Do you enjoy fragments? I do. A glimpse of a strangers face, a remembered line of an old song, a whispered conversation on a bus, a delicious aroma teasing from someone else’s house, the middle of a movie you haven’t got time to watch till the end, a dream that vanishes on waking, a phrase you just have to copy down…
They arouse my curiosity and imagination more than any completed experience.
Australian writer Elizabeth Jolley, wrote fragments on scraps of paper for years before she was first published in her fifties. She was too busy raising a family and working at an assortment of jobs to have enough time to write at length and at leisure. I was one of her many correspondents whom she encouraged to write short notes about the weather, landscape, overheard conversations, because I too had a full life with little time. She was quoted in 1986 as saying: “If anybody had asked to see a work in progress it would have been lots of bits of paper with scribbles on.”
A fragment is defined as “an isolated or incomplete part”. But, although incomplete, it is at the same time complete in itself because it contains the potential of what it may become…a story, poem, song, healing memory, nourishing meal, something understood, a puzzle solved.
Fragments allow mystery into our lives and curiosity leads us on….
My thought today is simply, that we can be surprised by beauty in unexpected places and what a delight that is!
I saw this drawing in a community hall in Yirrkala a few months ago and was drawn to the expressive movements of the women in dance and how well the art work was executed. When I asked if anyone knew the artist I was told it was a local worker, not someone who made their living from art. It’s not there now, maybe the artist wanted it back, or maybe a lucky person purchased it The day I saw it was a working day for me, driving around in the heat of midday looking for patients in the community, the passionate dancing image twirled my mind into a place of joy for just a few moments.
Surprises like this give me reasons to smile and remember that days, especially working days, aren’t only filled with serious effort, there’s lightness as well if we’re open to it.
In an on-line version of Anchor Magazine I recently read an article called “Original Voices, teaching everyone to write”, by Pat Schneider, founder of Amherst Writers and Artists. She is a well known writing teacher who holds workshops that make writing an experience within the reach of anyone who picks up a pen or types at a computer.
She writes, “Every human has a story and every story is valuable. Most of us would agree to that. What might be more difficult for us to agree upon is this: all of us, speaking in our own original voices, achieve at times literary art. It may not be published, but the artistry is there”. Pat goes on to tell the story of a Vietnamese man who attended one of her workshops hoping to learn to write better in English, but each day he became more and more frustrated, until finally on the last day Pat asked him to write in the language he dreamt in, the language of his birth. He then wrote a flowing and moving account of his father, which he read back to the other participants in English. The point she makes from this is that we can all write our stories, despite any perceived lack in ourselves of education, language, or opportunity if we write in our own voice, of our own experiences. These things, so important in the dominant culture, are no guarantee of wisdom or insight. The sparks in a story that light up our interest come from the deep honesty of who we are and what we’ve experienced.
Last month in Gove, in the Northern Territory, where I live and work the Garma festival was held. Four days of Indigenous dance, song and various cultural workshops in the open air and heat of the North Australian bush.It was an enriching experience made possible by the generous sharing of local Aboriginal people teaching us aspects of their culture we could understand. Objective things we could listen to, the resonance of the didgeridoo, hands-on weaving, jewellery and spear making and the colourful visuals of their dancing. Stories were the one thing missing, there was no event or place we could participate in where we could listen or read stories of these ordinary Aboriginal people’s experiences. I wondered what Garma meant to the women teaching us to weave or to make shell necklaces. I wondered what they would have been thinking as they collected multitudes of tiny colourful shells in the months before or for those who would have collected the pandanus grasses for weaving and roots for dying. What did all that mean to them? How did these activities take them away from their families? And the older man who patiently taught the didgeridoo class under the grass-covered shelter, what did he think of young white men wanting to play his traditional instrument? Who can hold workshops for these people in remote communities so they can tell their stories in their own voice? How would they be accepted if they could?
Stories give us insight into other lives, other places and enable us to connect to a much wider world beyond our own thoughts and experiences.They help us develop an inclusive attitude to others different to ourselves. Connection to, and inclusion of, other people is what makes us mature human beings.
Among the most important things in living a creative life is having a passionate desire for what you love and following it without giving up. Here’s a poem by Hafiz, a 14th century Persian Sufi master that puts this succinctly.
The Vintage Man
Between a good artist
And a great one
Will often lay down his tool
Then pick an invisible club
On the minds table
And helplessly smash the easels and
Whereas the vintage man
No longer hurts himself or anyone
And keeps on
Whatever our particular “tools” are in the art that is our life…may we keep on “sculpting light”…
My first day off after starting work in the clinic in the remote Indigenous community of Aurukun, in far north Queensland, was spent walking around the few paved roads photographing the obvious landmarks of church, store, airstrip and police station. I wanted to take photos of the things that shocked or surprised me, the skinny mangy dogs, the rundown houses, families sitting on the bare ground cooking food over open fires. The intimate things like the profile of a grandmother, a naked child playing with a scrawny puppy or the women whirling out their cast nets in a wide white circle to catch a small fish meal. But I didn’t dare point my camera at any of those things. I still wonder about that, are people’s lives that are lived in a public space open to portrayal on film? I was concerned to not be intrusive or to add to any negative images the dominant white culture already has of such communities. But, now that I’m more experienced with my camera, I wish I’d at least asked some of the local adults if I could photograph them going about their ordinary lives, if for no other reason than to retain my memory of them, and of course, to offer them copies for posterity.
The photo here is the one I took of the store, not nearly as interesting as a group of people or a simple portrait.
A few weeks after I arrived in Aurukun I heard about a grass weaving workshop being held at the Arts Centre. Three elderly Central Desert women had been brought to Aurukun to share their weaving culture with the local Indigenous women. When I asked if I could watch them on my days off I was told I could join in. I was rapt.
I arrived early at eight, there was brightly coloured raffia lying around on the ground and the three visitors sitting among the tangled strands, gathering up dried grasses into lengths and drinking milky tea out of large enamel mugs. No local women appeared for a few hours. The visitors spoke no English, their soft voices sounded like a light breeze rustling through desert grasses. I’d never heard their gentle syllables before.
I sat down next to them after being handed a darning needle and being told to gather some raffia and grasses. I was disappointed to see the garish colours. The local Aurukun women wove pandanus grasses into intricately designed mats and baskets after they dyed them with various roots turning the grasses into browns/reds/yellows. Their finished products looked more natural than whatever we could make out of the cheap imported raffia.
I wondered just what it was that the visitors could possibly show the locals. A white man videoed the scene on and off throughout the day, as a few locals straggled in and out of the blue tarpaulin shelter. Some began a basket, weaving the dried grasses together with raffia in a blanket stitch, others made themselves tea and biscuits and wandered back up Kang Kang road in the Spring heat.
I sat for two days weaving with the desert women, they guided my hands and nodded approval. I finished my basket at the end of the second day. As I was about to leave a white woman told me that everything made at the workshop had to stay with the Art Centre for an exhibition in Adelaide. No-one had mentioned that and I was the only person to have completed a basket. I told her I wanted to show the other nurses, she agreed to let me but warned me to bring it back the next day.
Now, I don’t know about you, but her attitude made me angry. I’d spent two days making something which would have been at a negligible cost to whoever paid for the raffia and I wanted to keep it as a memory. She approached me at the clinic twice after the workshop demanding my basket. I refused to let her have it on the grounds that I hadn’t been told before the workshop and that the exhibition in Adelaide was for the work of Indigenous women. Did the fact that Aboriginal women collected the grass, guided my hands and inspired me with their voices…make my work Indigenous?
I still ponder this after five years….what makes a creative work genuine? and how, especially with handcrafts does the buyer ever know what they’re actually buying? It’s different nowadays with Aboriginal paintings Art Centres go to lengths to provide proof of the artist. But my weaving experience makes me wonder how anyone can really know if a work is made by the persons name on the accompanying ticket? and if you like it does it really matter?