life of a project


(Copied this chart from Austin Kleon’s book “Steal like an Artist” because the black paper was hellish to photograph. No-one wants to look at hellish black paper.)

With the amount of reading, note-taking, re-note-taking, and sheer gabillion hours of thinking I’ve done for this thesis, it’s kind of annoying I have to do the actual writing too. Where are Vulcan mind-melds when you need them?

Given the chart above, I think we’re at the “it will be good to finish” stage of the proceedings, with only “it’s done and it sucks” to go.

For the first time I can actually see that this thing is actually going to get actually done. In actuality. And soon.

Praise the saints and thank the good lord almighty.

wonder tales

katerina croppedIt’s Walt Disney’s fault we equate faerie tales with unrealistic happy ever afters, not to mention impossibly tiny waists. It was never their function to be such a thing, shouldn’t be their function now, but, to paraphrase somebody I can’t remember, we generally end up with the culture we deserve. We constructed it, after all. The term ‘wonder tale’ might evoke their historical psychological function better: remarkable, unfamiliar, delightful, bewildering, fascinating, curious, powerful, and uncertain tales.

Magic tales.

I love science, love the curiosity it was born from, much of the technology it has given birth to (weaponry aside, also global warming). Am a big fan of rational (*cough* critical *cough*) thinking. I married a scientist, gave birth to a budding scientist; Some of My Best Friends are Scientists. What I don’t love is the philosophical equating of magic and faerie with nonsense, and nonsense with pointlessness. People tell stories born of their cultures, their conditions, their hopes, dreams, fears. Born of them. There is tradition, wisdom, experience, healing, provocation, wonder, knowledge, and yes, magic, in stories. Even in the dangerous, ofttimes cruel and unforgiving, world of faerie. Maybe especially there. Life is precarious and hard and unfathomable and finite, even a privileged White Western sort of a life. Discovering facts about the material world won’t help you cope with that (even if it will correct your failing thyroid function, thank you science). But discovering the wonder of story might.

It’s just something I wanted to say. It’s something I always want to say. It’s something I’m rabidly obsessed with.

nobody ever asks me what I see


The best compliment I’ve ever received on any of the creative work I’ve done was from a friend who said to me, you’re breaking my heart and lifting my spirit. I couldn’t, can’t, imagine any greater artistic achievement than that, because it seems to me that breaking hearts and lifting spirits requires communicating what is, what might have been, what could be. Loss and hope, pain and courage. Mess. Story.

The title to this post comes from a poem by Tui Scanlan, called Rock Biter. It’s the story of his big, strong hands, what people see when they look at his hands. And what they see when they look at his hands, is not what he sees.

Narrative vs. story. The heuristic vs. the person. When people look at the physically large Tui, they will have a narrative in place already, consciously or otherwise, where he and his story will be instantly slotted. I would have such a narrative. It shames me, but I would. I think researchers do this regularly; indeed, it happens to, and by, all of us.

You can understand a lot of things by understanding narratives, the broader socioeconomic, cultural, political narratives that flesh is heir to. They’re important. But breaking people’s hearts and lifting their spirits? Reaching the place where our passions, commitments, loves, motivations are born? I think that requires an emotional connection, and an emotional connection requires story. I think slinging narratives at each other can just be very loud noise, can just be sound and fury, however right, however true, however just those narratives may be.

Poet activist Audrey Lorde puts it like this:

This is why the work is so important. Its power doesn’t lie in the me that lives in the words as much as in the heart’s blood pumping behind the eye that is reading, the muscle behind the desire that is sparked by the word – hope as a living state that propels us, open-eyed and fearful, into all the battles of our lives. And some of those battles we do not win.

But some of them we do.

I’ve made this the opening quote to my thesis, because I think the spiritual juice that powers change is born of story.

Is born of asking Tui what he sees.

Is born of asking Julia what she sees.

And then taking our broken hearts and our lifted spirits, open-eyed and fearful, into all the battles of our lives.

we all are

beautiful mess drop shadowWe all are a beautiful mess.

This started as a failed sketch; I couldn’t get the proportions right. And then intuition took over and I scribbled and I coloured and I wrote and then a funny thing happened. In the weakness of my technical ability, came the strength of a freedom of line. It was much better, much more vibrant, much more me, than if I had drawn it properly.

Veronica wrote that to me once, that in my weakness, my strength. She was trying to get it through my thick skull that this is reflexivity; experience is reflexivity. What you understand, what you participate in, what you sense, what you’ve been trained in, what you know, what you fear, what you practice, what you observe. What you can’t do, every bit as much as what you can. The actions you’ve taken, the contacts you have, the losses you’ve felt. The triumphs. All the things. The whole tangled web of all the things.

I could never have predicted the odd symbiosis that seems to have woven its way between my artistic imagination and my academic work. It isn’t just that the one benefits from the other, though they do. It isn’t just that I benefit from both, though I do. They need each other, and I need them. It’s all one. We’re all one.

And from this, another funny thing. People who have no interest in academic anything have started asking to read the thesis when it is done. And people who have never asked before, are asking to buy prints of these scribbles that I am making while thinking about my thesis. And ‘proper’ artists I’ve never met are starting to follow my progress on social media. There’s nothing particularly new or skillful in any of it, but I think that focussing on bringing me to the work, rather than focussing on methodology and technique (though they are not entirely absent!), there is a kind of – spirit? colour? animation? – that is connecting to something in them. They don’t need to know the methodologies, the techniques, to recognise that connection. Reflexivity is experience, experience is story, story is connection.

We all are a beautiful mess.


going home

I’m feeling so much better, so much better, though I am exhausted today. I promised my stressed 17 year old that I would stay up with her to keep her company while she finished her history assignment, one she had been working hard on all week. She got finished at 3:30am.

So, not much to say, but somehow a need to say it. I’ve been thinking and writing about where we find wisdom, knowledge, skill, craft; of all the myriad expertise that exists in the world that is unheralded, underutilised. So many places I think. It kind of haunts me. I watch Janet Echelman’s TED talk every now and then, and it makes me cry every single time. I rarely cry, I am not a crier. And I’m not sure what it is about it that makes me cry? The ethereal, majestic sculptures, the provocation of wonder, the lace makers, the fisherman, the rejected art student finding her way to learn from all of them.

And somehow today I am also reminded of the Babushkas of Chernobyl, rejecting the care of the authorities and insisting on home and family and connection by returning to their radioactive lands. Living hard, and yet living much longer in their autonomy than those who remained out of the exclusion zone. One Babushka says this: They told us our legs would hurt. Our legs hurt. So what? They know there are risks. And they know they are where they want to be.


At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that — the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, train himself, in infinite patience, which is to try and to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance. That is, to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph. The most important thing is insight, that is … curiosity to wonder, to mull, and to muse why it is that man does what he does. And if you have that, then I don’t think the talent makes much difference, whether you’ve got that or not. – William Faulkner

I came across the term intellectual craftmanship in Arthur Frank’s book Letting Stories Breathewhich he, in turn, has taken from C. Wright Mills’ work, The Sociological ImaginationSocial science as the practice of a craft, the idea of workmanship as related to research, of not splitting our work from our lives (I don’t think anyone should, I don’t think it’s even possible, but that’s a whole ‘nother polemic), building up the habit of self-reflection, of writing – well, hallelujah and amen.

Crazy that Mills wrote about this in 1959 and it’s still not widely understood. Read, discussed, theorised, a part of the canon, all those things and more. But understood? I can only evaluate it by the research I have read, by the researchers I have met, by the students I have sat next to, but I’m going to say that the understanding is rare. Not, thank God, absent. But rare. Which implies the colossally hubristic idea that I understand what intellectual craftsmanship is, and maybe I do and likely I don’t. Certainly not as well as I could. But one thing I am sure of. I know craftsmanship.


I counted up the list of crafts I have some skill in: sewing, quilting, knitting, crochet, embroidery, photography, jewellery, drawing, painting.  Collage! Many more I’ve tried, and even more I want to try, but alas. So many options and so few lives.

But, tant pis. It’s not the craft that makes the craftsman, just as it is not the fact of doing research that makes the intellectual craftsman. I would say of my list above, I might, on a good day and with a favourable wind, claim craftmanship in maybe three things. Probably one thing. At least something. (And yes, all can be arts as well, but that’s a whole ‘nother ‘nother polemic). At the heart of a craftsman is a set of learned and learnable skills that has take a lot of time and effort and practice to develop. Not just any kind of practice, but the self-reflective practice Mills speaks of, the standing back and reviewing and changing and trying again, and again, and again, and again. And again. Again. And again tomorrow.  Having the humility to learn from the skill and technique of those who have gone before, while being open to innovation where it makes sense in the context of your own work.

Craftsmanship in anything comes at the end of a hella lot of self-reflective practice, and within the concept of craftmanship is also the idea of differing levels of mastery. Apprentice, journeyman, master, as the medieval guilds would have it, though mastery is not equivalent to knowing all there is to know. Didn’t Michelangelo write near the end of his life that he was still learning? Perhaps a craftsman is also one who understands the learning isn’t, never could be, completed.

Or, what Faulkner said.

(I sincerely believe my thesis has been made richer, better, more interesting, as much by the stuff I threw away as what I have included.)

I used to own* Richard Sennett’s book The Craftsman, which is about craftsmanship in the realm of work in general, about doing good work for its own sake. Which has something of a moral/socioeconomic tinge of superiority to it, when I think about it. Nevertheless. I remember I enjoyed many of the ideas in it (and that it was a little dry maybe? But readable.) He says the book is his attempt to justify the idea that making is thinking, a response he had to a question asked him by philosopher Richard Foley. Thinking is also thinking, but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I learned a lot about criticality by learning how to make, by learning how to be a craftsman.

Also, Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford. Can’t find either. Where the hell have I put these books? Op-shop, most likely. Idiot child.


soldiers rd portraits

soldiers rd

I’ve been following these women for a while on FB, mostly because I find their work beautiful and powerful, and a little because I have one idea (of a few) on incorporating portraits and identity in a doctorate. Their latest work in Waikeria Prison is their most powerful yet. Reminds me of a quotation of Foucault’s about there being more ideas on earth than intellectuals imagine, and that these ideas are more active, stronger, resistant, and passionate, than politicians think.

like, really busy

Art is the elimination of the unnecessary. ― Pablo Picasso

blog collage

It’s taken me a long while to understand collage. It’s a very conceptual art form, and simple in theory, but like most conceptual and theoretically simple things, the doing is easy but the doing it well? Not so easy. I’m not suggesting I’ve done it well, just that the attempt to get there has been a great deal more work than it looks. I sat at the kitchen table last night, mess spread from one end of my living room area to another, talking to my beloved Vulcan Warren about what I was doing. (He’s full of such useful gems as, that one really says something to me. I don’t know what it says, but… ) I said to him that I think people will look at these and think they could have thrown them together in a few minutes, and that this used to bother me. And perhaps I tried to over complicate the work a bit, for validation of the effort involved. But, as I read recently in the context of making art, validation is for parking tickets. And now if someone believes they can do this in a fraction of the time it has taken me to do it, all I think is that they are welcome to try.

I think I can now say that I have learned how it fits into my research in a way that adds something useful*, that it isn’t just me having fun and shoving the results into a thesis and calling it ‘creative’. I may have gone overboard yesterday and worked myself into a painful exhaustion that I am paying for today, but I needed to spend time with it. I’ve decided to abandon a lot of the earlier work, work that isn’t bad but isn’t what I need it to be, but that’s not time wasted either. All the things I did previously have gotten me here, to where I feel in control of what I am doing and the effect I want it to have. The effect I want it to have on me, at least. The effect it has on other people is completely out of my control. I hope they can see some of what I see in it when they experience it in the context of the research, or something better, different, anything at all, but I am at the point now where I know I couldn’t have done more. It’s what I want it to be.

double Collage

I very stupidly wrecked two of these yesterday trying to ‘add’ to them though. Idiot child.


This was one. I might try and salvage the poor quality digital image anyway, because there’s a provocative oddness to it that I haven’t been able to replicate. My favourite response to it from a viewer was a very sarcastic “charming!”, and it made me smile. The point of the thing in this particular instance is to make you uncomfortable, the very opposite of charm. Mission accomplished. Another thing Picasso once said: art is not chaste. Where it is chaste, it is not art.

*Often, though not always, they reflect the nudging, pinching shadows of the research, of the research process. They’re not thematic so much as emblematic.**

**But definitely not systematic, hydromatic, ultramatic; nor greased lightening.