From my readings of a range of contemporary child-abuse survivor memoirs, I have discovered, as Samantha Weaver says in her memoir Saving Samantha, ‘while their stories were extraordinary and moving, none of them told me what they’d done to recover from their traumas (2006, 259)’. However, while Weaver’s and other texts in this genre are well-written and offer some therapeutic value, I do not gain aesthetic pleasure from reading their articulations of healing or an insight into the uniqueness and power of the processes that they have engaged in.
Driven by my desire to communicate my healing from child-abuse in a way that captures readers’ imaginations, I am using magic realist narrative techniques to convey the ‘ineffable’ of my own trauma healing. As a practice-led researcher, my approach is interdisciplinary and employs multi-method techniques. A process I am engaging in to initially unveil the ‘hidden stories’ of my healing is the method of ekphrasis. This paper presents samples of my visual art and creative writing and discusses the relationship between the two and highlights ekphrasis’ potential as a tool for articulating the ‘ineffable’ of healing from child-abuse.
From my readings of a range of contemporary child-abuse survivor memoirs, I have discovered, as Samantha Weaver says in her memoir Saving Samantha, ‘while their stories were extraordinary and moving, none of them told me what they’d done to recover from their traumas (2006, 259)’. However, while Weaver’s and other texts in this genre that attempt to fill this gap are well-written and offer some therapeutic value, I do not gain aesthetic pleasure from reading their articulations of healing or an insight into the uniqueness and power of the processes that they have engaged in.
Driven by my desire to communicate my healing from child-abuse in a way that captures readers’ imaginations, I am using magical realist narrative techniques to convey the ‘ineffable’ of my own trauma healing.
As a practice-led researcher, my approach is interdisciplinary and employs multi-method techniques. Visual art practice and ekphrasis are two processes that I am engaging in to initially unveil the ‘hidden stories’ of my healing. Inspired by a broad range of styles employed by other arts practitioners including the surrealism of Salvador Dali, the spiritualism in Wassily Kandinsky’s art, and the autobiographical nature of Jenny Saville’s and Tracy Emin’s artworks, I am producing mixed-media visual artworks and engaging in ekphrastic writing in response to my works.
Visual Art Practice
Visual art practice gives me the freedom to experiment with memory, abstract ideas and concepts without the need for immediate concrete definitions. My visual art practice is a safe place where hopes, rainbows and light play undefined without the fear of being labelled as silly or clichéd.
My investigation began this year with the concepts and images of the female body, the labyrinth, veins and thread. I drew the concept and image of the labyrinth from a poem written by Swedish poet and psychologist Tomas Transtromer:
Time is not a straight line, it’s more of a labyrinth,
and if you press close to the wall at the right
place you can hear the hurrying steps and voices, you
can hear yourself walking past there on the other side. (1997, 136)
I drew the images and concepts of the female body, veins and thread from the start of my first memoir, Nobody:
I see a woman dragging a red thread. Where did that red thread come from? She laughs and runs off.
I feel movement at my feet and look down. My memories are scattered everywhere.
They climb up my body. Grip my skin, pull my hair, and cover my face. Some weigh on my shoulders. One tries to enter my mouth. I grab them, try to hold them. They slide through my fingers.
When I pin them down, everything is out of place. How will I put them right? The red thread was my vein of truth.
I have to trust that I will find my way through.
At least I’m not alone.
I began this autobiographical art project with an idea of a maze and a desire to reclaim the red thread taken from me in my previous text.
To begin my visual art practice, I chose a large sheet of hessian that I had at home. I chose to create a representation of my fingerprint on the hessian. Through a process of making ink impressions on paper i , photographing those impressions, printing them onto clear overheads, projecting to magnify the image and tracing onto butchers paper ii, I came up with a copy of my fingerprint large enough to transfer onto the hessian. Instead of red thread, I opted for soft and fluffy rainbow thread to enrich the tactile and visual impact of the work. I pinned the paper pattern to the hessian and over several months using the paper pattern as a guide, I stitched the fingerprint design onto the fabric iii.
When I recently completed this major work, I was surprised to learn that it provides my project with so much more than simply a visual structure for my narrative.
After pulling the paper template away I found that the artwork offered differing visual interpretations depending on what side was being observed and that for a complete viewing of the work it needed to be exhibited with access to both sides. I shone a lamp through it and one of my favourite quotes by Nabokov came to mind iv:
Neither in environment nor in heredity can I find the exact instrument that fashioned me, the anonymous roller that pressed upon my life a certain intricate watermark whose unique design becomes visible when the lamp of art is made to shine through life’s foolscap. (2000, 25)
This was when I realised that in creating this work I had found themes, motifs and metaphors for my entire project; I had found an enhanced insight into my ontological position for my thesis. The title I have given this work has even provided the title for my autobiography: Watermark v.
This fingerprint is a symbol of touch; it is at the intersection of public and private. It represents knowing the world from the inside out and the world reaching me from the outside in. It is the image of the landscape of my skin. It is an imprint and a space of stored memories. It is a physical location at the intersection between the world and me. I discovered, through holding up the lamp of art, that I could figuratively see my intricate watermark.
Contemplating the physical location of my skin and considering which direction I might take next in my research led me to remember a painting, titled Touch, that I completed a few years earlier as part of my first exhibition whilst an undergraduate at QUT.
The exhibition titled, ‘7 reasons why I’m still here…’ consists of seven individual works representing moments in my life where I have felt such intense happiness, beauty and wonder that it was too incomprehensible to put into words. These moments are glowing stepping-stones that illuminate my way home whenever I get lost in the dark forest.
Already having considered that I would engage in some processes of ekphrasis as part of my research method, I find now, with my focus drawn to this series of paintings, that I have the perfect starting point.
[Ekphrasis] has come to denote a verbal representation of a visual representation including literary and non-literary writing on art (more recently even art criticism) as verbal representations, and a wide range of real or imaginary visual objects as visual representation. (Muller, 2004, 185)
In earlier years there has been a clear contrast between the tone and content of my creative writing and that of my visual art. Many people have described my writing as dark, and I have certainly found it easier to write about negative and traumatic events. This contrasts with my visual art practice, as often, I have a strong resistance to using dark colours and a desire to convey the previously unexpressed good things from my life. Considering now that I am aiming to write about the good things from life in attempting to articulate healing aesthetically, I have chosen to employ ekphrastic writing as a method to translate the beautiful memories that I can paint into something that I hope to then express with words.
Initially I will respond to the previous seven paintings that I have from my first exhibition, starting with Touch. As I respond to these works I will reflect on the themes and metaphors that emerge and incorporate them into the life narratives associated with the events captured in the artwork. I will create further artworks as needed.
By drawing on the theme of the body that I am developing within my visual art practice, I am able to further expand upon this theme within my creative writing practice by exploring my emotional, psychological, physical, mental, spiritual and conceptual relationships with the landscapes that I have inhabited. I anticipate that this process of writing will, in turn, influence my visual art practice, whereby both creative practices will develop in parallel. Through the dialogue established between both my writing and visual art practice, I will also explore the memories that inhabit different parts of my physical body landscape, specifically those stored in the body and traumatic memories connected to body parts. I will begin with skin and touch then move on to other aspects of my body – such as bones, teeth, lungs, eyes, senses, ankles, stomach – where strong memories are stored.
Following is an excerpt of some of my writing that has emerged from the dialogue between my writing and visual art practice:
Strong coffee in the morning budges things. She uses a plunger. Excess vitamin C works well, but it leaves an orange peel coating on her tongue and a burn in her guts. Speed works best. It shoots through her veins like a whistling train and the driver toots and calls, ‘All aboard fat.’After speed, all that remains is a clean and empty shell. In the mirror, the shell looks back like an image in a magazine. The shell is clean and dirty things don’t cling to a disinfected surface. ‘You’re fat’ – PING. ‘You’re ugly’ – PING. ‘You’re round shouldered and frumpy’ – PING. The words slide down to her feet and she picks them up.
She takes them out in public and throws them at others. ‘Front-bum’ sticks to an old lady climbing onto a bus. ‘Bat-wing-arms’ sticks to her too. ‘Thunder-thighs’ hangs around a teenage girl’s neck.
A new voice in her head says, ‘You are not like them.’
She doesn’t realise that the words are still in her pockets, that she only threw reproductions.
The new voice in her head likes the new words from other mouths and eyes. Delicious, unfamiliar words that slide along her surface, fluttering her eyelashes and spinning around her like little moons.
But there are other new words that she doesn’t like. Words like consume, want and use. These words prick her skin and cling to her like grass seeds after a bush walk. These words are like ticks. They like genitals, armpits, under breasts. She tears them out but with them come globs of flesh. They leave slits, torn seems, puckered skin. Blood oozes and she looks in the kitchen for sweet things, soft things, warm things. Anything to soothe and fill.
She looks in the mirror and a beast looks back. The words in her pockets hurry up her body and grip her flesh. They pin themselves to her skin as badges of fat. The badges wobble and swing. The badges are heavy and they drag her down. She finds it hard to get up from the ground.
If only she had a screen. If she had a screen to sift and sort out the words, she could keep little moons and stop badges and weeds. She needs a complete screen. One that wraps around her body like a soft quilt and smells like roses and mothers’ breast milk.
Very briefly defined, magical realism combines realism and the fantastic so that the marvellous seems to grow organically within the ordinary, blurring the distinction between them (Faris, 2004, 1).
To assist me in articulating my healing from trauma in a way that is considered to be of aesthetic value, I will employ the literary devices of magical realism using Wendy Faris’s textual poetics for magical realism in conjunction with leading magical realist fictions.
Drawing on a range of doctrines, myths, narratives and experiences from my life including new-age and self-help materials; spiritual, psychoanalytic and drug experiences; ghost stories; skeletons in the family closet; and fairytales and urban myths – I will weave together a magical realist story of my life. I anticipate that the story-world will be a somewhat surreal environment in keeping with the magical realist agenda whereby the ordinary seems out of place and the extraordinary is mundane (Faris, 2004, 13).
Faris refers to the surreal space of intersection that magical realist fictions occupy as being at ‘an imaginary point inside a double sided mirror that reflects in both directions (2004, 21)’. She argues that inhabiting and enlarging this ‘space of intersection where a number of magically real fictions exist’ are ‘ghosts and texts, or people and words that seem ghostly…many times situated between the two worlds of life and death (2004, 22)’.
One of my tasks in writing will be to occupy this space of intersection in my narrative. One way I will do this is by attempting to identify and convey my experiences of healing and transformation as ‘ordinary’ and to convey my everyday mundane activities as ‘unusual’.
I am going to develop the premise that the life I am living now is truly a magical fairytale full of sparkles and wonder when compared to where I have come from. To most people I know, the life that I am living is ordinary and mundane. In contrast, the life experiences that I have had would seem to many to be quite extraordinary, although to me they seemed ordinary at the time. I will convey my past in such a way as to seem ordinary and everyday, while my present will be conveyed as being unusual.
From reading many magical realist narratives and reflecting on them in context of my own life, I have developed the themes, images and motifs of mirrors, lamps and moths that I will be experimenting with in both my writing and visual art.
Here are some developing ideas:
Working from the idea that major events (for example, a suicide attempt) rupture the fabric of time and space when they occur and create portals in walls, and extending this with the idea that I as the storyteller am drawn to take my lamp to these points of intersection where there are tiny ruptures. The lamp shines like the moon and attracts moths. Moths eat away at the fabric of reality; they make little holes in the veils between past and present. They leave traces of shiny silver powder everywhere as evidence of where they have been. This is the powder that lines the backs of mirrors and when ingested allows a person to travel, through walls, between the past and present.
How these themes, images and motifs will assist me in conveying the ‘ineffable’ of my own trauma healing will be revealed through the continuing dialogue that is emerging between my writing and visual art practice.
A contribution to this dialogue is this recent piece of ekphrastic writing based on my paintingTouch vi:
This painting isn’t ‘an of’ it’s ‘a process’. When I look at it I see the process of making it.The act of mixing paint to make a pinky-orange skin. Painting it across the canvas letting it dry.
Wetting the canvas, washing the skin, the surface, identifying that this is my skin wanting to peel it off. Have always liked peeling off my skin, picking at scabs, sometimes eating them. I had an idea a while ago that I might convey healing using butterflies that pick off all my scabs and carry them away. Maybe they could be a range of Australian insects that eat my scabs and help take away the impurities. I had a lot of scabs as a kid my knees are scarred from them. I always picked at my skin.
Now I scratch.
Paint is so clean. I love paint. Even when I’m covered in it I’m never dirty only decorated, enhanced.
I peeled the skin from the canvas. I stripped it away in big stretchy pieces working it free with a long palette knife. I laid out all the strips of skin to dry on a towel. I saw the skin in pieces, inside out.
Looking at it now, there is nowhere for the viewers eye to rest and I’ve always thought that it invites touch. That’s why I hung it in the toilet when I painted it. I think about that now and I know it’s gross, at the time I just had to do it. I wanted it to be in a place where people who felt compelled to touch it could without fear of getting caught. We do some of our most private, secret things in the toilet.
I love the pristine flat lemon-yellow-white spread between two walls of skin running over the edge. I can see the bumps of the canvas. Down further are lumps and chaos but not too much to feel lost, or overwhelmed. All four corners are still balanced by solid colour, by skin holding it all in.
And while there is motion and it is clear that the skin is ruptured swirls of coloured paint in between the space, I don’t see any threat of further fragmentation. It’s paused in a moment and I’m left to wonder what would happen next.
The story behind the painting is simple, or is it?
… taking ecstasy when I’m twenty-five. Feeling touch. Really feeling touch on my skin for the first time in a very long time.
I look at it and I want to give it a fresh coat of clear gloss and lift it. Make it glow. Bring it to life. Make it look like the skin is sweating in the heat. I should give it a gloss. I’ve already given it a clean after rescuing it from a toilet. Why did the first place where touch could be have to be the toilet? Is it related to my genitals, are those raised bits symbolic of my clitoris. Nan used to say that the only time you could touch yourself was when you wash yourself and when you go to the toilet.
Why too, did I want other people’s shitty fingers touching my painting in secret? Why did I want other people touching it all? If it represents my skin, wouldn’t I want people to at least have washed their hands first?
I’ve inspected it closely. I’ve found no sign of foul play.
I think out of all of this series that this painting would have to be the most visceral.
In translating this writing into my magical realist narrative I anticipate that I will be incorporating the literal metaphor of the visual representation of my skin splitting open and exploring the idea that the image is in reverse and, as the skin splits open, rainbows get in.
Faris, Wendy (2004). Ordinary Enchantments: magical realism and the remystification of narrative (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press)
Muller, Anja (2004). ‘”You have been framed”: the function of ekphrasis for the representation of women in John Banville’s trilogy,’ Studies in the Novel, June 22, 2004.
Nabokov, Vladimir (2000). Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (London: Penguin)
Tranströmer, Tomas (1997). Collected poems. Robin Fulton (Trans) (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books)
Weaver, Samantha (2006). Saving Samantha: A Young Woman’s Escape from Childhood Hell(London: Hay House)