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Vincent van Gogh (as a yoof): a hero to many

Vincent van Gogh (as a yoof): a hero to many – imagine being able to meet him.

It is a big adventure, this writing life.  There’s the adventure in the stories: characters experiencing things, discovering things, learning things; overcoming and becoming.

Then there’s the adventure of conceiving stories, writing stories, redrafting stories (repeat ad infinitum if necessary), before sending them out until an editor takes a shine to a particular piece and puts it amongst his or her pages.  Then there’s the adventure of feedback.  Who will like what?  Or will no-one like any of it?  Or will there be no feedback at all?

But there’s more: the places writing has taken me, as in real places.  A homestead out of Braidwood.  A gatekeeper’s cottage in Launceston.  The writers’ house at Bundanon beside the Shoalhaven River.  The monastic Varuna in the Blue Mountains.  And, most recently, the Australian Defence Force Academy, courtesy of UNSW Canberra.

Then there are the people I’ve met, other writers, artists of all kinds.  The conversations over coffees, lunches, glasses of wine, dinners even!  It doesn’t take me long to be enthralled by those who are far ahead in this game; I become besotted.  It is, to tell you the truth, one of the most exciting things: to spend time with extraordinarily creative souls.

I have been so fortunate.  A highlight?

In January 2011, as part of a piece for the Canberra Times, I found myself in the Sydney home of eminent contemporary – or ‘pop’ – artist Martin Sharp.  All morning we talked about the things that mattered to him: his great love of Vincent van Gogh, Tiny Tim, and, a little surprisingly, UK talent-show contestant Susan Boyle; about how he thought the best art came from school children; about how his thinking has evolved, his relatively newfound religiosity.  ‘Sometimes,’ he said, ‘conservative thinking is radical.’  This from the man who was once involved with Oz Magazine, whose London editors would end up being jailed as part of the infamous ‘Obscenity Trials’.

At midday, after he farewelled me, as I walked up his driveway, I thought – and I distinctly remember it – that this would be go down as one of my favourite days.  Here was a great artist, but one without a skerrick of pretension.  It was as though I’d just spent the morning with a slightly kooky but utterly charming uncle (who chain-smoked).

So, dear writing, thank you for the adventures thus far.

And, dear Martin Sharp, thank you for everything you gave us.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 14 December 2013.)

Three months in this place does what to a man?

Three months in this place does what to a human being?

There’s no doubt that December is the month of looking back, scanning the year for highlights, the things that have mattered.  For me, one of the highlights (amongst many) was my three-month time as Creative Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy via the generosity of the University of NSW Canberra.  I was in-residence at ADFA from September to November, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I loved every minute of it…even though, for the first few hours, I sat in my bare white office in the Academy Library and thought, Oh my, how on Earth did I end up here?

I remember earlier this year how I’d read through the application details and quickly concluded that a military environment wasn’t exactly the right fit for me.  Twice now I’ve protested in the streets about Australia’s involvement in military conflict overseas.  Frankly, I’d rather see the defence budget reduced and money on education and the arts – including education in the arts – increased.  And then there’s the simple fact that I’m just not interested in the machinations of war: the machinery, the strategy, the winning at all costs (and what terrible costs they almost always are).  However, it was said to me that if I was feeling uncomfortable about being in the military environment then perhaps that’s exactly where I should be.  So I started working on the application and soon found that I was interested in definitions of masculinity – how are men truly and perhaps profoundly tested in times of extreme conflict?

Needless to say, it was a complete thrill to be awarded one of the two residencies on offer, and as the time came closer I became more and more nervous.

Really, was this the right thing for me to do?

And the question was turned up to eleven on that first day in September when I sat in that bare white office in the Academy Library.  Eventually I decided that I wouldn’t approach my research through philosophical or academic lenses.  Rather I’d simply expose myself to as much material as I could find amongst the extraordinary resources available (the ADFA Academy Library is known to have one of the world’s greatest collections of military material): fiction, non-fiction, poetry, feature film, documentary; I also had some fantastically energising conversations with UNSW Canberra academics.

Just off-screen is your local Nigel Featherstone shitting himself from nerves.

End-of-residency presentation day: just off-screen is your local Nigel Featherstone shitting himself from nerves.

One of the things I found very interesting about being ‘in residence’ at an academic institution, in contrast to other residencies I’ve been on (for example, Bundanon, Cataract Gorge, Varuna), is the feeling of connection to the topic, as opposed to being in delicious isolation (which, at the right time, has benefits).  On the ADFA campus I was constantly surrounded by material, and it wasn’t only the material in the Library – even going to get a coffee got the thoughts flowing as I was almost always surrounded by men and women in military dress.  It all added up to a very stimulating and thought-invoking time.

So, for three months I filled my brain with stories and observations and conversations, and some questions evolved.  Who is a man?  Who is a good man?  Who is a good person?  Who is a good being?  And then other questions came to the surface, questions about fact and myth, how nations tend to love the latter for not entirely malevolent political reasons.  I don’t have the answers, of course, but I’m looking forward to continuing to think about these questions and see what original work might result over the coming months and years, decades even.

Have my views towards the military changed?

I’m not sure they have, but I do feel as though I have a better (though, in the broader scheme of things, still cursory) understanding of Australia’s military history, and perhaps a deeper appreciation of what service men and women go through to achieve strategic goals.  I still consider the military mechanism for resolving differences completely and utterly barbaric and absurd.  But perhaps I’ve been given a touch of insight into the humans beneath the camouflage, and, more or less, there’s a diversity to people who have served and who are currently serving.

When Australians think of their military history, they might always conjure the larrikin ‘Digger’ in his slouch hat.  But that larrikin ‘Digger’ in his slouch hat is not all there is to it.

And that larrikin ‘Digger’ might not even be true.

*

Much gratitude to UNSW Canberra for the opportunity, and thanks to the staff for being so helpful and welcoming.

'Nigel's interior' by Rudy Kistler (oil on panel, 2011)

There’s a new painting on my wall.  It didn’t just appear there out of the blue, of course, although it would have been good if it had (fancy a house where art just appears on the walls, and disappears again, just like that!).  No, I bought this one, at least I’m in the process of buying it, because it’s a painting of a room in my house, the doors to the ensuite no less, which doesn’t sound like a worthwhile subject for a painting, and if you could see the actual doors, and the actual ensuite, with its over-cast grey tiling and floor-to-ceiling crack in the wall, you’d think it even less worthwhile.  But there it is: a painting of my ensuite doors, a painting by Australian artist Rudy Kistler.

Last month, while I was working words at Varuna, the national writers’ house in the Blue Mountains, Rudy was at my place in Goulburn, ostensibly house-sitting, and chook-sitting, the latter much more important than the former.  But in reality he was painting.  One of the joys of those two weeks was seeing Rudy post on Facebook the paintings he was producing.  There was one of sparrows in the budding Manchurian pear tree in the backyard.  Another of a whiskey bottle on my dining-room table, French doors behind, the tiling beneath the table rendered as if peeling away, like baked mud in a summer dam.  But it’s the painting of the ensuite French doors that really took my fancy, because – because why?  Because here was someone, Rudy Kistler, engaging with my house, connecting with it, interpreting it.

Had he woken one morning and saw something that took his eye?  Had he sat up in bed and sketched it?  I’ve asked Rudy about the motivation of the painting.  He said that he was taken by the light, how it came through ‘three rooms in one’.  That’s all; it’s nothing more complicated than that.

To me, however, it’s the magic of being able to see through someone else’s eyes.  If writing is all about walking in someone else’s shoes, and communicating that as fully as possible, perhaps painting – all visual art – allows the viewer to spend a moment experiencing someone else’s sight.  And how extraordinary that is, because it’s a rare privilege. So that’s why I have this new painting.  When I look at the painting of my ensuite doors by Rudy Kistler I’m out of my own wretched body, I’m not of myself, and that’s such a good feeling.  Perhaps, for some, religion takes them out, but for me it’s art, art that is as good as this.

To finish with a quote from Rudy himself.  You know how I mentioned that other painting with the tiles like dried-up mud?  I asked him why he chose to paint the flooring in such a way, especially when the flooring is actually brand new (and cost me a small fortune).  Rudy replied, ‘I had a teacher once who said, we’re not interested in your straight lines, anyone can paint in straight lines, we’re interested in your wobbly lines.’

There’s something in that, isn’t there, the startling beauty of imperfection.

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