I couldn’t help but think of a photo I had taken some months ago, when first arriving in Melbourne. I unexpectedly took it one Sunday afternoon, whilst walking over the Yarra River bridge.
I had recently sold off my entire life and had moved to a new country. I was settling in. Making “home” in an environment that felt as foreign as the moon. The air was icy in my deprived lungs. Yet the surrounding light illuminated a warm glow, opening hidden gaps between neighbouring trees, revealing winters shadowed edges. Everything in sight was unfamiliar. My senses were heightened within me. This is a familiar occurrence with travelling to new destinations. On the one hand, all is promising and exciting because it’s temporary. Short lived. A fantasy. But when the destination becomes a decision, it suddenly transcends from that fantasy into permanence. And that is something that has felt extremely unsettling for me – The Great Unknown.
Let’s abbreviate it: TGU. It’s a very real thing. It exists. I know this because I’ve met it. It causes feelings of fear, insecurity and uncertainty to arise. It often manifests in dreams and reveals itself in the body. Its closest companion is anxiety. And it lingers for days on end if left to its own devices. In my youth, I was able to contain it quite effortlessly. But as I’ve grown older, its grip has become unmerciful.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s an absolute privilege to be able to experience and live in a new culture, such as Australia. In honesty, I didn’t quite know what to expect. It is an exquisitely beautiful country. In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve managed to cover a lot of ground. I’ve driven the cliff-faced heights of the Great Ocean Road. I’ve tasted traces of the rich soil, embedded in grapes carefully blended to resemble the Yarra Valley. I’ve snorkelled the depths of Cairns, witnessing the natural wonder of what remains of the Great Barrier Reef. I’ve explored the hidden waterfalls of Atherton Tableland, a tropical rainforest dating back 132-million years. I’ve encountered the friendly smiles and faces of the locals, offering a hand in my loneliest of moments. I am lovingly supported by my partner and flatmate. But even then, when all the dust settles and I become quiet in my soul, TGU pays me a visit.
Painting has always been the most incredibly positive resource for settling anxiety. I have struggled with anxiety since childhood and I have found relief in self-expression through creativity. It’s meditative and gentle. My inner instinct kicks in, where I am able to just trust myself, regardless of the outcome. That somewhere inside me, I accept that it will all turn out alright and that even in mistakes, there are gifts. “The Great Unknown” could be a notion of celebration. If I could apply the same principle to life, and really believe it, it would probably all flow beautifully. But the canvas of life seems to be far more complex, and it comes to show how the act of painting embodies life lessons to be learned. Easier said than done.
That day, as I walked across the bridge, I looked left and suddenly felt moved by what appeared before me. The stillness was captured by the reflections on the water. My gaze looked onwards, towards the horizon and beyond the jungle of trees framing the landscape, to which I saw the city – distinct silhouettes of tall buildings that are only resemblant of Melbourne. I could sense the busyness, silent whispers of people marching about like ants amongst their dome-shaped hills, carrying heavy loads and seeing to the responsibilities of their everyday lives. Would I become one of them? Standing on the outskirts, I had a choice. To remain anonymous for fear of meeting TGU. Or to walk (or swim) ahead, to meet it there and to accept the outcome, whatever that may be.
It’s unpredictable. But this inevitably reinforces the fact that it’s about trusting the process, and in that I will move closer to the silent whispers. That those whispers will become spoken words.
What this image represents is transition. It is a visual representation of the journey I must take to get to the mainland. Personally, I imagine rowing it. Comfortably perched in a little wooden boat, with faith being my oar. With every paddle leaps faith. The water may become murky. Reflections may disappear. The waters may even become turbulent in uncontrollable weather conditions. After all, anyone who has lived in Melbourne knows the inherent weather characteristic of “four seasons in one day”. It’s unpredictable. But this inevitably reinforces the fact that it’s about trusting the process, and in that I will move closer to the silent whispers. That those whispers will become spoken words. That I will find my new home in The Great Unknown and will realise that all along, it was for me rather than against me.
I was so inspired by this photograph that I decided to paint it. I’ve completed the first stage of the painting. And it includes the selection of the canvas. It’s essential that the size can hold not only the composition, but the message behind it. Does it say exactly what you and the painting agreed on, when finally hanging it on a wall? Naturally you would think it generally makes sense to opt for width over height for a landscape of this nature. But I chose not to. Reason being my message needs to symbolize space. The height of the sky is just as relevant as the width of the river bank. This is because the actual space I’m standing in is of equal importance to the city itself. My feeling is that the canvas can then hold this message of transition, which is only successful dependent on whether or not I manage to paint its truth.
Personally, the very first brushstroke is normally the most difficult. I like to call it “breaking the painting in”. What if it’s the wrong colour? What if I mess it up? Will if I make a mistake? These are commonly thought questions, moments before brushing the paint on that seemingly immaculate, white, “perfect” surface. Burnt sienna is a colour “alive”. I learned that it’s often used to paint landscapes, as well as used for initial mark making. I’ve fallen in love with it. It radiates. It glows. And it’s much more impressive then the stark white of a primed canvas. Instead of grieving my initial surface, I leapt for joy. A good start! Then, I worked French ultramarine into the horizon line, further thinning out this semi-transparent colour with a solvent. I loosely defined the trees, buildings and reflections in a way that knit organic shapes into a sort web of information. I believe that this stage is the most important area of focus. It creates a foundation to always work from. Once this is definitively captured, there’s freedom to explore glazing and colour moving forward.
Although it took me 2 hours to physically complete this stage of the painting, it’s mentally taken me just under 3 months to conceptualise. For the most part, I recognised my behaviour of procrastination. But what I’ve realised is that this painting has in fact unfolded at the very same pace I have. This pace involved moving country and acclimatizing to my new surroundings. I found an art studio to paint and create in. I researched art shops and supplies (some products of which I’ve never used). I froze in fear. I moved in anticipation. I’ve sat with the uncomfortable fluctuation of emotions that have sometimes felt unmanageable. I’ve been stretched to capacity, almost as if I’m an elastic band about to snap. But don’t. Instead, I somehow continue to stretch and grow, even in the complete solitude that has been my reality.
Three months on, I am once again spreading my wings to the northern shores. As I leave Melbourne for 2 months to attend weddings and to connect with family, I carefully wrap my beloved canvas and face it up against a wall. Our conversation gradually grows silent. We both know that that this relationship only exists when emerged in the discomfort of TGU. And in some strange way, I’m not so afraid anymore because I now have a companion. Because I’m reminded it’s in those “stretched” places that we produce our finest artworks. And these artworks become the memoirs of courage that acknowledge what it took to stand in the company of great faith.