Alternative title: jumping to the end before I begin…

raw feels” by leonie brialey

I don’t know anything about Leonie Brialey’s graphic novel “raw feels” (a.k.a. qualia) other than I want to own a copy, and it was written as part of her PhD project (+ an exegesis, which, thanks to Kerry, I now can’t think of as anything else but an exit jesus). I don’t understand graphic novels, how (or if?) they’re different to comics, but I do love the fact that someone made one for her Ph.D. and that I found it through a friend of a friend of a friend, because that is how I find a lot of my very best most favourite things.

wish you were here
Megan likes to make her own books and will take any excuse to do so…

Leonie also has some zines for sale on her site, which interested me because I have been asked by a few people recently to publish some of my random art journal nonsense in a zine for them to purchase. I don’t know anything much about zines, except they have something of a cult following and seem to run the gamut from a few photocopied/stapled pages to professionally printed full colour masterpieces. But it’s an idea I can’t shake, which is not of interest to my research except that I have also been thinking about wanting something more than an photography exhibition as a creative product of the research.  I want to recognise the partnership of any future (bless you) respondents in a material way, to bring back something to them in return for sharing their stories of loss and longing.

… because I mean, c’mon, it’s art AND craft AND writing, all in the one creative activity.

So, I’m thinking zines, one for each participant, full of their stories and my artwork (photography, yes, but I also think anything else that I might have scribbled or drawn or painted as part of my thinking process.) Different, but related to, the photographic essays, a lot more informal and messy and, um, fun. The participants will get their own copy, but there’ll be more copies for sharing, or even selling, barring consent, of course. Or perhaps a zine of the research process itself? Or both?

I think I just heard both supervisors rolls their eyes so hard they turned a full 360 degrees in their head because my reach is, as always, exceeding my grasp (though Browning says it should, or what’s a heaven for?). But there’s an ethos to zines that I think fits really well with both my personal research philosophy in general, and this research topic in particular.  I am starting to feel the beginnings of multiple strands of theoretical and artistic connections forming, in the same way I did when I chose to use collage in the Master’s thesis, and that tells me it’s worth pursuing, even if I’ve just added a heap more work to the whole thing, work that isn’t strictly necessary. It’s not work work, though. It’s joy work. And joy, as Ms Oliver says, was not made to be a crumb*.

*If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

-Mary Oliver, Swans



the blank empty page

Writing seems to be a problem of some kind. It isn’t as if most people can just sit down and start to write brilliantly, get up from the desk, do something else all day, and then, next morning start again without any conflict or anxiety. To begin to write – to attempt anything creative, for that matter – is to ask many other questions, not only about the craft itself, but of oneself, and of life. The blank empty page is a representation of this helplessness. Who am I? How should I live? Who do I want to be?

– Hanif Kureishi

I’m reading a book about creative writing*, for two reasons**: I want to push the creative writing aspect in this research project a little further than I did with the Master’s thesis, without knowing what that means just yet, and also because I believe that learning about anything creative teaches you something about everything creative. When I came across Hanif Kureishi’s statement that attempting anything creative is to ask questions not only about the craft itself, but of oneself and of life, I psychically fist-bumped the man. It’s why I’m such an advocate of creative methodologies in research, but more generally, of promoting a creative mindset, because spending time with the questions, I believe, helps us to think critically about the answers.

Hanif had something to say about that too (emphasis mine):

Experience keeps coming. If the self is partly formed from the blows, wounds and marks made by the world, then writing is a kind of self-healing. But creativity initiates disturbance too. It is a kind of scepticism which attacks that which is petrified.

A sort of instability, he called it. In my Master’s thesis I talked about it in terms of Chaos, in the sense that it exists in the gap between possibility and presence, the things which could be and those that already are. Creativity, in writing, in art, in arts-based research, in all different kinds of research, can help uncover the things that can be learned and understood within that gap; it is a way to spend more time looking at what could be, I suppose, than replicating what already exists. Not for its own sake, but in order that new ideas, new points of view, new ways of doing things. new knowledge that can be brought across that gap. A bridge between possibility and presence.

Can I  use another quote? I’ll be quoting a lot for a while because I’m at the stage in my research where I need to read a thousand things to understand both my subject matter and my approach to that subject matter, and also I like to quote. This one from Hilary Mantel:

When you stand on the verge of a new narrative, when you have picked your character, you stretch out your hand in the dark and you don’t know who or what will take it.***

don’t know who or what will take my outstretched hand. But I do know that standing here at the beginning of the beginning and waiting to see what and who and how everything unfolds is my most favourite place to be.

*Writing a First Novel, edited by Karen Stevens

**Three reasons. It’s also just fun.

***As quoted by Alison McLeod in her essay “Hearing Voices”, Chapter 9 of that very same book.

the poets always beat me to it


Little tin key
lost somewhere in my memory, returned to me in a dream.

Like the blue-burning match blowing over the surface of
some drunk girl’s sweet, flaming party drink. Happy
birthday. Lucky

coin rubbed away to nothing, turned back into invisibility.
Back into its first atomic energy. Both

lost forever now and all around me. I’ve
rendered it, it seems, back into its
first longing — to keep

safe the loved ones on the plane, or on the freeway, or
strapped to the gurney, opened for the surgery, wheeled
into the lobby, being

screened for the journey, or stamped with the date
at the entrance to the pool, the portal, the nightclub, or

any spot where one might pull to the curb, drop
off a soft target, kiss it, make
with it a plan to fetch it later —

unbloodied, still breathing, in no hurry. This
talisman with no magic. I’ve made it for you

out of your own flesh, teeth, hair.

the refraction of longing


The world is full of paper.
Write to me.

– Agha Shahid Ali, Stationery

Longing: both a noun and an adjective, a word that describes a particular kind of desire, of wanting something that perhaps you don’t, or can’t have. I’ve never really been able to describe longing very well, there’s a kind of melancholy there, the same kind of melancholy associated with nostalgia? I don’t know. One of the suggestions in the last supervisory meeting was that there may be a similarity in the stories of shadow objects, where there would be more variety in stories of objects that person does have, which might be true. So I have been wondering about what sort of emotions shadow objects might be centered around, and I wonder if perhaps it covers the many shades of longing? Veronica spoke of craving and desire, and I didn’t recognise it at the time, but I think she was talking about longing too.

I have a fascination with the idea of longing, so I’m not surprised (and I also am surprised because it wasn’t intentional) that I found myself a way back to spending time with the idea. There isn’t all that much literature on longing, or yearning, not even total agreement that it’s a distinct emotion at all, but I did find this science-y definition (written almost 20 years ago now, I’m getting old).

Longing is mainly a blend of the (primary) emotions of love or happiness and sadness or depression … It is experienced as a need for something – a thing, a state, a relationship – without which one’s life does not feel complete.

Holm, O. (1999). Analyses of Longing: Origins, Levels, and Dimensions. The Journal of Psychology, 133:6, 621-630

And perhaps it is also as Marilynne Robinson wrote in her novel Housekeeping, that it is the very fact we crave an object that keeps an object, a state, a relationship, with us.

(She also describes the absence as a shadow and she’s a literary genius, just saying…)

To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing — the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again.

Of course, saying all shadow objects are connected to longing, to yearning, is a little banal; they wouldn’t qualify as objects that cast a shadow if there were no desire for them in the first place. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. But the banality of my wonderings is not the point: it’s the stories of why an absent object evokes longing in the first place that I’m here for. In those stories, I am sure, I will find a myriad of different motivations and emotions; longing, refracted into so many hues.

road map

holiday main camera (63 of 157) 1200

Or, where to from here. Though I am tempted to quote Machado againtraveler there is no road/the road is made by walking.  Still though, we’ll allow for magnetic north and a compass anyway, shall we?

It was decided between Kerry and Veronica and I that we’re going with the ‘shadow objects’ idea, or to put it in much more sensible Kerry speak, an exploration of shadow objects derived through bereavement. The research will be constructed as a group of case studies, where I will be spending time over a series of interviews with a handful of participants, going in depth to their stories, their connections, their relationships. In collaboration with them we’ll agree on how best to represent the shadow left by the object photographically, or in a photographic essay, creating a new artefact out of the shadow cast by the lost one. We agreed to a doctorate through publication rather than a thesis, and I still want to exhibit the photographs as part of sharing the research with others. But I’m not sure it will have the emotional impact of the scars project, and I won’t do it just for the sake of it, so I’m leaving that option open for now, to be examined and decided on at some point down that road I’ll make by walking.

holiday iPhone photos (25 of 83)

We didn’t discuss autoethnography, and I wasn’t brave enough to bring it up, which translated really means I didn’t believe in it enough. Case studies are my favourite approach to read and (with the grand total of one short thesis under my belt) to write about too, so I’m very happy to go with that approach. Who I am and what I see will be deeply embedded in the work anyway. I’m reading a book on why photography matters, and part of its argument is that how we “understand what photography is and how it works tell us something about how we understand anything.” To which I would extend the observation that how I understand what photography is and how it works will tell you something about how I understand anything. How I understand what research is and how it works will tell you something about how I understand anything.

my mothers creepy doll 2I’m also aiming to produce a creative non-fiction work based on the research too, and more of me will be explicitly in that. And yes, there’s still the one based on some ideas in the Master’s to finish too. One PhD, two books, a photographic exhibition, marking, parenting, tutoring, filling up my own creative well with random projects unrelated to any of the above.

My mother’s creepy doll is horrified by the idea. But I don’t listen to her much. She’s horrified by a lot of things.

a note before i forget

To follow on from the post below. I have also been thinking about how you represent objects that aren’t there from a photographic/artistic perspective, because, ummm…

But then I realised you don’t. What you represent  photographically/artistically is the emotional artefact of the shadow objects. So the process then becomes a movement between ‘real’ object to shadow object and emotional artefact, and back again to something ‘real’.

The end.

in places of the night


I’m reading research articles of death and artefacts in preparation for a meeting with Kerry and Veronica this afternoon. In one of these I came across a concept from the Nahuas, who speak of the creation and extinction of life, of birth and death, as something that occurs in “places of the night”. Obscure, opaque, shadowed; something important to understand but difficult also. And I thought of another idea from a different article, where they described shame as being an emotional artefact of culture, which in turn reminded me of Penni and her idea of the shadow objects we carry within ourselves. I’m not sure why these connected in my head, but I am sure they led me to thinking about how the only artefacts left behind by either parent that I connect to emotionally both exist only as a shadow object, thrown or given away before I had the opportunity to claim either of them. Somehow they exist in the ‘night’ of my identity, my social world, obscured and opaque, something important to understand but difficult also. Emotional artefacts of family culture; irretrievable, irreplaceable, and absolutely ‘real’, if no longer material.

I am wondering about an autoethnography type of project based around this idea, that would then extends out into other people’s experiences and understanding of the shadow objects in their internal world. I don’t think it has been done before, at least I can’t find an example of it yet. I’m not sure it’s the best way to go about it, or even if it is a good idea at all, but … shadow objects and emotional artefacts. I think yes.

ripples and shadows and yes, try again.


This seems to be the consensus from the supervisors, from my own internal compass of unfathomable attraction, to shift topics now while the shifting is still possible (or forever hold my peace). I’m off to the library today to pick up some more books that I had ordered on portraits and looking and disfigurement and I feel like an unkind lover dumping a generous and interesting partner for no other reason than I just wasn’t completely feeling it, which is really all the reasons I suppose. I tell myself it has no reflection on my goodness as a person that dead people’s things have more of an emotional pull to me than alive people’s adversities (though I don’t believe it), and I have been repeating Rumi’s phrase to myself all morning: there are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.




I used to visit op-shops and take photos of the abandoned and unwanted items left there for someone else to love, wondering at the histories and stories behind those things. Who bought them and who left them and why? I never found them sad places, just curious ones, and much more full of humanity than the retail stores, not least because of the ghosts of those stories.

I woke up to dozens of messages on my FaceBook page with comments and suggestions on my new PhD topic. A friend in Wellington (who just went through her own PhD oral defense – I’m pretending for the moment that such a thing doesn’t exist) pointed me to the work of Margaret Gibson whose book Objects of the Dead is about, well, objects of the dead. I’ve downloaded some of her academic articles too, which will be useful, but I was a little deflated with so much work already having been done by her and others in this area. I was also reminded of Daniel Miller’s The Comfort of Things, a book that played a big part in my decision to return to study, and, now I think about it, was likely in the back of my mind when I decided to research Julia’s blog (there are a few connecting dots, but that is a story for another time). But there was something in Margaret’s approach, or her approach as I viewed it having only skimmed a few of her articles (can’t find her book at the library, but I was in a hurry and probably didn’t look right) that was just a little sideways to what was on my mind, and it was another FaceBook friend who helped me identify what that sideways feeling was about.

Her name is Penelope Russon, and she’s also a PhD student, among many other things, not least of which is author of young adult novels. She told me that her book Only Ever Always  was written as a meditation “on things that I wrote after the [Black Saturday] fires, about the objects we treasure, and what it means if we lose these objects (or don’t release them). It’s compelling to think about the real object and the shadow object we carry in ourselves. Sometimes lost things are more precious because they are lost.”

(That my old blogging network is still giving me so much in this way – I met Penelope on FaceBook through an old blogging friend too – never ceases to amaze and humble. In truth, she contacted me, I would never have had the chutzpah to befriend her first, but I’m eternally grateful that other people are much less stuck up their own backsides than I am).

I had been half thinking about the spaces and the gaps of lost objects, but the shadow of them is an even better description, because they are very much still there emotionally, if not visible materially. I wondered (wonder) if there is much research done on these shadow objects, on those lost things that represent both a break in our connection to the people and places of our past, and a parallel strong connection, strong because the emotional impact of their loss itself maintains their presence. The shadow object that we carry in ourselves.

So, here we are back to ripples and shadows, perhaps not solely but at least in part. Ah well. It was always going to happen one way or another, I suppose.

breathe in


What keeps my heart awake is colourful silence.

– Claude Monet

I’m not sure why I wrote Claude in that quote box, as if there is another famous Monet, another famous Monet who would wax lyrical about colourful silence. He wrote a lot about colour, and flowers, and beautiful things in his letters to people (remember when people wrote letters?), and if I could be granted one of those fantasy dinner guest wish things, he would be near the top of that list (also Jesus and Marilyn M.).

Monet also wrote that people pretended to understand his work, “as if it was necessary to understand my work when it is only necessary to love“.  I get that. I get the thing about colourful silence too, it’s why I spent a couple of minutes this morning throwing a little bit of paint at my visual diary (one of them – I currently have 3. Or 4? No more than 4.) It didn’t mean anything, it’s not even very good, it’s just … oxygen. A little bit of colour oxygen. If I leave anything behind me when I’m gone that will show you most who I was, it will be some kind of collection of these scattered moments of silence.

I don’t know why I feel such a pull to uncovering the stories of the things people leave behind. I don’t suppose it’s necessary to understand it. It’s only necessary to love.

the artifacts of loss and other fun things

While imprisoned, Japanese American women, children, and men employed art to remake the physical landscapes of the camps into livable places, establish new and reform existing connections, and create mental spaces of survival.

– Jane Dusselier, Artifacts of Loss

artifacts of lossI read parts of this book over the last week and now I am well and truly obsessed by the concept of artifacts. I also wish I had read it before I started my PhD as it gave me a great idea for a research topic, but I already have a great idea I’m committed to, so let’s note it for the next project (it was to photograph and investigate meaning behind the artifacts left behind after people die – my mother’s childhood doll which is sitting in a box in my garage, for instance, or my father’s photographs of Campbell Island, where he lived for two years as part of the team that built the research facilities there). All through my academic study I would say that I didn’t think I would like research and probably wouldn’t go past a post-graduate diploma for that reason, but then I met Kerry and Veronica and discovered that I not only like research, I am passionate about it, and don’t want to really do anything much else. Even when I moan otherwise, which usually just means I’m tired and need a break.

I’ve signed up for a free online course with the International Writing Program at Iowa University – they offer free online writing courses regularly and they’re really excellent. This one is called Power of the Pen: Identities and Social Issues in Fiction and Nonfiction so it’s sort of PhD preparation-ish, which is how I am justifying the time it will take. (Ethics first, K+V, yes). And there is a city-wide photography festival beginning at the end of May, with a theme of identity, so it’s important that I go see some exhibitions in that too, don’t you think? Roger Ballen is exhibiting for the first time in NZ, so the universe says I have to go too. Thanks Roger Ballen, thanks Universe.

Now back to marking Kerry’s post-grads. When that is done I am going to visit a beach I have never been to and take my camera with me, and spend hours just looking and not thinking. Chocolate may be involved; definitely coffee.