Last week I was on the farm, and I wrote about inspiration, and the importance of filling up our creative tanks. This week in the valley, I spent time thinking about the role vulnerability plays in the life of an artist.
In China last month I had the good fortune to hear Professor Brian Snapp speak about our grey matter – he spoke about how we learn, remember, and make. In his talk he quoted scholar and author, Dr. Brene Brown, and her words hit me right between the eyes. For Brene Brown, vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation.
Brene Brown, has devoted her academic life to studying courage, worthiness and shame. And after more than a decade of research, and thousands of manilla folders filled with interviews and the stories of real people, she says that vulnerability is the hallmark of humans who dare to live wholeheartedly, and while it’s not comfortable, it’s necessary if we ever want to make anything authentic as artists.
She says, by nature we are vulnerable, we live in a vulnerable world, but we do our very best to numb it, and when we do this we also cut off the potential to be truly creative or to experience deep joy.
We numb vulnerability because we want everything that is uncertain to be certain, everything that is imperfect to be perfect, and by numbing ourselves to it, we can also pretend that what we do and say to other people doesn’t effect them.To be vulnerable is to allow yourself to be deeply seen.
Two years ago my father died. For years we skirted around conversations we needed to have, and we never had them, and then in the end we ran out of time.
My way of coping with it was to throw myself into work, and I said yes to anything that came along because I didn’t want to deal with the intense pain. But, ‘the truth will out’, as my old Grandfather used to say. Shutting down was much easier at the time, but grief spilled out through the cracks and manifested itself in a myriad of ways, some of them destructive, some of them physical – and Brene’s right, it impacts on creativity.
My husband and I bought a property this year. It’s a beautiful valley in Northern NSW with over 200 acres of pasture and bush. There’s no electricity, internet, or phone service, just an old caravan and most recently a dunny. It’s a place we retreat to. Sometimes it makes me cringe that we needed to take out another mortgage to ensure we spend more time just being. But every weekend the valley is opening me up.
And the art is slowly coming back.
The valley tells me stories. Let me share one…The sun’s up but still soft, blinking at me through the knotted limbs of an old angophora, and the needles of a casuarina brush the caravan skin like a snare drum. There’s milk warming on the gas stove and suddenly I’m a kid again on school holidays, under the covers, nuzzling into my Nan’s meaty arms. Grandfather’s whistling in the kitchen, jiggling china on the breakfast trolley in his slippers and blue checkered dressing gown. If I stretch my arms up I could almost pop the blisters on the caravan ceiling. But I resist the urge and instead swing my feet to the lino, and step over my youngest son, still sleeping, open mouthed. He takes up the entire length of the kitchen floor.
The sandy loam crushes under my boots, and the valley is green and punctuated with tiny purple and yellow flowers. We can flush the dunny again, but even with this luxury I carry the shovel with me. I haven’t been this scared of a toilet for a long time, but last night, I made my debut peeing for two small brown snakes, their heads licked with a white stripe. I don’t know what they are, but they were a tough audience, and this morning I’m grateful for the dogs at my heel. The kookaburras start up.
My eldest strides past me, up the red track to the highest point of the property to consult Dr Google. Poor bugger, he’s been holding on all night and he wants to know what the snakes are. But there’s no reception. Just flies.
Shovel in hand, poised, warrior like, I stick my head in the doorway. But this time, it’s the dogs turn to watch, and soon they’re on a scent, digging at the earth floor, snorting and scratching at the ply walls. I reach for the shovel.After breakfast I ride alone along the southern ridge. In parts the track closes in thick with lantana, and I slowly paddle through in first over the gnarly roots and limestone outcrops, my eye out for the bull. He’s the size of a small shed and even with his big curly face he still manages to scare me to death. The ridge widens out, park like, scattered with bleached hips, thigh bones and jaws filled with petrified teeth. Up ahead a mother is lowing deep and she eyes me big and slow. I cut the motor. Bowing her big creamy head she licks her newborn with her rough tongue. It doesn’t respond. I kick the stand quiet, take off my gloves and helmet and walk towards her speaking soft. She moves and stands awkwardly under a sapling. I crouch before his body. The calf’s eye looks skyward and his perfect pink nostrils trail faintly with blood like wisps of smoke he’s just inhaled. His hair stands up, brushed this way and that, like a child who has just stumbled out of bed. All these tiny deaths. Three black crows hop at my side. She tells me I’ve looked for long enough.
We hear her low mourning as we pull out old fence posts in the valley, and in the purpling dusk I ride along the ridge but when I come to the clearing she’s gone. The birds have punctured his soft flesh, and his innards spill over the clay alive with flies. His face has given into gravity and is already sinking back into the earth. I go to walk away, but I turn back and take off my helmet and look at death and let it fill my nostrils. She startles me stepping out from behind a spotted gum.‘She’ll be outta sorts for a few days’, my neighbour Cliff drawls softly. Just a few days. And I’m jealous of her broken heart.
Like air raid sirens the dingos howl in the dark and by morning there is no trace of the calf.
Cliff’s bike farts slowly somewhere deep in the scrub. Five cows are walking around the paddocks with bursting udders. He’s looking for their calves. All these little deaths.
When my own father was suddenly sick, we had a week. In his last days, fighting for every breath, there was nothing to do but sit and hold hands in that place where there are no words. Since then I’ve showed up to the studio but I’ve kept the clay at arms length, too afraid of what I might find. Dead things wash up at my feet like a cursed character in a story, and everywhere I look, I see bones. I suck the marrow hard…To be vulnerable is to be alive.
Having the difficult conversations we’d rather not have, looking death square in the face, peeing in front of snakes, and making the art we’re most afraid to, isn’t comfortable, but it’s necessary.
I’ve pushed my boat a little way from the shore, and I’ll admit, even sharing remnants of my stories requires a certain amount of vulnerability, but I figure it’s only fair that I strip down if I’m going to talk about this with any authenticity. But, I don’t want to stick around on the shore, would you like to push out into the deep with me, because there are pots to make. We’ll both need our passports.From October 29 to November 11, 2017, I’m leading 12 clay enthusiasts to Gaya Ceramic Arts Centre, in Ubud, for a women’s retreat called, ‘Birthing Big Pots : Creating Big Magic’.
But this is not just any old workshop about making big pots. In the foothills of Holy Mount Agung, under the tutelage of potter and Gaya Director, Hillary Kane, we’ll take a journey inside ourselves with clay.
Over 14 days in Bali’s tropical ambient, we’ll breathe in inspiration, and with the soft clay we’ll open up to new techniques, we’ll push through comparisons, and bear down on our fears. With the assistance of some loving midwives, and embracing our vulnerability, we’ll give birth to some very BIG honest pots.
If you’re worried that this sounds like a whole bunch of touchy, feely, spiritual hooey – trust me, as well as being transformative, this is also going to be BIG FUN!
Join me next week when I talk creativity and reveal full retreat details with the wonderful and inspiring Hillary Kane!
Sign up for the newsletter here to ensure you don’t miss the workshop and accommodation details as they’re announced. And if there’s something tugging you after reading all of this, respond to it. It’s inspiration calling you to come out and play.
Listen to Dr. Brene Brown’s TED talk, ‘The Power Of Vulnerability’ here.