Being Seen: Extract, Wild Patience Scrolls

I am knelt for the day in residence at Brighton Museum, and not now among the hallowed Constables but across the hall in the fine art gallery with its theme of The Language of Flowers. And the alchemy, the chemistry, occurs immediately, where I feared it would not. I will myself be a flower, a shrub, a cherry tree — that fixed point I always wished to be in my childhood on the hill two miles from town so the noise of where I was not carried up to me where I sat with my knees to my chest, pure longing. Attenuated (is that the word?), stretched out over the fields, imagining, if I strained my senses enough, that I could hear Father among the townspeople, amid the noise of the Wednesday cattle market. ——— Now. Is that true, what I have written, or am I only playing — at this safe distance from isolation (in Larkin’s words) — at emotions I couldn’t afford? I sat on the hedge, knees against my chest, yes. I listened once, I know, to the weekly cattle market — to the lorry backs slamming, the roaring of enslaved animals, the frightening insistent rhythm of the auctioneers. That really happened. I cried into my knees, and the ginger cat came as he did always at my distress, and I felt longing — but even then a small part of me was outside myself, considering (as a painter with the brush held up for perspective) the picture I made. I wanted — heart, blood, bone — to be seen. So no, I did not allow myself then to want Father, or even a father. That would break open like an old wound imperfectly healed in my late twenties so that I mooned after married men, while married myself and to a good man. The loss and lack of love became diffuse and attached itself instead to objects, ideas [what I am describing here look is how artists — all artists perhaps — are made]. When I was older, and far away from home at university, this longing acquired a language, a set of symbols, a cast of characters — all of them from art and art history. I wanted to be a still life: The original everyday things — homely as bread and cheese on a tablecloth; milk in a blue-and-white striped Cornish jug; honey, butter; hedgerow flowers in a milkbottle. I wanted my ordinary self to be noticed. But I wanted too the longer, more intense looking under which these simple, perishable things are transformed by the artist, by art, into what can last. [I look up, around — see what I’ve just described: A table laid with a jug of mixed blooms — ‘Cups and Saucers’ by Anne Redpath. And then, with my skin gone goose-bumped, I see that I am facing a portrait of a woman in profile, writing. I get up, with effort, knees already sore. ‘The Student’ by George Clausen — his daughter, whose name is my daughter’s too: Meg.] I wanted to be loved like an everyday thing — a flower, a fixture, a fitting — and have proof of that affection in the form of an artefact, a keepsake. (Father took no photos of me; Mother in her hardest years found photos painful so that the few I have of my childhood are ones my step-father handed me in a carrier bag, where they had been thrown and left to go mildewed in the garage.) I stuck at this for years — my twenties, my thirties — & all through motherhood: It was my secret, my shame. However much I loved my children, and despite having my husband beside me my whole adult life, I still had my stray’s hunger to be seen. (My girl cat, runt of the litter, suffers it too: No amount of love, of food, has her quit her frantic paddling at my heart each evening — and I struggle to console her, seeing displayed what is distasteful in myself). It had to become acute, life-threatening, before I came awake to it, & understood finally that only I could meet this need in me. I would have to compose myself — arrange and situate myself in such a way that the old bone-ache would ease. And that is what it is, this Wild Patience, my mile of writing. Here I am among the paintings, knelt in the centre of the room, and ————————— I want to say ‘I feel’ but my hand stops, goes to my throat, face, as if checking I am all there. Paradox: I am, while making a public exhibition of myself, happy. At home.

Pen on paper. Extract from the Wild Patience Scrolls. Scroll 03: Line 03: 1-96ft. May 2017

The Wild Patience Scrolls (2016-2017) are a mile of writing – some 100,000 words – undertaken in public and completed on residency at the Jan Michalski Foundation for Writing & Literature in Switzerland. I spoke openly during their creation on themes of water, women & self-sovereignty, and on creativity, community and connection, but one of their other braided threads is on ambiguous loss, longing, & compulsive art-making: Why I made, in mid-life, an exhibition of myself. 
Beginning a non-fiction book around this now: Both my story and that of more fully outsider female artists – those in asylums, villages, bad marriages, making meaning from scraps, salvage.

Tanya Shadrick Brighton Museum

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