Most of my girlfriends are painters. Of course, they’re other things too: singer–songwriters, poets, mothers, belly dancers, teachers and students. Painting is just the most obvious common theme, no doubt at least partly because of my early training in art; the visual bias predates my desire to write.
At a psychology talk in 2005, I ran into an old drawing teacher I hadn’t seen for years, who urged me – bizarrely, I thought at the time – to do a Jungian psych. degree. She said it might ‘open up all sorts of things’ for me. Clearly she knew nothing about the life I’d been living. Maybe she still thought of me as a withdrawn, tormented twenty-something? However, when our paths crossed at another psych. talk three years later, I mentioned I’d undertaken a creative writing MA, and she wrote down her postal address and asked me to send her some work.
I’d been her student at 17, a life model for her classes for years, and an awed admirer of her portrait and still-life drawings. But the subject of her later shows is landscape. Her own words about Oz landscape (from an old invitation) fit her: ‘Its wild uncoerced originality stands as instructor of the most profound kind.’ She taught us not to be precious about technique or snobs with our media – we’d experiment using substances like boot polish – and her style, which impressed me more deeply than did those of my other teachers, fused luxurious looseness with focus, freedom with keen specificity. Her bitter and even bitchy streak made me nervous (might it have held up a mirror?) – she’d ask me to hold tortuous poses, exhort me to gain weight (she was voluptuous) – and yet this sharp edge translated to brilliance in her work. I felt apprehensive at the prospect of showing her mine. Yet I trusted her not to just be polite; she hadn’t pulled her punches in class.
What would amuse her? I considered a short story in which a drawing tutor date-rapes his pupil, but worried that she’d recognise certain characters (or think she had), and instead chose another, about a woman who goes skinny-dipping at sunset and gets hassled by two drunken youths; a prissy fiction tutor had panned it, but this artist had a dark sense of humour. And she responded more swiftly than any publisher, as follows:
Dear ___, loved your short story – you got across the idea of menace so vividly & economically. You (one) never lost (the reader) concentration with the on going menace. / All tied in with the last sweet fluff of pretty cloud to the darkening gunmetal & white of the sky as the uneasy tension develops. / Very good touches that remain in the mind [which I’ll skip, as they won’t make sense out of context] … & finally, very neat, very adroit – the last paragraph, the final clue to the relationship, the wife actually there, crushing situation, crushing revelation & terrible contrast of naked & clothed – / Really enjoyed it. / Not the same, but I once listened to an account from a young girl who stood at the gate of her house/apartment & talked for an hour with a would be rapist – at the end a flat mate came in & the situation/ordeal ended with him taking off suddenly. / You never know how you will react in these unexpected fright occasions, you can be surprised at what you come up with – one time in London, after working as an usherette in a London theatre – the usual bus did not come, instead a very late bus, about one in the morning stopped at Hammersmith. There was a choice of crossing the Hammersmith bridge, a notorious cut throat area. Or standing in a doorway all night. Halfway across (the bridge) a shadow emerged & walked towards me. As soon as he approached me, I found myself shaking a fist at his face & he simply walked on. Whether it was the power of the unexpected I don’t know. Anyway ___, many thanks for sending me the story. You are very good. / An area which would be interesting, is the early unfortunate circumstances & how it undermines future circumstances, until there is an event so dire, it shakes the foundations of earlier rotten experience, which shatter, demanding a new perspective from a more experienced developed eye. / I always enjoyed Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit’ / how anyone can break from those cast iron beginnings, & break free, is amazing. / Anyway, to a lesser or greater degree – we all go through it. / Keep writing! / Madeleine / Also liked in your story the feeling of rational independent woman, still so vulnerable in relationships – how the love blight can undermine so thoroughly – thought you tied in this very well.
This letter astonished me with its generosity. And I’m an ardent admirer of Winterson and her autobiographical Oranges. As for Madeleine’s idea re undermining early circumstances, I’d already tried a novel-length treatment (on which I’m currently working). Maybe the friction I’d sensed between us, when we had more contact, owed more to our similarities than to our differences? Her most recent show, which I saw last October, continues to inspire me; that such a transcendent vision, rare virtuosity and an abundance of energy should coexist in a woman in her seventies seems all the more amazing in a culture putrid with ageism. In the words of art critic John McDonald (from that last invitation):
Everybody knows the big names of local landscape painting, but Madeleine Halliday (b. 1939) has spent much of her career working in cheerful obscurity. Even though she has been painting continuously since the 1960s Halliday only began exhibiting with the James Harvey Gallery in the 1990s, and with Defiance from 2004. She has been a recalcitrant exhibitor who hesitated to show her work until she had attained artistic maturity. / To those who had never previously seen a picture by Halliday her sudden emergence came as a shock. One might complacently assume that such a talented painter has always enjoyed a high degree of visibility, but this is a false assumption. At a time when students are taught the arts of self-promotion as part of their degree we have grown accustomed to the idea that an artist’s sole desire, from day one, is to thrust their work in front of the largest possible audience. / Halliday, on the contrary, has always put her painting before her career. Her greatest challenges and achievements have been aesthetic ones.
For some reason – whether to do with the idea of hesitation, or of an artist’s greatest challenges being aesthetic (not market-related) – tears pricked my eyes when I read this blurb. And I cried again when I heard, last week, that Madeleine had just died. Far worse than my regret at missing past shows of hers is the knowledge that there’ll be no more new work.
McDonald’s observations about ‘working in cheerful obscurity’ and ‘always put[ting] her painting before her career’ apply no less to another artist I know, whose steady devotion to her aesthetic and her process reminds me that I’m not alone. The integrity of her vision, along with its vibrancy, makes the fact that Sally Stokes has a show opening today – at Depot Gallery II, 2 Danks St, Waterloo, Sydney – truly exciting.