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  • Writer's pictureGrace Davidson-Lynch

IWD 2024 - What I Learned About Art from the Women I Love

Lesson One - Nana 

When we were kids, we used to stay with my Nana at her house in Newcastle during the school holidays. She still lives in that house made of dark brown wood, hidden somewhere in the trees, just off that long suburban road. The drive was a torturous two hours, but when we arrived and we walked our scrunched-up legs up her front steps, we walked through a portal to somewhere warm, and familiar, and dreamy. Tall gum trees hanging over the house, and a backyard full of clucking hens and soft native grass. The most vivid, verdant, viridescent green in the universe lived in her backyard. 

My Nana Pat is an artist. Her house is filled with things made by her friends and colleagues and grandkids. She’s a textiles artist primarily, but I have always felt awestruck by her capacity to work in every other medium too. Our childhood days spent at her home were days spent experimenting. We made papier-mâché sculptures, painted and drew, even carved chunks of sandstone into sculptures. I remember the sandstone clearly - I could barely get the hang of it, so I only ever managed to create a vaguely pyramidal mass of heavy pale stone. But my Nana encouraged me and complemented my mass, and kept it long after she ever needed to. We gathered interesting leaves of various hues and dyed with them, or made collages with them, or just looked them over and discussed them like we were botanists. We spent hours in her house playing her piano, and hours outside in the garden building forts and dreaming. 

When I think about her art, I think about her hands.

Sometimes we would just watch Nana work, bowed over the white altar of her sewing machine, her peaceful face and her intense eyes in contrasting stillness to her fast hands. They moved effortlessly, maneuvering the thread and crafting structures like a delicate spider. She could sew words into her fabric, and somehow the letters still looked exactly like her looping handwriting, as if there never was a machine separating her from the final product.

My Nana may work with a medium synonymous with dainty femininity, but instead her hands are calloused and a little rough to the touch. They are hands that chop firewood and clean out gutters. They are hands that built chicken coops and gently rescue spiders from precariously built webs. She is not a dainty wisp of a woman, and her art has always captured her strength and intelligence. My Nana has always made art that is bright and rich and textural. Her art demands to be touched and held, to be felt against the skin and understood deeply. Her life has not been a simple one, and so her art is not simple. Her hands might have been calloused, but her heart is not. Far from it. 

Lesson One - Art is made of love and experience and truth. Art that is made this way is more precious than anything sold at Christie's or Sotheby's. In fact, it is the only thing that makes art precious.

Lesson Two - Mum 

I think, maybe, that even though my Mum was the first artist I knew, I didn’t really understand it until I was a older. Because before I ever saw her as an accomplished creative, I saw her as my Mum.

I learned to walk on film sets and slept in my pram in editing suites. I remember the buzzing sensation of production, that faint feeling of nervous energy that making art on a strict timeline, with rented expensive gear, sometimes in the rain, brings with it. I remember with vagueness being in a few of her movies, but only really through watching myself on VHS or DVD years later. I remember colouring in pictures and looking over at Mum, discussing the minute details of a fade out with her editor. Once, I watched the screen of the computer for a moment and saw the smile on a lady’s face fade to black, and then saw Mum clap her hands because it was just right. I remember blowing kisses into the envelopes containing Mum’s tender applications, because if she got the jobs, we got to go to the zoo. My siblings and I have some of the best baby videos around, because Mum would film us with her expensive fancy camera.

As kids, we understood that there were strict rules in our house when it came to Mum’s office. If we needed her and she was working, we were to knock at the door and wait. If mum was on the phone, we weren’t to come in at all unless someone was bleeding or on fire. If she wasn’t, we could bound in and annoy her only briefly. We knew she was working and busy. 

Some days, Mum would tape butcher’s paper to our kitchen floor. Then, she’d squirt big blobs of paint into the corners of the paper- red, blue, yellow. We’d put on old clothes and play in the paints, using our fingers and hands and feet as our brushes. We mixed the colours with our bodies, and watched as the three distinct blobs turned into a brown wash. I would think about the lessons in colour Nana taught us - red and blue and yellow are primary colours, colours can be warm or cool, the primary colours can be mixed to make the secondary colours, and so on. 

I don’t know for sure, but I think my Mum must have had phone meetings or strict deadlines on those paint days. We must have been entertained for at least an hour. She would get some quiet, uninterrupted time to work, and then would come and mop up our mess. 

Mum cobbled together income from a dozen different places. She taught classes and made ads and educational videos for different companies and agencies. She worked harder than anyone else’s mum. I know now that she was trying her hardest every day, but back then, I only saw effortless magic. I saw a kind and gentle mother who’s life was devoted to us, and then to her practice.

Lesson Two - You can make a living from your art, but you will need to find lots of jobs and a bit of time and space to do it. It’s hard, but if it’s right for you, then it’s harder to not do it.

Lesson Three - High School

Lilly is the best drawer. She and I would fill our grid books with pictures, much to the horror of our math teacher. She often drew images of girls in beautiful dresses, flowing long hair and pastel pink rosy cheeks. She also made beautiful dresses. Sometimes it felt like I was friends with a forest nymph or a fairy godmother, an ethereal beauty spinning magic into existence with her bare hands. During lockdown 2021, Lilly knew I was struggling and came to my house and dropped a crocheted blanket on my doorstep. It was round, and reminded me of a pastel spiders web, green and pink and purple threads all weaved in a circle. I held it like a baby’s blanket and cried. She was an ethereal thing when we were young, and she still is now.

Rikiah wanted to be an actor. She could cry on command and sing and could even do a front flip forward roll when we asked nicely and cheered loudly for her. She was a better performer than anyone else in our high school, and everyone knew it. She was my theatre confidant. We made so many skits and tiny, meaningless performances together. When we were young, I always felt like she knew so much more about life than made any sense for someone who had only lived for 15 years. Her capacity for empathy was staggering, her sense of humour was razor-sharp, and her willingness to see goodness in others allowed me to see it in myself. She was the first person I took my theatre ideas to then, and she still is now. I don’t know if I believed, back then, that we would actually make theatre together and find such comfort and power in our interwoven practices. I am forever grateful that that ended up being the case.

Tara wrote voraciously. She stored so many worlds and characters in her mind. We often hid in the library together, studied and became distracted together, at one desk under the window for hours on end. We read and edited each other’s works in progress, and were softer and more effective in our feedback than any of our teachers ever were. We took extension classes together, pushed our small minds harder than was probably necessary. We sat together after one of our last exams for Extension English, in the empty school playground in the late afternoon, and celebrated my 18th birthday by eating lollies and complaining about Romanticism. She wanted to be a writer, and she became one as soon as we finished school. I have watched in awe of her for so many years, witnessing her continue make things, write more, find ways of making sure her life is as full and enriching as possible. I look up to her in that way. I hope to have even a fraction of her tenacity.

At lunchtime, in the art rooms, we came together and made things. I remember forcing my friends to take turns being my canvas, as I spent hours painting abstract nonsense on their hands and arms. We played music too loud and laughed till our bellies hurt. We drew and painted and wrote. If we were men, we might have been called a collective. But we aren’t. We were just best friends making stuff up on a Thursday afternoon.

Lesson Three - We were put on this earth to make things. We were always artists. We were then, when no one was watching, and we are now. Just because it was fun and self-indulgent, doesn’t mean it didn’t matter.

When I think about women in the arts, I often think of the inequity. Female artists - cis or not, straight or not, no matter what - have more constraints placed around us than male artists. We must make art in spite of the the abusive systems of power. But if I think past that pain, all I see is love. I think maybe I was very lucky to find art through my family and friends. I think if I hadn’t had these women in my life, I don’t know if I would still be making art. Without them, I think the world would have worn me to a stump long ago. Every voice that has ever told me to stop, or to curb myself, or to become a more palatable women, has been drowned out by the sound of my mother singing, the sound of my friends laughing, the sound of my grandmother’s heartbeat when she holds me against her chest. Through their love, I feel connected to every woman who has ever created things. They made dresses, dolls, meals, and homes for thousands of years. Their work and minds and names were forgotten to time, but I think I can feel their tender hands and warm breath in my bones. The protective, nurturing circles us women have created will always remain, unbroken.

This next part is just for them. You can stop reading here if you like.

Nana, Mum, Lilly, Rikiah, Tara - when I think of the arts, I think of us. I think of the lives we have lived together and separately. I think of the beauty that we make through our women’s work - the dresses sown, the dinners cooked, the birthday cards handmade. There is nothing like the art we make. We do not fit into male paradigms and we shouldn’t try to. When I think of what an artist is, I don’t think of a stern looking man in the dust jacket of a famous book. I don’t think of a black-and-white photograph of a well-known frown standing in front of a painting so abstract it forgets to make an impression. 

When I think of what artists look like, I see your faces. 

I don’t know if my words will ever convey my gratitude for the lifetime of love, protection, effort and creativity you have given to me.

But thank you for making me who I am. Happy International Women’s Day.

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