Rhythms of The Mind

 

My childish interpretation of the storm inside
My childish interpretation of the storm inside

Those few months were a strange time. My father seemed to age a year every week, and when we played chess, or watched cricket together, it was prefaced with this weight of an unspoken fear. What was going to happen? How would we function as a family without him? My parent’s bedroom that had always been a happy place now felt claustrophobic and necessarily gloomy under the burden of an impossible convalescence. The green room was named for its bristly carpet tiles that prevented the door from closing fully. I never tired from running my fingers over the various patterned glass panels of the perpetually ajar door, some smooth and bumpy like a polished tortoise shell and others cut finely into a thousand spiky teeth. Generous olive curtains could be opened to reveal a decorative chamber pot and other dusty ornaments, objects I had loved as a child reflecting the morning glow through stained glass. Above hung a heavy porcelain lamp shade were the light shot out of diamonds carved through its sides to throw ceiling shadows resembling a spiral carpet. All these things were now indelibly in shadow and belonged to a happier time, though the threads of their memory still move me and if recalled, they jerk and pull me back to my enduring youth.

The summer dragged as I waited, half reluctant for the return of routine and the start of school. My friends and peers rushed to me with news of the impending tragedy, ravenous for the drama of life as opposed to the fake heroics played out on the big screen. After the initial flush of interest however, I soon returned to my role as second fiddle and basketball hopeful – neither the most popular nor the castaway. If they had noticed me once, shifting uneasily and moving in and out of their conversation, they would not have recognised this inner turmoil. Voices trying to jolly me would fall like wet leaves and I’d escape to the Library or art room for uncrowded reflection.

Earnest inquiry from my peers about how my father was going gradually receded, the unspeakable finality of the truth not being a topic easily discussed. But also I usually remained cryptic and even glib with my response, a self defence making one harder to classify. Of course it was burning inside of me and continued to influence everything I did and everything I said, but it needed to be contained, this grief. It felt very much like I was coming in from the outside, through circles becoming denser, darker reaching for the centre of things through the boyish fog compounded of sugar, homework and sexual awareness. And by day as in night, the dream is peopled with those belonging to some other existence, their heads in their own neon cloud going about business and touching but never penetrating the fog’s silver gilded fragrance. Under the influence of this monumental mood, I often found myself walking around the school grounds, polishing appropriate retorts to unwanted attention. Stepping at times, uneasily, trying to match my stride with the rhythms of the mind.

Last game of chess
Last game of chess

At home things seemed to continue despite the absence of normalcy. The dark wood tall boy in my parent’s bedroom still held hidden treats tucked away in the under ware draw. The two oil stains on the wall where my parent’s had rested their heads continued their quiet introspection. The pets needed feeding, and dinner plates serving and the stories of the day were still passed around, although in a quieter fashion. Michaela shouldered much of the responsibility, driving to and from medical appointments, painstakingly easing over speed bumps to prevent jarring. Not many words were spoken, but I remember over hearing my father refer to her as his sterling girl. My father fought hard, but the illness had reduced his once portly stature to skin and bone. One morning early in March, he called for me from his sick bed to run an errand as I was already heading for the shops to buy milk and bread. He wanted me to buy him a fine art pen and presented me with a scattering of coins. The newsagency seemed to only have thick markers or common biro’s and instead of picking the closest alternative, I returned empty handed to his steely rebuke ‘I see you didn’t bother to buy my pen’. I felt very bad at the time, but that has since paled in comparison to my regret in reflection of having curtailed one of his last urges to create. A drawing from this time depicts a version of himself, isolated on a hill with his instrument laid to rest and in the distance his forlorn muse.

It was a momentous time in my life, reaching its climax with the family sitting around the deathbed in the Heidelburg Repatriation Hospital singing Beatles songs – the only ones we knew. At one point in the hospital, after exploratory surgery had determined that the cancer had spread to all parts of his body, my father said quite out of the blue and under heavy sedation ‘oh, there’s Doug Green’. It was later confirmed that his old artist buddy ‘was visited by Peter’ that very day. After his passing, I remember following coloured lines back through the hospital corridor in a kind of stupor; purchasing a raffle ticket for an Easter hamper, because life keeps on going apparently; and then the blinding light of day that lacerated my eyes and filled me with an unfamiliar mortification, to be in the presence of such gaiety. It was a beautiful Autumnal light that on any other occasion would have provoked an inner smile at least, but on this day it seemed quite wrong, an intrusion upon the sensation of being in some way outside of time, and beyond the reach of joy.

In the days that followed we wept together, reading through my father’s writings and sharing our memories. I felt a peculiar excitement when his golf clubs and slippers became mine, as if stepping into those shoes brought me closer to him and closer to the man I was to become. My Mother spent many long hours on the phone, breaking down as she delivered the news to friends and family, while I rubbed her back, letting her know that I was close. Everything seemed transformed somehow, a passing shower lingering like a great ocean, a song on the radio now an anthem to express the insoluble machinations of great emotion – I can’t live with or without you. Life stopped and started, as if waiting for a tear or the realisation of loss, and in the darkest hours, a room with a body imprinted in memory still remained, pulling me toward that which wants to be seen just one more time. My father was buried in the lawn cemetery on Phillip Island, a peaceful place a breast a hill abundant in she Oakes and lemon centred gums that seem to creak and whisper in acknowledgement of ones pensive presence.

Peter At Rest - 28

Peter At Rest - 26

Last Words

This was the first tape recording in what was to be a complete aural history by my father. The recording goes on for a further hour, with informal discussions around specific art works during the cataloguing process. Also edited is a brief interlude at the beginning, when I hold up proceedings by making a milkshake! My father is heard saying “what are you going to catch?, where are you going in such a hurry?”, which is prophetic in the sense that he only had ten days to live.

A Chance Meeting

Rosalind working on the catalogue April 1987
Rosalind working on the catalogue April 1987

My father’s art works were brought out to be catalogued by Rosalind Hollinrake. They lined the walls of the hallway 6 deep and a great excitement set in as an exhibition took shape. Rosalind, a published author most notably for a biography of artist Clarice A’Beckett, was an old acquaintance who lived up the way from our home in Wattle Valley Road in Canterbury. A chance meeting with my mother at the Camberwell market led to the suggestion of an oral history being recorded. The original idea had been to mount a show with the possibility of having it tour the regional galleries in Victoria.

Peter Graham April 1987
Peter Graham April 1987

Unfortunately, time was short, a lot shorter than any of us anticipated. Having been diagnosed with advanced cancer of the oesophagus in December 1986, my father’s condition rapidly deteriorated. His oesophagus opening had narrowed to the size of a pin and he would have perished of dehydration within weeks if it had not been for medical intervention. He had been having difficulty swallowing for over a year, a condition wrongly diagnosed as associated with a hiatus hernia he had suffered in the late 1960’s. Now he began laser treatment, at that time a relatively new and experimental procedure, designed to burn away the tumour to relieve symptoms associated with the blockage. There was a proliferation of ‘how to conquer cancer’ readings in the house, in particular a book by Ian Gawler, a man who had managed to defeat his illness having been given the prognosis of weeks to live. This in turn led to a benign belief in the power of self-healing. One evening I watched him stand at the edge of the veranda contemplating the view, as if at the edge of one life looking back upon something he had created and yet had never afforded himself the time to appreciate. The ingraining of the work ethic had been so complete that even in his last days he described himself as semi retired and an artist at the beginning of his most exciting period.

LAst photos of my father
LAst photos of my father

My father had always had a spiritual quality despite his atheist leanings. He would muse about parallel lives where he had returned to a travelling life rather than stopping to nest. My mother recalled how he had announced, ‘No ghosts in here’, when first stepping foot in our Canterbury home. Over the dinner table, he would revel in stories of spectres in the sunken gardens of the Abbey, an Artist’s colony in New Barnett, where he had lived in 1947 in a war torn north London. His old scrapbook would be brought out to illustrate the anecdotes, filled with newspaper cuttings and snap shots of a young man brimming with promise in front of unfamiliar canvases.

My Father painting "The Convicts" 1946 London Bomb damage c.1947 "The Abbey Arts Centre" 1947
My Father painting “The Convicts” 1946
London Bomb damage c.1947
“The Abbey Arts Centre” 1947

 With moist-eyed remembrance, he brought back to life the characters and places he had been as a young man over a glass of bubbly, thimble size for the youngest. Then in his final months, he embraced meditation and described in detail, moments of elevated insight and the experience of cradling his very soul. Despite this journey toward healing, on the bedroom wall was a late woodblock print, a dead bird windswept by a north blow reminding me the storm might not have passed. He died on April 15th 1987 having been originally given a prognosis of up to a year to live. The catalogue had to be finished without him, and the exhibition became a memorial, hung to coincide with what would have been his 62nd birthday.

"Bird, Dead Tree and North Wind" 1985 3 colour woodcut print. 50 x 50 cm
“Bird, Dead Tree and North Wind” 1985 –  3 colour woodcut print. 50 x 50 cm

The Great Power of Art Works

1987 - 17

In the months following his death, our house was filled with my father’s paintings, many having been brought out from their usual hiding place in the narrow roof cavity where they had been stored for many years. As a boy I would often tiptoe through the crowded space over broken glass, groping in the dark for a discarded toy. It was a scary place then, with the single light bulb partially obscured by a canvas; seaweed insulation spilling out from holes in the silver paper and in summer, the smouldering temperatures befitting a roof cavity. My older sister Michaela and I sometimes smuggled a picnic hamper in when much younger, and devoured our secret feast by torch light. I didn’t really know what was in there, but when I asked one year if he would put some paintings on my walls my father produced a small collection rescued from their shadowy incarceration. He did it in a rather casual manner without consultation, but I did detect a slight satisfaction that at least I was showing some interest. There was a striking Horse and Rider watercolour ‘Ghost Story’ telling the tale of a man pursued by his own fear; an orange square from ‘The Children’s Corner Suite’ which fitted nicely on the clothes cupboard doorknob and vibrated with the colour that had been a childhood favourite; and two musicians from his English period. Later that year I asked him to paint a red fish on my wall. It was to be the vanguard of an entire underwater population. I looked at these works every night before sleeping and took particular delight in discovering faces in the abstracted fiddlers. In one painting the rather distorted face on downward incline was mirrored by a Turkish prince clad in a purple turban, the chin of the first becoming the cheek of my exotic noble. It was a process akin to finding strange characters in the peeling paint of my ceiling: a giraffe, a cat, a whole regiment of plastic chargers.

"Musician" 1950 oil on canvas 75 x 50 cm "Ghost Story" 1951 Water Colour 60 x 50 cm "Children's Corner Suite" (part) 60 x 60 cm oilo on canvas
“Musician” 1950 oil on canvas 75 x 50 cm
“Ghost Story” 1951 Water Colour 60 x 50 cm
“Children’s Corner Suite” (part) 60 x 60 cm oilo on canvas

This is what I’ve come to believe is the great power of art works. In a world so dominated by moving picture’s requiring half a dozen camera angles on swift rotation to hold our attention, the static image is placed in a unique category. It promotes the thinking eye, and quietly educates our perception. While the image remains the same, the way we see it changes over time, and in this way, a great work of art can grow within us, adding layers of meaning, and a deeper personal significance as experience shapes our understanding of the world. It is an essentially inner life in which paintings exist. I could see my father most clearly when studying a private moment on canvas: a vision on a rainy day. Happy to be home from school, I had never felt so close to another’s feelings than alone with these pictures. To quote my father: “Around the walls the pictures hang in still splendour, constantly open windows to other worlds and between them the curtain of time.”

Peter Graham painting in the study at Canterbury 9/7/1983
My father painting in the study at Canterbury 9/7/1983

Watching an artwork take shape is another experience again. It drags you into the interior workings of the artists mind as the furrowed brow is followed by the deliberate act. When my father was painting, he had a far away expression on his face as if seeing past the immediate surroundings to the great potential beyond. It was not recreation, and it was not relaxing, it was something far more intense, something private, behind the eyes. Echoed in body language, a demonstrative hand cocked at the chin, legs folded in defiance of the linen press. His concentration would permeate the room and hover around the body like a mist of snatches of thought. I received only a few formal lessons, how to depict trees hugging a hillside at distance, and the rules of perspective in relation to a hasty sketch of the rotunda on school camp to Walhalla. The odd face or space ship would appear in earlier sketch books for me to copy from, caught between my own texter soldiers strewn across the page in evidence of a great campaign in the child’s mind. In my case his lessons were taught by osmosis and casual observation. It was the atmosphere of painting and the smell of turpentine, gum Arabic and Linseed oil that imbued me with a sense of reverence and curiosity.

Canterbury

09 Memorial Exhibition E

Feelings that surround memories are ethereal things. They sparkle and glow in the thoughtful night, becoming bigger and more powerful than the events that engendered their being, or gradually lose the potency that made them so attractive in the first place – a vaguely numb glow, passing with time and imprinted on the retina following that indelible summer. The feelings that I associate with my decision to become a visual artist remain particularly significant. I remember sitting on the floor in the study of the family home in Canterbury, my head buried in folder after folder of my father’s drawings. I entered this world – the vestiges of a life, turning the pages with due respect, tissue separating the papers yellow patina. This had been the place where as a family, we gathered to watch T.V, while he would quietly work on a canvas in the corner. One of my eyes would continually return to the head of the brush where the real theatre was taking shape. A twin fluoro flooded the room, and the crowded bookshelf gave it a scholastic air. I knew the dust sleeves by heart but not what they contained. It would have felt cold without the clutter, with walls slightly too high, the gas burner struggling to heat below the picture rail, and beneath the wall paper embossed with a muted spherical flower was hidden a cat and a fiddle and other nursery rhyme characters – echoes from an earlier time. This was a world both familiar and yet a mystery, representing the indelible significance of adult achievement. To say that the room still held my fathers presence after his passing would not be alluding to the supernatural. It simply was a family room that belonged to us all and reflected our lives, a stack of paintings as much part of that environment as a coffee table and television. It was an essential part of us, and the place where I gained a deeper appreciation of my father, the artist Peter Benjamin Graham (1925-87).

The Study
The Study

The year was 1987 and I was 14 years old. I wanted desperately to fill the void that his recent passing had left, so I turned to his artwork to seek solace. I was captivated by the way the lines curl and collide to describe clouds; the smudge of a feature to intimate an emotion or the cock of a wrist to suggest a passing secret or secret soliloquy – so much to learn and so much to live up to.

DSC_0280

My journey as an artist began in this way, looking through folder after folder of my father’s drawings, with a growing urge to have a go. It was not enough just to look – I had to do as well. That had always been my nature. As a child fixated on cricket, I could only sit and watch for so long before I had to take my bat and ball out the back to re-enact my own test match beneath the canopy of bamboo and banksias. I could spend hours banging a decrepit tennis ball against the back of half a kitchen hutch that had been pulled out of my grandparent’s home some years earlier. I had complete teams of imaginary players, each with a performance record, batting average and unique style that would come in and out of form according to whim, and the understood rhythm of play. The importance of this inner world had already been established through creative play and a yearning for time away from others, to indulge my imaginings. I was ready to take seriously the idea of becoming an artist and my circumstances gave rise to a need to hold this definite objective. That year I decided what I wanted to do with my life – what I wanted to be.