I told a friend recently that my mother had always encouraged me to be creative. She bought me a gouache set in Paris, put me in ceramic classes and exposed me to a broad range of crafts. For a long while she was the only voice encouraging my artistic whims. But I was struck by a major contradiction. Though I have these memories of being encouraged, my approach to creating is riddled with neurosis and apology. It wasn’t until a ceramic artist took my work seriously last year that I thought it possible that my work was ‘art.’ Until that moment I had taken photos in the embarrassed belief that my impulses were frivolous and egotistical, which intersects with baffling remembrances of my artistic temperament being misunderstood and my impulses to create being suppressed by the person who also roused me.
I was told by my parents that I had an ‘exotic’ childhood, which was growing up on YWAM bases until I was fourteen. YWAM stands for Youth With A Mission, which is a non-denominational Christian missionary group. There are hubs or ‘bases’ set up all around the world where these people live and work. Much of my existence as a child in these places was spent riding my bike, playing in trees and eating the finger buns that were donated by Bakers Delight. The nuances of the harsh puritanical norms of the community didn’t register, but they did effect me.
The other part of my growing up years involved living overseas while my parents taught as part of ‘outreach’ (bible bashing without the bashing and Christian oriented counselling). I saw frozen rock pools in Baltic seas, I witnessed a starving elderly Ukrainian woman sitting in her own shit at the bottom of the Orwellian apartment building she was evicted from. But also the green of the northern lights slowly wriggle over the snow covered wheat fields in Oslo. This was the ‘exotic’ bit. I thought I was lucky and had escaped the horror of a standard, suburban existence. Mostly my parents were right. I had seen impact-full and strange things that taught me about my privilege.
It took me a long while to see that we had a lot less than other middle class Australians, and that there was something odd about that. We had upper middle class values but we didn’t have the income to match. When my brother and I were tiny, my mother would buy bars of the cheapest soap and grate it into washing power. She would make Blancmange from milk, a teaspoon of butter, vanilla essence and rice flour because there was nothing else to eat. She found a camp oven and used it to cook our meals. The first place I lived in was a mouse infested, one-bedroom apartment in a Melbourne YWAM base that my father fixed up by hand. I have seen much worse living conditions but there was genuine poverty in our lives.
I have crept back to the Canberra base many times to see what it is like. I sensed the word ‘slut’ going through the minds of the prematurely sour, self appointed matriarchs when I strolled through the corridors, holding a damp rose and wearing my faux fur jacket and black lipstick. It still smelled the same, like Korean food cooked in secret, mould and peeling, pale paint. The industrial size toilet blocks look like those abandoned malls in America. The original brick buildings were Catholic and set up to house single men; each tiny room having a bunk bed, a wardrobe, a sink and mirror. The tennis court used to be covered in vines and purple flowers but was pulled down. There’s still Alsco office spaces (much like a shipping container) badly converted into living quarters abandoned on the front oval, with the legions of scrub coloured rabbits, taking over in the millions.
What their statement about the ‘exotic’ left out was that my parents made life unnecessarily difficult for themselves. They were heavily reliant on the government as they were earning no money, not out of laziness, hardship, set backs, discrimination or lack of education. They worked for free for YWAM in exchange for no money and no superannuation and were given slovenly lodgings and food; highly regulated low grade meat and over boiled broccoli. Perhaps as a way to fortify against anxiety, they bought into the concept, endorsed by the institution, that ‘God would provide.’ But god did not provide, there was no big house, car with air conditioning or lack of worry about money waiting for us. People provided, the government did and those who actually worked and were sympathetic to giving hand outs.
Missionary induced poverty had the consequence of lots of stress, little money and little tolerance. Thus, living in thin walled, one room apartments, temporary offices and squat government housing created a particular friction. There wasn’t enough space for multiple personalities and interests to flourish. We eventually settled in a government house better than our previous lodgings; dorms intended for monks. I developed a vehement dislike of the mumbling, background noises of the TV though. I had moronic, intelligence-destroying TV shows booming through my bedroom wall all of the time. The TV ruled and most attempts to read in any room where it lay was impossible. I had no space except the bathroom that was free from its sound. Maybe that’s why I loved baths. I know that was why I read Jane Eyre in there for hours. Sometimes my reactions to TV noise even now can border on hysterical, and I know it was over a decade of rarely being free of its sound that has given me such a reaction. It has frustrated me to tears. I would sob in my room or angrily come out for the third time to shout ‘Turn the darn TV down!’ It distracted me from studying, reading and creating. Often the content was distressing or offensively dumb as well. It was late at night when the passive watching of whatever was on stopped and there was physical and emotional space in the house for me and my desires. In part this created a lot of nocturnal creating habits.
I did have a positive influence in my mother though. She was not highly influenced by culture or art. Her craft was a socially sanctioned form of activity for a woman; an expression that fit with stereotypes about being a ‘good mother.’ Nevertheless, it was a way for her to express love towards her family. She made long, diaphanous pink curtains for our grey house. They were the most luxurious and romantic thing in my life (apart from the roses that would grow later on, that almost reached the roof eaves). Ugliness upset me. Harsh greys and barren backyards used to make me anxious and uneasy for weeks. My mother made my brother and I clothes and draped as many ugly sinks and twisted plumbing pipes in frilled curtains and adornments. My mother’s style had a gaudy, ’90s, country kitchen vibe to it, that we both laugh at now, but she kept us both alive through her chocked creative expression. It created a buffer between the reality of living much of my life till I was 14 in shipping containers with cut out windows and wardrobes pushed into the middle of the room as a way to create partitions.
Mother was interested in practically every craft possible, which gave me chances to play around with a variety of art forms. And yet the Christian setting we were in made creating even harder. It caused my mother and I to feel that our interest in design, fashion and visuals were wrong, materialistic and ‘secular.’ My mother could therefore not teach me about self expression. Her own expressions were strangled by conservative Christianity and a tremendous lack of money that frustrated her and caused her to become ill for decades. Virginia Woolf describes the psychology of it well. ‘..a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gifts for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty. ‘ (P.51). Virginia is talking about women being thwarted by sexism but this same psychological process was happening to both of us. Yet my mother wouldn’t know the details of the process and how it was effecting her till her forties. So when I was young she couldn’t know that being diverted or stopped from making art (when it didn’t fit with her regimented life and our tenuous resources) would effect me so grossly and far into the future.
So it was first on my own that I learnt about artistic expression, and not by making cookie cutter craft projects from Better Homes and Gardens. It wasn’t until college that I was actively encouraged to self-express without ambivalence. I filled art journals with ideas, clippings, writings and colour swatches. They were so fat they looked like a novel that had tumbled into the bath and been dried off. Before then, I had been diverted by Christian schools that emphasised maths and English as more important than art. In high school I was doing mosaics and metal work but those classes only lasted one or two semesters and were replaced by colouring in. Art and craft were treated as pleasant diversions, but not serious skills or paths. Hence, why it wasn’t until I got to college that I flourished creatively. I did as many art classes as I could and was in awe and disbelief that art was treated as serious and that plenty of my classmates were talented as well as deeply engaged.
At home the things I painted were treated with ambivalence; they either would go unnoticed, be praised or questioned unkindly. The vegetarian slogans I painted on A3 paper I was told were wrong and my self portraits were treated like laughable vanities. And yet I was devoted to photography from the age of sixteen. I took photos of people and landscapes, but self portraits were my ultimate delight. I documented how I altered my clothes, stuck safety pins in my torn stockings, packed on eyeliner and dyed my hair pink and penguin classic orange. Which was all the more daring as my mother had been nothing but a blonde fading out from brown, and my family dressed in that pared down, unexciting manner common to Christians. There was a litany of bad jeans and a baseless disapproval of piercings and ‘sexy’ tops.
Nevertheless, my family gave me many good things. My father has done much to keep me nourished since my twenties and has become far more embracing of my artistic practice over the years. He also taught me one of the most vital lessons in my life: the value of education and that boyfriends could wait till after college. My mother is now painting vibrant, expressive work and understands what I do. But my parents previously misunderstood my creativity because they viewed it through their own values and interests. Which was compounded by an inability to access resources because of their unnecessary poverty. We lived in a community that sneered on creativity and ‘secular’ beauty. To care what one looked like was vain. To enjoy clothes was selfish and materialistic. To paint was for children and a hobby. How could I not have a debilitating lack of confidence in my art?
I kept taking my self portraits and working on my art despite the hostility around me. Which is not to suggest some victorious uprising. I just kept doing what I was impelled to do and did it meekly. The further we got away from Christianity and community living, the more tolerant we all became. I also had teachers and friends who believed in me and my abilities. Though I dismantled my faith and became a vehement atheist, and know where my scars have come from, somehow, maybe unfairly, that doesn’t always lessen the impact. Like I did before, I just keep doing what I love and often do it with little certainty. Some days I tell myself I am legitimate and I believe it more and more.
Image: stephen h