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Just a small thing

Updated: Jul 8, 2022

I walked into the studio after having spent all night on it and I could feel the heaviness in the room. Carnage. The carpet was soaked with green ink and squelching beneath my feet. There's a specific stink that comes from wet carpet and acrylic paint left unable to dry in a cold room, if plastic could rot, that's what it would smell like.

Some artworks are a private affair and are never intended to be put on display. That's where I went wrong with this one.

For over a year now, I have been trying to imagine a way that I could make a painting of the tree that I was sexually abused under as a child. I only have half answers to the reasons why this is a goal of mine. But then again, I only have half answers for most of my paintings...

I wanted it to be a branchless tree that reached up and disappeared at the top - that bit is important. I don't want this to be a tree that symbolises growth or strength. It's also not intended to be dominating or negatively charged. It just is as it is and the tallness might only be to represent my own smallness.

I have actually tried to make an artwork about this tree a few times before, each time feeling like it missed the mark and it wasn't until I started on 'Small thing' that I began to comprehend the importance of scale and its relationship to the body.

The first was a drawing that I spent long slow hours on, thinking that I was spending time with the moments and somehow processing the trauma. Although it felt nice and possibly needed, it was anticlimactic. So, I made it again as a painting. I love this painting aesthetically, but in terms of tapping into emotion it landed further from the mark than the drawing did.

I didn't really know what it was that I was trying to make and I was uncertain about how literal I wanted to be. Normally my paintings are about more than one thing, or they compare one thing to something more abstract but there was no metaphor in this story. In fact, it's not even a story and it's just a moment that doesn't exist anymore. It feels more like just a thing with no substance.

I continued to feature the tree in some of my fabric works and have recently been enjoying the freedom with scale that working on loose material has afforded me. I imagined that I could achieve the element of height and a towering tall structure using a roll of cotton.

In my mind it was going to be so elegant. light and quite a simple process. Following suite from other work I had made recently, I'd project the photograph onto the cotton and colour it accordingly with various transparent washes of acrylic paint. Unlike most of what I had been making lately, the conceptual value was going to be in the installation as opposed to the painting itself - so there wasn't really much work to do. I still don't really know why I imagined that making a painting about trauma would be a light or linear process.

Drawing and planning was easy and cathartic. Drawing is mostly a lovely experience for me, and large drawings are even better. I was making the painting on a scroll that I had jigged up to my studio ceiling so that i could work on a four meter length of cotton in sections, by rolling it up and down at each end. A couple of days later I was feeling accomplished and had a few glasses of wine with my housemate. Normally when I go stumbling off into the studio late at night it doesn't end in disaster.

There is a scene missing when I try to remember how I managed to destroy this painting.

I woke up in my bed in damp green inky jeans.

I walked into the studio after having spent all night on it and I could feel the heaviness in the room. Carnage. The carpet was soaked with green ink and squelched beneath my feet. There's a specific stink that comes from wet carpet and acrylic paint left unable to dry in a cold room, if plastic could rot, that's what it would smell like. That, and copious amounts of alcohol.

Not only had the roll of fabric been torn from the wall and crumpled into a soggy mess on the floor, but hours worth of delicate pastel underdrawing was undetectable under the paint and in no way adhered to. The whole thing was a familiar shade of washed out phthalo green, a colour that I use in almost all of my paintings, but on this scale it was horrific. This was a murder scene. The green was on everything, strewn throughout the whole studio space and into the 'clean areas' where my partner's music gear is. I had even managed to vandalise some of my favourite oil paintings. Somehow I had managed to cover a four metre painting in multiple layers of paint (usually that would take a LOOOOONG time) and written/scratched the phrase 'you will never know how much I have masked this' all over the painting. I was right, I had no idea how much I had masked it, or even what it was. Was the message to myself?

I began to piece together the events of the night as I was cleaning up and peeling the painting from itself and tenderly laying it out flay to dry, I felt like I was laying a child into bed and tucking them in. I couldn't tell if I felt shameful, like I had attacked myself and treated myself badly, or had I given myself space to release something that I didn't know was dormant within me.

The defeat of that room combined with the hangover was heavy, I felt apologetic for that painting in a way that I had never given myself for the abuse in the first place, but I was thankful for its ability to absorb a version of me that thought was unfit for sharing with anyone, not even myself. The fabric soaked up parts of me that night, maybe if i'd carried on through the painting in the gentle and sober way that I had planned, I would have felt as empty about it as I did with the previous pieces.

As I slowly began painting on it again and pulling the image of the tree out of the green swamp I saw her emerge in front of me - the giant tree, the same one that was there towering over me when I was a little girl and that still does when I walk past it when I'm visiting the family property. Only now I could see her protecting me and keeping me safe from that horrible moment that happened at her base when I was defenseless, when I was a child and nobody was there but my abuser. She remembers and I share it with her. The painting isn't a picture of her, it's a reincarnation of her and I know now why the scale was the most important thing, because I need to feel that I'm at the base of something huge. I recreate the moment everytime I stand below it but now I feel protected because I remember my smallness and remind myself that this is the new version of that moment, one that I created, that I control.

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