Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)
“From the age of 6 I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was 50 I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75 I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am 80 you will see real progress. At 90 I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign my self ‘The Old Man Mad About Drawing.”
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)
When I started at the National Art School all those lifetimes ago, first year was about trying a bit of everything before picking a major. We did drawing, sculpture, printmaking, photography and painting. They were all fantastic and I was so happy to be making art every day - whatever the format. It was such a refreshing and invigorating change from university (I had tried two - Sophia University in Tokyo and Sydney Uni) which to me seemed to be more about following and towing the line than expanding one's own thinking or awareness. In contrast, art school was all about self expression, experimentation, freedom and passion.
When the time came to pick a subject to specialise in, I chose photography. Ever since my very first experience in the dark room, I was captivated. The process was mystical and magical. Go out, grab an instant in reality on film, process the negative (winding those spools in the dark! Oh, my!), then make a contact sheet (it was all B&W in those days), choose your favourites, then enter the red lit, moody, moist and fume filled dark room to play with the enlarger, the light sensitive paper and the chemicals to expose and develop an image. It was all so ethereal.
You could never be sure what you were going to get. It was taking a slice of life and transforming into a piece of art. It was based on reality but leaned towards interpretation, expression, personal vision. The challenge was to surprise yourself. Seek, seek, find, capture, push, push, process, manipulate and create a reflection of yourself in the form of captured light on paper. Blacks and whites and all the shades of grey. Fifty, one hundred, a thousand. Mood, mood, mood.
Armed with camera and lens, a few spare film rolls in their canisters, I would venture out in search of potential magic. It taught me to see. More closely, more broadly, to notice the light and the shadows, the lines, composition. How to frame an image. Whether to go wide or zoom in. The options were endless and the experimentation endless. Action shots, water shots, still lifes, portraits, night shoots.... I loved it all.
It was about discovering the artist inside you - starting with how you look at things. How you learn to see beyond the obvious, to celebrate the delightful nuances of the seemingly mundane, to notice the games light plays - to chase it and capture whatever you can.
It was a great way to train. It was about self application, about expansion of vision, about appreciation of subtlety and boldness and the shades in between. Our class was lucky, we had a teacher who was just back from studying in New York. A passionate, devoted, inspired photographer named Arthur Georgeson who was relentless in pushing us to push ourselves and our imagery. He taught us much. He shared his love for hand colouring and a couple of us really, really got into it. Taking the pictures even further from the original. We also manipulated Polaroids, SX-70s, and drew and scratched and collaged our photos. It was a splendid year.
When I found out that for the photographic majors, it ended at year two, I begged the head of school to let me continue on into year three, to swerve into the painting major. I was in love with creating images, I was just beginning, I was ready now to tackle the challenges of canvas and paint. I knew where I was coming from. I had things to say. Let me, let me! I pleaded. None had ever asked before. Certainly not with such verve. He shrugged. There is a space...Tony dropped out... Tick, tick, tick.... OK!
Painting was just as thrilling and my foundation in still images gave me confidence and a slightly different edge amongst the other painting majors - many of whom I knew from first year. They welcomed me. There wasn't much structure to it anyway. No classes per say. We each got a studio space; a bit of wall and some panels. And we came in five days a week and worked, worked, worked. But it was fun, fun, fun. Just as it should be.
It's been over twenty five years now, so I feel like I can tell it.
It's a love story, a life story, a series of experiences and interactions between a man and woman over a one year full of passion, uncertainty, love, drama, excitement and romance.
It's a true story, one that I lived. An undeniably prominent and unforgettable relationship, unlike any other.
It was never ordinary.
It was never simple.
It was never boring.
A raging fire of a love affair that spanned three continents and oscillated between emotional highs and lows with wild abandon. I feel lucky and privileged to have lived it, to have been half of the equation but I am also aware that I paid the price. It was no free ride.
It began simply enough. A chance encounter at a dinner party. It was her last night in Sydney. It was an Italian restaurant in Kings Cross, there were more than twenty people present. Although she knew my brother, we had never met. Somehow, we were seated beside each other.
Looking back now, it all seems inevitable, really. Right from the start there were sparks, chemistry. We were both very different and neither of us entered the venue with any expectation of anything out of the ordinary occurring. But it did.
What was she like? She was a Californian girl, about thirty years of age. Italian American. Brunette. Olive skin. Deep, dark eyes. Medium height. I never thought of her this way - but if I was to attempt to build a visual composite from old school beauties I would say that she was mix of Raquel Welch, Sophia Loren, and Ali McGraw. She was wounded. There was sadness and rage. She was proud and accomplished - a high achiever. A self-made success story with a little something missing in her life. And that thing was companionship, connection, love.
Enter me. At that time I was around the same age, a true free spirit, a poet, a painter. Living a bohemian lifestyle; I had been unshackled since my divorce two years ealier - staying with family and friends, in motels, hostels, couch surfing, travelling up and down the coast from Bondi to Byron, even sleeping in my car when I had to (a Cortina, ornately hand painted like a true hippy mobile). My possessions were few, my commitments fewer.
Was there something missing in my life, too? That same thing, perhaps? Did I realise it at the time? Probably not, I was too busy being free. Did I realise it after we spent that first night together in her Sebel Townhouse hotel room and she left the next morning? Maybe, some. And in the subsequent days, did I notice her absence? Indeed. Had a fire been lit? Was something grand created and then suddenly taken away? Yes, yes and yes. But, she was gone far away - back to the States. I thought of it as a dream night. Perfect, sumptuous, unrepeatable.
When she rang me, from LA, a week or two later, I was surprised and delighted to hear her mellifluous, whispering, slightly raspy voice. She was someone who made things happen. A very successful TV commercial producer. She was not willing to let it go. File it under the most wonderful one night stand ever. She had a proposal...
Paris. She was headed there to shoot an ad the following week. She wanted me to join her. Would I?
I can't afford it, I told her. I had less than a hundred dollars to my name. I'll pay, she said. For everything.
I was taken aback. I didn't expect that. I needed to think about it.
Don't think about it, she said. You have to tell me right now or it's off. Wow.
I've got to admit, on the plane going over, I was about as excited as I've ever been. I wrote poems, did sketches in my journal. I listened to CDs on my Walkman. It was a three leg, twenty four hour flight.... Singapore, Alaska, Paris. We disembarked at Anchorage. There was a massive bear in a glass case in the airport and a huge duty free shop. I couldn't afford to buy anything. But I didn't need anything. I was running on adrenaline and anticipation.
I got a taxi from Charles de Gaulle airport. As arranged, the concierge paid the driver. I went straight up to the room. There was a note. I'm working till seven. Go out, have some fun. When I get back we can go somewhere for dinner.
She loved good food and good restaurants. She smoked Marlboro Reds and drank Margaritas. Each night for the next ten days we would dine out somewhere exotic and special, drink and smoke, cab back to the hotel and make love. It was always tender and heartfelt. Never a showy or sporty or fancy kind of union. It was sex as a manifestation of emotion. Sex as a display of desire, yearning, opening up and tumbling into each other. After, we would fall asleep easily and quickly. In the mornings, she would be up early, ready for a challenging day shooting on location. Sometimes she would leave my some francs. One time, as a joke, she threw them on the bed as she was walking out. As though I was a whore. We laughed. I pulled her back onto the bed. She left late and her hair was messed.
In the days, I would roam the streets, go to art galleries and sit in cafes writing poems. I was the happiest poet in the world. Can you imagine one happier? No. I wrote a lot. She had a weekend off and I took her to my favourite spots - the Pompidou, a corner cafe in St Germaine, for a ride in the subways.
It was perfect. Perfect. And then, it was over. We woke up after our most beautiful night together and suddenly it was time to go. She left early - meeting the crew downstairs, I left a few hours later. No one on her team even knew I was there. On the bus back to the airport I listened to Marvin Gaye, tears streaming down my face. It was immense. I was happy, sad, and everything in between. I was at the end of a dream. I didn't know if, or when, we would meet again. There were no promises made. But it was clear that what we had between us was precious and substantial.
We spoke on the phone when we could after that. This was the pre-mobile age. It was frustrating to be apart. We both missed each other. We came up with a solution. My parents were living in London at the time. She had a job coming up. A week in London and a week in Madrid. I didn't want her shouting me a second time, so I used what money I had saved and got across to London to visit my folks. When she arrived, I moved into the hotel with her. It was the same ritual - she would work during the days, we would go out to dinner at a high end restaurant, drink margaritas and wine, taxi back to the hotel and savour the rest of the night together. She introduced me to The Water Boys; her favourite band. 'The Whole of the Moon' was the theme song of not only that trip but our entire affair. It's poignant, emotional, a cry from deep within.
One night towards the end of the London trip, one of the waitresses in one of the restaurants took a liking to me and could not conceal it. The atmosphere got quickly tense and jealousy reared it's ugly head. In the cab home, we had our first argument. I professed my devotion and honestly told her that there was nothing to be upset about. I was 100% committed. But, she fumed for a while. She was threatened that the slightest amount of my attention went elsewhere, even just for a moment. I saw a side of her previously undisclosed. Back in the room, she calmed down and our lovemaking was more intense than before.
Arriving in Madrid was exciting as well. I got there during the day. My job was to seek out some great places to dine. Again, it was pre-internet, so I used guide books. I found some hot spots and the food was amazing. As is the tradition in Spain, we ate later that elsewhere. This allowed us a few hours playtime before dinner as well.
On the second or third night we were dining in a delightful Spanish restaurant, sitting in the courtyard. We were overlooked by stylish balconies of local residents. It was a community atmosphere. When we arrived a young girl, maybe fourteen or fifteen, saw us and waved. She must have sensed how in love we were from our affectionate behaviour and she seemed somewhat captivated. She stayed in her place and gazed down at us from a distance. When we glanced up at her a few times, she returned a beaming smile, full of warmth and appreciation.
Towards the end of the meal, while we were waiting for dessert an older woman came around with some roses. On impulse, I bought two. I ceremoniously gave the first one to my lover. The other one, I announced, I wanted to give to our devoted fan, still watching our every move. I stood up, walked a few steps towards the balcony and threw it up to her. She caught it and beamed with happiness and appreciation to have been acknowledged. When I turned around the table was empty. Thinking she had gone to the bathroom, I sat down and waited. She was not coming back. The maitre'd informed me that she had left, stormed off.
My heart sank. I felt that feeling when all the air is sucked out of the atmosphere. Oh, no. This is not good. Really not good.
And it was bad on many levels. Just paying the bill used up more than half the money in my possession. Then there was one other thing. I did not take proper note of the name of the hotel we were staying at. I had no idea what to tell the taxi driver, one who spoke no English. Somehow, after driving around for close to an hour, using my internal GPS and a mix of luck, we found the place. The cab fare cleaned me out. I was pretty stressed and kind of angry. I was never a fan of drama and this was drama.
To make things worse, I had to key to the room and she refused to let me in. After arguing, negotiating through the closed door, she finally relented when I told her to just throw my bag out, that I was leaving. She let me in. She cried as I reassured her of my love, our love. She apologised for being insecure. It was the drink, she was tired, it was confusing... Of course, I forgave her and all was good for the rest of the stay in Spain. Leaving again was difficult and I returned to Sydney.
Three months later, she told me on the phone that she had booked me a ticket to New York City. She had a job there and wanted us to meet. I was leaving in three days.
I decided that our love affair, our connection, was real, truly special. It demanded that I honour it, and her, with a proactive decision and action. I used my entire savings and bought her an engagement ring. It was just one diamond, but I spent a long time finding the best looking ring I could find within my means. I was going to ask her to marry me.
What I remember of New York in that trip is mostly the plush Park Avenue hotel room. We spent a lot of time there. I also remember studying that wine coloured Zagat guide, doing my job selecting and booking the evening's restaurant. It was a culinary indulgence, a luxurious treat. Money was never an issue. Not only did she pay for all our meals in every city, but she was a generous tipper.
Is it OK to do what I am doing, I sometimes wondered. She is paying to have me around. Am I keeping within the boundries of my personal integrity, I would ask myself.
But I felt I wasn't. It was just the way it was. I was extremely lucky to be where I was. It was fate.
I never did anything that compromised my own morality. I was never fake, I never lied or acted any way other than was true. I was extremely grateful and always thanked her and let her know how much my sharing was appreciated.
We talked about it. What else am I going to spend my money on? she would say. You are the best thing that has ever happened to me. You make me happy, you make me feel free. Being able to see you and be with you after a hard day's shoot means so much to me. It is as much a dream come true for you as it is for me. I believed her. Whatever the financial dynamics were, our emotional bond was undeniably based on equality, honesty, passion and deep, heartfelt desire. We had to be together.
The ring was burning a hole in my pocket. I wanted the timing to be right. I waited until our last night in New York. The restaurant I chose was the landmark, opulent Cafe Des Artistes on the upper West Side. We had finished our meal and were drinking champagne. I reached into my coat pocket and pulled it out. I can't recall my exact presentation procedure, but I am sure I attempted to make it as romantic as possible without being corny. She was surprised and delighted. She said yes.
I can't recall the exact way things happened after that but when she was coming back from the bathroom I was chatting to a waitress. We might have been sharing a laugh or a brief moment. Whatever it was, my new 'fiancee' didn't like it one bit. She went into a rage, like a sudden cyclone. She took off the ring and threw it in her champagne glass. I was speechless. For a moment I considered leaving it there. But I picked it out. I went outside. She was attempting to hail down a taxi. When one pulled up, I jumped in beside her. She started crying. I said nothing. We got to the hotel and went to the room in silence. It was tense and uncomfortable. And in my opinion, completely out of order and unnecessary. It was become clear that this was a pattern. A emotional anomaly. Something was out of whack. I realised that each time these things happened, we had consumed quite a few drinks. That was surely part of it. But the reactions were so extreme. The anger so fierce. The response inappropriate. It felt disrespectful, damaging.
We went to bed together, after separate showers. Eventually we made up. In the morning, when I woke she was in tears.
I left my ring behind. I can't believe what I have done...
I hugged her. I've got it. If you still want it.
Of course I do. I am so sorry.
Things were back in place. We were OK again. Another storm weathered. My flight out of NY was after hers. She got back to LA before me. My flight back to Sydney was through LA and I had an 8 hour lay over. She picked me up from the airport and we went to her house. It was interesting and kind of strange to actually be in her home. It seemed to me, from my observations, that it was somewhere she spent little time. It needed more attention, warmth. I got an idea.
Why don't I stay here? I suggested. In LA. We can live together. I have nothing that demands I immediately return to Australia. Why don't we try actually being with each other on a day to day basis, in a more grounded way.
It felt like an opportunity in a way. It came to me in the moment and I shared it.
She thought about it but I think it was too fast. My plane was supposed to be leaving in a few hours. It was a big decision either way. She went with maintaining the status quo.
Once again, I was up in the air. Heading back to Oz.
Six months passed. It was excruciating. A little heartbreaking. Talking on the phone was like a cruel tease. She was busy working on more shoots within the US. Arizona, NY again. I suggested she come visit, even stay. Or I could fly back over. But she wouldn't commit.
Long distance relationships are so, so hard. Two months is the limit, I believe. My limit anyway.
I could not put my life on hold. I just carried on as I would. Did my thing. Went to art gallery openings, plays, parties. Along the way I met some lovely women. None captivated me like she did, but a few times there was intense and immediate attraction. I didn't know what was going to happen, so I went with the flow. I went with what reality was presenting to me in the moment. That's the way I live.
Our communications had dwindled to just a trickle. I took it in stride. Glad for what we had had. But I knew she was a tied to her job and was afraid of letting it all go for love. I couldn't blame her, she had more to loose than me.
When she rang, though, and told me she was coming back to Australia for a shoot, I was pretty happy. Mostly. Actually, a little conflicted. The suffering involved in a long distance relationship did not suit me. I wasn't sure if I wanted to re-ignite the flame, only to have it extinguished again. But she still had my ring, as well, it was far too special a relationship to give it every chance.
Her shoot was to be up in Cairns but her first night was in Sydney. She was staying at the same hotel, The Sebel Townhouse. Back where it all began. We met for dinner in a restaurant on Kellet Street, just nearby. Seeing each other again was electric. It was all still there. Dinner was wonderful.
I made the choice to be completely honest and up front with her. I told her that in the interim, during our time apart, although I had not gone out with any other women, that I did hook up briefly with three women.
She seemed to take it well and said that she appreciated me being open and honest with her. She said that she had not been with anyone. We went back to the hotel and our night together was as though we had never been apart.
It was a long week, while she was in Cairns, waiting for her to return so that we could discuss a future.
When she did come back we went for dinner and then went back to the hotel. Everything was beautiful.
We made love. It was passionate.
Then, right in the final moments, right after the crescendo, in the space between hitting the highest high and floating back to earth, she looked me straight in the eyes, her hands around the back of my neck and said...
While I was away in Cairns on the shoot, I fucked a guy in the crew.
I got off her. I got up and got dressed. I felt physically sick. My head was spinning. I will never forget the feeling of that moment.
I walked out. It was over.
A few weeks later, I get a call from LA. It's her. She is crying. She tells me how sorry she is. How wrong it was, what she did. She tells me she has to see me. We have to talk. In person. I tell her it's too late. She says, no, I am coming. I have to see you. I have already booked my ticket. I arrive tomorrow. Please, please, if even a skerrick of anything good remains, please come to The Sebel tomorrow night. Just to talk. Just so we can talk.
I tell her, don't come. I don't want to see you.
She says, I'm coming. I will be there.
I admired her conviction and gumption. There were some burnt embers still there but not much. Mostly it was a damp, smoldering, unpleasant heap of ash and wet coal.
But I went. I went to her room. She was lying on the bed. She tried to seduce me. I could not do it. I could not let it happen. What she had done was unforgivable. Once again, I walked away. This time, though, there was no anger. Just sadness.
A week later, I got an padded envelope in the mail. Inside was a small dried rose and some barbed wire wrapped around it. Attached to the barbed wire was the ring.
Nice touch. I had to smile.
I sold it at a hock shop the next day.
End of chapter. End of story.
For me reading is an integral part of my existence. I find the actual process of reading - rushing across letter, bouncing from word to word, sucking them in with your eyes, letting them swirl around in your brain and amplify into meaningful sentences, paragraphs... concepts. Munching on delicious combinations of adjectives and nouns, inventive, rhythmic phrase clusters that titillate and delight the cerebral neurons like cheeky pixies.
I began really loving reading around the age of ten or eleven - comics were a big part of it, of course, but also magazines like Time and Newsweek and books. The Hardy Boys series was a huge favourite. Those cliffhanger chapter endings! My love for books really kicked into high gear around the age of fourteen when I started reading adult fiction in paperback form. I would buy them second hand from a local second hand bookshop in Tokyo. The shop was filled with Japanese books, of course, but there were about three or four shelves of titles in English. I chose very carefully. To buy a book and not be able to read it, legitimately enjoy it was something I only did once or twice. I hated to think of the title I had missed or excluded that would have perhaps opened a new world. So, I ended up spending one, two hours in the shop sometimes, before deciding on my purchase. As a discipline, and because I wasn't very cashed up, just one at a time. Unless there were two amazing ones, guarenteed reads that I didn't want to miss out on.
It was a thrill to be able to read 'adult' fiction - whatever I wanted from a young age. It helped me mature, formulate my world view, learn things about the world and it's inhabitants. Authors like John Fowles, Alistar Mclean, Woody Allen and on, that guy who wrote The Joy of Sex, all contributed to my development.
I was known around school for always having at least one, if not two, paperbacks in my blazer side pockets. The commute to and from school was close to an hour - three train lines, two switches - which was two hours a day of extra reading time, thanks very much. There's no question I learnt more from reading books of my own selection than I did from set scholastic studies. It's possible, likely even, that my respect for and love of writing stemmed from my reading passion.
It's a habit that continues today. I always have one book on the go that I will read from cover to cover over a week or two period. Then there are the 'circlers', two or three that I pop in and out of. As well, there are the 'chancers'; ones that deserve a chance - a chapter, 20 pages - if they keep my interested I keep going with them.
These day fiction writing mostly doesn't cut it for me. I visit the library several times a week - generally gravitating towards the art books, of course, but then the auto biographies. Mountain climbers, creatives, criminals, soldiers, inventors... a good yarn told in the first person - particularly one that is honest and illuminating - is satisfying and often inspiring in some way, insight into the headspace of a person who has done something extraordinary.
So, yeah, to me books are beautiful things. Powerful, mysterious, full of promise - teachers of the best kind; they lay it out there for you to discover for yourself. No pushing. No hard sell. A simple invitation... come along for a few steps... if you are compelled to continue, well, let's take the journey together. At completion you will be a slightly different person. You will have evolved.
There's a lot of implied pressure and expectations these days from mainstream society to be ambitious, aggressively proactive in pursuit of career and financial success. It has always been present, growing since the eighties, but with the massive increase of numbers of strivers, step-uppers and wanna-be-famousers it has become even more competitive out there in every field. It is a way that many people, in fact, measure their self worth.
The downside of this is that for every winner there are many losers. As well, the make-it-at-any-cost attitude does no favours for the moral integrity of the game players. Egos battle, feelings are disregarded, the non-achievers are scoffed at and relegated to the fringes. The whole game is one that gives massive financial rewards to the top of the pyramid and a pittance to the bottom. Obviously, it is not fair. In fact, it is blatantly unhealthy and unethical.
There are other options to partaking in this ruthless hunger for gold, however. There are other ways. Better ways. It means first seeing beyond the noxious and infectious fumes of capitalism and materialism. It requires one to see the big picture, ponder on the finer points of existence and choose an alternative that is uniquely suited. The choices are vast, though, in some cases they may require some contemplation, as well as a pinch of courage, a glint of resolve.
It all begins with you. Who are you? What do you believe in? What are your natural instincts, passions?
By listening to yourself, your inner voice and paying it heed, you will start to find your direction. Ignore the calls and shouts of the outside world - family, school, the media - this is a very personal thing and the answers come from within your self.
Whatever you choose to pursue - and you can chop and change as you feel the need - or pursue multiple paths at once - do so with commitment and integrity. If what you are doing makes you happy, feel valuable, feel worthy, feel empowered - then you are on the right path.
I don't know why I have started to sound like a self help book. So, I'll curb it. I guess, though, what I am trying to say is that there are unlimited options - helping your grandmother, kayaking, salsa dancing, sewing, cooking, volunteering, spontaneous travel - and that they exist across a wide spectrum. One needs to not be narrow minded. One needs to question. To seek answers. To acknowledge one's own internal struggle and not look away. Stay with it. Stay with yourself. Invest in yourself.
Oh, no. Self help book lingo returns. Ich! Sorry.
I suppose I am speaking to the young. I am trying to encourage the rewarding journey of self creation. Climbing walls and peeking over. Going too far sometimes. Getting lost. Feeling the pain of existence.
A lot of the best things in life are not written about in magazines. Or online. They are secret treasures. They are precious and personal. They are yours to seek and discover. There is no map. You need to trust. You need to keep searching - for that thing - that thing! - the whatever it is that only you know....
Reality is only limited by your imagination. And your imagination knows no bounds.
ART GETS ME HIGH
Author & Artist