I’m still here

It’s almost 2 months since I blogged, for various reasons. Nothing bad, life’s just been … different.

I’m finally getting the very worn out & holey carpet replaced, and the vinyl redone because I had the toilet replaced so now there’s a gap round the loo. Sandra and I have been preparing for it all being laid in just over a week’s time.

I decided to redo my home office and art room. It’s where I spend most of my time and it’s a hot mess of old creaky desks and “it’ll do” furniture. So I’ve got two new desks for once the floors are done, and some new storage. I’ve done a serious declutter so I only have the things I really use.

Work has been busy too. The second wave of covid combined with flu season has meant it’s been a juggle keeping all our libraries and museum open. My staff have been amazing. amongst it all, we had Rainbow Storytime which was amazing!

Of course I’ve been doing my art too. There’s always time for my art. I tested positive for Covid yesterday so don’t have the energy at the moment though. Tony tested positive on Tuesday, three days before me, so is isolating in his room at the rest home, but sounds like he is doing ok.

And it’s done

Today Penny Kirk and I gave an artist’s talk at Left Bank Art Gallery in Greymouth to mark the end of our joint exhibition. I’m so proud of Penny for putting herself and her art out there.

Here’s my talk: Good afternoon, my name is Cath Sheard, and I come from Patea in South Taranaki. In 2008 I graduated with an Advanced Diploma in Creativity (Honours) from the Learning Connexion. At the time my mentor, Pete Adsett, said “your art surface has relentlessly been attacked by a single mark to deface it. It’s a form of violence where the viewer can see the speed in which you work”.

Peter queried my process when I painted large cream lines on a black wall as part of the final exhibition, asking if I stood back regularly to check the work. He recorded my response in his final letter to me … I had said at the time “I feel the mark, not see it. I feel when it is right”.

14 years on I think Peter would be surprised to see the works Penny and I have created. To explain why, I need to go back to 2016 and the start of this journey.

In 2016 I had weight loss surgery and, in the aftermath, I met Penny in an online support community. We quickly discovered we had a lot of common – fat, weight loss surgery, jobs in local or central government, and art. Oh, and we live in different islands! I come from Patea, a rural town of around 800, on the west coast of the North Island, 90 minutes from Mount Taranaki. That distance became a crucial part of our art journey.

Penny was nearer the start of her art journey than me, but quickly found a fearlessness that has created room for formidable growth in her art practice. She’s also been fearless in exploring the why of her weight issues, a journey I’m on. It’s a truism that most obese people eat their feelings. Art provides a way to process feelings we can no longer eat and may not be able to express in words.

For me, the spoken word is a tricky thing when it comes to emotions. As a library manager I can look you in the eye and talk about books on any topic at all, but ask me to talk about my own emotions and I have no words. I art journal daily, and my journals are a safe place to download my head and say the things I can’t verbalise.

As part of her Learning Connexion studies Penny needed to do a collaborative project and asked if I’d be interested. Absolutely. We weren’t sure exactly where it would go, but I don’t think either of us could have imagined this!

We sent work back and forth across the Straight, working on the same pieces over and over. I can remember my excitement the first time I got a huge parcel from Penny with her for me to work on. Working ON someone else’s work – wow! I can also remember how tentative those first explorations were. What if she didn’t like what I did? What if I changed a piece she really liked? What if she hated it?

I did some careful, safe work and sent it back to Penny. NZPost loves us, by the way. Each time we received work from each other we talked about what we thought, used Messenger to look at and discuss tiny sections of individual works, and talked about the processes we used.

Over time we got braver, less concerned with the response of the other creator. It wasn’t long before I was comfortably gluing collage materials over Penny’s work or running huge drips of paint down her carefully articulated linework. At the same time, I got used to opening a parcel from Penny and discovering orange gauze stitched on, swathes of oil pastel and miles of delicately traced pencil work connecting the work to the edges.

As the collaboration developed it became more and more firmly embedded in the body, in our experience as obese women working to save our own lives from the costs of being fat, and the physical and emotional scars that journey holds. As we covered paper with paint, ink, pencil, and collage materials we were also covering the paper with our emotions, the feelings we were learning to identify, and the remnants of the lives we were leaving behind.

Part way though the collaboration we started to develop an interest in words – adding words into the works, writing poetry, cutting text from books as collage material. My art, and my art journals, tell stories I don’t have the words for. Yet it turns out I do have the words if I write poetry. If you’ve been through the exhibition, you’ve seen some of our writing, and heard me reading the poetry. I would like to read a piece for you that I wrote for this closing talk, knowing that standing here would make me feel exposed.

My scars are a record
Of all the times I’ve been broken
Of all the ways my body has been fixed
My scars are
Thin thick
Short long
Flat raised
Red white silver
Ugly beautiful
My scars are a book a surgeon can read
A map for a lover’s fingers to trace
A litany written on my soul
My scars are
Ugly beautiful
Mine

The more Penny and I talked, created, talked, created and then talked some more, the more we learned, and the less we knew with any certainty. Some things we were sure of. Losing a huge amount of weight means being seen for the first time in, well, forever. Being seen is deeply uncomfortable. I hope she doesn’t mind me saying this, but Penny and I have both put some of the weight back on from our lowest point, which admittedly was too low. Part of that is about health, sure, but part of it is also about the discomfort we felt it being SEEN.

The ’fat positivity’ movement might be popular on social media and with fans of Lizzo, but obesity is still seen as lazy and disgusting. For most women, and presumably men, being fat equates to being invisible in Western culture. Lose the weight and people start to look at you and, bizarrely, feel free to comment on your body. These artworks, and the accompanying words, speak to the journey we’ve been on, from fat and invisible, to slimmer and seen.

Which brings me fill circle, back to the works themselves. What did the collaboration do for my art practice? The lazy answer would be “it reinvigorated it”. That’s true but misses the richness of the experience. I learned to let go out the outcome, to trust Penny’s vision, to focus more on process in the early stages of a work, and not to get too attached to anything. It’s incredibly freeing to know that what you’re doing might stay, might get covered up, or even ripped out.

I’m incredibly grateful to Penny for the opportunity to share my life journey, and my art practice, with her. I’d like to thank Alan Fowlie for welcoming me into his home whenever I come down to work with Penny. Thanks also to Cassandra for her support, and Left Bank Art Gallery for being a wonderful venue. Thank you all for your interest in our work, and for being here this afternoon.

I learned to be more fearless in the early stages of a work, then slower and more thoughtful as works felt like they were nearing completion. Sometimes Penny would send a work with a post it note saying “I think this is nearly done” and I’d add one line, one small mark and know the work was complete.

What we reveal

Next weekend Penny and I are holding an artist talk for the closing of our joint art exhibition at Left Bank Art Gallery in Greymouth. I’m flying down on Thursday to stay with Alan for a few days and do arty stuff with Penny.

Last night Penny and I were talking about our prep for the event. She will have some bullet notes, and go from there. I’ll have every single word written out and won’t deviate from it much. It’s the same with our art, we have two very different processes and styles.

Where we don’t differ is we’re not very good at talking about our emotions, and this collaboration has been a huge emotional journey for both of us. I need to talk about that as part of the closing of the exhibition.

Does what I’ve written tell the whole truth? No, not really.

I met with someone this morning who had weight loss surgery a couple of years after me. She’s doing well. We talked about what we eat, when we eat, why we eat. Sitting here though, thinking back to our coffee meeting, I know I edited my truths. Sorry SK; it’s that old weight monster – shame.

Sandra has been grandkid and puppy sitting today, and the puppy fell asleep n me. I asked her to take a photo for me. I look at that photo and see the puppy, but also the weight I’ve put on in the last year and there it is – shame. I’m working on it – both the food choices and the emotions. In the meantime, I’ll keep editing what I reveal, protecting myself.

Working it

I’m pretty open about the fact I have some physical problems, because it’s obvious if you spend much time with me anyway. I’m significantly weak in both arms and legs. Not “oh you need to get fit” weak, but what the neurosurgeon called “abnormally weak, spinal mumble blah blah blah”. I’ve also got remarkably poor balance. An MRI of my spine shows a decent sized lesion but we don’t think it’s doing anything. We decided not to investigate further unless things get worse etc.

My new helmet matches my bright pink bike

Recently I got approved for a Green Prescription, and a physical therapist is working with me. Our goal is to improve my balance. I recently bought a push bike and love it, but my balance is so bad I can’t let go to do a hand signal, which is a bit of a worry!

We also want to improve my strength. I can’t climb on a chair for instance – my legs won’t push me up, and my arms won’t drag me up. So I’ve got strength and balance exercises (for older people) and I’ve bought a balance board as well.

My balance has improved already, which is great. This weekend I’ll get out on my bike and see if it translates to real change. The strength exercises are more difficult and I suspect progress will be slower, but that’s ok. Any improvement is worth the effort.

#BlogJune is back!

I’ve been doing #BlogJune for a few years now. I used to blog regularly but, as life changed, blogging was replaced by art journaling as a way to get my thoughts out of my head. All the same, I enjoy writing and blogging, and the connection with people that it can bring. It’s about having limited time, so making choices about what to prioritise.

A friend on Twitter mentioned #BlogJune last night and I thought, yes, I’m going to give it a shot. Reestablishing a writing and blogging habit will be good for me. Chances are the posts will be a bit random, but life *is* a bit random at the moment.

Using it up

All crafters know this story … buy something you love – paper, paint, ephemera – and it’s so good you don’t use it, you just stash it away. I bought a very expensive tube of paint once and when I finally decided to use it the paint had gone hard in the tube.

Yesterday the weather was miserable and, in some ways, so was I. I decided to haul out the drawer I keep my general supplies in. Things like Stamperia rice paper, Tim Holtz paper dolls, and so on and just play.

I did a bunch of pages using up things I love, while I still love them. Now I have space for more supplies when I see something I like. If you’ve got things tucked away that are “too good to use” why not treat yourself by pulling them out of your stash and using them? You’re worth it.
Here are some of yesterday’s pages.

The colour of hope

I’m doing two #100dayprojects, and am up to day 84. One of them is about making a collage a day, and I’ve been playing along with Froyle, as she inspires us to try different colours. This week she asked what colour represents hope for us. My initial thought was orange but, the more I thought about it, that’s not true. I love orange, it’s about fire and passion and danger, not hope.

For me hope is a mix of blues and greens; the colours of nature and the sea. The land and waterways being healthy is what will give me hope for earth. I particularly love the colour of the Hokitika Gorge, and the greens of the land as it meets the blue of the distant hills on the West Coast. When I’m there I create lovely gelli prints inspired by the land around me. When I get home I stop. Not because I’m home, but because – as beautiful as it is – the land around me doesn’t inspire me in quite the same way.

Here’s the first of this week’s collages inspired by the colour of hope.

Holiday, with art…

I’ve just has 12 days away, staying with Alan in Hokitika. I wanted a break, Penny & I needed to get some work done on our joint exhibition, and it made sense to go while Tony’s resthome is in lockdown. I spoke with Tony a couple of times every day, and he seemed to cope ok. Because the pandemic is still having a big impact, I took short leave and worked 2 to 3 hours a day, and I’m pleased I did – the technology worked fine and it was good to stay on top of decision making.

I fancied some art supply and clothes shopping, so we stayed in Christchurch instead of heading straight back to Hokitika. It was the first time I’d shopped at The Drawing Room – lovely shop with some different supplies and great service. Clothes shopping – say no more! We also went to Orana Wildlife Park and had a good look around. The Gorilla is incredible, you can sense the contained power & strong personality. I walked 9,000 steps, which is the most I’ve done since my second total knee replacement and was ok for it

Penny and I spent an afternoon working out which pieces of art felt finished, deciding what pieces belonged together and what walls they’d go on in Left Bank Art Gallery. It’s a lot of decision making, and we got through it well. By the time we’d finished, we were both feeling positive about the exhibition. We’ve decided to have an artist talk on the final day, and I’m going back down for that.

Alan took me up the Taramakau River in his jetboat to do some Salmon fishing. We got 3 Trout strikes but didn’t see any salmon. From talking to various people, it seems there have been almost no salmon this season in the whole region which is a bit concerning. I love going up the river because it’s so peaceful and the view always inspires new art.

Penny and I also has lunch at Monteith’s in Greymouth, which I love – although it was very busy and a lot of people on the coast aren’t careful re masks etc so that concerned me a bit. Alan and I had dinner with friends two nights in a row, visited his older neighbor, and spent an evening with friends finalising Tahr hunting trip details. For me, that was a lot of socialising!

As always, I’m grateful to have had a good break; rest time, art time, a bit of shopping, and nowhere I needed to be in any great hurry.

Circling back

I’ve been learning to draw faces. Today is day 50 of this #100dayproject. I can draw a recognisable face with no real effort now. What I can’t reliably do is convey a specific emotion, but hopefully in the next 50 days that will come.

I’m also doing #100daysofcollage with Froyle Art and loving it. We’re doing a different colour each week. These are in a small Dylusions journal, so not overly time consuming. I’m using up some of my stash of gelli print and hand printed papers.

But I’m also circling back to my earliest art journal love, Tim Holtz and Distress. Sometimes I put it away for a bit, but I always come back. I just got some new paper dolls, transparent wings, and some other bits and pieces. Heaven! Thanks to Fiona at Create for having great stock.

Influences

Is my art original? Yes. Am I influenced by others artists? Absolutely. There’s a core group I’ve followed for years, including Tim Holtz, Teesha Moore, Traci Bautista, Dina Wakley and Dyan Reaveley. Some of them are designers with Ranger, so I’m influenced by both their art and their new products.

Artists whose work has influenced me include Jasper Johns, Richard Serra, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and Cy Twombly. I was fortunate to study some of them at The Learning Connexion during the four years I studied art.

Teesha Moore, whose work I love, has been sharing some of her older art journal pages on Instagram. She’s had some health problems, so I don’t think she’s creating much at the moment. I’ve made her style of journal before, and often use her collage style in my journals.

Tonight I hunted round in the cupboard and found a blank journal I’d made from Fabriano paper, based on a video she did of her process back in 2010. I’ve started colouring the pages using Golden Fluid Acrylics. Once it’s fully dry I’m going to use magazine images and downloaded mixed media papers to create my pages. I’ve just bought some of Denise Lush’s new collage papers and think they’ll be perfect for this project!