an autoethnography of meaning and pain

For once my silence here is not a sign of anything being wrong or lack of work behind the scenes; on the contrary I have read and gathered so many research articles and books in order to write a new proposal that it became clear I would soon have to just stop and get something down or I would have amassed enough time, ideas and resources to write the PhD itself.

So, let’s see if we have enough to build a doctorate upon, and let’s begin with my favourite archaic word:

merry-go-sorry (n).

A tale that evokes joy and sadness simultaneously.

I took my son to the doctor’s recently; nothing serious, an ingrown toenail turned septic and in need of an antibiotic. I try not to overuse such things, annihilation of mankind looming from growing bacterial resistance and all, but his toe was twice the size it should be and difficult to fit into a shoe, so needs must.

During the inevitable wait before we could be seen, we found an article about a series of archaic words that some archaic word researcher wanted to resurrect. They were brilliant. Betrump! Slug-a-bed! Peacockize! When I came across merry-go-sorry and discovered what it meant, I knew I had found a central organising idea to build my research around. Because I would like to, as a hastily scrawled note in my composition book attests, challenge the traditional binary of what is normal and what is pathological, particularly with reference to the embodied experience of pain.

I can bear any pain, as long as it has meaning.

– Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

Here’s a fun fact: the meaning people ascribe to the experience of physical pain is not a well researched phenomenon. The biological processes behind it, sure, researched up the wazoo. Pain causing illnesses, like arthritis, cancer, fibromyalgia, and the depression, anxiety, social isolation, occupational challenges that are commonly associated with these illnesses are also a well-discussed thing. But the meaning of pain in and of itself? Not really.

And it is hard to give it a meaning beyond ‘ow’, ‘bloody hell’, or ‘fuck fuck fuck’, when you are in the moment. As Jennifer Esposito’s brilliantly titled article would have it, “Pain is a social construction until it hurts…”  She also goes on to say that “bodies matter and the meanings of bodies are always contextual, but in pain the body can be one’s entire experience.”  Perhaps this is the difficulty, the reason our knowledge of meaning and pain is so meagre, because our experience of meaning when in pain is meagre too. As a character in The Handmaid’s Tale says: “But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh.”

But Svenaeus writes that physical pain is both an experience of bodily suffering and emotional suffering. His argument is that pain is an experience of being acted upon, whatever the root cause of the pain might be, and it is that sense of being acted upon, a kind of physical violation, that brings the emotional suffering. And when the pain is chronic, the pointlessness of the violation, the lack of meaning behind it, makes the world, and our bodies themselves, a more difficult place in which to be. To paraphrase: chronic pain sufferers are never quite at home in their own skin.

However, if Brandon is correct that the body is personal and, as such, is an interactive part of our concept of ‘self’, then there needs must be some kind of meaning ascribed to our experience of pain, even if that meaning is something we remain largely oblivious to. Or else the absence of meaning could, I suppose, contribute to a destabilising of our sense of self ? In short, and to sum up a lot of overwhelming theories and thinkings, there is much work to be done here and I am your woman to do it.

Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going

― Rainer Maria Rilke

You’ll have to take it on faith for a minute that this quote has something useful to do with autoethnography. Or else I could just tell you? I’ll just tell you. What it reminds me of is Dashper’s idea that a good autoethnography is not ‘lazy’ research, but takes a considerable amount of reflective mental work, and Frambach’s inference that autoethnography has more to do with being vulnerable than being self-absorbed. Which is important, the vulnerability I mean, because it suggests the possibility that investigating something as complex and personal and disempowering as chronic pain could be more robustly prodded and poked at when that vulnerability also comes from a position of power. I like Panszcyk’s statement that “the same vulnerable body can also be the body of power”, where power means, in this instance, the ability of autoethnography to claim the space to construct one’s own ‘self’, to take the storyteller’s position. Think Frida Kahlo’s The Broken Column, for instance. In this way, the very subjectivity of pain becomes a strength, and will allow both time and depth enough to develop possible theory in this underdeveloped theoretical space.

I think the kind of pain I experience is also a potential strength for an autoethnographical methodology. It’s an unusual presentation of an unusual disease – a recurrence of brachial neuritis is the official diagnosis. It’s rare for it to occur, rarer to recur, even more rare for it to affect both sides of the body, and is diagnosed only half as often in women as in men. I’m one in a million! No-one knows the etiology (its thought to be autoimmune but not entirely?) and prognosis is so varied that there is no certainty about what the future holds. Hopefully the nerves will slowly heal over the next few years and I will carry on mostly as I always was, but the more it recurs the more likely that at least some nerve damage is permanent. I’m through the worst of the latest recurrence (we are on incident #3) so am not currently in excruciating kill-me-now type pain all of the time, hallelujah, but still in various amounts of pain at various stages of the day. Every day. It can be sharp and fierce, or dull and insistent; burning, aching, tingling, needling. There is also, of course, the potential for contrasting this kind of neuropathic pain with the arthritic pain I am also long acquainted with, and as I still have urticarial vasculitis, and as one might throw the intense itching that comes with that into the vast realm of pain experience if one were so inclined, then we have a veritable smorgasboard of pain experience to ponder.

On a personal level, eff that. But as a researcher, erm … cool! Because the rarity doesn’t make it necessarily irrelevant to the common experience, but the variety and intensity provides an opportunity, if done well, to be an interesting exemplar. As Ms Sally Denshire would have it, autoethnography can be a “vehicle for talking to each other”, or to quote Carl Rogers, and I probably shouldn’t, What is most personal is most universal.”  Where there is honesty without self-indulgence, I think that can be true, and I think it’s the principle behind the deep resonance we find through all ages in the best examples of all kinds of art. Perhaps when we stand in something like the Sistine Chapel, watch Adrian Lester perform Hamlet, or experience the Palmerston North Boy’s High School students farewell to a beloved teacher, amongst a very few examples of an eon’s worth of creative brilliance, we read something different into it than the person standing beside us, whose understanding is different again from the person standing beside them. The difference is not the point here, the resonance is: I think of it as a powerful echo that reflects back to us some aspect of who and what we are based in our shared and common humanity. That is, an important source of knowledge.

Because you knew the conversation was going to turn to art at some point, didn’t you?

What do you think an artist is? …he is a political being, constantly aware of the heart breaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.

― Pablo Picasso

A bit dramatic, our Pablo, and something of a misogynist prick, but undeniably genius. I used this quotation of his for two reasons; the idea that art is political (isn’t everything?) and that it can be an instrument of war. Figuratively speaking. I want to use the artistic imagination in this particular research  project to quite purposefully cross and extend academic boundaries, to externalise experience, to reflect the interconnection of self and body in the interconnection between artwork and onlooker. I would like to introduce an element of humour, as previously mentioned, some merry to the sorry, which seems to me to also be a potentially useful method in which to oppose what I feel can be the false dichotomy between health and illness, pain and joy, loss and possibility. So … not so much war as a gentle challenge in one small research project in one small university in one small corner of the world. Still. A gentle challenge worth the making.

Graphic memoir is a possible vehicle for the kind of interplay between these ideas that could be useful for my stated purposes. It has a well established place in medical and literature research, with a small showing in the social sciences, and there are even actual real life examples of actual real life people who have written one as part of a PhD project.  Pedri calls it a “reflector narrative”, and states that the combination of both drawing and writing obscures and confuses the distinction between thinking and seeing, which, in turn, impacts a viewer’s emotional investment. Sundaram suggests the genre by nature allows the presentation of multiple selves, supports a refusal for “linear progression from diagnosis to cure”. And those kind of linear narratives … they’re just not what this research is about. This pain I live with is messy and uncertain and part of daily mundane life; also peculiar, exceptional, unexpected, weird. Cyclical perhaps, but definitely not linear.

I’ve read a few graphic memoirs by now, none so moving as the first, and while I agree with the argument that the visual/textual interplay in this kind of literature can do all of those above stated things, after a while something fell flat. I began to find them, forgive me, a little boring.  The main difficulty seemed to me that they are just too focussed on the narrated self, in a way a straight memoir can’t be, and I found that a little repetitive, and more importantly, disconnecting. It left no way in for me as a reader to connect with the story, a problem I wrestled with in making the collages for the Master’s thesis. I was being told what an experience was, not invited to imagine myself in that experience. There were exceptions, but it is hard to do graphic memoir well in this sense, I think. To be fair, I think memoir in general is hard to do well.

The other difficulty for me was a lack of texture and colour and depth in the visuals. The two dimensions of comics work well in a strip format, but I found them monotonous in a book. Especially in book after book. That’s a personal response and not a general indictment, but it’s a personal project, so, yeah. But there is still so much good in the idea, and it is still true that drawing is one of the few things that doesn’t trigger more pain (thank you, drawing), so I was reluctant to ditch the idea entirely and finally came up with the best idea in the whole universe – cut-out animation! I’ll draw a film!

(Like this, sort of, but probably less clever, more collage-y, and with a lot more words).

I think that a cut-out animation has all the same theoretical and methodological strengths attributed to graphic memoir, but with motion. And motion is both visually dynamic and most definitely central to my experience of pain.

Also, I’ve always wanted to put an animated video on YouTube…

Every person is defined by the communities she belongs to.

– Orson Scott Card

Though I remain a bit isolated by current circumstances, i.e. driving places still kills me dead, I have been keen to find a way to connect the research to the wider community without having to kill myself dead. There is always the context of past research, of art and literature and all those kinds of cultural and historical connections that I will need to make and discuss. But I mean something more personal than this too. The online world is a natural habitat for loners and recluses and me, and no, I’m not going to trawl blogs again. But. I do know a lot of clever women through the internet, artists and craftspeople and the odd anaesthetic nurse. I thought it would be a good idea if I could elicit material from whomever might want to contribute materials to the project, something along the idea of them sending me a small piece of fabric or magazine page or whatever they might fancy as useful to help create the world of the animated film. Nothing big, nothing that won’t fit into a letter sized envelope, or even a digital file that can be whizzed through the ether, preferably something worn or broken, hopefully colourful, and definitely meaningful in some way to the sender in terms of their understanding of my research. Jennifer Bartlett says that the body has (is?) an unstable materiality, and I want to reflect and investigate that idea somewhat in the animated artwork in part through the precarious nature of crowd-sourced materials. Crowd sourced materiality – that’s a thing, right?

I am planning to use Instagram and Facebook to  elicit this help because it’s where I still maintain those connections, and I am also going to post in both those places at least some of the visual diary I will be keeping in order to examine and analyse my own experiences in more depth (said diary starting next week, um, yep definitely). I found during the Master’s research that this blog was too removed for some of the more immediate and emotive reactions I had to the research, too edited and editable, and I censor myself a great deal more when I write than when I draw. I think that a daily visual log will not only be an excellent source material in terms of capturing my experience with more spontaneity and emotional honesty, and thus be useful data to analyse, it will help communicate the heart of the research itself to the people who might want to contribute. This will in turn, one hopes, ensure their contributions are not random but part of an ongoing conversation between us all around pain and meaning.

An assemblage of people offering an assemblage of materials to create an assemblage art project, embracing and extending the idea that assemblage/bricolage/collage can be a possible “ontology of the social“. Some days I am just too clever for my own undies.

And some days I am not clever at all. Okay, most days. Okay, bewilderment is my resting state. But that’s not a problem because bewilderment has its roots in the word wilderness, and the wilderness is uninhabited, and a doctorate is meant to wander to uncharted places, and you know it’s time to quit writing when you start justifying rambling fancies through rambling etymologies.

I have woven a parachute out of everything broken.

-William Stafford

I’m not sad anymore. I don’t feel defeated and like there is no room for me in the academic landscape, indeed I can see it could really use this kind of research, even if it doesn’t know it. I am not happy for the stupid neuropathic chronic bloody pain, but I am excited for the opportunity to make use of it in a complex, messy, colourful and theoretically imaginative doctorate. With moving pictures! Materiality, health, embodiment, art, craftsmanship, mythology, identity, artefacts, shadows; all my favourite things are still here, with so much more to discover besides.

I am kid-at-christmas level excited for that discovery.

her husband had lou-gehrig’s

last things

I have just finished reading this graphic memoir – there is something very unique to the genre, an emotional depth that exists because of the cartoon images, rather than despite them. Anyway, I’m sobbing*.

It seems from what I have found so far that literary studies have given a good amount of time and acknowledgement of the genre, that medicine is starting to acknowledge what a powerful empathic tool it can be, but the social sciences less so, though gender and feminist scholars have some work on them. Psychology even less, though I did find one health psychology article that specifically addressed the graphic memoir.

I think there is a lot to explore here. Anyway, I’m sobbing.

*I’m not much of a sobber. I mostly cry when I’m very angry, which can be most unfortunate.

a placeholder, just in case

Like I said, given the choice I would stick to what I’ve already started, so that’s still Plan A (or B, or C, I lose track).

But, if I do have to think about years of managing neuritis I may have found a reasonable solution that will not only allow me to finish the PhD, but give me the mental energy to carry on with some marking and tutoring, both of which are also important to me. It isn’t the solution I was going to write about yesterday (but includes a lot of the best elements), because after I wrote that post I just kept thinking – if drawing doesn’t exacerbate the pain and helps me feel mentally much better, I should really find a way to draw?

collage gn

So I went searching this afternoon and found that graphic memoirs, especially illness memoirs, were a thing. Who knew? There is some research done on different aspects of these kind of narratives but (having only spent a few hours on it so far, don’t quote me) a wide open space right up through the middle of them to conduct further research. I am wondering about a combination of analysis of other’s work, and drawing a memoir of my own research (and how it came to be my research) to sit along-side that analysis. There could be a lot of different aspects to it, looking at visual storytelling as a research method, how illness is represented in these kinds of books, the point of representing illness in these kinds of books, and as a possible way to translate academic findings into something more accessible. To name a few.

This quote from Quesenberry and Squier, 2016:

Ultimately, our sense is that graphic memoirs of disability, illness, and other types of difference share many characteristics with more traditional, exclusively textual life writing forms, though in graphic life writing the visual dynamic—involving the connections and disconnections between the verbal and visual—produces specific engagements with disjunction, complexity, and the ineffable.

I don’t know about you, but the words disjunction, complexity and the ineffable get all my artsy researchery goosebumps going.  And yes, it’s kind of the Master’s thesis redux, where blogging is swapped out for graphic memoir, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. That’s building on what I already know and making use of what I have already done.

Also, drawing.

Other Things to Like About Plan H (or D or E, F, G, I lose track):

  1. I could further the research on the idea of small freedoms that I introduced in the Master’s thesis. I think it’s a really useful idea in all different kinds of resistance, and I didn’t get to explore or explain it in enough depth. I could look into that more here.
  2. It allows for the possibility to include humour*. I find a difficulty with a lot of memoir, and research, and illness narratives in general is how seriously they take themselves. Life is funny, even when it’s hard, and sad. I think so. Super Adequate Woman thinks so. It would be very satisfying to bring some element of humour into my research.
  3. It could also include ideas of the beautiful awful, the social gaze, protest art, to name a few of the previous incarnations of Ideas I Have Had. They can all be part of both researching and creating a graphic memoir. In Search of The Green Man has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?
  4. Oh yes, and mythology! I was so keen to use mythology in the Master’s but never could quite make it work. It could work here.
  5. As above, it very much ties in to the book that got me all excited about artifacts of loss in the first place. In the interment camps, the Japanese American’s used what was around them to create art and crafts to brighten their tiny homes, to bring some joy into their lives, to feel more human. I can see this as a way to use what I can still do (again, yes, let’s hope it’s temporary etc., and so forth) to contribute to the field of critical health psychology, and bring some joy into my life while I am doing it; a creative artifact of my own loss. Did that make sense? I will be able to explain it better when I’ve thought about it more, but I know there is a link there. Oh, probably they are both examples of small freedoms inside the generally restrictive world of habitus. All my roads seem to lead to Bourdieu.
  6. I probably haven’t explained what it is about the current research that I feel unable to do? It’s all the travelling and the interviews – the thought of driving all over town and giving the kind of sustained and empathetic attention the participants deserve – it sounds pathetic, and I loathe writing it, but as things stand I’m not up to being able to do all that very well. The driving alone will kill me.

I know there were other things I wanted to briefly note, but I’ve hit my concentration limit and have forgotten them all, and none of this might ever be needed in any case. I’ll close the laptop now and pop off for a cup of tea and a bit of Netflix. I’m expecting to hear from the neurologist again this week, and once I know what she has to say about next steps, I can decide whether to jump the current ship or just keep rowing.

Supervisors willing, of course*.

*eff everything croppedI made this graphic in photoshop one day when I was at my worse and couldn’t even sleep, before I was prescribed suitable pain relief (which I have had to stop for a while so I have the thinking ability to mark essays, because I tried to mark a few last week and just couldn’t tell what was good or bad about them, despite being sure I would be able to. Essays are easy! Bugger that to all damnation. So, now the pain is creeping back – Scylla and Charybdis, etc.) She (I forgot what name you gave her, Veronica?) still makes me smile, every time I look at her.

**I think I can hear Kerry grumping*** at how I am wasting time writing about all this palaver when I could be getting on with the research we’ve already started. Fair enough too. It’s just – I’m sad. Not depressed, not anxious, not panicking. Just very sad. And this cheered me up enormously, so a Sunday afternoon well spent, I think.

***My apologies if I can’t. I’ll write out the sentence ‘I mustn’t put words in my supervisor’s mouth‘ a thousand times in penance. Well, I won’t, but I could download the Dragon software you suggested and recite them instead if you like.

for veronica, because it’s been a while

29 August 2017 (10 of 23).jpgIt’s been a very long while. A disconnecting kind of long while, where ideas are lost and threads broken. But Spring has arrived and popped her sweet little face around my front door and reminded me that if there is any good time for new beginnings, for starting again, for re-starting, it’s Spring.

I’ve been both idle and busy, and in a state of distracting pain or terrible fatigue, depending on whether I am taking my current gazillion drugs for pain relief or not. I find it hard to function in either case; more precisely I find it hard to think. It’s hard to Ph.D. when you can’t think. It’s hard to do anything when you can’t think*. A lot of what I like about myself has been tied up in my ability to think, and not being able to do that very well has been, without an ounce of exaggeration or self pity**, desolating.

collage equals the wind drawinggetting herself together polaroisExcept for drawing things. I can draw without pain or fatigue for hours at a time, lose myself in the dance of line and curve, colour and movement. It’s deeply joyful and a place where my otherwise dumb-head thick-brain can still flourish. Which is odd, because drawing was always my least favourite art activity before now. Life, eh? What a twisty-turny mess she can be.

But you can’t draw a Ph.D. (or can you?) and even if I can fully recover from, significantly improve, or just learn to work around this current state of zombie-being, I’ve already lost months to whatever currently anonymous disease this is, and I can’t afford to lose many, any, more.

green man2
Megan’s neck

Enter the Green Man.

This is an MRI scan of two of the inflamed nerve roots in my cervical spine, the C6 pair. They are the worst two of eight inflamed nerves, but that is not the point of this story. The point of this story is one of my friends thought this could be a picture of a mustachioed goat, and the other chimed in, no! That, my dear, is a Green Man!

green man
Actual Green Men

I didn’t know what a Green Man was and so I asked Uncle Google who told me of the Green Man’s widespread mythologies spanning thousands of years and various cultures , all of which might be summed up with this one idea: Green Man brings birth from death, renewal from desolation.


And I have one inside of me.

remaking memoryI didn’t look at the author’s name when I started reading this book but I made a bet with myself a few pages into the first chapter that they were almost certainly male and white, which, according to the author’s picture on the back cover, they most certainly are.  It wasn’t so much the central idea of the book that made me think so, a critique against standards in autoethnography and memoir, some of which I wholeheartedly agree with, it was the sense of unironic condescension I found in the way he writes this critique: “…the battle is with autoethnography and memoir as these have become deployed in the idle, the self-deluded and the faux.”

Goddam those faux! And the navel gazing emotions that muddy the pristine waters of clear information. Also, mediocre artists, writers, post-graduates and the plebs who think their ordinary stories worth our time and attention, let them eat cake whilst keeping their self-deluded mediocrity away from all of the rest of us, where even are the standards anymore?

I may have turned mildly pissed-off bemusement into fury when he started using as an example the evils of the ‘near-manic’ rise of the ‘Momoir’ – “… in many cases empathy is skewed into the type of contemporary indulgence that every day is a victory over the travails of ordinary life”. Keeps your hands off the keyboards, ladies (unless you are Susan Sontag), we are not interested in your stories of the diapers.

I am interested in your stories of the diapers, and I think that the travails of ordinary life can be the site of some of our hardest won victories. (But of course, I would. I’ve never done anything to earn the right to memoir, having never accomplished anything noteworthy***).

I agree on – advocate passionately for – the need for craftmanship in research. In all areas of research. And I can also agree there is a danger for both autoethnography and memoir to turn to self-indulgence, even, horrors, badly written navel gazing. But I think this author may have mistaken the ordinary for the mediocre, and I found it hard to listen to what he had to say over the continued smell of meritocratic asshattery.


Look, the thing is, I don’t know if I’m going to get better, I don’t know if I can Push Through and Carry On this time. I just don’t. I’ve been struggling a great deal, one way or another, since the middle of my Master’s when the neuritic problems first showed up. I just want to sleep. Sleep, and draw, and moan a bit because what’s a pain for if not to moan about? And sleep. I really don’t know what to do about any of it anymore, other than invent comic heroes through which to laugh at myself, which, I must say, was a really very excellent thing to do.

But I do think there might be a way to create a research project that ties all the things I have done toward this PhD already, in a way that will mean if I stay a drugged-up dumb-head thick-brain for the next few years it won’t slow or halt the research. A project that takes the idea of portraits and the social gaze, of shadow objects and familial relationships, of the beautiful awful; that uses and furthers some ideas in my Master’s, and pokes big old fun at the navel gazing of self-indulgent memoir in a way that both embraces and subverts creative methodologies, and makes use of the Green Man in my neck and all his promise. One where the whole of the last year becomes useful and relevant, rather than something to regret and put behind me. Yes, even the self-indulgent navel-gazing embarrassment that was my Summer of Prednisone Anxiety.

Such a creature exists. I’ve even met her, and she’s epic. Perhaps super-adequate. In any case, definitely good enough.****

You’ll have to wait for another day for a better, more detailed, summary*****. This post has already taken weeks longer than it should, and now I have essays to mark, and my nerves are fucking killing me.


But still, in conclusion and PS: I really don’t know if this is a sunrise or a sunset on my currently much-too-brief academic career; only time will be able to tell me that. I hope sunrise. But for now, for today, the more important thing to understand is that Winter has once again rolled over into Spring, and if there is any good time for new beginnings, for starting again, for re-starting, it’s Spring.

*But you could concentrate long enough to write a blog post? Well, yes. Ish. It took over two weeks though.

**Okay, sure, maybe a few ounces, here and there.

***A quote I stole from said author, who is quoting another author, but we’re all just being mostly tongue-in-cheek, such a laugh, hahaha!

****My preference would be to stay the current course, actually. And maybe I can, it’s just taking forever for answers so I am starting to think I need a back-up ready to go in case this pain is going to stick around for a while, that’s all. 

*****Much sooner than another three months, I promise. Next weekend. Let’s make a date.

i’m thinking about landscapes of memory and creating our understanding of what has passed and this poem is reminding me of something

All of which will make some kind of sense when I have the time to explain it, which I do not have today.

I Have a Time Machine

But unfortunately it can only travel into the future
at a rate of one second per second,
which seems slow to the physicists and to the grant
committees and even to me.
But I manage to get there, time after time, to the next
moment and to the next.
Thing is, I can’t turn it off. I keep zipping ahead—
well not zipping—And if I try
to get out of this time machine, open the latch,
I’ll fall into space, unconscious,
then desiccated! And I’m pretty sure I’m afraid of that.
So I stay inside.
There’s a window, though. It shows the past.
It’s like a television or fish tank.
But it’s never live; it’s always over. The fish swim
in backward circles.
Sometimes it’s like a rearview mirror, another chance
to see what I’m leaving behind,
and sometimes like blackout, all that time
wasted sleeping.
Myself age eight, whole head burnt with embarrassment
at having lost a library book.
Myself lurking in a candled corner expecting
to be found charming.
Me holding a rose though I want to put it down
so I can smoke.
Me exploding at my mother who explodes at me
because the explosion
of some dark star all the way back struck hard
at mother’s mother’s mother.
I turn away from the window, anticipating a blow.
I thought I’d find myself
an old woman by now, traveling so light in time.
But I haven’t gotten far at all.
Strange not to be able to pick up the pace as I’d like;
the past is so horribly fast.

a (very) brief encaustic history

collage ancient encaustic

As modern as collage is, encaustic is equally ancient; used by Roman era Egyptians in the first few centuries A.D. to create funerary portraits that they would then fix to an enshrouded mummy. These are three examples of many that have been found (images taken from the British Museum), the beeswax and resin used in the process provided their remarkable longevity. If you don’t expose encaustic artwork to excessive heat or freezing temperatures, they’re reasonably indestructible.


Encaustic is not a popular contemporary fine art technique, though it is enjoying (I read somewhere) something of a revival. A famous example is Jasper John’s mid 20th century iconic Flag (above), or his equally famous, and I think supremely unsettling, White Flag (below).

white flag

I’ve never seen either in person, but I would very much like to, so that I can see for myself the collaged pieces of newspaper and other quotidian detritus he used as background before painting on the wax.

flag detail

Here it is in closer detail. I love that. Though I suspect if a female artist had done it, it would have been categorised as craft rather than art, but I’m just a little bitter because 44 years of living as a said female does that to you on some days. It’s a fabulous piece of art. I believe it is also a more fragile one than the ancient encaustic examples because Jasper did not mix resin into his beeswax, oops.

I like that as a technique it was developed to enshrine portraits of the dead, and I like that it will leave me with my own set of reasonably permanent research relics that my children will then have to decide what to do with after I am gone; their inheritance a story of other people’s ghosts.

Apropos of nothing, I have set myself a task of reading half a novel tomorrow. Over the course of my Psychology studies I’ve lost something of the concentration span needed to enjoy novels, especially the more literate ones, and it’s to my regretful loss – Kerry once asked me if I read everything, and my current reply would be that I used to. I did make the rookie mistake of asking my much more literate friends for a recommendation, however, and now have an enormous book mountain sitting next to my bed. Bummer that I also have a new semester about to start.

some more examples

collage encaustic 2

These lean more toward encaustic photography than encaustic collage in general, which would work too. The key, for me, is the shadowed, ghostly layer the encaustic process adds. You could get it with digital effects, but it wouldn’t have the same textural quality, the same feeling of both time and memory layered over the original moment, or object, or relationship.

I’m signed up to a 2 day workshop in August to learn the process. Also this coursera course, courtesy of Kerry (say that ten times fast), and I now have (did I say?) the bare bones of the first article I need to write sketched down. It will be about this process, about creating method rather than imposing it, and not just a theoretical argument on why that’s important, or at least useful, but also how that can work at a pragmatic level.

encaustic collage

In my imagination, a rather messy and disturbingly random little place, there lives a shadowy idea of how to represent shadow objects visually. It requires found objects, and photocopies of photographs, and beeswax, and painting, and it ends up looking something like this:

Alanna Sparanese


leah mcdonald
Leah MacDonald


Lisa Kiros
ingrid blixt
Ingrid Blixt

It’s perfect. It’s a type of collage, which relates it to my earlier thesis work and to all the implications collage had as a form of visual communication there, but it also has a ghostly opaqueness and a greater material physicality that speaks more to this specific thesis.  It’s a highly flexible medium, and, I think, a highly storied one.

Also I get to paint a little bit…

I see a series of encaustic collages grouped together on a wall in an exhibition as a type of visual essay, with perhaps other sensory memories included; a scent, or a song for instance, and again, only where it is an important part of the story. I am keen to add in sensory memories if/when I can, because reasons; and no, the zines are not forgotten, and yes, it will all work together, but more on all of that later – right now I have to drive two children to work. Again.

despite appearances, progress has been made

The standard kind of progress – I’ve read and taken notes on Objects of the Dead* and Loneliness and Longing** – and the Megan kind of progress, where some nebulous kind of idea about the final exhibition is beginning to form in my nebulous kind of head. I see a lot of cross-disciplinary ideas around geography and story, material culture, art and the senses, beginning to emerge and don’t ask me to explain further because I can’t.

Arbitrary portrait of Eilidh Grace Young, aged somewhere around 15?  We were at her great-grandfather’s 100th birthday celebration: he died at 101. I can see her thinned prednisone hair in this picture; it grew back, only much more curly. ***

The senses are interesting, though, aren’t they? How much of memory and longing is interpreted, remembered, through the senses? Visually, a lot of course – it took me 16 years after my father died to stop seeing his face on random people in the street – but what of touch, and taste, and smell, and sound? Margaret Gibson talks briefly of transitional objects, an item of clothing perhaps, that retains the scent of the deceased that people sometimes keep around to hold the memory close as they move through the intensity of their grief. I remember the specific smell of my father’s top drawer in his bedside table, a singular scent of laundered handkerchief and tobacco. I would go in there sometimes to specifically sniff that scent, and I know I wasn’t the only offspring to do so. Odd. I don’t miss the smell, it isn’t a shadow in that sense, there is no loss or longing involved, but it is a specific and enduring sense memory.

Sense memories could be a kind of abstract shadow object though, if those words are even a thing at all. I need better descriptors, but it’s Monday and I’m already tired, so that will have to do. I’m thinking of the mother of one of my son’s friends, a young man who died recently, not yet twenty, just too sad at what he believed is the state of this world to want to live in it. Some videos of him playing computer games with his friends were posted on his Facebook page, and his mother wrote a not thanking the young man who put them there. She said her greatest sorrow was that she would not hear her son’s voice anymore, and now she could listen to it whenever she needed to. A voice forever caught in that moment in time, but nevertheless. His voice.

Eilidh’s great-grand father at 100. He’d lost much of his memory by then but was very good at faking one. He decided I must be one of his grand-children and was very happy to see me again.

I don’t know where I’m going here, I’m just thought jamming. Thought jamming is definitely a thing at all.

*I really wanted to like this book, but I didn’t. Broad ideas drawn too readily, I think, and a great deal more thematic than theoretical, with too many ideas being squished in. Good books are like a good meal; sure, you could show off by throwing in all the flavours, but the dish will be much the better for selecting a few complimentary ones.

I don’t know if good books are like that at all, I just made it up.

**Mostly written from a psychoanalytic point of view, which is not one I much subscribe to, but some interesting points made in a few essays. The subsuming of longing under the broad umbrellas of depression or anxiety was one of them, and there was something written by an English Professor that was worth the read, if only for the break from over-indulgent academic writing. You know lots of big psychoanalytic words, I get it, but dear authors, do you know how to communicate what they mean?

***Not entirely arbitrary portraits; I am thinking of using photographs of the deceased as part of the doctoral exhibition artwork and have been looking through my own archive for ideas.  I seemed to have stopped taking a lot of ‘proper’ photographs around 3 years ago, I couldn’t tell you why.


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