became so ill, no-one had any doubts about giving her the care she needed.

I have had occasion to think over the last year or so about the pathways that we expect for ourselves and our children. I don't know about you, but many of my family members, both blood and by marriage, seem to expect the Straight Line: school, university, a good job, a relationship and children. Any step sideways from this is expected to be temporary: a Gap Year, a Breakdown, a Grieving Period, always defined, always something to Come Back From. These expectations are hard to fight and it's easy to capitulate, to earn that feeling of approval for Getting Back on Track. For many, the only way to break away or fight the pressure is to give yourself less responsibility, like taking drugs or harming yourself so that you can't function within the bounds of Normality.

Jill's parents gave her a huge gift: the freedom to make her own choices, even if they didn't feel comfortable with them. Of course, they are fortunate that she didn't have a drug addiction or a similar self-harming habit; there are plenty of points at which they could, or probably did try to intervene, but Jill seemed to have a cheerful determination to just do her thing at her own pace, and the support structure of good family and friends certainly helped to give her the confidence to be herself. She would have been the most marvellous old lady.

It was a wonderful morning. Laughs, stories and songs. We all quietly sobbed through this one (damn, Youtube not working, but here's the link). It's George Harrison's All things must pass.

It finished with everyone trying hard to choke out 'All you need is love' together. The best bit about The Beatles is that even if the lump in your throat is making the verses hard to sing, there's never any problem with the choruses.

And then I went home, and hugged my beautiful son, over and over until he told me I was weird. Why yes, I hope I am. I hope I can let myself let him be free in his own way.

Goodbye Jill, you're in my book of memories, and I'm going to try to live, or to keep living with a bit of your free spirit to inspire me.


Cat Drawings said...

Beautiful post Duckie. Very sad to lose her. Nice to learn some lessons from the way she lived her life.

Ampersand Duck said...

Thanks. You know, I hope I have a long life so that I can write like this for everyone who makes work I love. Or maybe I should be writing about them *before* they die :)

The Elephant's Child said...

Such a beautiful post. Thank you. It hit a nerve as I went to the funeral of a friend last week and was incensed because the eulogies made a point of deleting all the warts that went into the make-up of a woman I loved. If the coffin had been open I would have felt obligated to check I was at the right funeral.
And your celebration of a life well lived sounded marvellous. Something for us all to aspire to.

elsewhere said...

Lovely post. Thanks for the straight/wavy line thoughts.

Sarah Randles said...

A lovely post and a lovely rememberance. Very few lives actually go in straight lines, but there's a lot of pressure on those of us who don't conform. It's a very useful reminder that a life well lived is about being the person you were meant to be, not about conforming to societal expectations. It's a reminder too that I need to do the work I was put here to do - I'd better get on with it.

Anonymous said...

your writing brought tears to my
eyes - i do so hope someone will
write about me with the same passion,love and above all, honesty
diane workman

Ampersand Duck said...

Thanks, Diane.

Patrick Hromas said...

Thank you dear. I found myself unable to sleep tonight, I was thinking of Jilly, because I guess her remembrance 'anniversary' is soon to occur. I was reminded of a strange conversation between her and I at the GIW one day. (Thankfully all our conversations were strange!)

Me: I'm having a vision.
Jilly: Ooo, really! What can you see?
Me: It's not a vision of images, I am having a conversation.
Jilly: Oh. With whom?
Me: With you! I am lying in bed, I can't sleep.
Jilly (puts her paper folding bone down): What are we talking about?
Me: Just the usual, Art and stuff. It is my own house, an older woman coughs in the next room. I am thinking of 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci', the painting by the Pre-Raphaelite guy. The one with the knight and the Horse.
Jilly: I don't know that one, I must look it up in the Library.
Me: It's a beautiful work, it depicts a woman kneeling beside a Horse with a Knight in shining armor. There seems to be light radiating from her. Or is it radiating from the Horse. I can't recall.
Jilly (flatly, humorously): Are we talking on the telephone, Patrick?
Me (in a trance-like state): Um, no, (swallows), I don't know, you are not there, well not in person at least...I am envisioning that you are in a kind of afterlife, you are warm, the sun is warming you, the birds are singing, the man...what sort of race of man do you prefer?
Jilly: In regards to?
Me: What sort of man do you find attractive, what sort of nationality?
Jilly (sighs, like she has too much work to do): I don't know, I saw a lovely Russian guy the other day, no that's not it...
Me: You mean Eurasian, like the girl in that Savage Garden video?
Jilly: Yes, I guess so.
Me: Well he is bending forward at the waist, to kiss you, passionately.
Jilly: Yes, that sounds Romantic. I like that...
(We resume our work, in silence)

I miss her. I wish I could give her a kiss on the cheek and a hug.