When my sister Sheryl Sandy opened my exhibition 'Letters to my Father' last year, there was no mention that she was my sister. Justin Bishop, Exhibitions Manager of the Cairns Regional Gallery at that time, had asked for her biography and I had given him her traditional family links and her current and past achievements. I had not added in the fact that we had shared the formative years of our lives together and that by chance or by design this woman, who looked nothing like me, was in fact my sister in all that this term could imply. I had thought that the 'reveal' of this information would add to the impact of her speech and form a link with mine.
If there is one thing that I would change, it is that moment when, in what I thought would be a 'funny surprise', I did not recognise my sister publically at that opening. I left it for her to claim me. Our parents and the colour of our skins are different but that was and is inconsequential. Our interests, passions and lives are now different but that is still inconsequential.
Sheryl is a woman of strength and courage, a woman with past memories that cause internal struggles. A woman of generosity and warmth, who has risen to the challenges within the realms of her indigenous culture and filled a need where she could, becoming CEO of many important organisations. This is a woman represented the state in athletics in her younger day and revels in her role as grandmother at the present time. This is a woman who has known emptiness and fullness, who has risen to be the best she can be as a human in spite of her circumstances.
When asked who my sister looks most like in the family, I simply say that she looks like herself. We are very different but she is still my big sister and I am still her little sister. Time does not change that.
I cannot remember a time as a child when I was not involved with a dog of some description. If our family didn’t own a dog, I quite literally collected other people’s dogs. That is how I found Nuki, a liver and white Springer spaniel who belonged to a neighbour down the street from our house. From the age of 6 to 12, Nuki and I would go off on ‘adventures’ as often as permitted at the end of which he was always faithfully returned to his rightful owner, if a little dirtier than he had originally been at the start. Sometimes we just hung out together at home.
Just before we moved away from the area, I used to dream up plots on how Nuki would accidently move with us or how we would run away together. None of those plans happened and I got on with life.
I was a stroppy and self-involved 16 year old when we next visited some of my parents’ friends in that old neighbourhood. I was sitting outside when who do you think I saw come walking along, heading directly for me? Nuki. He was greyer, he was going blind and his back legs didn’t work very well. But his memory still worked. How did he know I was there? Had he been coming to my old house that whole time? It didn’t matter that it had been four years since I had seen him. It didn’t matter that I had been busy growing up and forgetting about him. He still remembered me.
Dogs are like that, aren’t they? Dogs become part of the story of our lives. Dogs teach us things that make us better humans. Like unconditional love, loyalty, joy, forgiveness and trust. And when the time comes, they teach us how to grieve their loss.
This is where this exhibition started....with a present dog, Cooper, and with a past dog, Floyd. Both are/were big personalities. Both are/were owned by two beautiful people who recognised what treasures they had in the form of a four-legged best-friend. Because one dog is no longer physically here, does not make that dog less real to its owner or to the people who knew him. By placing the past and present dog along-side each other, I wanted to pursue the notion that memory supersedes death and through our memories, the people, the dogs who we loved are still very much alive in our thoughts and hearts.
Do we only ever get one good dog in a lifetime? Do certain dogs sometimes find us? Do we get certain dogs for a reason?
Our current dog, Morgan, came to us as an Australian Grand Champion with a very prestigious pedigree. He is now happily an ordinary slob of a dog, the show ring a distant memory.
Morgan’s original owner had sold her house because her husband was very ill and had advertised her furniture for sale. My friends Elle and Ann went to look at the lounge, but found it wasn’t the right colour. In conversation, Morgan’s original owner explained to my friends her predicament regarding Morgan. She had advertised for someone to take Morgan but no-one had responded and she didn’t know what to do because he was such a ‘special’ dog. She didn’t want to send him back to the breeder.
Elle rang me and told me she had a dog for me. I already had a Labrador and my daughter had Floyd. I didn’t really want another dog, but Elle insisted. I rang Morgan’s owner anyway and we arranged to meet. My daughter came with me to see Morgan. We had strategized that we would sensibly wait 24 hours before deciding whether we would take him or not. That was the first of our goals that Morgan broke.
There would be more. Previously, Morgan had always been an inside dog. It was our goal to make him an outside dog. Then it was our goal to make him a dog that did not sit on furniture. Next it was our goal not to have him sleep on our beds. Currently it is our goal to have him sleep just on the bottom of the bed.
My daughter jokes that Morgan’s main role in life is to look pretty. I know that is only partially true. He is also here to teach me things. Things like post-men must me barked at, visitor must be greeted, smells must be smelt, friends must be loved, dinner time must be non-negotiable, puddles must be splashed in, birds must be chased, and fresh poo or dead creatures must be rolled in. Moreover, Morgan teaches me to be in the moment, to greet the new day with enthusiasm and to see the world as an exciting and intriguing place, needing to be explored. Most importantly, Morgan teaches me that one good dog is one too few.
When I first showed my mother a picture of Morgan, she declared that it was like looking at Nuki, the Springer spaniel from my childhood. And she is right. Morgan is the splitting image of Nuki and is exactly the same in personality and temperament. It is as if time is no longer linear but has concertinaed in for me to have the same dog. I am no longer a child, but that doesn’t matter. Now Morgan and I go off on ‘adventures’ as often as permitted at the end of which he is always faithfully returned to his rightful owner, me. And sometimes we just hang out together at home. Our home ... where he has his own couch and tries to remember to sleep just at the bottom of my bed.
I facilitated a bookbinding workshop in Mareeba on the weekend. Over the course of the day, one participant mentioned that her family life would be changing at the end of this year when her three boys, (triplets!), moved out and moved on with their lives. I related very well to her feeling of apprehension for this impending modification to her current life.
Perhaps there is a commonality in this experience for all parents as, having raised their children to (hopefully!) be balanced, independent and fully functioning young adults, they release them into the world. I certainly experienced the same trepidation prior to my two oldest children leaving home in 2011 and 2012. In fact, my first solo exhibition NEST in 2012 was based around the universal experience of creating a place of safety, security and nurture – the family home – and the fleeting and fragile quality of this habitat.
The conversation on the weekend reminded me of one of the series from my NEST exhibition. A small commotion about nothing explored the patterns of experience, both shared and distinct; and considered the question, ‘Is there an underlying thread that connects all human beings through common circumstances and perceptions?’ This work focused on the anxiety felt by the parent when a child eventually leaves home which is perhaps more pronounced and magnified before the event but seems like an over-reaction after.
Three years on from NEST, my role as a parent has evolved. The immediate demands on my time are less and there is a hint of a future filled with infinite possibility and a taste of new freedom from the role of a single parent. That is not to say that I do not treasure every minute of currently being ‘mum’ to my 17 year old or that I don’t for one second miss the constant presence of my older two children. It is just that I have come to appreciate that life is in a state of flux and that I am capable of changing and adjusting with it.
The last time my Mother visited with our family in Cairns, I recall an incident that often replays in my memory. With the chaos of life as a single working parent of three children aged five to twelve, I was running late one particular morning, feeling stressed, working hard to get the four of us out the door to start our day. My Mother was laughing the whole time. Frustrated, I turned to my Mum before getting in the car and asked her what was so amusing? She said ‘This life you have with your children – it is so fleeting. It should be enjoyed and celebrated.’
That stopped me in my tracks. Truly, I did not appreciate the humour or joy in my circumstances at the time. All I saw was an endless, all consuming weight of mundane responsibilities and a set of thankless activities looming ahead of me. My attitude needed a rather large adjustment.
My mother does not remember saying those words and takes no credit for the changes that they brought. I worked hard at finding joy in my life as a parent and creating a happy childhood for my three charges. And then, in a blink of an eye, my children have grown. And just as my Mother predicted, my life has entered a different stage.
Our lives change and so do our roles. We grow as people with the changes. The trick is to remember to find joy and humour in every stage, isn’t it? That will be a life very well lived. Nearly 13 years on, I still thank my Mum for her laughing reminder!
"There are certain side effects from the process of applying for an Australia Council grant which prove to an artist the reason for creating works and continuing to further develop their practice.
Having been assessed by a 'panel of my peers' four times through applying for an Artstart grant and having been 'rejected' four times, the result can be an internal questioning of my arts practice.
Am I not talented enough? Is my work not contemporary enough? Do I not communicate my concepts well enough?
Self-doubt can be a cruel master. Logically, I know the rounds to be highly competitive and the percentages are low for those that actually succeed. Logically, I know that I will get feedback and I will see where I can improve in my next application. Logically, I know that I have two more applications left."
Above are the words I wrote in December 2013, just before applying for the fifth time to the Australia Council for an ArtStart Grant. I am happy to note that I am now 11 months through a year-long series of ArtStart funded activities. There is something very sweet about having to work hard to obtain your goals. Things that don't come easy are appreciated to a higher degree and while I don't recommend spending two and a half years writing the same grant, I do know that I grew as an artist and as a person during the process.
Once you make the choice to be a practicing artist, you must have the confidence and self-belief that spurs you forward when no-one else gives you a second glance. Eventually, your enthusiasm will be noticed. This is nothing to do with putting on a brave face and 'faking it until you make it', but about having a core belief that whatever happens, you will continue to make art because that is what you are meant to do.
Self-belief is a very powerful quality. It can take you from the pits of despair and help you accomplish your dreams. I am living proof of that.