Better Out Than In

Sitting here thinking about what I will write for this post, I am raking my brains for what I really, really want to say. There seems to be something really good in there somewhere, a whole lot of ideas to unpack, but to begin with.. its just hard work.

That mass of ideas, all the experiences I’ve had over the last month, the meanings of conversations mulled over, thoughts I churned through on my way to sitting here at this very page. I know it's in there somewhere, that one gem. Alas! holding my head in despair, I try and locate which part of my brain I might have stashed it, but to no avail.

I was sure that brilliant nugget would come out as soon as I sat down but no. Nope, not one idea makes itself known as I sit poised at my computer. So instead I thought I’d just write about this whole messy, gritty, at times harrowing process, and what it reminds me of -

 A big hard poo.

A big hard poo unwilling to budge from its resting spot or make itself known to its creator.

Maybe crude, but isn't that precisely what makes the analogy so fitting.

You creatives and others out there who balance part-time jobs and practices to knife point and have come to juggle these around like I have been known to do, will know exactly what I'm talking about. The bitter conundrum of receiving some incredible concept while on location somewhere, and then it's like as soon as you get back to the desk, the studio, the throne room if you will. Poof! Goneskies!

No matter how many times you go back through your thoughts the thing's gone.

You have to work pretty hard to get that sh*t out (pardon the pun) if you actually want it to go anywhere and it seems the better an idea it is, the more work it takes to push it out into the world.

At least in my experience the above is true.

For every great idea I’ve had, every really good one, there’s been a lot of waiting around, a lot of waiting for time to do its thing - a lot of trying once, failing and trying yet again only to find yourself exhausted and still without progress. On the rare occasion there's even been tears.

I thought today I'd let you in on one such encounter - for those who thought being an artist was easy, or thought it was too hard for them. I know the feeling.

For any of you who have glimpsed the work ‘City on a Hill (2013)’- a seven layered tunnel book I made of Melbourne City in my first year here, the story of this work is the product of another project's end. I can look back at it in hindsight with self-respect and good humour. I'm still extremely proud of my efforts on all fronts, but at the time I felt like the biggest failure. I see now, that the whole process was just time and life doing its thing through me, the artist to come to a place where my work - the product of pushing and pushing and failing and pushing again, could break through the surface to become something larger than the sum of its parts.

Not many of you may know this, but this work might not have been, had it not been for the rejection of another series I made which sadly missed out on as much public profile, much like many of the works of many, many talented artists I know of.

A lot of it comes back to time and hard work, and not much compensates for these things, bar a fair bit of talent but even then. As it happened nearly four years ago, I was a keen young artist having just arrived in Melbourne, ready to take on the art world. Two of my dearest Kiwi mates and I, started out wandering around Collingwood one hot and sweaty summer day where we stumbled into Artisan Books on Gertrude Street. Sadly this store is no more, but back then, it was a dream.

As soon as I set foot into that store I fell in love. The plush leather couches in the corner, low lighting, the local art displayed in the cabinets, the books of art and culture and recent publications from other artists whose names and illustration I recognised – Shaun Tan; Marc Martin; Del Kathryn Barton. I had arrived. If I could only get my art in this store I thought, I would have made it.

So, a little shaky from excitement and nerves I approached the counter, took a card, and let the store assistant know I was “an artist” and that I made paper cut stories using paper. I used my best ‘meek but quietly ambitious artist’ voice. The guy behind the desk expressed some interest in my work and mentioning they would be changing up their cabinet display before too long he asked - did I have a card?

Yes. Yes I did.  

After weeks of checking my emails for a response thereafter and finding nothing, I wrote to the email address listed on the store website. T hey got back to me within a few days to say how much they liked my work and that they’d love to show some of my art in the coveted store cabinet.

I was elated. Just like that! The Melbournian store guy liked my work!

Amidst all my excitement I set off on my mission. I determined then and there to design a piece that would make mouths drop open. A piece that would stand out like no other.

I spent two straight weeks making three works no larger than the face of a CD cover, representing a Victorian style library painted in watercolour. The details meticulously cut out so that that all objects could be distinguished by their cuts and the shadows the works made when held up against a wall. The set is entitled The Reading Room, and the works are worth a look if you’ve got 5 minutes to scour the website's gallery.

The series now sit in glass cases in my parent's home in Puhoi, New Zealand.

At the time I was sure Artisan Books would love them. I’d put everything I had into the story behind them I was telling, relating the works conceptually to the store I’d made them for.

Oh how wrong I was.

I'd set out on out on an unpaid design job without having checked in with my client about the brief.

The Artisan Books manager let me down easy.

Said they were different from the straight white paper cuts they’d seen on my website and that the painted detail in these particular works might be ‘lost’ in the display.

I still wonder if he noticed the pained expression in my face or the slump in my shoulders when I realised he was not elated with the works as I'd expected, but perhaps a disappointed and maybe even a little sorry for me. It was like the pet cat who thinks they've done you a great honour by catching you a bird and leaving it on your front doorstep..or the carpet.

As I stood in front of the counter holding my sad box of artwork, the manager stood awkwardly trying to cheer me up with the opportunity to present another work in the upcoming 'Artisan Books Annual Book Exhibition'. There were three months leading up to that exhibition in which I could prepare and construct more work if I was interested in submitting a separate piece for the show.

I put on my best fake smile and agreed “the exhibition sounds great! I’d love to keep in touch”. At this, manager man smiled sympathetically, at which point I turned on my heel and headed out the door.

Only when I had rounded the corner did the tears come as I held my delicate box of meticulously finished, un-exhibited art.

I didn’t make anything for the rest of that week. It might have even been two. I felt like a crumpled child having stubbed a toe after a fall. Mum in New Zealand, I'd have to find the band-aids on my own. A lot of me telling myself “you can do this, you can do this” in between sighs and some pretty heavy morning runs over those two following weeks.

But the episode dissipated. Life marched on. I took myself out for a coffee, put away the paints, cleaned my desk and set about warming the inspiration back into my poor mourning inner artist to begin again, starting as I usually do with most creative briefs, with a brainstorm.

I read the brief for the show carefully this time. I set about writing down all the things I loved about Melbourne and thought really long and hard about why I wanted my work in this particular bookstore.

 Why had I poured myself into a series of works without consulting someone or checking in with the owners to see if they actually fit the mould? - How could I be such an idiot? But, I rationalised, I wasn't an idiot. Just an idealist who was learning her first lessons in realism.

They say some of the best lessons are the hardest and I wasn't going to wimp out on this one.

The shop owner said he wanted white paper. No colour. So out went my painstakingly hand painted paper cut. I had to concentrate on the cut itself. The paper itself. Deep breathes.

One foot in front of the other.

What came from all this huffing and puffing (not to mention self-help mantras) was something I could never have come to, had I been told yes the first time around.

Over the following months I produced a seven layered paper cut many of you would have seen called 'City From A Hill'. The work shows two people with their bikes at the top of a hill looking down on Melbourne in all its tram-riding, music-loving, foodie-endorsing glory. There's a streetscape lined with storefronts, each of them telling a different story.

If you look really hard you can even make out tiny street art on some of the buildings and staircases seen from the road leading up to secret venues.

The work at the time was the most extensive in my career. It was far more than the manager had expected me to create and I ticked every box as I created my seven-layered, all-white, minuscule tunnel book in the hope that this time I presented my work I wouldn't be sent packing.

Venturing back to Artisan Books with it, I held my breath at the door and stepped in with the work. I got a "wow".

Win. Management loved this one. It got pride of place amidst the other works in the shops window display facing the street.

The piece in total took roughly 75 hours to create and has since been exhibited as part of numerous cultural initiatives and exhibitions in Melbourne. There are other examples I could talk about but I think given this lengthy essay I'll finish up here so you can go and work on getting your own mess out into the open where it belongs rather than all this focus on mine.

So go do your thing whatever that thing may be, and remember - the next time you're having a good wrestle with a tough concept or putting your mind to something which seems like it might never eventuate- just - keep - pushing.

It'll be all the more gratifying when you get that baby out.