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.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Requests for CATZ

Man, this is harder than I expected. How many times a day do I think 'I must blog that' and then just Facebook it? I guess it's the actual sitting down to compose something, tracking down the photos I want to use, resizing them, and all that.

I've had a few requests for more cats. I presume that means more cat photos, but I seriously almost took a cat home from the recent Bega Show. She was GORGEOUS, black and white and fluffy but not too fluffy. Her name was Emma, but we would have changed that pretty quickly. I mean, we couldn't have Mr Padge, Mr Pooter and Emma, could we? She would have to be a Ms or Miss at the very least, and probably have to have a similarly 'Diary of a Nobody' name, like Daisy Muttler or something. She was 6 months old, desexed, micro-chipped, toilet-trained and completely mellow around all the kids and adults patting her in the animal pavilion. I fell in love. We've always wanted three cats, but we've never been sure about how to go about it. It would be easier if our two cats weren't litter siblings and completely co-dependent.

I didn't end up taking Emma home. Best Beloved was also tempted when he met her, but he has a slightly clearer head than I and he, unbeknownst to me until that conversation, had worked out a strategy and so unveiled it for me: wait until one of our cat-boys dies and then buy two cats to fill the gaping hole that will be left. I found the thought almost too painful to hold for even a few minutes, but he has a good point. The remaining cat will be so bereft and lonely that he will welcome the company, and with any luck he'll be too old to put up much of a fight against two new kittens.

I suppose I should put some photos in now. Speaking of one cat, Pooter very rarely seems to be in front of my camera. Padge, however, is always in the studio under or beside my feet.

 I love his big bum, it's such a lovely catty shape.

It does however make it hard to sit on small seats. All ladies with generous proportions (like myself) know this pain.

Let's change the subject, it's making me sad.

I'm very excited about a couple of new albums out or coming out. The first is the new David Bowie album, the first for YEARS. I'm not much of a hero worshipper, but if I had to pick one person I admire it would be him, just because he has proved himself to be a continually inventive person who comes up with the goods. I love the latest single from the album (The Stars (are out tonight)), mainly because it is damn fine and has a video clip with Tilda Swinton and David being bizarre together, but also because it will soon be released on WHITE VINYL, peoples. I am going to queue for one if I have to, and it will join my red Beatles vinyl and my pale pink Elvis vinyl (yes, Colonel Duck, both of which were/are yours. But this will be MINE).

The other album, which I have already and have been playing on high rotation, is the latest from Deborah Conway and Willy Zeigler, Stories of Ghosts. How many ways do I love Deborah Conway? She has always been there; every time she releases a track it's in tune with my own time of life and emotions. I guess we're roughly the same age, give or take five years or so. As a forty-something woman (entering the latter part of '40-something' :) ), when I heard the track 'Nothing Tastes the Same' on ABC RN, it had the same emotional impact as 'Man Overboard' did when I was 18.

She and Willy have been given a lot of airplay on ABC RN lately, (and so they bloody well should) and they've been pitching the album as an atheistic exploration of Old Testament themes. But it's more than that. The CD cover and printed song-words (the material object!) reveal an underlying preoccupation with questioning the treatment of Jewish people through history. It's done beautifully; the music and the lyrics are just wonderful. The songs are so multi-layered that I'm sure people can find multiple readings that are all equally valid.

I've got a couple of my graduate residencies in swing at the moment. One is Merryn Sommerville, who is working with woodcuts and wood type. I'll show more of her soon. The other, who is almost finished, is Eadie Newman. Eadie studied in the Printmedia & Drawing Workshop and came out more as a drawer than a printer, but I loved the way she combines her drawings with imaginative and elaborate titles. So she came and looked at the type, and like the resident before her, painter Louise Upshall, proved to be a dab hand at type-setting. Here she is:

She wasn't quite sure what to do, so I sent her home with a book of Stevie Smith poems (I love matching artistic minds with the right texts) and she came up with this for the poem 'In My Dreams':

Isn't it wonderful? Of course, that image is just the proof, but we've now printed them and after a session of cleaning them up and signing, they will be unleashed on my website for sale, along with all the other wonderful prints made by my EASS residents (EASS is an emerging artists' support scheme run by my art school). Later in the year, in August, I'm putting up an exhibition of all the work made so far. I'll keep you all informed of that one.

 If you're in Melbourne, pop over to the Caulfield campus of Monash and see the most wonderful print exhibition, called Community and Context, up until March 12. If you can't get to it, you can at least look at the catalogue, and maybe even buy one. I'm in it, and so are a lot of very interesting people.

Enough! My email inbox is pinging madly; I'm in the thick of curating an exhibition of artist's books made by Canberra artists, opening April 11. I'm guessing the next post will be all about that.