Making Art in words and paint

Grahame Sydney, artist, recalls a significant book.

It lay beside my bed through most of my teenaged years, one of two constant companions of my privately turbulent adolescence. The other was Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit, and both paperbacks grew imperceptibly more battered with miles and years, finally so fragile in their sellotaped bandaging that pages worked free of their spinal gum. They were the only two books I took with me on my melancholy odyssey to England, dreaming of artistic stardom in early 1973, and I have them both still.

It was Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry. An English master at my high school had alerted me to its author in 1965, urging upon me the astonishing, original talents of a woman who came from Oamaru – Oamaru, for God’s sake! – and had spent a lot of time in our very own Dunedin, then, bewilderingly, in the mental asylum at Seacliff.

I knew Seacliff. I knew that silent village, perched high above the sandstone cliffs and sliced in two by the serpentine railway line; we knew the Four Square grocer there, Bob and his wife Rosie, and I knew the sprawling, spooky asylum, too. Our family had a holiday crib just a few miles up the coast at Karitane when I was younger, and the looney bin at Seacliff had been occasionally employed by an exasperated mother with nothing left to vent but, “Any more of that, my boy, and I’ll have you sent to Seacliff!” 

So I could imagine Janet Frame – she was one of ours, she lived in places I knew. She can’t have been too different to us. To me, even. But the language of Owls Do Cry thrilled me, the sheer poetry of it, the constant shocks of its freshness: we’d been reading Gerard Manley Hopkins at school – the Windhover with its “plough down sillion shine”. Hopkins was one of the heroes from overseas and therefore Great; but I thought some of the writing in Owls Do Cry was every bit as inventive, as beautiful. And there was more than an echo of Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, and Kerouac’s On the Road, too, with long ramblings like the way my own brain worked, no full-stops, one image instantly tripping to another without pause, and no inverted commas either. Courageous. A phrase, a word, a passage on every page I wanted to learn by heart so I could pretend I made it up, that I was as clever.

And it was all about home, where I came from. I could smell the tang of the South in it: Waimaru was Oamaru; the dark room where Daphne sang, the snow falling outside “in a shuffle and whisper of white.” Treasure at the dump. I knew families like the Withers. I knew some Amys, sacrificial mums in their “perpetual bereavement of cooking and muddle”, and joyless Bobs, and I saw Tobys on the streets of south Dunedin. 

But she had made Art of it, something unforgettable, a story and a feeling which lodged in a safe cupboard of my head somewhere and never went away, despite the barrage of words filling our days. Kids I knew, people I saw – ordinary places, everyday people like mine, but poetry now, so sharply seen and delivered, and never leaving me.

That’s what I wanted to do. Not with words, but paintings. The ordinariness of where we came from, even in New Zealand, even in Dunedin and Oamaru, raised by some elusive magic into unforgettable Art. If she could do it, maybe I could? Not as well, of course – never as brilliantly. But the possibility was there. In all her reticence and modesty, in a tattered little paperback I had the proof.

I kept track of her various migrations around New Zealand, and the world, and even wrote her a long letter once, describing my indebtedness and admiration. But I never sent it, fearing that such a sycophantic, fawning note would have been ignored or, worse, mocked disdainfully – after all, I was a grown man by then, presumably far beyond the excesses of fandom.

Then, much later, I saw her sitting on a steel bench inside the automatic sliding doors of the New World supermarket in Dunedin and, risking the wounds of embarrassment, I sat beside her and introduced myself.

“I know who you are,” she said cheerily. Words I will cherish until my final breath. We chatted easily, I told of how influential her writing had been all my life, especially Owls Do Cry, and of the letter still cowering in the bottom drawer of my desk. “You should have sent it! I’d have loved that!” 

She left with her niece, I to the laden aisles, my heart lifted, lighter. At last I’d told her.

She died exactly two weeks later.

Oh the wind is lodged forever in the telegraph wire, for crying there on a grey day on the loneliest of roads of dust and gravel and forest of cocksfoot at the side and gorse or broom hedge with the dead pods refusing to drop and the cross the crucifix of the leaning poles linked by the everlasting wire of crying of the wind lodged forever in the telegraph wire for crying there. 

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